Professor Wole Soyinka, in this no holds barred interview, speaks on the state of the nation. Specifically, the Nobel laureate shares his perspectives on the Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the 2001 murder of then Minister of Justice, Chief Bola Ige, and issues surrounding Biafra war, among others. Excerpts:
I was surprised to read that you mentioned that Chief Bola Ige’s voice resounded in the outcome of the Osun election which the PDP won and APC lost. That stood in contrast to the PDP which you called the nest of vipers. Can you elaborate on that?
Let’s begin with the nest of vipers. How many years ago was that? 21.
Now the two political parties have become very confusing, members have moved across so much. Those who started the APC, for instance, and broke away, I know them very well. I am very familiar with them, the people whose integrity I recognize because I know the principle on which they left. People like (former PDP Chairman removed from office by former President Obasanjo) Audu Ogbe for instance, we don’t hear much about him these days, I hope he is okay; people like (former Rivers State governor and erstwhile Transportation Minister) Amaechi, I was aware of the circumstances. So, there is a distinction, a difference, basically. But, there has been so much inter-marriage, the blood line has diluted and polluted in many aspects. It even got up to a stage I believe where a prominent member of the APC actually articulated the sentiment of “Oh, come and join us and all your sins will be forgiven”; things like that were indicative of the reality of what was going on. It didn’t surprise me too much when I found out that somebody who had been so heavily implicated in the death of a prominent member of that party, Bola Ige, one of the founding members, that his memory should be so trashed…that he (suspect) was innocent of the crime or not is irrelevant, he was heavily implicated in the humiliation of that founding member of the party who was also a Minister, and to actually catapult one of those crime suspects and proven contributors to the elimination by his action; and to find out that that person has been given a position in that party and, after the President of the nation, who is supposed to be the head of the party, actually inaugurated a re-examination of that crime, among others, I was shocked and, like I mentioned at that time, it was a sacrilege and also a laceration of the memories of those who worked with him (Bola Ige) and believed in him. And so, I remembered this Osun, Bola Ige’s state, I think I have even visited Osun State in many aspects than to my own state, Ogun, because of Bola, maybe Lagos is also on the line, because if they have a project, they invite me and I know that I have contributed a lot to the state than my own state. I consider it my state, my second home. So, someone has to be punished for that act of sacrilege.
The Muslim/Muslim ticket of the APC has been generating heated debate. What is your take?
That’s a very difficult question. Difficult, only because it turns one into a split personality but there is always the humanity aspect for those that are rational. There is nothing wrong in one holding simultaneously two conflicting opinions, depending on how you express them and under what circumstances. In principle, I don’t give a damn if the President, Vice President, Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives all come from the same village, have the same religion, etc, if, however, it is transparently and absolutely unarguable that that is a genius breed which has been donated to the nation and the world…as long as the capability of governance is proven, and it is clear quite that there is no alternative. In fact, it is so nice because the rest of us can just go about our business quietly without worrying about governance. Now, we are talking about a society which is normal, where situations are normal. (But) is this society normal? At times I ask myself, is Nigeria normal? Is it the norm? Because if it is, the whole globe would have perished ages ago. Many would have said “I have had enough”. It is special circumstances which drive people to take decisions which ordinarily, objectively, are not acceptable. For instance, in a country like Lebanon, they have an arrangement among themselves in which their leaders come from different areas and that has been working because they learnt from a civil war and this is the best arrangement they could come up with. I have been instrumental in sending some of our young people to go and study the situation over there in an arrangement with my foundation. In this country, even the military seems to recognize the need to express the plurality, not merely of ethnic groups, but also of religion or faith in their own governance. For instance, General Babangida (northern Muslim) had Commodore Ukiwe and later Aikhomu (southern Christian) as his second in command. So, a sense of plurality exists even under military dictatorship. We had almost unspoken arrangement in recognition of the peculiarity of this particular society. So, it can’t surprise you or me that a number of people find that kind of choice very questionable especially at this time. I can understand that, perfectly and, at the same time, I recognize the right of the proposed incumbent to choose whom he wants to run with if he ultimately gets into power. However, that right is also not absolute because we are talking about a very relative society which is what Nigeria is right now. We are in a very difficult situation. My questions are: Why create a controversy? Are there options which would have prevented such a controversy? And as it is said in certain societies, if it didn’t break, don’t fix it. If that kind of arrangement has proved not quite efficient in a society, why not be sensitive to the very peculiar circumstances of Nigeria? But it is not my problem…laughs, but I think it is unfortunate that this argument has been elevated amid the mix of crises of faith, ethnic distrust, religious distrust, class distrust and anything which can be done and any action which can be avoided so that, that distrust is not exacerbated, I think our politicians should seize the opportunity of not exacerbating the debate. I know what I believe inside of me and I also know what I recognize as a very peculiar circumstance of the Nigerian society at this time and I want to leave it at that.
