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By Bayo Oluwasanmi
Eightieth birthday is a special occasion and ideal opportunity to tell Wole Soyinka the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, how much he means to us.
When people think of Wole Soyinka, it’s probably as the author of the powerful autobiographical work, The Man Died (1971), a collection of notes from prison.
But more than that, W.S. as fondly known in literary circles, is identified around the world as the recusant specialist who refused to submit to madmen that run and ruin Nigeria since independence in 1960. The rest of the story need not delay us.
W.S. is unlike most Nigerians of his generation who see self-promotion and self-preservation as their goals in life but failed to discover the liberating power of expendability. W.S. see his time, talents, and treasures as weapons for the liberation of oppressed Nigerians.
Always fighting on the side of the poor, his crusade for social justice, economic and income equality, freedom, and democracy, bears witness to his alliance, allegiance, and fraternity with the poor. The struggle is his life. And like Brother Paul of Tarsus, W.S. seems to be saying: “But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me…”
He’s one of the few Nigerians who didn’t quit on a whim in the battle for the soul of our dear country. His engagement and commitment to the struggle of the poor is not contingent upon his economic benefit.
He’s always on the edge of enemy territory. Like waiting for orders from the masses on whose behalf he’s fighting, he heard them saying: “W.S. you’re to stay right where you’re, fight as hard as you can, as long as you can, and until we triumph over our oppressors.” It’s no wonder that W.S. remains the target rage of the privileged class. An army of one fighting legion of problems that plague our country – moral and ethical, doctrinal and practical, corporate and private.
The ruling elites have turned Nigeria into a wilderness. A wilderness is never pleasant. It tends to be dry, barren, lifeless, and uncomfortable. You tend to get thirsty there and find yourself yearning to be in a place of rest and refreshment. It is this paradise turned wilderness nation rundown by thieves that W.S. fiercely opposed and dedicate his life.
The tragedy of our nation is not that we’re going through the wilderness, but that Nigeria has camped there for so long by electing robber barons to manage our country. Most of W.S. works deal with these anomalies and disorders.
There is great intensity about his writing and activism. To listen to his withering denunciations and read his acid criticisms of the ruling class, is like opening the door of a blast furnace! His works appeal to the conscience. It’s a penetrating writing, a clinical writing, and a writing that moves people to cry, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
Snapshots from some of his works:
In his 1967 poem Abiku, meaning a child in unending cycle of births, deaths, and rebirths, W.S. presents Nigeria as an Abiku nation on one hand with its intractable problems. And on the other hand, W.S. is the Abiku himself who will always come around to torment and criticize the Nigerian government. Like Abiku, he’s ever ready to voice out his opinions on national issues and to engage those are who bent on ruin our nation in war of words.
W.S. is a dramatist in every fiber of his being. He has drama passion, he has genius, and he has the great flashes of imagination and inspiration which make all scholars seem dull in comparison. When goodness is joined with knowledge, it counts for much. W.S. has all the two.
Kongi’s Harvest (1964) portrays the clash between traditional rule and the modern system of democratic rule. W.S. as the dramatist extraordinaire, as usual mocks the political system – the elitist establishment draped in representative democracy that is expected or projected to improve the lives of the people but has become an oppressive and corrupt system to amass wealth and power.
Madmen and Specialists (1970) is about political inefficiencies, selfishness of the politicians, their greed, their lies, and their hypocrisy. The play was written when W.S. was incarcerated during Nigerian’s Civil War. A Dance of The Forest (1960) is a biting criticism of Nigeria’s political elites. The play satirizes that the present is no more a golden age than was the past.
“During the presidency of Shehu Shagari and his party, the NPN,” says W.S. in You Must Set Forth at Dawn, (2006) “I made the LP record Unlimited Liability Company, dedicated to the ineptness and corruption of that government and the general decay of society.” (Page 240). “Obasanjo is a man of restless energies – and a waste of human potential … A bullish personality, calculating and devious … intolerant of criticism …” (page 186).
In 1965, he seized the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service (WNBS) studio and broadcast a demand for the cancellation of the Western Nigeria regional elections. In 1967 during the Nigerian Civil War, he was arrested by the federal government of General Yakubu Gowon and put in solitary confinement for two years. During the regime of General Sani Abacha (1993-98), W.S. escaped from Nigeria via the “NADECO Route” on a motorbike. Abacha proclaimed a death sentence against him in absentia.
His life contains ingredients so rich and so diverse. A scholar by nature, his activism forced him into prominence where he fought battles against Nigeria as a reeking and irreclaimable center of graft, filth, poverty, and misery. W.S. lacks the political know-how to play one group against another. He demonstrates the attitudes of humility and aptitude.
Entrusted with high visibility role, W.S. refrains from flaunting his position or exploiting his countrymen for personal gain. Rather, he’s on the side of the oppressed at greater risk to his life. He has shown that despite most trying circumstances, a critic better still, a rebel with a cause, can enjoy daily strength and victory – not for the purpose of being comfortable, but in order to be a comforter.
Wole Soyinka is our Lion and Jewel for living a turbulent life for others to live a peaceful and prosperous life, and for being a steady and courageous voice for human rights, democracy, and freedom in our ravaged country.
Happy Birthday Bros Kongi!
*** Moribund society creates its own morbid gravediggers. Revolt against injustice is not honorable but it is imperative. – Karl Max
Bayo Oluwasanmi can be reached via [email protected]
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