Wole Soyinka is, without doubt, one of the most important vocal critics of the post-colonial behavior and political psychology of the African nation-state. His plays, memoirs, books of essays and poetry, two novels, public lectures, short stories, music, and movies provide deeper, layered or multidimensional insights into his radical framology of political psychology. Few people are aware that Soyinka has written a number of songs, with an album of his titled “I Love My Country” being released in 1984. His band was called The Unlimited Liability Company. His serial memoirs for instance, works largely belonging in the textural typology of political autobiography except “Aké: The Years of Childhood,” detail his varied exegetical opinions on the complex character of the postcolonial African nation-state. However, unlike the plain language and relatively uncomplexed narrative organization of his political memoirs, the language of his plays can be abstruse and esoteric.
Even so, the plots and plot structures of his plays can equally be nebulously complex and laboriously tedious to plough through depending on the caliber of a particular readership. To prevent possible misrepresentations of his plays, for instance, Soyinka has given insightful international interviews to clarify aspects of his plays (see Biodun Jeyifo’s book “Conversations with Wole Soyinka”) that seem obscure to his general readership or physically presented himself in situations where providing exegetical direction in unraveling the cultural complexities of some of his plays was deemed paramount to their successful enactments. He has done this with some American professors, students, producers and directors. In fact an interesting aspect of Soyinka’s legacy is that much of his literary scholarship is about political criticism, political and social activism, and public agitation for social justice. We also need to take cognizance of the fact that Soyinka’s objectivist and imagist writings on political criticism may not necessarily be taken to mean or construed as political realism, far from it.
They may possibly be in other words, but they are more fundamentally of an idealist bent as we suggested in the previous essay.
All in all, Soyinka’s body of scholarly writings is accessible for any serious reader or peruser. Thus one need have an extensive inventory of erudite vocabulary, a deep appreciation of Yoruba/Nigeria culture in particular and African/Nigeria culture and history in general, international politics and race relations, the general techniques of dramaturgy, say the Feytag’s pyramid and the Stanislavski’s system, Greek and Shakespearean and African plays among others, in order to walk through the thick fog of his literary works, particularly his anthology of plays (see Gates’ “The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism” for Soyinka’s literary and intellectual relationship to Shakespeare, etc.; see also Soyinka’s “The Bacchae of Euripides”). That said, it is however important for readers to know that memoirs and autobiographies are generally self-limiting in many ways. A memoir or autobiography is self-limiting because its narrative or rhetorical morphology is primarily instrumented through self-centeredness. The self-centeredness manifests itself possibly through the infrastructural leitmotifs of self-adulation, selective omission, exaggerated self-importance, memory lapse, self-aggrandizement and perspectival introspection to the exclusion or de-actuation of critical external voices.
Memory lapse can indeed pose a real challenge in the process of autobiographical recall memory. It is our submission that memory is in and of itself finite and that recall memory even more finite. Working memory is subject to the limiting dictates of recall with age and stress!
For instance, we are not too certain if all the components of the narrative arc of Soyinka’s childhood memoir are factually accurate, since we cannot overlook the possibility that he may not have exactly recalled every single topic covered in the book including chronology of events, whether he kept a diary growing as a child, and such, though his parents, older siblings, extended adult family members and adult neighbors may have filled in some of the gaps in his recall memory. But even then one can always question the gaps in the recall memories of adults. One can still ignore these minor distractions and instead pay attention to the literary content and aesthetic value of the book.
There is however a greater tendency that these constraints can contribute to the factual inhumation of certain aspects of a writer’s life. This is not to imply Soyinka’s political memoirs overtly exhibit any such Faustian tendencies, though he has been criticized for autobiographical self-aggrandizement, hubris, and self-centeredness. Far from it. Still, it is good that readers pay close attention to rhetorical subtleties and nuances such as those as they read memoirs and autobiographies.
It is always best to read a memoir or an autobiography in tandem with a biography of the same or similar subject matter, that is, the person about whom a book’s textural content addresses itself.
But then again the reader should be able to distinguish between an authorized biography and an unauthorized biography, just as understanding the subtle or nuanced contracts between drama and play may contribute to one’s appreciation of some of his literary works. There is a clear contradistinctive quality to the two typologies which, as we may all know, does not merit a prolix elaboration here. An excellent illustrative typology is the question of intra-textual contrasts between Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” and David J. Smith’s unauthorized biography of Mandela, titled “Young Mandela: The Revolutionary Years.”
The former is relatively dry on such essential personal details as Mandela’s romantic relations and his possible involvement in instances of philandering, a potential gap in the recall memory of Mandela’s autobiography as Smith would later reveal to another writer who shares his name, David Smith, after having interviewed Winnie Mandela for his controversial biography. He notes: “His ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela described him [Mandela] as more autocrat than democrat in the domestic affair” (see “How the Other David Smith Rewrote the Nelson Mandela Story,” The Guardian, Sept. 16, 2010).
Smith covers those little-known aspects of Mandela’s life in his biography. This is nothing new really. Maybe the yet-to-be-published sequel to Mandela’s autobiography will shed light on such questions. Likewise, Soyinka would never write about members of his elementary or nuclear family, wife and children, in his political memoirs and would only do so during the authorial advent of “You Must Set Forth At Dawn.” On the other hand the choice to include one’s family members in a biography or an autobiography, for instance, is a personal decision only circumscribed by a writer’s adherence to the conventions of artistic license, or personal discretion. It is generally the case that unauthorized biographers are generally uneconomical in their divulgence of factual details in connection with the subject of their personalized narrative literarization. There are possible legal implications to consider if libelous information is included in a narrative institution of literarization, unauthorized biographies specifically. Lawsuit, formal apology, retraction of libelous elements, and financial restitution are the inevitable outcomes of authorial negligence.
