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So why did Soyinka put up with it? Because, he says, he has 'proprietary
act of treachery’ and could therefore ‘regard him as a private reserve for
compensatory study’. Since this won’t quite do, he adds that, to his
‘intense chagrin’, he must have inherited ‘a missionary streak’ from the
parents he wrote about so movingly in Ake, his childhood memoir. One
might think that there are worthier recipients of Soyinka’s missionary
impule. In fact, all this is just a tortured way of betraying his fascination
with temporal power, and with the ‘militarist entrepreneurs’ he continues to
dine with under the guise of helping the disenfranchised:

Those who insist on inhabiting the real world find themselves subjected to
the clamour of what can, and deserves to be extracted from usurped
authority on behalf of a nation, on behalf of the non-statistical, palpable
humanity that constitutes one’s vital environment. For a temperament
such as mine, it has never been possible to shunt aside…a sense of
rebuke of how much is lost daily, wasted or degraded, how much proves
irretrievable, damaged beyond repair, through a position that confers the
self-righteous comfort of a purist, non-negotiable distancing.

Soyinka is never the most lucid of writers but he does violence here to the
evidence he himself provides. Take the case of General Ibrahim
Babangida, whose tenure coincided with Soyinka’s Nobel Prize in 1986
and who was later to be accused by the World Bank of looting $12.2
billion of the nation’s oil earnings, largely through dedicated bank
accounts to which he was the sole signatory. Eager to be accepted as an
intellectual equal by the celebrated writer, he invited himself to dinner and
the two men became firm friends. Before long, however, Babangida
unearthed evidence implicating his childhood friend Major-General
Mamman Vatsa in an impending coup. Vatsa also happened to be an
aspiring poet and active member of the Association of Nigerian Authors,
and Soyinka, in the company of the novelist Chinua Achebe and the poet
J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, made a much-publicised visit to the general to
plead on behalf of their colleague. Babangida received them
sympathetically, declared his own reluctance to spill blood and assured
the delegation that he would do his best to convince the inner council (‘I
shall go into the crucial meeting determined to do everything in my power
to save him’), but the triumvirate had barely reached their homes before
they received the chilling news that Vatsa had been murdered.

Soyinka could not, would not believe that Babangida’s hands were clean,
but then somehow accepted the protestations of an emissary: ‘Prof., all I
can do is give you a report of how that meeting went. I think it’s only fair
you know that IBB kept his word. He has been most anxious that you know
it,’ etc. Later, Babangida was directly implicated in the parcel bombing of a
journalist, Dele Giwa, whom Soyinka had met on a number of occasions
and, once again, the charming general protested his innocence as a ‘man
of honour’ and was believed by our credulous grammarian.

More curiously still, Soyinka manages to make a distinction between the
devils he will sup with and those he will not. Beyond the pale are General
Muhammadu Buhari, Babangida’s predecessor, and General Abacha, his
successor. The first had overstepped the bounds of pardonable
behaviour by using a retroactive decree to execute three convicted drug
dealers, the second by executing Ken Saro-Wiwa through a judicial
process which had established his guilt before it began sitting. But murder
is murder and such distinctions are hard to understand. As regards
Abacha especially, Soyinka’s contempt is clearly personal, as if he is
outraged that one of nature’s ‘human aberrations’ should have chased
him out of his country in fear of his life. It’s only a mercy that Abacha
never got hold of him in exile, having been forced to endure the sight of
his adversary popping up on television speaking a lot of ‘grammar’.
Anyone who lived through the Abacha years knows how much Soyinka’s
public pronouncements from exile maddened the regime, which was why it
declared him to be a ‘wanted’ man, and why, according to rumour, it
recruited hitmen from Latin America and the Middle East to dispose of him.

The major flaw in this long, rambling, badly-written book is the author’s
anxiety to be seen as a central player in the unfolding tragedy of Nigeria.
We are given endless accounts of his derring-do, not limited to holding up
radio stations or consorting with the ‘enemy’: they include, for instance, an
attempt to steal an Ife bronze head from a private collection in Brazil which
turned out to be a terracotta souvenir from the British Museum. Soyinka
the writer, who, in a series of plays and ‘interventions’, had anticipated
more accurately than any other intellectual the monstrous tyranny and
corruption that was to crush the country, has here succumbed to Soyinka
the public persona, and the result is tedious, as all such self-reverential
exercises generally are.

The one story that would alone have made this book worthwhile is only
fitfully sketched in between breathless accounts of his relentless one-
upmanship: his friendship with the late Femi Johnson, an insurance
magnate and one-time actor, who became part of Soyinka’s circle soon
after his return from the UK. The friendship deepened during Soyinka’s
initial detention, ‘when I first experienced, with sheer wonder, the potential
depths of human friendship.’ Johnson was a constant visitor ‘turning up
sometimes even twice or thrice – on his way to the office, returning home
from the office or setting out from home for no other purpose than to keep
me company, remaining as late as the police would permit him’. On the
eve of the verdict and fearing the worst, Johnson offered Soyinka a driver
to spirit him to safety, as long as he was kept in the dark about the details.
‘If I don’t know anything,’ Johnson explained, ‘then I can’t give anything
away. I can’t imagine torture, I tell you. I’ll break before a hand is even laid
on me, so it’s better for me not to know.’ In fact, he was more courageous
than he was willing to admit. Some years later, he took advantage of a trip
to Nairobi to make contact with the wife of the imprisoned writer, Ngugi wa

Femi’s trepidation at such assignments was genuine. Equally genuine
however was his relish of them! He revelled in the business of flattening
letters and cash into false compartments of his suitcase, making
clandestine phone calls from the public box in the lobby of his hotel rather
than from his room, trying out different verbal codes to disclose his
identity and that of the person whose intermediary he was. Our insurance
broker carried out his mission to the letter, and then some!

Johnson is the one who drove Soyinka to his ill-fated meeting with the
treacherous Obasanjo, but then his flair for the dramatic had already
been realised ‘in the shaping of Soyinka’s dramaturgy’, for as Femi
Osofisan, the country’s most prolific playwright, puts it, Johnson ‘was an
actor born for strong roles, and for whom Soyinka undoubtedly created
those protean, histrionic figures always at the centre of his cast.’
Unsurprisingly, Soyinka doesn’t himself allude to his friend’s thespian
accomplishments, which would only have detracted from his own dramatic