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I Hope To Celebrate Another Nigerian Nobel Prize Winner Before I’m 100 — Soyinka

The internationally celebrated literary giant, who will gracefully enter the league of nonagenarians by July 13, 2024, won the Noble Prize in Literature in 1986.


FILE: Prof. Wole Soyinka

 

Channels Television’s crew on our new programme, The Morning Brief, on Thursday played host to Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka.

Enjoy the full transcript of the interview:

Let’s start with you first. A lot of youths are watching the programme and one of the things we like to do is to walk through the journey with persons like you who we see as a national treasure from where you started till when you won the Nobel Prize in 1986. For persons who are looking at Prof Wole Soyinka and saying, ‘I want to get here someday and be celebrated the way he’s celebrated. What are the things you are going to be telling that young person?

First of all, I think that we should analyse ‘ambition’. Being celebrated comes with so many negatives, the most critical for me being almost constantly being in the public eye. Your privacy to a large extent, anonymity, the normal faculty of choices because you are being expected here, you are being expected there. However, if you insist on being masochistic, I‘ll say find out what you think you aptitude is and pursue it no matter what. That’s what I have been doing.

On your recent visit to the President you told journalists that you would rather not criticise the President and that like your practice, you would allow an administration to settle for one year in office before you criticise the administration. But I will want to first ask you about your relationship with the President. Do you think your years in the trenches, the NADECO years compels you to employ diplomacy rather than frankness in criticising this particular administration, in what seems like the departure from the norm where you are more vocal about past administrations?

Let me tell you frankly, one thing which distresses me is the way the press simplifies what one has said; it’s a kind of selective simplification. You use the word, for instance, criticise, you said I said I would not criticise the President in his first year. No, the question I was asked was the assessment of the President and what I think of this administration so far and I said I have the habit of not commenting on an administration during the first year. Let me remind you that during the time of Olusegun Obasanjo, during the international press conference in Abuja, it’s amazing that history repeats itself. Somebody said, ‘Oh, we noticed that you have not been criticising Olusegun Obasanjo’ and the implication was that, ‘Oh, Olusegun Obasanjo is your tribesman so you have not been criticising him’. And I said during the first year, I could not begin to access the head of state because I know what they are coming into. A few days later, all those people saying I wasn’t criticising Obasanjo were now on top of me, bashing me, because I now issued a very criticism of him because it was time to open up.

In addition, I would like to say this, it doesn’t mean I won’t open my mind to critical issues. For instance, tomorrow, if we find some 200, 300 children abducted that’s too monumental for one to keep quiet. So, please the press, don’t always over-simplify what one says because, in retailing, it gets more and more over-simplified then distorted.

In particular, I’m distressed by the neglect of one important issue which I revealed to the press and that is the continuous incarceration of a young man, Mubarak Bala, who is being imprisoned for blasphemy. I ask myself, ‘Didn’t the press think this is more important than a comment, that I am not prepared to make a holistic assessment of a government that is virtually new to the game? I didn’t see it carried anywhere in the press. For me, this is far more critical than whether Wole Soyinka criticises the government or not. I lost the question because I wanted to get this off my chest first.

 

 

I was wondering whether your fondness of the President predisposes you to toe a more diplomatic path in accessing him now that you would rather wait for one year and afterwards because you used a fond word to describe him – Olorikunkun – in respect to your appeal to him not to run for President. So, would you be frank in your criticism in the future or would you be diplomatic?

Laughs – diplomatic immunity!

First of all, Tinubu was a doughty fighter during the anti-Sani Abacha struggle, and there is no way, as a human being and one with a sense of fairness. Even in court, before they sentence a criminal, they will say we are taking this and this into consideration. So, we are not going to hang you three times, we are going to hang you once. Even the law recognises that somebody’s record must always be taken into account before you descend on that person for some kind of neglect, criminality, failure, or whatever. However, I can never allow the past of any individual to twist my appeal on any urgent issue. I cannot say because you were a fighter during the NADECO struggle, therefore, I will sit down and watch you condone corruption, which includes failures.

For instance, when it’s time, I’m going to look at those in his (Tinubu) government who should be under trial right now and yet who occupy critical positions in the ruling party. There are issues like: Are they asking questions from the EFCC? This and this individual who held this position at this time who had immunity at the time, that person no longer has immunity, ICPC, EFCC, what are you doing about them? What happened? We’ve been waiting. So, issues like that, numerous issues. If there is an opportunity for instance of dealing drastically with criminals, kidnappers and so on and the head of state fails, I’m not going to wait a year, assuming I’m around o, because I’m in and out. I work globally and many people fail to realise this. Once an issue is tackled effectively, however, I don’t believe in talking for talking sake to say ‘Wole Soyinka is a consistent critic’. If Femi Falana or Aborishade or anybody has already taken care of an issue effectively, should I now poke my mouth in any issue for criticising sake, no, I am not going to do that.