But these facts are far from the oversight of our immediate worries. Perhaps our immediate concern is the apprehension of seeing the voice of perspectival otherism muffled or peripheralized in the rhetorical presence of self-centeredness. This is very important as researchers and general readers consume Soyinka’s corpus of literary works. Elsewhere we have cited his posthumous disagreement with Chinua Achebe over the historical contents of the latter’s book, “There Was A Country.” Yet, there is no doubt that his plays have provided a very strong collective moral voice against the excesses of the post-colonial African nation-state, social injustice, political dictatorship, deprivation of civil liberties, political corruption, religious terrorism, and so forth.
There had been suspicions and circulating rumors that Achebe was resentful for not being awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature that went to Soyinka, probably poisoning their earlier relationship, and as strange as it may seem Soyinka recalls Achebe making the following statement in the head of a debate: “The fact that Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize does not make him the Asiwaju (Leader) of African literature” (see “Wole Soyinka Speaks on Achebe’s Costly Mistakes, Ojukwu & Biafra”). There is also the conception that Soyinka may not have taken to Achebe being called “Father of African Literature,” a label Achebe himself rejected. Soyinka’s response to the label is apt, and we quote him here:
“THOSE WHO SERIOUSLY BELIEVE OR PROMOTE THIS MUST ASK: HAVE YOU THE SHEEREST ACQUAINTANCE WITH THE LITERATURES OF OTHER AFRICAN NATIONS, IN BOTH INDEGENOUS AND ADOPTED COLONIAL LANGUAGES? WHAT MUST THE FRANCOPHONE, LUSOPHONE, ZULU, XHOSA, EWE…LITERARY SCHOLARS AND CONSUMERS THINK OF THOSE WHO PERSIST IN SUCH A HISTORIC ABSURDITY. IT’S AS RDICULOUS AS CALLING WS [WOLE SOYINKA] FATHER OF CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN DRAMA. OR MAZISI KUNENE FATHER OF AFRICAN EPIC POETRY. OR KOFI AWOONOR FATHER OF AFRICAN POETRY. EDUCATION IS LACKING IN MOST OF THOSE WHO PONTIFICATE.”
The insidious attempt by some to give Achebe that titular accolade to make it appear other literary juggernauts like Buchi Emecheta, Soyinka, Awoonor, Mazisi, Armah, and Farah, to mention but a few, are not experts in their chosen genres is preposterous. Such a label has been used by some to entrench the perceived animus between Achebe and Soyinka, particularly the admirers of Achebe, to make up for Soyinka’s literary ascendency in the wake of his Nobel recognition. Soyinka will not allow that mischief to stick in the public conscience, hence his corrective retort. Who is the “Father of Asian Literature”? Who is the “Father of European Literature”? Who is the “Father of American Literature”? Who is the “Father of South American Literature”? And is the “Father of American Literature” also the “Father of Canadian Literature,” or vice versa?
Soyinka by giving that candid answer dispels any perceived animus the public associates with him and Achebe. But Maja-Pearce seems to do the opposite, bringing back some of the animus from the social paleontology of professional and non-professional relations that tied up Achebe, Soyinka, etc., in a tight matrix of literary and political juxtaposition.
These facts should be given serious consideration when assessing the two writers, and whether any lingering or undercurrents of mutual antagonisms may have eaten deep into how they viewed each other’s work and how they related to each other outside the institution of literature. On the other hand Soyinka’s biases are more likely to show up in his excessive criticism of the state without, as he sometimes does, giving full attention to the moral psychology of state behavior.
Such tendentiousness is to be expected because he has never had practical or firsthand experience in the political practice of statecraft. That is not to disregard the fact that political criticism is not part of statecraft. It certainly is! Certain times the so-called “victims” of the state are the ones to rather blame for the putative excesses of the instruments of state bureaucracy. Here, too, we see another clear example of opposing dichotomy between Soyinka and Machiavelli, in that the latter acted mostly in behalf of the ruler and the state, Soyinka primarily in behalf of the citizents of a state and in civilianizing state bureaucracy. Machiavelli received the strappado in prison, suffering shoulder dislocations in the process, while Soyinka on the hand lived in prison well enough to write.
In the end, the totality of Soyinka’s large body of written works, including his thespian output, does not present a coherent, or a unifying, algorithm for how his model of a state should be in operational terms, and how it should be run. For instance, he has consistently questioned the historical and cultural roots of the one-party ideology (or more loosely the unitary state), at least as practiced across Africa, yet uses the same corpus of historical and cultural reasons to justify his rational choice of Yoruba/African Religion as a neutralizing riposte to religious intolerance and terrorism occasioned in Africa by Islam and Christianity.
On the other hand he seems to approve of Paul Kagame and his one-party state, because he has neither hardly criticized him nor questioned the moral, cultural, or historical basis of his one-party ideology as he had and has done in some other cases, although, once again, he should probably be aware that some prominent critics and former friends of Kagame have reportedly disappeared under mysterious circumstances at the behest of Kagame and also that others have reportedly been thrown into prison for politicizing the Rwandan Genocide or violating the stipulations of the so-called “genocide ideology.” On top of that Soyinka admires Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, the primary model for Kagame’s development strategies, nation-building and statecraft among others. Indeed with all that said, the difficulty and challenges of statecraft and nation-building informs Soyinka’s repeated eschewal of popular demands from a cross-section of Nigerians and Africans to stand for the Nigerian presidency.