Many in your shoes will be pained that, in 2022, we are still discussing this and not that where a candidate come from does not matter. That presupposes, perhaps, that our politicians and their followers have learnt nothing. How difficult is it for someone like you to internalize that, especially as you have been in the trenches since 1966 against injustice, only the characters have changed? Some of your colleagues and immediate juniors have simply given up and walked off but you haven’t…
The first admission I must make is that very often, I say to myself, “You have an option: walk off”. I find it absolutely impossible to blame my colleagues who have given up on this nation. Look at where we are seated (his Abeokuta residence). There are many aspects of the history of this place that many people do not know. Before this house was completed, former President Babangida had lunch here when he was President. We seized him, took hold of him; ‘kidnapped’ him, according to the Alake. The Alake said “in our presence, they came saying Wole Soyinka has ‘kidnapped’ IBB”. Yes, we did but with his consent of course. I said to him, “there are people I want you to meet, talk to; people who hate your guts, and those who approve, it is important to seize every opportunity to talk to them and exchange ideas”.
He (IBB) is your friend
IBB? Oh he is. I have a soft spot for him but I criticize him. Let’s not talk about that today, otherwise, we won’t stop. The Ooni of Ife gave me the honour of also coming here to discuss very serious national issues and, at the end of it, we issued a communiqué. Why did he come? I told him, “I am not coming to your palace again to discuss any issue. I want to talk to you outside your comfort zone. When you are ready me, meet me anywhere you want but I am not coming to your palace anymore”. To my astonishment, he just said, “I am on my way. I am coming to see you”. He came with two people, I had one person. We sat down and discussed the Nigerian situation. Chief (Simeon) Adebo had also been here when he was alive because he would never let me rest. Whenever anything that ordinarily shouldn’t be happened, he would come and say, “you are a writer, you study people, why did this happen?” He complained about our leaders especially heads of state. And I have had other visitations by burglars and I am very convinced they were security agents; they made three attempts to burgle here but succeeded only in one when I was in Benin, lecturing. They took away…and also raided me in Lagos. What were they looking for? They were looking for anything that could hold records. They took away in the Lagos house a laptop, an ipad, phones, etc. The police and the DSS came, took photographs with me and took finger prints. Till today, I haven’t heard any response from here. Four attempts; this place was cleaned including my dane hunting guns and that of those who kept their guns with me. They raided here in search of certain materials. Each time that happened, I asked how is it possible in this period of security crisis that my home could be raided, guns and ammunitions taken and the police couldn’t even tell me…at a point they told me they transferred it (case) to SARS when SARS was still there and then to Abuja and so on and no response. So, it becomes ‘do-it-yourself and I said “ok, no problem, I have always been a ‘do-it-yourself man”. I take care of my own security; I don’t want police around me. I don’t trust them. Mind you, at the same time, some of them are great. So, let me not condemn…blanket. I just want to say that as institutions, security services should be approached with a long pole, like standing with the devil. So, the question now is what am I still doing here? When I can’t get to heads of state physically, I phone them on critical issues. IBB, OBJ, GEJ, I have never phoned President Buhari but I have met him one-on-one when I took a message to him from one of the embattled politicians who trusted me. Are you aware that Ogun State House of Assembly was locked up for over a year and manned by the police, just as (former Governor) Fayose did in Ekiti? That was under President Jonathan’s administration. I picked up my phone and called him, especially when he appointed the person responsible for that abomination, Gbenga Daniel, as his head of campaign. I asked him, “What message are you sending by appointing Gbenga Daniel as your campaign manager, somebody who has desecrated the sanctity of the civil will to election?” The legislators were coming here to discuss how to force that place open by law, whatever that means. The day I called a town meeting on this issue, after failing to get satisfactory answer from President Jonathan, I called him and he said, “Oh! You mean