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 Thiong’o:
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 posturing.