This is not to question his activist credentials anyway, however.
He took on the Apartheid regime Nobel acceptance speech and authoritarian, murderous leaders and organizations in such influential books as “The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness,” “A Climate of Fear” (BBC Reith Lectures, 2004), and “The Open Sore of A Continent” among others, yet “Kongi’s Harvest” lacks that polemic critique of historical balance if indeed the political dramaturgy of “Kongi’s Harvest” is an adaptation of Nkrumah’s presidency and the political happenings during his presidency. The other irony is that he wrote “Kongi’s Harvest” in 1965 and took over the editorship of “Transition” in 1973, recalling that the literary magazine had been resuscitated in Accra, Ghana, in 1971, yet he used the magazine’s pages to attack the likes of Idi Amin, not Nkrumah.
In fact Soyinka had all the resources at his disposal to critique the Nkrumah presidency if he had actually wanted to do so as he had done and would do in his home country, Nigeria, without fear of I.K. Acheampong. The latter was no General Yakubu Gowon, and the least he could do was to deport Soyinka.
Meanwhile, Soyinka has been kept in prison for his audacious criticism of Nigeria’s political leadership but, unlike Ken Saro-Wiwa, his deep political connections to the state saved his stubborn neck from the gallows. In one case during the Nigerian Civil War he contacted General Olusegun Obasanjo and asked him to seek a negotiated settlement to the war. It appears General Obasanjo may have told on Soyinka to the military authorities. The latter was subsequently accused of collaborating with the Biafra side and ended up in detention on that account, notwithstanding his repeated protestations of innocence. It is still, however, not too clear why Soyinka’s fellow Yoruba General Obasanjo would report him to the Gowon Government since both of them were on the side of the federal government and equally worrying still, why the federal government would want Soyinka who was on its side and Chinua Achebe who was on the Biafran side thrown into prison!
In perhaps one of his rhetorical outbursts yet, Soyinka pointedly yet hilariously describes General Obasanjo’s head as “big” in his memoir “You Must Set Forth At Dawn,” apparently for his betrayal to the military authorities by General Obasanjo. Even at that, Soyinka has not presented enough convincing proof yet to sway the doubting psychologies of those of his critics, including this author, who want to see beyond the corpus of his anecdotal platitudes.
In other words Soyinka has not probably made a cogent case for his absolution, let alone convince the world why his personalized version of historical events leading up to and during the Nigerian Civil War is any better than those of Chinua Achebe, General Obasanjo, General Yakubu Gowon, Adewale Maja-Pearce among others.
More specifically, Adewale Maja-Pearce, a British-born Nigerian international author, editor among others, in his book “A Peculiar Tragedy,” a biographical account of the contributions of J.P. Clark, a prominent playwright and poet, to Nigerian letters, reveals certain fascinating but troubling “facts” about Soyinka and the Nigerian Civil War which Soyinka unapologetically found disturbing.
What could this “canard” possibly have been about among others? Nicholas Ibekwe, a writer for Premiums Times,” provides an inkling of the nature of the controversy, noting that Soyinka, after his release from prison, blamed Clark for spreading rumors that he [Soyinka] had contracted “terminal syphilis” in prison (see “Why Soyinka Hates Me-Adewale Maja-Pearce,” Premium Times, June 19, 2013). It turned out Soyinka had mentioned this intriguing assertion in his prison memoir, “The Man Died,” about the role Clark may have played in his imprisonment, and so on. As should probably be expected Maja-Pearce came across this bit of information in Soyinka’s prison memoir as part of his research for the biography, and thereafter contacted Soyinka to provide his version of the story.
In fact Maja-Pearce has since made his email correspondences with Soyinka to the general public (see “Adewale Maja-Pearce,” The New Gong Magazine (Publishers of New Writing and Images”). What followed Maja-Pearce’s formal request is not pleasant. Soyinka then made known to Maja-Pearce his decision to recuse himself from evaluating an application Maja-Pearce had submitted to the University of Nevada, thus declaring his candidature for the university’s prestigious Schaeffer Writer Fellowships Program.
The basis of Soyinka’s recusal was supposedly Maja-Pearce’s scathing review of his book “You Must Set Forth At Dawn” in the London Review of Books (see “Our Credulous Grammarian,” Vol. 2, No. 15, Aug. 2, 2007), even if we have to add a caveat that Soyinka’s recusal may have been informed by conflict of interest though Maja-Pearce proposes two theories to account for the recusal. First, Maja-Pearce reveals General Obasanjo’s betrayal of Soyinka to his military superiors even though “Obasanjo’s own officers had already told him [Soyinka] that he [Obasanjo] was not to be trusted” (our emphasis). Second, Maja-Pearce mentions a “secret offshore detention camp” where General Obasanjo’s “perceived enemies were treated much as one would expect.” Third, Maja-Pearce writes of General Obasanjo sending an army to burn down “Kalakuta Republic,” Soyinka’s cousin Fela Kuti’s home, because Fela’s song “Zombie” ridiculed Nigerian soldiers.
Finally, it is also widely believed that the elections that brought General Obasanjo back as president was rigged.
Maja-Pearce writes further:
“Alas, ten years later, with Obasanjo ensconced as the new military head of state, the two men had occasion to do business again and, again, we read about the ‘bullish personality’ and ‘calculating and devious’ actions of someone who ‘remains basically insecure, and thus pathologically in need of proving himself, preferably at the expense of others.’” Why, then, would Soyinka associate with a character he describes as “bullish personality” and “calculating and devious”?