they haven’t solved that problem yet?” I said, “What! Mr. President, that place has been locked up on the authority of the government, using the police” and he said “ok” and thanked me. On the day of the town hall meeting, I had to pass through my back gate to the state Commissioner of Police office simply because we were informed that thugs were waiting at the main gate to disrupt the meeting. I went to the police before the meeting and said, “Commissioner, this is the information we have about the town meeting”. So, when people talk about Wole Soyinka installing Buhari, they are talking rubbish; they don’t know what they are talking about. They are talking out of ignorance. So, when I think about governance, I ask myself: “What am I doing among these people?” That they don’t understand that somebody has the right to tell people not to vote for them and who they vote for, and after that, that is their business but they have the option, also of spoiling their votes. I hear (someone saying) that Wole Soyinka was the one who installed President Buhari and, he should apologise to the nation and I say “your parents should apologize to the world for inflicting morons like you on the world”. So that accumulation of negativity from those who govern and the governed…I can tell you numerous times, when I have been outside the country, I feel like staying there for a while. Recently, a group who called themselves Sharia (enforcers) sentenced some men to be stoned to death over alleged homosexuality. My feeling when I read that was “O my God! Here we go again”. I was in Italy when Safiat was sentenced to be stoned to death by a group of religious fanatics. I remember granting interviews there and also telling off some so-called intellectuals, liberal intellectuals in Italy who said we have no right to intervene in people’s religious beliefs and I said, “Shut up. You don’t know what you are talking about”. I stated publicly that if the woman was stoned to death, I will tear off my Nigerian passport on the spot and would never return to Nigeria. How many years after, a group of people think they have power of life and death? In a system they call Sharia, they have power to sentence one to be stoned to death because, in their view, they have committed abomination? What sort of country is that with such arbitrary disposition of human beings? And we accept this again and again and again and we go through the same trauma. Very often, I say to myself “I have a choice, I can walk off”. Don’t ask me why I haven’t. I think it is just laziness. The idea of uprooting completely and starting all over again and, in any case, what I call the honourable sports of the world shrinking by the day. Would you have anticipated Putin invading, bombarding civilians and what is Ukraine’s crime? “Leave me to associate with whoever I want”. At times I ask myself, What is the difference between Putin and herdsmen who corner the land of farmers, invade their land, kill, burn, scatter the families and render them homeless, overnight? It’s the same mentality. So, when you leave here and you go somewhere else, the next thing you know, another Putin can come and start lobbying from there (laughs).
When the most recent terrorist attack in the South-West occurred at St Francis Catholic Church, Owo, Ondo State, you visited Governor Akeredolu and said something to him which many people said needed further elucidation. You said: “We know who these people are, they are sending us a message; we have got that message”…
That’s part of the answers you have said. You see, my temperament does not accept easily that anyone should chase me out of my God-given earth. It is a temperamental thing. The idea that you can unleash terror on me because you want my little part or territory or you want my soul, that is, you want to subjugate me, you want to turn me into a slave. I will sort that out first and then make up my mind what to do next. Each outrage, unfortunately, has the opposite effect, where ever it is taking place, whether it is in Benue or Kaduna or Owo or at Ogun border; we have been subjected also to this lunacy of the subjugation mentality which some minority people hold. I find it very difficult to accept to be chased out of my own entitled portion of the earth.
How much of this would you put down to a lack of understanding of history? That is, in our own part of the world, a lot of people don’t read, a lot of those who read do so for examination purposes and getting certificates. Because of this, a lot of people are not able to cast their minds back and unable to see when such things are about to happen again, and try to stop it. No country grows beyond the education or literacy level of its people. What’s your take?