How does Prof Wole Soyinka stay true to himself even at 90, he is still not changing, unwilling to change, but he is ready to go as hard as possible despite whose ox gored because we need that kind of tenacity and resilience as young people?

Let me put it this way. I didn’t set out to be what I am today, beyond being a writer. At a certain stage quite early, I felt I had this vocation to be a writer, and to be a today. In the process, I believe that I created an informal family of fellow thinkers and fellow activists who take up the baton wherever possible, whenever they can. It’s a collective responsibility to respond to societal ills, and I have never considered myself a burden-bearer; we’ve all got to do it today. That’s also what I tell myself as I approach 90.

Sometimes, I ask why haven’t you learnt to age gracefully. There is one thing I have not succeeded in doing: and by gracefully, I mean sitting down, putting down your feet, looking after your children and grandchildren and just letting the world go by, occasionally, instructing a small circle of people, not disciples but interlocutors. I have been waiting to feel 90. I waited to feel 80 but I didn’t feel it. I waited to feel 70 but I didn’t feel anything. I feel just as I felt about half a decade ago. Whether that’s a curse or a blessing, I don’t know. One thing I’m confident about is that society is dynamic by nature. Society always enough people to activate the positive virtues of society, what animates progress in society, and if after some years, 10 years, that aspect that that property of society seems to be squelched up, I know that it tends to resurface and sometimes in the most dramatic certain ways, so I don’t feel compelled to do anything and at the same time I will not refuse to do what I feel empowered to do, when I’m conscious of a necessity, a need. It’s an instinct in me, I can’t help it, that’s the way I was born as I keep saying maybe I drank as a child or when nobody was looking.

Smiles…Prof, you’ve described yourself as an accidental burden-bearer…let me throw you one question for young people. Since you won the Nobel Prize, a lot of young people look at you. Are you worried that it’s been almost almost 40 years now and nobody has won from the country? Does it bother you sir?

First of all, I think we have quite an unfair size of candidates qualifiers, for the top prize, no matter what it is in the Arts. Nigeria is remarkably flooded with young talents. I always say this everywhere, and in particular from the female sector where we talk about literature. I say to my young male colleagues sometimes: ‘Look out o, these women, they are coming, they are beating you, they are knocking you. This is ‘War of the Sexes. So, please, for Heaven’s sake, wake up, that way, there’s a healthy creative rivalry which I enjoy watching. I have stacks and stacks of literary materials which I know I can’t even go through, of course not all of that is of sterling quality and that’s something by the way that young writers should understand the fact that you manage to get published once, sometimes self-published, doesn’t mean that you are a sterling writer, no, you just got to keep working and working and hopefully before I’m 100, I’ll be going to Stockholm to celebrate another Nigeria.

One more thing let’s also think outside Nigeria; let’s think of the African continent which is my field. Always remember that outside Nigeria we also have remarkable competition whether you’re talking about Kenya or South Africa or you talk about Dakar, there are marvelous materials, artistic in all fields coming out of the African continent. So, don’t try to force it. We’re all just going to wake up one day and find that another Nigerian, another black African because there are many kinds of Africans, I’m interested in the black race mostly principally that then will all troop with our talking drums and go and invade Stockholm and give them some brightness in a cold, weary winter which is when the prize is awarded.

Interesting! For me, Prof, even though you say you didn’t feel it at 80, you didn’t feel it at 60, you still don’t feel anything even when 90 is approaching, I’d like to have my cognitive abilities intact as you do when I am 90, by the grace of God. That’s a big credit to you, sir. My colleague talked about some of the high points of your journey as a nationalist that has gotten you into some form of trouble in the past. I’d like you to walk us through that if you don’t mind, particularly the records that we have on history about how you went to the Western Nigerian television the defunct WNTV to seize the station demanding a recount of the Western Nigeria elections at the time. Your arrest by the military. I’d like you to walk us through those high points when you go through memory lane. What was going through your mind at those times and at what cost did they come to you when you reflect on them personally?

Sometimes, I describe myself also as a glutton for tranquillity. In other words, I like to be at peace with myself. Now, how do I generate the conditions when I’m totally at peace with myself and I can do exactly what I want without feeling that negativities are breathing down my shoulders and suffocating me? It’s only by tackling such negatives upfront, directly, frontally, and dealing with it, then I feel an inner peace, inner tranquility. And so, when you ask me what was I thinking of at the time, I think I’m saying if I don’t do this, if I walk past this, I will not be at peace with myself. I think that’s really what goes through my mind. Let me quote our late brother, Chinua Achebe, from one of his novels, that phrase always echoes in my mind. One of the characters says: ‘If somebody comes and defecates in front of my house or my doorstep, what do I do? Go back to sleep? No.’ He says: ‘I take a stick and break his head’. And I think it’s that kind of temperament which I cannot subdue until I have acted in a rational dignified way which is to address the problem which reduces me and others around me as human beings.