Maja-Pearce seems to have the answer, quoting Soyinka directly and indirectly to make his case:
“Because, he says, he has ‘proprietary act of treachery’ and could therefore ‘regard him as a private reserve for compensatory study.’ Since this won’t do, he adds that, to his ‘intense chagrin,’ he must have inherited ‘a missionary streak’ from the parents he wrote about so movingly about in Ake, his childhood memoir. ONE MIGHT THINK THAT THERE ARE WORTHIER RECIPEINTS OF SOYINKA’S MISSIONARY IMPULE (sic). IN FACT, ALL THIS IS JUST A TORTURED WAY OF BETRAYING HIS FASCINATION WITH TEMPORAL POWER, AND WITH THE ‘MILITARIST ENTREPRENEURS’ HE CONTINUES TO DINE WITH UNDER THE GUISE OF HELPING THE DISENFRANCHSIED…”
Maja-Pearce goes on to unravel Soyinka’s connections to General Ibrahim Babangida, a kleptomaniacal dictator whom the World Bank accused of stealing “$12.2 billion of the nation’s oil earnings, largely through dedicated bank accounts to which he was the sole signatory.” Also, General Babangida would be directly implicated in the mail-bombing death of journalist Dele Giwa, Soyinka’s colleague, and the same military dictator under whose leadership Major-General Mamman Vatsa, Soyinka’s childhood friend, would be executed for no other reason than an “impending coup” even after General Babangida had given Soyinka, Achebe, and Clark his word that he was going to do everything in his power to avert his [Vatsa’s] death. Babangida’s leadership endorsed the execution of Major General Gideon Orkah who attempted an abortive coup against him, in which he narrowly escaped.
How much of Ghana’s money did Nkrumah steal? Zilch! And how many people did Nkrumah kill? Zilch! What is more, Babangida, a member of the illusive Langtang Mafia, and Obasanja were not hounded with bombs and salvoes of bullets as Nkrumah was and even more surprisingly, Babangida went behind the people of Nigeria to form a two-party state to replace his one-party military dictatorship, then as expected asked Nigerians to vote for either party. Babangida, it turned out, had banned all political parties before he went all out to create those two political parties. Why Soyinka would even go ahead to accommodate the likes of Babangida is a serious question of complexed ambiguity. As such, Maja-Pearce tactically falls back on Soyinka’s own stringed words which are in turn crafted into frames of sentential obscurity, mostly demonstrative of the latter’s self-conflicted bloviation and conflicting evidentiation of personal worth in respect of humping astride two unlikely worlds. He cites Soyinka thusly:
“THOSE WHO INSIST ON INHABITING THE REAL WORLD FIND THEMSELVES SUBJECTED TO THE CLAMOUR OF WHAT CAN, AND DESERVES TO BE EXTRACTED FROM USURPED AUTHORITY ON BEHALF OF A NATION, ON BEHALF OF THE NON-STATISTICAL, PALPABLE HUMANITY THAT CONSTITUTES ONE’S VITAL ENVIRONMENT. FOR A TEMPERAMENT SUCH AS MINE, IT HAS NEVER BEEN POSSIBLE TO SHUNT ASIDE…A SENSE OF REBUKE OF HOW MUCH IS LOST DAILY, WASTED OR DEGRADED, HOW MUCH PROVES IRRETRIEVABLE, DAMAGED BEYOND REPAIR, THROUGH A POSITION THAT CONFERS THE SELF-RIGHTEOUS COMFORT OF A PURIST, NON-NEGOTIABLE DISTANCING.”
Soyinka seems to be suggesting in the afore-cited quotation that it is quite morally, even politically and socially, acceptable to dine with “the devil” if only one can, as a matter of fact through such a questionable or morally reprehensible association, glean information from the tactical and strategic psychology of “the devil” that may be of use to understanding the existential conditionalities of the downtrodden masses on whose behalf one directs his or her energies of social-political activism. This is a controversial proposition because, for one thing, the purist’s “non-negotiable distancing” is not of this material world and for another, the purist’s “non-negotiable distancing” is of the “real world,” namely of man’s material existence.
But the adjectivization of the concluding part of the quotation, represented by Soyinka’s use of the compound word “self-righteous,” probably reveals an element of self-righteous hypocrisy on the part of the narrative voice hiding behind obscure verbiage. This is only if we conflate Soyinka and the purist, a soliloquy and a ventriloquist, respectively. In fact Soyinka was there dining with the “devils,” Obasanjo and Babangida, because he was, and still is, manifestly not a purist. This fact may not be obvious but the implications of the conflation are clearly embedded in Soyinka’s sermonizing verbiage. The question is: Who made Soyinka the spokesperson for the purist, our ventriloquist?
Soyinka has so much “respect” for General Babangida’s brand of Machiavellianism as to refer to him as “Maradona” in his political memoir, “You Must Set Forth At Dawn,” in fact a nickname General Babangida is generally known for across Nigeria. Could there be any subtle similarities between the thespian structure of “Kongi’s Harvest” and the rhetorical candor of Maja-Pearce’s review? Possibly.
Rather interestingly or ironically, reading via Maja-Pearce’s review where Soyinka interacts with the two generals one somehow gets the impression that he was, to some extent, acting out the parts he gave King Oba Danlola, President Kongi, and Segi, President Kongi’s ex-lover. Segi, deposed King Danlola’s nephew’s girlfriend, was the one who actually presented his father’s head to President Kongi at the state dinner, when it was rather King Danlola who was supposed to have presented a tuber of ceremonial yam at the state dinner. The “head” is symbolic of Soyinka’s betrayal of the people on whose behalf he claims to speak, by dining with the likes of President Kongi, the man who deposed her boyfriend’s uncle. Segi’s boyfriend Daodu’s grows yam yet Segi would replace it with her father’s head instead.
