Wole Soyinka: 'This Regime Just Does Not Believe in innocence.'(Nigeria author/exile)(Interview)

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For Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, art and politics have always been tied. He traces his political awakening to 1958 when he met the first generation of Nigeria's legislators in London and realized that they meant to step into the shoes of the departing white colonialists, and that the "first enemy was within."

Nigeria gained independence in 1960, and Soyinka has been critical of its dictators ever since. He was arrested in 1965 when a "masked intruder" held up a radio station at gunpoint in western Nigeria. The intruder, said to have been Soyinka, substituted his own tape for the scheduled rigged-election victory speech of Chief S.I. Akintola, urging him to "get out of town." Soyinka was acquitted a few months later.

In 1967, in what became one of his most contentious essays, "The Writer in a Modern African State," he took on his literary contemporaries -- the Negritude movement, in particular -- criticizing them for "the vital lack of relevance" between their "literary concerns" and "the pattern of reality" that had "overwhelmed even the writers themselves in the majority of African states."

"The average published writer," he wrote, "in the last few years of the post-colonial era, was the most celebrated skin of inconsequence to obscure the true flesh of the African dilemma." Such writers were "blinded" by the "splendors of the past." and when they finally awakened from their "opium dream." found that the politician had used their "absence from earth" to "consolidate his position." Soyinka implored African writers to become the "conscience" of their nations, or be forced to withdraw "to the position of chronicler and post-mortem surgeon."

He was again arrested in 1967 when he tried to broker a ceasefire deal between the federal government and the Biafran rebels, who wanted to secede from Nigeria. During the Biafran war, 1967-1970, 500,000 to two million mainly Igbo civilians starved to death when Nigerian troops imposed a blockade on rebel-controlled areas. Soyinka spent more than two years in prison, for the most part in solitary confinement. His vitriolic memoir, The Man Died, was written between the lines of books smuggled to him in prison.

He was released in 1969 and entered a period of voluntary exile. He lectured at universities, wrote. directed, and produced plays in Europe and West Africa. and founded the leading culture and criticism magazine, Transition, in Ghana. He returned to Nigeria in 1975, but left again in 1983 when he learned that there was a price on his head, after Shebu Shagari rigged himself back into power, and riots broke out.

In 1986, Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy cited his "prolific store of words," which he exploited "to the full in witty dialogue, in satire and grotesquery, in quiet poetry, and essays of sparkling vitality."

His best-known plays, written in English and performed mainly in West Africa and Europe, include: A Dance of the Forest, The Bacchae of Euripides, The Swamp Dwellers, The Road, The Trials of Brother Jero, Death and the King's Horseman, The Lion and the Jewel, and Opera Wonyosi.

Incarnations of his Guerrilla Theatre Unit, a production company founded in 1978, have been performing in Nigeria since the 1960s. Many of the skits have been sharply critical of Nigeria's military regimes and policies and have been performed not only in auditoriums but, provocatively, in front of government buildings and in public squares and marketplaces where authorities have cracked down.

In 1996, Soyinka published The Open Sore of a Continent, in which he accused the military regime of having robbed the Nigerian people of its nationhood when it annulled the presidential election of June 12, 1993. On that day, fourteen million Nigerians had crossed regional, class, religious, and ethnic lines to vote for Chief Moshood K.O. Abiola. …