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Adewale Maja-Pearce

You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir by Wole Soyinka ·
Methuen, 626 pp, £18.99

(Culled from the London Review of Books)

Towards the end of this, his third volume of memoirs, which covers the period from
independence in 1960 to the death of General Sani Abacha in 1998, the 64-year-old
Wole Soyinka is preparing to infiltrate himself back into his native Nigeria to confront
the latest manifestation of military adventurism. By 1998 he had been in exile for
three years and was impatient with the failure of the opposition to mount a decent
challenge to Abacha’s regime. Worse yet, Abacha, the ‘monster’ who had earned
worldwide opprobrium following the 1995 judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa,
appeared to have persuaded the international community to accept his transmutation
into an elected civilian president, through the five political parties he had created and
funded for that purpose. Soyinka believed that his own presence on Nigerian soil,
where he would make occasional broadcasts on the opposition’s clandestine radio
network, would galvanise the populace and postpone the ‘evil’ day when armed
resistance could no longer be avoided.

Mercifully, Abacha died in mysterious circumstances before Soyinka could embark on
his one-man liberation mission, but anyone familiar with Soyinka’s extra-literary
escapades will not be surprised by his willingness to engage a corrupt government
with more than just his pen. Three decades earlier, when the then ruling party was
busy rigging the first-ever post-independence elections, he held up a radio station at
gunpoint to force them to broadcast a seditious message. He was promptly declared
to be ‘wanted’ and taken to court, but he got off on a technicality. Shortly afterwards,
with the country sliding towards civil war, he set himself up as the head of a pressure
group known as the Third Force and travelled to the about-to-be breakaway state of
Biafra to negotiate a truce with the ‘rebel’ leader. That he wasn’t executed by the first
of the military regimes which went on to dominate Nigerian politics was due in part to
his growing international stature as a dramatist and poet who had also published a
well received novel. He was arrested and spent most of the next 27 months in solitary

Soyinka is a physically courageous man for sure, but to what end? The elections –
then as now – were rigged anyway; the country went on to fight a civil war it now
appears intent on fighting all over again; and he was lucky only that Abacha died
before we could be traumatised by the sight of yet another writer perishing by the
sword. Either way, the man generally considered Africa’s greatest writer would have
been useless to the cause, which was – and is – to rid the country of the cabal that
has pauperised it, as Soyinka himself predicted even before it revealed itself in all its
wanton greed.

For Soyinka, the signs were there from the start. As a student in Leeds in the late
1950s, he rushed eagerly down to London to meet with the representatives of the
people who had come to negotiate the transfer of power from the British colonial
master, only to discover that these self-styled nationalists appeared more intent on
sleeping with the master’s daughter than liberating their people: ‘I recall one publicly
humiliating instance: a national figure, a truly revered name in a highly sensitive
political position. He got so carried away with his date that he paid for a one-night
stand with a cheque, beneath which, just in case his scrawl was indecipherable, he
had written his name, complete with official position.’ With increasing dismay, Soyinka
observed ‘their self-preening, their ostentatious spending, their cultivated
condescension, even disdain towards the people they were supposed to represent’,
and feared the worst. His forebodings were expressed in his first published play, A
Dance of the Forests, which failed to be performed at the 1960 Independence Day
celebrations only because someone in authority finally took the trouble to read it.

The absence of any sustaining vision of what independence meant not only led to
the political crisis that quickly engulfed the newly independent nation but rendered
the leading actors themselves incapable of preventing the slide into civil war.
Tellingly, the war itself was fought under the meaningless slogan, ‘To keep Nigeria
one/Is a task that must be done’, as though this loose amalgam of 350 ethnic groups
and two world religions had been created by God and not a foreign power
preoccupied with its own strategic interests. The one thing the representatives of the
opposing forces needed to do was to sit down together to hammer out a political
arrangement that would accommodate the very real concerns of the various groups
unhappy with the country they had inherited.

For Soyinka, the Biafran war could result only in ‘a consolidation of crime, an
acceptance of the scale of values that had created that conflict’, and the emergence
of ‘militarist entrepreneurs and multiple dictatorships’, as he perspicaciously put it in
The Man Died, the memoir he published shortly after his release from prison. But the
fault was not all on one side. In his current memoir, he is equally scathing about
those of his compatriots who were willing to collaborate in their own degradation:

With victory go the spoils of war. Civil society lay at the feet of the conquerors, and
within that civil society were many who had genuinely cheered, even sacrificed for the
war of oneness. For others, the military had become enthroned as the new elite, and
the level of fawning and jockeying to be merely noticed and smiled upon by any
pretender in uniform already spoke of a nation that was loudly pleading to be
crushed underfoot.

He recounts the harrowing story of a fellow writer who was horsewhipped in front of
his wife and children because the corporal on traffic duty, impatient, as many were,
with ‘grammar people’, imagined that he had jumped the queue. Such casual brutality
became the norm, and Soyinka was sufficiently distressed by its daily manifestations
to opt for a protracted exile, first in the UK and then in Ghana. What perplexes a
reader, however, is the contradiction between his well known hatred of injustice (‘For
me, justice is the first condition of humanity’) on the one hand, and his apparent
willingness to dine with its perpetrators on the other.

Consider his friendly relationship with his fellow townsman Olusegun Obasanjo, as it
emerges from these memoirs. Obasanjo, ‘a child of fortune’, was a soldier in the civil
war who became military head of state in the mid-1970s, when his predecessor was
murdered in a failed coup attempt. Among the achievements of what was to prove his
first, short tenure, was a secret offshore detention camp, where his perceived
enemies were treated much as one would expect. Another was to send the army to
burn down ‘Kalakuta Republic’, the home of the Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, because
Kuti – a cousin of Soyinka’s – had derided soldiers as zombies in one of his songs.
Obasanjo relinquished power after organising elections that were rigged in favour of
the consensus candidate chosen by the cabal that was by now firmly entrenched in
power. In 1999, he bounced back, as a civilian president in elections rigged by a
military that needed to shed its khaki in order to enjoy some measure of international
respectability. Eight years later still, having presided over a ruling party that Soyinka
himself called ‘a nest of killers’, following a spate of unsolved murders of well known
opposition figures, Obasanjo organised another round of elections which even the
normally complaisant international community baulked at, until – with one or two
honourable exceptions – they came to see that access to Nigeria’s crude was more
important than the people’s mandate.

Why Soyinka should want to be friendly with such a man is perplexing enough,
especially when his ‘friend’ betrayed him on a number of occasions. The first came
when Soyinka was about to embark on his ill-advised mission to save Biafra from
itself. At the time, Obasanjo was the most senior local army officer in a position to
prevent the war, but no sooner had Soyinka let him into the secret of his peace
initiative than Obasanjo reported him to his superiors. Not that Soyinka hadn’t been
warned what to expect: Obasanjo’s own officers had already told him that he was not
to be trusted, and he was himself incensed by Obasanjo’s ‘doctored’ account of what
transpired at their meeting. By and by, Soyinka agreed to a reconciliation meeting
through the good offices of a mutual friend and found it in his heart to forgive his
adversary, who nevertheless insisted on clowning about, as Soyinka records it. And
that is where it should have remained. Alas, ten years later, with Obasanjo
ensconced as the new military head of state, the two men had occasion to do
business again and, again, we read about the ‘bullish personality’ and ‘calculating
and devious’ actions of someone who ‘remains basically insecure, and thus
pathologically in need of proving himself – preferably at the expense of others’.