The conclusion of Maja-Pearce’s scathing review reads in part:
“THE MAJOR FLAW IN THS LONG, RAMBLING, BADLY-WRITTEN BOOK IS THE AUTHOR’S ANXIETY TO BE SEEN AS A CENTRAL PLAYER IN THE UNFOLDING TRAGEDY OF NIGERIA. WE ARE GIVEN ENDLESS ACCOUNTS OF HIS DERRING-DO, NOT LIMITED TO HOLDING UP RADIO STATIONS OR CONSORTING WITH THE ‘ENEMY’: THEY INCLUDE, FOR INSTANCE, AN ATTEMPT TO STEAL AN IFE BRONZE HEAD FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION IN BRAZIL WHICH TURNED OUT TO BE A TERRACOTTA SOUVENIR FROM THE BRITISH M– USEUM. SOYINKA THE WRITER, WHO, IN A SERIES OF PLAYS AND ‘INTERVENTIONS,’ HAD ANTICIPATED MORE ACCURATELY THAN ANY OTHER INTELLECTUAL THE MONSTROUS TYRANNY AND CORRUPTION THAT WAS TO CRUSH THE COUNTRY, HAS HERE SUCCUMBED TO SOYINKA THE PUBLIC PERSONA, AND THE RESULT IS TEDIOUS, AS ALL SUCH SELF-REVERENTIAL EXERCISES GENERALLY ARE.”
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Soyinka’s former student at Cambridge, read the latter’s political memoir in question and wrote the following in praise of it: “If the spirit of African democracy has a voice and a face, they belong to Wole Soyinka.” Is the “voice” Soyinka, the “face” the purist? This we do not know for fact. The counterfactual conditional of Gates’ is misleading. That spirit of African democracy has manifold faces and voices, with Soyinka’s being merely one of them. This is even clearer in Soyinka’s literary canon. Soyinka has invoked the ancestral voice, and has been driven by the manifold faces and voices of African mythology, rituals, religion, spirituality, cosmogony, political criticism, literary and cultural criticism, culture, and literature (oral and written) to pursue the cause of political action in the actualization of social justice.
Thus Soyinka’s voice and face represent a vociferous singularity in the conscious plurality of other active voices and faces.
Still, we may however want to ask: How does the “bronze head” compare with Segi’s father’s head, the yam (fake) and head (genuine) compare with the terracotta (fake) and the Ife bronze (genuine) respectively? A somewhat perfect thespian denouement recalling the sharp contrast between political realism and political idealism! There is the case of Soyinka reportedly joining a Hungary-based anti-Soviet organization to fight the Soviets, of contemplating the formation of a volunteer taskforce to fight alongside the African National Congress (ANC), of running “diplomatic” errands for warring factions in Ireland, brokering peace in some African conflicts, etc., but missing in action when the Cubans, the Angolans, and the Namibians fiercely engaged and defeated the Apartheid Army in 1988, two years after being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature during which he devoted his Nobel acceptance speech and the prize to Mandela.
Rather, Soyinka, the famous courageous avatar of radical resistance to tyranny, chose to accept professorship at the prestigious Cornel University and to publish “Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems” that same year, 1988, further giving logical credence to political realism (Machiavelli) and political idealism (Soyinka). Besides, Soyinka has never held a single ministership or portfolio in any government in Nigeria or Africa, let alone been privy to detailed sensitive classified intelligence reports or information that could have put him in a better strategic position to understand or appreciate why governments take certain draconian decisions on national security matters or adopt a certain type of governance model contrary to popular opinion, thus cornering himself in awkward positions outside the purview of statecraft. We wonder if Soyinka has ever been part of a state bureaucracy involved in policy design or policy strategizing in the area of national security. The challenge which Boko Haram poses to the geopolitical integrity of the body politic of Nigeria pushes him asymptotically close to Machiavelli’s political ethics or political realism.
Then also from his plays to his novels to his political memoirs to his books of poetry collections to his books of essays to his movies to his short stories…Soyinka treats the same topics and subject matters over and over again, a corpus of topics and subject matters that has been explored by various African and African-American scholars, writers, activists, politicians, social and cultural theorists, philosophers, scientists, and historians, in what we might call “variation on the same theme.” The latter represents an inevitable outcome of a close reading of Soyinka’s corpus of literary works. The other observation is that Soyinka’s body of thought clearly shows he has not developed any system of political thought comparable to what Nkrumah laid out in his academic text, “Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization,” the theoretical pivot of Nkrumahism. It is largely the case that Soyinka’s corpus of thespian writings demonstrates a degree of realism and moral sharpness highly untypical of his political and social existence. Maja-Pearce’s has correctly alluded to this fact in the quotation above.
The conflict between Soyinka’s thespian audacity and its narrative discernment may have arisen from the practical distance found sandwiched between the polarizing axes of self-cognizing innate infallibility and transcendental critique of extrinsic fallibility, a moral paradox typical of many a man and woman, thanks to Maja-Pearce’s review which looks into Soyinka’s strategic and tactical gaffes.