In one of my intervention series, I mentioned that I wish people concentrated more in fact on actions that I failed to take and I cited for instance during the critical years of Sani Abacha when it was clear that we had a monster, a killer, a torturer on our hands and there’s a question of how should we get rid of them. So, forget holding up a radio station, from which I was acquitted by the way. So, for me, that didn’t look like when we mobilised and planned a cross-country march on Aso Rock, people came from all corners of the nation. Lagos, Maiduguri, we work with human rights associations. Ransome-Kuti. By the way, let me take this opportunity to mention him. He was also pivotal to that particular exercise and we liaised with teachers, schools, with labour offices and we were to march in concert, took off at the same time and we had the final organising meeting at the Mayflower School.

Taye Solarin was dead by then but his widow, Sheila, marched with us and when we were in the gymnasium, the kill-and-go plus military came there, threatening menacingly, they sang war songs, circulating the gymnasium. We just ignored them and carried on with the planning. We had maps, we organised all over the country. It was a very elaborate planning. And at the end of it, they didn’t raid us, they just threatened us as we marched down the streets with work and market women, defiantly. Well, when we got back, we were told we got desperate messages from people like thinkers, I remember Pa Ajasin in particular who begged us not to execute that march. He said: ‘This man is a killer, he will mow down the various groups in isolation as they are marching down. Please just give it up’. In addition, the SSS visited me with a formal letter from Aso Rock indicating the decision of the Abacha government to stop that march. He said: ‘We will not stand by and allow chaos because other groups might come and attack you’. Eventually, very painfully, we had to abandon that march. For me, one of the biggest defeats of my life, but I called attention to it in relation because of what has happened during the last (2023) elections when we told people: ‘Don’t come out, don’t come out’, on behalf of falsehood or uncertainty, an imprecision of false wild claims, ‘don’t come out on the streets’ and people always refer back to that incident of the radio station as if it was just some wild gesture, say, well you did this, why can’t we do this? No, always examine the situation very carefully.

I read part of your history, a lot of people who read know that Professor Wole Soyinka will go all out when he believes in something and we’ve always said that some of these interventions get him into trouble but doesn’t care because as far as he believes in it, it’s going to happen and you’ve had your 12 intervention called ‘The Baiting Igbophobia’. I want to read a portion of some of those straight talks in your preface. You said: “I had long decreed a well-ended sabbatical from 2023 Command Performance. So, what happened to the self-indulgent neutrality? Nothing. It remained in place however something did take place that changed the axis of democratic contest. This was none other than the Sterling Datti Television Show. A persistent reminder, it may pay the proponent of the democratic new normal to pretend that Datti’s interview was some isolated event, but it is NOT. Datti did not perform in a vacuum. Banner-bearers were already prominent formation outside military headquarters in Abuja among other pressure points, that the national letter writer had also penned a directive to the President to demand an annulment of the electoral count was easily absorbed once the juicy irony of source had been squeezed out and enjoyed’. Prof, what are you saying? I just read that portion and for those who get it, they get that direct interview which was done on Channels Television. Who was blowing the trumpet behind the scene?

Well, some nitwits. An attempt was made to annul the election even before it took place. I’m sure you remember that, you remember a statement by respectable people who for reasons best known to them were calling for an interim government, and of course, this was opposed and no sooner was the voting over than we had a letter directed to the then president calling for the annulment of the results, even before there was time for verification, annulment through further examination of papers and so on. In other words, I’m alleging that there was a conspiracy from the very beginning, before the elections to make sure that the elections did not take place or that even if the voting did take place everything reverted to what happened under Babangida when we all just woke up and discovered that even though the else the results have been tabulated, even though the results were in possession of international bodies including monitoring embassies and so on, even though we had the result. I was in Austria at the time so was the Secretary General of the Commonwealth. We had the results directly and suddenly it was annulled. History was about to repeat itself. Some people were determined to take us back to those old days.

So for me, it was no longer a contest between individuals; it was now a contest between a so-called interim political party and democracy and when you have a binary like that I have no doubt, no hesitation at all about what side of the barricades my position should be and that interview and that disgraceful, menacing interview was for me the ultimate signal because this was somebody calling for a rubbishing of a structure by which he himself had profited to ever become a governor. I’m talking about Peter Obi who was what is known as a judgment governor. Even before the tribunal had sat, Datti came on television to threaten everyone, to threaten hell if his interpretation of the result was not upheld. I mean what this for me was politically amoral, socially amoral; it was playing to a certain script even if they didn’t know it, that’s very important. It was later that I began to express my suspicion that they were part of the script. At the beginning, I even thought, look at these fools, they don’t see that they are playing to other people’s script. What a pity! So at that time, hostilities were not yet so you know so intense. So, this is what I was referring to, sometimes democracy leaves the stage of individual contest for power and then commences its own struggle for existence for actualisation. Democracy as you and I understand it, you cannot accept judgments only when they favour you, if you go by the same arbitration panel, the same arbitration structure, you cannot just say I accept this only when it suits me. It is an insult to intelligence and morality.