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Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka
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Wole Soyinka Interview

Nobel Prize for Literature

July 3, 2009
Cape Town, South Africa

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  Wole Soyinka

Apart from your literary career, you have played a very active political role in Nigeria, beginning many years ago. During the Western regional crisis of 1965, you took to the airwaves to denounce the falsification of election results. Could you tell us how that came about?

Wole Soyinka: Those elections were very violent and the people resisted. This was the Western Region at the time. I was then teaching at the University of Ibadan. Violent, and the incumbent government used its power of incumbency in the region, in alliance with the power of the center. It was a federal structure. In spite of that, they could not rig the election successfully. And so what they did was just start altering the results. And even that proved exceedingly difficult for them. Finally the premier of the region decided to just forget the whole thing and announce his victory on radio. And I happened, you know, by very fortunate coincidence, I learned that this was going to become a fait accompli. And since he had the support of the federal government, something drastic had to be done. And so with some assistance, some of my usual collaborators, I managed to stop the broadcast, substitute my -- I pre-recorded my own statement. So I went to the studio and I took the premier's tape off and substituted my own and went away. And so I was tried -- very, very nasty charge. I was charged with armed robbery, because apparently this event was supposed to have taken place with the aid of a gun, and so -- very cunning people, coming to frame a charge of armed robbery, for a tape! Costs under a pound or whatever, and I substituted one, anyway -- so it wasn't -- and I left that one. So where was the robbery?

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Anyway, I was tried and acquitted, thank goodness. Then some years passed. Of course the seeds of what came later were already being laid and planted, from that rigging of the elections in the West, and in the rest of the country, as a matter of fact. So a military coup took place in 1966, in January. There were massacres, especially against the Igbos, because the first coup, the leaders were mostly Igbo, and so reprisal claims took place and the drums of war began to sound very, very loud. The East Igbos, who felt they had been really violated -- because they were hunted down all over the place, not just in the North -- they decided to secede.

My friend Christopher Okigbo was Igbo, of course. I knew him from the writers and artists community in Ibadan. He was a founding member of the Mbari writers and artists club. When I was detained for that "un-robbery" episode, he used to come and visit me in my place of detention. I was not actually formally detained. I was just not granted bail, that's all. So he used to come to visit me at the police station where I was held and we'd read his poetry together. Or more accurately, he would read his poetry. He loved reading his own poems. He wanted you to hear exactly how it sounded, because it was a very aural, musical kind of poetry. He was a musician also, by the way, so that wasn't surprising. So we became quite close.

When I realized that war really was going to happen, I tried to -- and he (Christopher Okigbo) had left, like the other Igbo that fled to the East, where they were more secure. Chinua Achebe was in the East. We had other writers like Gabriel Okara in the East, and I felt maybe by linking up and resurrecting that tight community we might be able to do something to prevent that war, and so I traveled. By then the firing had started, the early skirmishes had begun. And I traveled by road to the East. I was promptly arrested as a suspected enemy by the Biafrans whom I had come to see, but of course, some time after, the police realized who I was and I was released. And who had come into my police station? He didn't know I was there. It was Christopher Okigbo, coming from the war front, coming for more equipment. And so we were reunited for the last time. He went back to the front. So the leader of the secessionist enclave, Ojukwu, we spoke, and then when I came back I was detained for having traveled to the East. I was accused of all kinds of things, including trying to buy jet fighters for the -- I don't know why people like to cook, you know, fantasies, around one's individual existence.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Why did you take on this role of go-between between the Biafrans and the West?

Wole Soyinka: It was very simple. I belong to the West, the Yorùbá part of the federation. And in a war, when a war is being fought, it is being fought on behalf of people. And this war committed me, as a Nigerian, it committed me, and I felt that war was wrong and I refused to accept that, to be committed in that way. The Biafrans had been violated. They had been massacred. It was more than one massacre, it was like a wave of massacres. And they were being hunted everywhere. In other words, the conduct of the Federal side, at least that portion to which I belong, indicated -- said, in plain language, even though it was not articulated as such, "You, the Igbo, are no longer part of the federation." There was no way, nothing was done to make them feel secure, at least not enough was done to make them feel secure in the rest of the nation. And then, after they had seceded, which I considered, by the way, a tactical mistake -- not a political crime, not a moral crime, no, no, no, no, no. It was a tactical error. But then, to go after them, to declare war against them on this banal basis of unity above anything else! Unity of what? I mean, who committed the act of disuniting the nation in the first place? Those who made the Igbo feel they were not part of the full entity. So for me it was an unjust war of which I could not be a part. And if I'd not gone to the East, I would have gone into exile, because I would refuse to be part of that entity which waged war against a people who had been so dehumanized. So in effect, it was for my own peace of mind, to try and do everything possible to make sure the war did not take place.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