Such a resourceful review based on a work by one of Africa’s literary giants, humanists, and moral philosophers is food for thought. It is however strange, regrettable, and unacceptable for Soyinka to have blatantly told Maja-Pearce he was not going to read his review, but ironically found a need to assure him of his corrective response to “A Peculiar Tragedy.” Soyinka in one fell swoop of his all-knowing pen betrayed his detached condescension to Maja-Pearce, leaving his admirers and critics alike hanging in the balance. This posture surely betrays the ideals of intellectual liberalism, openness, and fairness. The other parallel reason is that Soyinka had an opportunity to debate Achebe on the historical merits of “There Was A Country” at a public forum but he never showed up probably due to being tied up in personal engagements, and is now complaining about the book.
This is what he said in a 2013 interview with Sahara Reporters: “Unfortunately, that chance of a last encounter was missed, so I don’t really wish to comment on the work at this point. IT IS HOWEVER A BOOK I WISH HE HAD NOT WRITTEN, THAT IS, NOT IN THE WAY IT WAS. THERE ARE STATEMENTS IN THAT BOOK I WISH HE HAD NEVER MADE” (our emphasis; see “Wole Soyinka Speaks on Achebe’s Costly Mistakes, Ojukwu & Biafra”).Was Achebe to blame for the lost opportunity? What is the nature of Soyinka’s own mistakes? Could it be the case that only Ojukwu and Achebe had baggage of costly mistakes? What mistakes did Soyinka commit in his unofficial capacity as a negotiator in the Nigerian Civil War? The answers to some of these questions are implied in Maja-Pearce’s review and “A Peculiar Tragedy.” The latter book rankled Soyinka to the high heavens!
It is our submission that Soyinka should at least have read the review and attempted to respond to it because of an existing contradiction in the historical record that still remains unresolved. Maja-Pearce’s notes in “Our Credulous Grammarian”: “His [Soyinka’s] forebodings were expressed in his first play, ‘A Dance of the Forests,’ WHICH FAILED TO BE PERFORMED AT THE 1960 INDEPENDENCE DAY CELEBRATIONS ONLY BECA– USE SOMEONE IN AUTHORITY FINALLY TOOK THE TROUBLE TO READ IT” (our emphasis).
Yet other records indicate that the play was commissioned but never performed. On the other hand Solomon O. Azumurana (Department of English, Faculty of Arts, Univeristy of Lagos) writes quoting one Inih Ebong, ex-director of Calabar University Theatre: “TO THE BEST OF OUR KNOWLEDGE, THE PLAY HAS ONLY BEEN PRODUCED ONCE, DIRECTED BY WOLE SOYINKA HIMSELF, AND PERFORMED BY THE 1960 MASKS ON NIGERIA’S ATTAINMENT OF INDEPENDENCE. CALABAR UNIVERSITY THEATRE IS TODAY PROUD TO BECOME THE SECOND PRODUCER OF ‘A DANCE OF THE FORESTS,’ MORE THAN TWENTY YEARS AFTER IT WAS FIRST PRODUCED” (see “Existential Complexities in Wole Soyinka’s ‘A Dance of the Forest,’ Contemporary Experiences: Journal of African Humanities; see also Adebesi Ademakinwa’s 2007 paper “A Dance of the Forests as the Inflection of Wole Soyinka’s Socio-Political Concern,” The International Journal of the Humanities, Vol. 5, Issue 1, p. 81-86).
What actually happened to “A Dance of the Forests” on the day of Nigeria’s independence celebrations? What actually happened to the cathartic ritualism of the play, a plotless though aesthetically and axiologically provocative institution of thespian literature characterized by dramaturgic obfuscation and exegetical crepuscularity, on the day of Nigeria’s independence celebrations? We however use the word “plotless” to describe “A Dance of the Forests” because it is conceptually structurally plotless, a moot question though, and because Soyinka’s adoption of prosaic imagism and allegiance to artistic license do not strap him in a Gordian knot of stylistic formality, or restrict him to any formalized formulaic algorithm for narrative composition in the varied creative institutions of literaturization.
He is thus as free to do as he wishes with his pen, ink, auctorial psychology, and stylistic elasticity. In other words since he is not beholden to any straitjacket of stylistic conformism, could we expect anything else from him other than his acclaimed auctorial versatility and imagist, if occasionally objectivist, directness?
Nevertheless, given that Maja-Pearce is a trained historian and a respected international writer (has edited a book of essays on Soyinka) and the two others, Azumurana and Ademakinwa, are university professors, all actually three Nigerians or part Nigerian (Maja-Pearce) who also happen to live in Nigeria, what could possibly then explain the stark contradiction in the historical evidence as to whether the play was performed at independence or not? This question should have been easily dispensed with in a rebuttal by Soyinka. Such seemingly innocuous distortion of facts has the tendency to dent or misrepresent the intellectual legacy of individuals. It is however possible Soyinka may have dealt with this very question elsewhere in unrelated publications, but a direct, and more germane, corrective riposte to Maja-Pearce’s review will probably achieve a greater impact that intellectually conceivable, granted that the review in question is erudite, unambiguous, and well informed on the facts of Nigeria’s geopolitical history and political criticism.
Contrary to public opinion, there are certain individuals who argue that Soyinka’s international approbation and accolades for his activism and stature in world literature feed and nourish his informed disdain for lesser writers. In their email correspondences, for instance, Maja-Pearce inquires of Soyinka whether his decision to recuse himself from assessing his candidature for the Schaeffer Writer Fellowships was made on the basis that Soyinka did not consider him a good writer, or as a result of his scathing review. On the contrary, Maja-Pearce is by no means a lesser writer. He is a writer of international repute. Whether Soyinka esteems him as a great writer or not is extraneous to the impasse between the two writers.
