Born in 1934 in Nigeria, Wole Soyinka is the author of more than twenty plays, ten volumes of poetry, two novels, seven collections of essays and five autobiographical works. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. He was the first black African man to win the prestigious prize
His latest book, Of Africa, is a 200-page polemic that attempts to understand the contradictory nature of African politics. Two important questions that arise from Soyinka’s book are: what is Africa? And what do we understand of its history? Soyinka expends considerable effort in his book discussing how the nihilist nature of fundamentalist Islam is destroying societies in certain African nations: particularly in Somali, Mali, and Nigeria.
In 1967 during the Nigerian civil war, Soyinka was kept in solitary confinement for 22 months for attempting to broker a ceasefire between the eastern and western forces. Even though he was denied access to pen or paper, he improvised writing materials, and smuggled out Idanre and Other Poems, to the outside world, which were published internationally, while he was still imprisoned.
When the civil war ended Soyinka dedicated his life again to work: travelling initially to the south of France to write The Bacchae of Euripides: a reinterpretation of the Greek myth; and then onto London, where he completed Poems from Prison.
Soyinka has taught at universities in Africa, the UK, and the US. He is currently the President’s Marymount Institute Professor in Residence at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. He spoke to the Spectator about why he believes the African continent is a fictional concept, how he maintained his sanity when he was imprisoned during the Nigerian civil war, and why he believes nationalism is a dangerous concept.
How influential was The Berlin Conference of 1884, in terms of how it affected Africa politically, culturally, and historically?
You have to be careful not to put everything on just one issue. But I speak about this episode — where a continent was shared piecemeal among the western powers — in relation to the problem of borders, and the intensity to which these borders are being defended, even at the expense of development, peace, humanity, and so on. It’s always struck me as absurd that people who have gained their self-governance, accept as sacrosanct, what has been bequeathed to them by those who had no interest in African to begin with. This contradiction, which states: borders must never be tempered with. It’s costing the African continent dearly.
You also talk about how Africa remains ‘the monumental fiction of European creativity’. Could you explore this further?
Well this idea of Africa as a collection of nations is total fiction. These nations are not real. The Berlin Conference was a good example of this. People even speak of ‘African culture’: there is no such thing. Of course there are African cultures, and you can have a synthesis of that. It’s easier for powerful elites to have this idea of a marshmallow continent, where you can push around these ideas and make people choose one side or the other. The Cold War is a perfect example: Africa was being made to choose between East and West, why? I’ve never understood that.
To what extent do you think the Islamic Sect, Boko Haram has changed political thinking in Nigeria in recent years?
They are Mullahs, with an ideology of death. For them it’s the most normal thing in the world to say: we don’t want schools to exist. To show you mean business, you then go into classrooms, call out students by name, and kill them. This is something new in Nigeria. It took a while even for the president to realize this is an entirely new situation. The government has failed in this regard, abysmally.
So you believe under no circumstances the Nigerian government should negotiate with Boko Haram? What is the alternative?
I look at Boko Haram not just as a terrorist group, but also as a criminal gang, and a bunch of psychopaths. You don’t enter into dialogue with drug lords and criminals. It might be possible, for example, to enter into dialogue with an organization like MEND, in the Niger Delta— even though I disapproved of the blanket nature of their ideology.
Boko Haram is a violent machine, created by people who are out of control. There is only one thing to do: destroy that machine otherwise they will destroy you. Here is a group, whose only manifesto is: we want to Islamize Nigeria. This movement is simply saying: our way or no way. That is what I don’t understand what this dialogue is about.
Do you believe the United Nations failed in its obligations as an organization by refusing to declare the conflict in the Darfur region as genocide?
Genocide is a heavy charge. On the one hand I can understand why nations, or international officials, are slow in applying it. Part of the United Nations’ responsibility indicates that when there is genocide, international organizations are obliged to intervene one way or the other.
That is a responsibility that international organizations shy away from.
A prime example is Rwanda, of which the United Nations had notice from its officials outside of independent bodies. Once that definition was reached, they were obliged to intervene directly. So the report constantly skirted around the word, but never used it, because once you say the word, both the United Nations, and individual countries, are supposed to be in a position to exert some form of action.
Are governments — who supposedly have an obligation here in some way – by not acting responsibly contributing to these massacres?
In fairness, indictments have been issued against the leaders of the Janjaweed — the Arab militiamen accused of these crimes. So there has been some action, but everything is always left too late. It’s this complicity of silence that encourages bullies, tortures, and killers such as Omar al-Bashir. That can be at the level of the United Nations, the African Union, or even the Arab League — of which Sudan is a member. So there is a complicity of guilt through euphemism. The links between the Janjaweed and the Sudanese government are undeniable. The evidence of photographs, and the usage of the national air force is proof of this.
Do you think this penchant for religious fundamentalism is going to get worse across Africa?
The phenomenon is with us, now it’s a question of: on what level will this operate? The reason religious fundamentalism exists is simple: because it has been profitable for many people, especially those who seek power to dominate. It’s been there as a useful tendency to activate those who have been thoroughly brainwashed. Fortunately those who activate these extreme functions of religion find themselves being eaten up by the forces they have unleashed. I may sound bloodthirsty when I say this, but there is definitely some kind of population control taking place within the ranks of religious fundamentalists. Therefore you may see it attenuated, but it can never be completely destroyed.
Can religion peacefully cohabit with humanism in the 21st century?
There are places where it has happened. Even in Nigeria, religious people cohabited with the non-religious. This only became an issue because some power-seeking politicians recognized that just as they used ethnicity to rise to power, religion is also a very obliging tool for ascension to power.
But yes, both can happen at the same time, demonstrably so, but it will take a while. Once religion has been allowed a foothold, it’s always difficult to go back to the status quo.
So are you advocating a society without religion?
People confuse my secularism with a hatred for religion, when in fact what I’m really saying is this: your religion has no place in secular business. Could you please restrict it to matters of spirituality, between you and God? But these fundamentalists will never allow that correct interpretation.
Could you speak about your own experience of being imprisoned in 1967 during the Nigerian Civil war?
One of the worst things that you can do to a human being is to put them in long isolation. We all need it, but when it’s imposed on you, and you don’t even see a prospect of a break — especially the kind of isolation that deprives you of books or means of writing — then you are prone to fantasies. Reality begins to transform itself in rather dangerous ways.
How does one cope with the mental anguish of this?
You create puzzles for yourself that you try to solve. It helped that I hated mathematics when I was in school, but now I was able to go back to it, and create problems in my head and scribble them down on the ground. So all those exercises helped, but it’s not something that should be done to human beings. It can lead the mind in various directions, which it’s not really able to cope with it.
In Of Africa and in your book, The Open Sore of a Continent, you ask several questions about the nation state. Have you come to a conclusion of what you think a nation is?
To begin with I’m not sentimental about nations. What does it mean to exclude others who share cultural values, and history of economic interaction, even similarity, sometimes identity? Why should such people be cut off? For what purpose? I really believe that nationhood and nationalism are suspect concepts.
In 2005 you took part in a series of lectures entitled ‘the meaning of Nelson Mandela’, did you come to any conclusions?
Well Nelson Mandela is a very rare human being. He’s a model, and almost like a one-man principality in terms of ethics, ideas, and heroism. How many heads of state do we have that voluntarily withdraw from office after one term only? So on so many levels Mandela is one property Africa has that it can boast about.