Conversation With Wole Soyinka

When The New Gong writer Dulue Mbachu caught up with Nobel literature prize winner Wole Soyinka in Lagos it was an opportunity ask the writer some of the questions he had always kept in store for him. (First published in July, 2007.)

One question I’ve always wanted to ask you is what role you expect the writer to play in the society. I can see your lifestyle has answered it in a lot of ways, but I’d like you to say it in your own words.

I say that each writer, artiste, musician, painter sculptor, architect or whatever decides in what direction politically, socially, their individual temperaments lead them. I don’t like to dictate. I’ve always rejected dictation. The writer is first and foremost a citizen and the writer’s responsibility is not different from that of a citizen. Except that the writer is
uniquely equipped with the utilisation of language, which is the most immediate means of communication. That’s about all. So the issue of the writers’ duty, responsibility is a subject I always stay clear of because writers always find their way.

So what in your unique circumstances dictated the line you have taken, that of the activist writer?

It could be a number of events, circumstances in my upbringing which pitted me against recognisable situations of exploitation. I’m referring to my experience when I was a child during the women’s uprising against the feudal and colonial authorities (in Abeokuta). The combination of that, including listening to discussions surrounding my father’s debating
circle. I had been a very curious eavesdropper if you like, listening to the debates and trying to find my way around the various positions, arguments, trying to understand the significance of social positions, social attitudes. It’s a combination of those events and maybe my combative temperament.

I see your latest work kind of chronicles your long-running battle with the Nigerian establishment, even your engagement with the establishment at all levels. You engage at the highest political level, you engage at the lowest political level. Why do you think you need to maintain this engagement or dialogue?

On all levels humanity is involved. And wherever humanity is involved, that’s my constituency. People sometimes take a snobbish attitude, saying we cannot engage on this level because it’s not pure enough for us. We should be detached. Even in the party of the PDP which I loathe so passionately because of what it represents, I still have individual
friends, those whom I consider comrades-in-arms. For reasons which I cannot go into, which you and I may not be able to analyse, they decided that it’s only from within that party that they can make a change. I disagree with them, but I’ll not thereby refuse to see the possibility of their position. It’s when they betray what I consider a common ground that the cut-off point comes. When I see there’s no redemption. But ultimately my constituency is the grassroots people with whom I interact all the time, on a level  which people don’t even suspect.

In 1965 you had to make an intervention with a gun? Was it an individual decision as well?

It’s a combination…what I narrated, if you look at the tempo, it was acritical tempo. It was a matter of hours. It was a moment of decision. That had to be a moment of individual decision. I had been involved in mobilising people for the sanctity of their votes, to ensure that people were given their voice. And we saw that being thwarted every inch of the
way. The most arrogant, cynical and opportunistic use being made of state facilities. So there came that crunch, the moment when the robbery of the people’s voice was about to be legitimised. And I happened to be one of may be three, four five people who knew. It was a moment when an individual had to take a position. In the life of every individual comes to a crunch, that particular moment when you look at your self, take stock of yourself and you act.

Then something similar happened in Brazil when you tried to retrieve the stolen Ori Olokun…

That mad cap episode embarrasses me until this moment.

Did you do it for the African race, or Nigeria?

No, no, no…It was personal, historical. Fortunately this time it was not an individual decision. We had time to plan, we had time to engage institutions to make sure they felt the way we did. It was a symbolic event. You’re talking of Ori Olokun, only one of hundreds of thousands.

Was it your reaction to that plunder of African treasures?

Yes of course.  I’ve always felt very bitter about the plunder. I’ve always known backwards the sack Benin, Captain Phillips and all that. There was even correspondence between the (British) Home Office and the commanding officers here that they should loot so that they will defray the cost of coming to subjugate an independent people. You had to consider all that background, things which had been simmering inside you, and this was a moment you could make a symbolic reparation. Very difficult to resist.

Your have also crossed paths with our (former) president a couple of times in Nigeria’s history. Where do you see him going now?

It’s always very sad for me to have to talk about Obasanjo because we expected from him a minimum. But now he’s been undoing even his positives. And he’s going to be told. It’s the public which is being betrayed on so many levels. Reluctantly I’ve been forced to conclude that he’s a dictator at heart. He’s erratic, he’s unpredictable but at the same time he has a lust for power. All my life I have opposed the power lust. If you allow Obasanjo or any other individual to get away with it, the next person who comes…he will want to re-militarize Nigeria. Obasanjo I’m sorry has become an enemy of the people and that’s where friendship

I’ve always wanted to ask you this question about my experience of Pyrates Confraternity. At the time I was a member the keyword was orders is orders. And this engendered a militaristic tendency. I’m wondering if you consider that this may have undermined some of the
objectives of the confraternity?

To some extent because some of those who came later did not understand it. Orders is orders is actually a quote from the Ancient Days of Piracy. It never meant blind obedience to order. Let me give you proof of that: the very first, so called Magnificent Seven, when they convened and elected a captain, it was a democratic election. Check from anybody,
Blackdog, Long John Silver is still alive. It is a collegiate organisation. But your question is absolutely just. Could it be that later on orders is orders became…yes.

Yes, because my experience was that the capon had to choose his successor…

But you know that has been stopped. You know there is now an elaborate system…This is part of the transformation made by people like Olu Agunloye. Olu Agunloye, Calico Bucano, came back, took stock and began to take Pyrates Confraternity back to what it was. And that’s when the break began, those who could not accept. The first group to break away was the Buccaneers. They started the schism. Because they loved power, capon must be obeyed. So if you had a rogue, a pederast, a corrupt individual who happened to get the political savvy as the capon, he picked somebody who was his own image. And that was how the rot
began. If you left at that time I don’t blame you at all. I turned my back at one time like many of the others. Olu Agunloye, Calico Bucano, he was the one, he and his colleagues, who saved the Pyrates Confraternity after their own experience. That’s why I can never turn my back on the