Still, Maja-Pearce’s is merely a standard inquest of hypothetical curiosity but that does not, in and of itself, mean the inquest lacks the legitimacy of extrapolative actuation in his systematic psychologizing of the veridicality, or otherwise, of Soyinka’s cognizing pretensions.
It also important to point out in this context that Nobel nominees and awardees, for instance, are not recognized in a given Nobel category of accomplishment on the basis of their works alone. Contributions come from individuals, institutions, and members of the Nobel Committee. Quality and influence/impact of a prospective Nobel nominee’s work considered for nomination are part of the consensus decision that may give precedence to one work and not to the other(s). The late Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, an anthropologist, literary critic, author, and linguist, served in an advisory capacity in the service of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy. Carole B. Davies notes in the first volume of “Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture”: “In recognition of his [Sertima’s] work in this field, the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy asked him to nominate candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature from 1976 to 1980.”
What does this mean?
It goes to confirm the role non-official members of the Nobel Committee can perform on its behalf. Late Prof. Nellie McKay, a literary critic, author, English and literature professor, authored a critical study of Toni Morrison’s literary works in a text titled, “Critical Essay on Toni Morrison,” that brought Morrison’s writings to the attention of the Nobel Committee. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education notes in an article “Nellie McKay: 1930-2006”: “McKay’s 1988 book ‘Critical Essays on Toni Morrison’ is largely credited with establishing the critical acclaim for the writings of the Princeton University as worthy of the Nobel Prize.” Likewise, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s promotion of Soyinka’s literary works in the West may have contributed to the latter being nominated and then awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first African to be accorded that honor.
In fact, one of America’s most influential and leading academics told this author in private about the “role” Gates may have played in Soyinka’s nomination for the prestigious prize though giving the latter’s corpus of literary works critical acclaim in the United States. Soyinka has been awarded the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award, a community-based award supported by The Cleveland Foundation, where currently Gates serves as its Jury Chair. In fact Gates has chaired the jury since 1996. We should however have to point out that Soyinka won the 1983 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “Aké: The Years of Childhood,” and Gates himself won one in 1989 for his “Collected Black Women’s Narrative.”
What these facts obviously point to is the idea that the professional and non-professional crisscrossing between Gates and Soyinka and awards may not be fortuitous. We are not implying that Soyinka’s written works do not qualify to be of the highest caliber of literarization capable of auctorial sophistication, textural richness, and social impactfulness.
It goes without saying that his literary works cannot be separated from his social-political activism. There is a direct correlation between his works and his activism. It also goes without saying that Gates does not vote alone. He does so along or against with his co-jurors. It is probably something close to a quorum or elective consensus that is the ultimate decider of who wins a particular award. It also does mean that the final decision as to whether a nominee wins a Nobel or not lies with the decisional consensus of the membership of the Nobel Committee. At least on paper members of the Nobel Committee are supposed to exhibit independence in their awarding verdicts. It is to the partial credit of Gates and McKay that their respective critical valuation of the literary scholarships of Soyinka and Morrison brought attention to some of the most important institutions.
This fact is important because not all members of the Nobel Committee may actually understand the corpus of an individual’s work. Even Soyinka had to assist Gates to unravel certain complicated Yoruba concepts, such as Yoruba cosmology, the mythology of Esu-Elagbara and Ifa text, poetry, and divination, when he researched for his book “The Signifying Monkey.” He therefore credited Soyinka for the thoroughness of his exegetical guidance. Beyond these facts, there are those influential writers like Chinua Achebe, John Updike, and Nurrudin Farah, to name but a few, who equally qualified for the Nobel Prize in Literature but the Nobel Committee ignored them. Farah has been a perennial nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
These facts go to show why some think Soyinka should have revised or recanted his recusal stance in connection with Maja-Pearce and his application for a Schaeffer Writer Fellowship candidature.
That decision, we concede, should be Soyinka’s prerogative since no amount of plaints or moralizing jeremiad can dissolve his resolve if that is his final decision. Soyinka has that streak of impenetrable contumacy that is not open to a bargain, negotiation, or frivolous accommodation. That contumacy is betrayed by his streak of credulity as is implied in Maja-Pearce’s review. But having said that, what we glean from Maja-Pearce’s review among other highlights if we are correct in our perusing discernment is the latter’s indirect or subtle appeal to Soyinka to have undergone a moral shower of self-reflection on the place his strategic and tactical political mistakes have in interpreting his testate legacy. Soyinka has since promised to respond to Maja-Pearce’s auctorial transgressions in a more serious and detailed manner at an undefined later date.
Thus far Soyinka’s attitude toward Maja-Pearce’s “A Peculiar Tragedy” is generally reactionary, condescendingly dismissive, and emotionally vulgar rather than illuminatingly accommodative and if we may add, a differential call to autobiographical self-criticism. As such, the razor-thin contrast between self-reflection and self-criticism disappear in a hyperbolic ego of self-righteous purism. It is possible the internal self and the external self are the same dimensions of reality. And it is equally possible both share an unstructured or structured transition(s) somewhat similar to the conceptual framology of mathematical singularity. What if the internal self sees itself exclusively as the external self, a paracosm? Can a self-conflicted internal self constructively critique itself? What is important is that this fluid transition (s) may be inhabited by an ecumene of layered and interlocking juxtapositions of other selves, chthonic and mundane.
