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A review of Wole Soyinka's You Must Set Forth at Dawn by Adewale Maja-Pearce.

Clever men are the tools with which bad men work. The march of sophistry is devious; the
march of power is one. Its means, its tools, its pretexts are various, and borrowed like the
hues of the chameleon from any object that happens to be at hand: its object is ever the
same, and deadly as the serpent’s fang.
William Hazlitt

Wole Soyinka is evidently obsessed with temporal power. The key is to be found in his
relationship with ‘[m]y dangerous friend and antagonist,’ General Olusegun Obasanjo. The
pair go back all the way to the civil war when the author’s clandestine - and potentially
treasonable - activities led him to imagine that he could single-handedly broker a truce
between the federal government and the breakaway state of Biafra. Obasanjo, who was to
subsequently reap where others sowed in what was to become a lifelong pattern, was then
the Officer Commanding, Western Zone with the ability to avert the looming war by ensuring
the neutrality of the then Western Region. Soyinka, who was warned by Obasanjo’s own
colleagues that the man ‘could not be trusted’ nevertheless agreed to a clandestine meeting
with him in order to convey a message from Victor Banjo, then holed up in the Midwestern
Region, to allow his ‘liberation forces’ unimpeded access to Lagos. They meet, the message
is conveyed, and Obasanjo promptly acts true to form by phoning the new head of state,
Yakubu Gowon, and disclosing the details of their conversation, complete ‘with his own
deadly slants.’
Obasanjo’s betrayal of their meeting may or may not have been responsible for Soyinka’s
incarceration for the length of the war, most of it in solitary confinement, but the man went
further by subsequently publishing My Command – ‘one of the fastest war histories ever
written’ – in which he claims, amongst other ‘half-truths, outright lies and coy adumbrations,’
that Soyinka ‘had asked him to name the price for letting Victor Banjo’s troops through the
West.’ This was too much for our dramatist to stomach and who could blame him? Still, he
had been warned. When you decide that it is expedient to sup with the devil you must use a
long spoon; moreover, when it presently transpires that there is simply no spoon long enough
for ‘that devil in Dodan Barracks’ with a strain of ‘obvious sadism,’ the wise man simply
withdraws. Not so Soyinka. He agrees to a truce when Obasanjo apologises through the
offices of a mutual friend and presently finds himself messed up once again.
The second incident occurs in the late 1970s when Obasanjo fortuitously becomes head of
state following the assassination of Murtala Mohammed. In what can only be regarded as a
Boy’s Own escapade of doubtful morality, Soyinka conceives a plan to steal a bronze If? head
–Ori Olokun - that he believes, erroneously as it turned out, to have been stolen by a Brazilian
who had spent some time in Nigeria by travelling to Brazil, wrangling a dinner invitation from
the supposed thief and stealing back said head. Needing Obasanjo’s help for diplomatic
cover, which he readily gives (‘Obasanjo’s Òwu eyes twinkled with mischief and glowed with
the ardour of a race warrior’), he secures his blessings and embarks on his journey, only to be
denied by his Abeokuta compatriot at the eleventh hour when he returns with what turns out to
be a copy legally purchased from the British Museum. Back in Nigeria, Obasanjo even
refuses to take his calls on his secret telephone number, even allowing a minion to insult him.
By and by the two ‘friends’ meet up again and Obasanjo offers his profuse apologies, leaving
Soyinka to wryly wonder ‘how soon there would be a third, and if I would have to receive
And, indeed, there is a third occasion when Obasanjo ropes him in to produce a play for the
2003 COJA Festival and promptly refuses to settle the bill that even a schoolboy in the
Nigeria we know would have presented in full before even leaving their house, but by now the
depths of Soyinka’s self-abnegation before a man intent on toying with him has become
shameful. Soyinka himself admits to finding an ‘undeniable paradox’ in his responses but
nevertheless puts it down to his fascination with ‘someone who delights in being completely
without scruples’, coupled with an incipient missionary streak inherited from his parents, but
neither of these explanations is satisfactory. The world abounds in people without scruples if
his soul truly craves to be repeatedly insulted and injured, and there are surely more deserving
objects of Soyinka’s spiritual charity if it is indeed true that he has discovered a new vocation
so late in life.