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Exiled Nobel Laureate Assesses His Troubled Land

African playwright Wole Soyinka speaks up about Nigeria's conflicts

Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. Now in exile from his native Nigeria, where a military coup has eclipsed democracy, Soyinka considers Nigeria's history and future in his most recent book, "The Open Sore of a Continent." In it, he calls for the global community to address the issue of nationhood. Monitor Radio's Sara Terry interviewed Soyinka while he was visiting Atlanta. Below are excerpts from their discussion.

Mr. Soyinka, you ask, when is a nation or how or why is a nation in your book. Why is that question so important?

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First of all, let me say that it's a question that has been provoked in me subjectively as a result of the experience of my own country, Nigeria.

The persecution you faced, your political activism ...

No, no, no - not the personal. By 'subjectively' I mean what is happening to the entirety of the nation.... But in addition, what has happened to the nation is happening at the same time to other so-called nations. I mentioned Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Yugoslavia, it is just [worldwide]... What I have done really is articulate the realities which we're facing toward the end of this millennium.

You referred to the month of June 1993 as "witnessing both the birth and the death of the Nigerian nation." The birth occurred when Nigerians crossed regional and ethnic lines to democratically elect a president, and then some 10 days later, the death of the Nigerian nation as you described, that occurred when military dictators overturned those elections results. How would you characterize Nigeria today?

...I don't recognize the Nigeria of the '60s in today's Nigeria. Just after it had become independent and immediately before it became independent in the '50s and '60s, this was a land of hope, of optimism, of pride even. Both during the anticolonial struggle and immediately afterwards, there was a will toward nation-building. All that has been shattered by a succession of blows delivered by different groups of people with hegemonic interests.

What is at the root of that problem or of that transformation in Nigeria? Does it date back to European colonialism or does it have more to do with the regimes that have been in power?

It's a combination of the two things. First of all, it was an artificial construct from the beginning, but that is nothing unusual. And it's a question of the will of the various entities, nation entities incidently within that particular geographical space. It depends on their will to make it work. And that will did exist up to a certain time, in shall we say the '60s, but there was also a kind of self-destruct insertion by the departing colonial powers. The British were determined to rule Nigeria in their own way and therefore they made some very dishonest alliances with the feudalist element.

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Within the various ethnic groups?

Yes, precisely. For instance, the British deliberately falsified the census figures in order to transfer more power to the more feudalist-oriented part of the country. We know on the admission of one of the colonial servants who's been writing his memoirs that the British even rigged the first elections in Nigeria to ensure that power went to the more, shall we say, reactionary part of the country with which the British are very, very comfortable, because they find it is more easy to manipulate. And so ... everything is done even at the expense of the potential destruction of the nation to ensure the power never leaves that part of the country. This is one of the major causes of the present crisis.

We are talking about Nigeria, but of course this could apply to many of the countries already mentioned. What is it that people have to agree on to become a functioning, cohesive nation?

First of all, a respect for the various interest groups ... religious interest groups, ethnic interest groups, with a very genuine ... respect for the minorities, recognizing the fact that they have the same rights as the majority ethnic groups.

Then, of course, an agreement on the actual internal structuring of the country. How is revenue to be distributed? Is it by derivation, according to the resources being produced by the different sectors in the country? And, it's a mutual respect [between the different sectors]. And also, it goes without question, the manifestation of that respect by a democratic process.

How do you see the role of religion in either perpetuating or resolving the Nigerian crises in terms of the North-South Muslim-Christian issue?

It has lately become a source of conflict. We had some really sanguinary confrontations in certain parts of the country. But you see the religious issue is being [wakened] deliberately by certain political interests and also in response to the fundamentalist madness which is sweeping through certain parts of the world.

Nigeria has not remained untouched by that, I'm afraid. But the religious issue can actually be, and from time to time has proved to be, a kind of bonding factor in certain conflicts within the country. We've had collaboration between the Muslims and the Christians and the animists, who have tried to show [unity] ... during periods of crises.

How do you see what's coming in the next century?

Oh, I think there is going to be a lot more of the Chechnya style of upheavals created by this nationalist urge.

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