When you returned to the West, you were detained, but never officially charged. Was this because of an open letter you had published in the Daily Times of Nigeria? What was your intent in writing that letter?

Wole Soyinka: First of all, the letter was published before I went to the East.

There was supposed to be a delegation going from the Federal side, a delegation of citizens, you know, high-placed citizens, traditional rulers and so on. I wanted to make sure that when they went over to the East, they didn't go mouthing pious, meaningless sentiment. They should understand that they were going to visit a wronged people, and that they should take the kind of message there that would make them come back. Well, as I expected, it was a futile visitation. The Igbo by that stage didn't trust anyone, and in any case they could not, they had nothing concrete to take over to the other side. And so I followed up my letter by visiting there, and trying to get Chinua, Christopher, the group I knew, and also talk to Ojukwu, whom I've known -- the head of the Biafran enclave -- whom I've known. We were both students around the same time, even though he was somewhat older than myself. And when I came back, I brought back certain messages and delivered those messages on return.

I should add that when I went there, we had formed what we called the "Third Force." Since the cause of the Federal side, in our view, was not just, and since the Igbo had committed a tactical error in deciding on secession, we thought there should be a third force, a neutral force, which would put on the table various concrete proposals, in effect neutralizing the positions of both sides. We could present these proposals to both sides, and to the international community, which might finally succeed in bringing them to some kind of agreement.

You've made a distinction between your first arrest, in the mid-'60s, and your second arrest. If corruption, a rigged election, was the issue in the first case, what was really the issue when you were imprisoned the second time?

Wole Soyinka Interview Photo
Wole Soyinka: Power is involved in this, you know. The tendency for sections of any community to dominate the rest seems to be part and parcel of society, historically. Nothing extraordinary, in my view, happened about what went on in Nigeria. It wasn't really corruption that led to the first coup, even though this was one of the allegations. It had to do with a sense of injustice, of a political lie which had been implanted by the British before they departed. So it was the contest for power, as much as for control of resources. Because power is an element in itself which one should never underestimate. To dominate others seems to be kind of an animal part of the human make-up which we haven't quite evolved out of. So corruption, yes, was involved, but it wasn't really the central issue in those early days.

Days after your incarceration, your friend Christopher Okigbo was killed in the civil war. Did you hear of his death while you were in prison? Were you able to get news?

Wole Soyinka: I was in solitary confinement for quite a while, but after a while, even prison has its chinks which one is able to study and explore. So occasionally, after the really hermetic isolation of a couple of months, I was able to start formulating links with the outside world.

You smuggled a letter out of prison in 1967. How did it change your treatment in prison?

Wole Soyinka: First of all, I was held in a maximum security prison in Lagos.

After I smuggled out that statement, the government panicked and decided to move me to Kaduna and place me in complete solitary confinement. I was shocked. It was one of the most bitter moments, bitterest moments of my incarceration, to find the Minister of Information calling an international press conference and reading what was supposed to be my confession. It's one of the most horrible things that can happen to anybody in prison, that you feel, "What else? What is going to come next? What are they going to say next? What are they speaking in my name?" Reading -- not to be accusing me, I mean, that's okay -- but actually saying, "I have here his confessional statement," and every bit of it -- except the trip to Biafra -- a complete fabrication. But after I got to Kaduna, I stayed completely quiet for some time. Didn't even attempt to reach the outside world. Just made sure they thought I was a complete model prisoner, totally resigned to being in isolation. And I began to probe the chinks and managed to start getting things outside. Even sent some poems for publication to my publisher outside, which was scribbled on toilet paper with ink I'd manufactured and so on.

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