It is interesting you used the word, history. Many people just either do not know history or do not understand its purpose. There is a group of people also who are very selective about history. They know how to distort or misuse history. For instance, when the incursion of the Fulani herdsmen began and the Miyetti Allah spokesman in Borno said “we once ruled this place and we can take our land back anytime we want”, in the midst of the harrowing, the trauma of these people, somebody comes gloating, citing selective portion of history. I term him as a criminal who should be arrested and locked up. He wanted to repeat the history of conquest, he was admitting…knowledge or support, anyway. I asked a question: “Isn’t there something like hate speech anymore?” Why are you proscribing IPoB without proscribing Miyetti Allah whose spokesman approves of killings and dispossession of people; who is destroying the food basket of the nation which is one of the sources of feeding in this country? Creating a situation of food scarcity is the biggest security threat you can launch against any country. That is also a way of knowing history but disowning a portion. It doesn’t exist. Then, if I may cite Putin, it is the same thing with him. Putin said to Ukrainians “you were once part of us; we have a right to continue to dominate you and take you back anytime we want.” What kind of human being will accept that? Ukrainians have proved themselves as the most courageous people at the moment. I would like to use this opportunity to ask, who was it that actually terminated the teaching of history in schools? Do you know that many of us did not know, for a long time, that history was no longer being taught in schools? It was only a casual statement by (former Lagos governor) Fashola. I had to phone him and asked: “You said something the other day that history has been removed from school curriculum. Are you sure, you have your facts right?” He said “go and check”. Those who removed history (from school curriculum) weren’t fools. When I made enquiries, they said, “Oh! There weren’t enough teachers”; an insulting kind of excuse. They just did not contemplate history to be taught because they didn’t want people to know and learn from our recent history, things that led to the civil war, the conduct of the military and they are just cutting their noses to spite their faces because there were also positive aspects from that episode…even the attitude of government at that time observing ‘no vanquished, no victor’. That was some amelioration of the situation. We can learn, improve and build on that. If this was done, we wouldn’t have had IPoB today. Maybe we would never have had MEND (Niger Delta militant group).
When you mentioned IPoB, I remembered your visit to Biafra, ahead of the civil war in 1966, to meet (rebel leader) Ojukwu and here we are more than 50 years after. You pointed out that most of the present agitators are people who did not witness the civil war. This comes back to the question of history because they don’t know anything about that.
Yes, I was very desperate for that not to happen. First, I thought it was a wrong war. No war is right, but this one was particularly bad. The Igbo, no question at all, underwent the experience of genocide. The memory of such traumatizing experience congeals especially towards their immediacy but it can burst out again any other time. When I made a statement that “you can never defeat Biafra”, people took a very simplistic reasoning of that, they thought I was just referring to the battlefield. No, I was talking about the idea, that the idea has taken hold of some of those who don’t know the full history, because the people were not themselves blameless. When I met Ojukwu, he spoke very frankly and when I met him in Ivory Coast, I asked him some questions like “why did you shoot Victor Banjo and others?” He gave some very satisfactory answers. I met him again when I did a program for BBC Channel 4 entitled ‘Journeys’, and I did recapture the journey to Biafra. I interviewed (former head of state during civil war) Gowon, Ojukwu, Achuzie and all those who were involved in the war. These were reminders and it is a lesson of the past, if history is inculcated in schools, you won’t have people talking so glibly about the possibility of another war. You will have more people inclined to dialogue. There are individuals who have hands across different parts of the country. These are people who are history conscious, retired General Ike Nwachukwu, Dr Ezeife and so many others are history conscious. So, they don’t want to see errors take place. You are quite right, there is the necessity not just to teach history in schools but also to make it part and parcel of our civic consciousness in numerous ways. I think that even the cinema has a role to play in this regard.
Many of us read your books, The Lion and the Jewel, several times but still couldn’t understand them until we watched them acted as films but (they are) all dead now. This again is an attribute of history.
No, they are not all dead; there is a vital young crop of dramatists who are writing scripts. I remember quite a number of scripts. Unfortunately, not a very good number of them were satisfactorily written. This is how that event, Lagos at 50, threw up a number of interesting artists, writers, dramatists, some of them I have had here in my program and they are quite history conscious. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough artistic support from where we should be having them. They tried but not sufficiently.