Even the internal self itself may be conflicted by the framed fractals of self-perception and transperception, thus requiring a sober dialogue of creative immanence with the inter- and intra-differentiated multiverse of mortal consciousness, as it were devoid of the lacunarity of uninformed emotionalizing of a critical, or focused, faculty. On the other hand, the uncontained antithesis of the internal self and the external self can devolve into negative repercussions for the nodal locations of discrete and continuous selves in a graph theory of interlocking relations. Call it ripple or domino effect. As well, nodal dislocation of discrete and continuous selves may not augur well for any system of relations, let alone advance that system of relations, toward a progressive destination of teachable moments, as the antithesis of Maja-Pearce and Soyinka eloquently demonstrates.
Indeed, Soyinka’s regrettable but elitist inclination not to commit to a critical rejoinder regarding Maja-Pearce’s review surely leads to an inevitable cul-de-sac, an unteachable moment. Having said that, serious autobiographical self-criticism could have given Soyinka an opportunity to see his intrinsic self as part of the totalized modality of externality. The strategy of dialoguing between the internal self and the external self is one that should be closely aimed at circumventing the confused parallax of hypochondriac self-importance. To wit, this is very important as the strategy of dialoguing is meant to prevent streams of uninhibited emotional flatulence from poisoning an otherwise deodorant rapport between the internal self and the external self. Normalization of contrasts or of relational schizophrenia is the key.
This is to circumscribe any serious questions posed by the aversion of nominalistic extrapolations, in which the perception of forced centeredness usurps a critical faculty and psychology of personalization, with the authoritative hand of harmony and compromise and consensus geared toward containing or eliminating the anthropogenic phase of chaos and entropy in social-political socialization. For us the end result should be centrally about seeing the internal self and the external self share a peaceful homeomorphism of social-political existence, in other words, of the practice of self-duality in advancing the cause of humanism and philanthropy, in the scheme of relational dynamics. Such an example of peaceful homeomorphism calls for the direct negation of humanophobia in all the phases of social and power relations. Soyinka has variously attempted this but the continuing antithesis of the internal self and the external self seems to adulterate an otherwise rich legacy. Mentalization can bridge some of the conflictual gaps between the internal self and the external self.
By the internal self we simply mean the first-person pronoun and its corresponding conventions of referential plurality and by the external self we mean the second-person and third-person pronouns and their corresponding referential plurality. The avoidance of tactical dithering in handling questions of correlation and dependence between variables of relations is important to unravel the psychology of power dynamics and to de-peak the self-righteous kurtosis of self-criticism. Further, reading Soyinka gives the impression that the ontological realism of the external world itself revolves around his geocentric personality, apparently so because he seems to question that external world exclusively from the anchor of his perspectival centeredness. There is a greater tendency for one to simply lose the intrinsic self by looking too hard at the external world, at least not from the perspective of that external world itself but from the self-aggrandizing propensity of perspectival centeredness. This requires some perspectival measure of constructive decentering.
On the one hand self-criticism may be tied to concentric circles of high-profile friendly personalities, whose identities Soyinka probably wants to make anonymous and to shield from the hypocritical self-righteous of public curiosity and undue cynosure, and on the other hand from needless harassment from the intrusive instruments of state bureaucracy. Unfortunately self-criticism is given short thrift in his political memoirs, thus bringing out one of the critical deficits of the institutions of autobiographies and memoirs. Yet Maja-Pearce is one of Soyinka’s admirers, having dedicated a book of essays he edited entitled, “Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal,” to Soyinka on his 60th birthday and another titular dedication, “Who’s Afraid of Wole Soyinka.” Here is one of the adulatory statements he made to Soyinka in their email exchanges:
“To end on a more positive note. I was the one who edited a book of essays on WS [Wole Soyinka] for his 60th birthday because of my regard for your achievement as a writer. The record is there for all to see. I stand by what I wrote then in the preface because I believe it then and I believe it now, just as I stand by my review of your latest book I believe that, too.” In Maja-Pearce’s own words, Soyinka found his review “unflattering.”
The story does not for the most not end there, however.
In yet another controversial case the Abacha Government charged him with a treasonous offense in connection with his publication of “The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Memoir of the Nigerian Crisis.” This came about after he had harshly criticized the Abacha Government for hanging Saro-Wiwa and bolting from Nigeria through Benin and landing in the US. Abacha even sent spies on his tail in the United States, hence his tactical sporadic relocations and movements within the US (see his memoirs “You Must Set Forth At Dawn” and “The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka”).
As is well known a number of many children, men, and women were not that lucky under Nkrumah’s political leadership. Elizabeth Asantewaa, a little girl blown up in a bouquet of Opposition hellfire and surviving it with a lost limb and other permanent physical and psychological injuries, is a living example of that epoch of uncompromising political terrorism and bombing under Nkrumah’s flagship leadership. Soyinka himself wrote in the wake of Saro-Wiwa’s death that Nigerians: “HAVE WARNED AND PLEADED. NOW [NIGERIANS] ARE PAYING YET ANOTHER HEAVY PRICE FOR THE COMATOSE NATURE OF GLOBAL CONSCIENCE” (see his book “The Open Sore of a Continent”).
Soyinka, we must point out, did not plead with those diabolical elements that attempted to assassinate Nkrumah on a number of occasions, terrorized the country and killed and mangled body parts of men, women, and children. These shameful episodes in Ghana’s turbulent political history do not even qualify to be counted among the crucial contextual highlights of “Kongi’s Harvest” if in fact, as we have repeatedly said, President Kongi is the physical or political embodiment of Nkrumah. Indeed, those who speculative otherwise without the legitimate force of authoritative evidentiation to the contrary are the same individuals who inhabit the virtual reality of “Kongi’s Harvest.”
We shall return…
By Francis Kwarteng