By Anote Ajeluorou
THE first black Africa's first Nobel laureate in Literature, Prof. Wole Soyinka, will tomorrow clock 79. Indeed, the drums will be rolled out in celebration of a man who continues to loom large in the life of his native country, Nigeria. Unfortunately, just as in previous years, Soyinka will not be part of any of the celebrations lined up for him. In fact, he has kept a low profile on the occasion of his birthday in the last 10 years.
Soyinka will do the same this year even as the Teju Kareem-led Zmirage's Open Door Series Project WS, a platform for International Cultural Exchange, will celebrate the man tomorrow. The theme chosen for this year's cultural exchange is, ‘Memoirs of our Future'. Soyinka obviously casts a long shadow on his country's future, just as he has been an active participant in its convoluted history since independence. He embodies all that Nigeria aspires towards, but which she falls dismally short.
But Soyinka and many others like him in whom the patriotic zeal burns bright will not accept Nigeria's failure. Nigeria should not have been a failure if the voice of this inimitable Nigerian had been hearkened to way back in 1960, at the dawn of what has now become a nightmare for a nation that promised so much but delivered so little 52 years on. It was in 1960, at that landmark event of independence euphoria that Soyinka's prophetic vision, which also became the hallmark of his other ilk, Chinua Achebe, first came to light when he crafted the famously prophetic play, A Dance of the Forests.
Like Achebe, Soyinka had been a student all through the London conferences that eventually led to independence from colonial rule. They were witnesses to the process that would soon lead to their country's freedom from British rule. As some of the first young men and women to attain the elusive university degree on home soil at the first Ivory Tower, University College, Ibadan, they were at vintage point and saw what ordinary Nigerians did not see. And so armed with a keen creative vision, they foresaw what was in store for their nation that was in the process of coming into being; they urged certain sacrifices to be performed. But no one heeded.
Soyinka and his fellow literary high priests did not hide their heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich; rather, they stuck their heads out and spoke out although to a deafened citizenry, a citizenry that was largely illiterate and gullible and unschooled in the ways the modern world works. Just like Achebe's novel, A Man of the People was to show some six years later in noting the anti-people's stance of the ruling elite and the consequent military revolution that followed to topple the first civilian government, Soyinka's dark and stark play, A Dance of the Forests was an augury of what was to come, the rudderless leadership the country would consistently have. It presages a country set on a wrong course; 52 years on, Nigeria has yet to come to the right road it should take.
As one commentator said of A Dance of the Forests, "The play was written by Wole Soyinka to celebrate Nigeria's independence in October 1960. The Gathering of the Tribes referred to in the play is, therefore, the new Nigerian polity. The Tribes' celebration is, however, dented by the fact that (i) the commissioned totem, which was supposed to represent the spirit of the gathering, turns out to be a sacrilegious epitome of evil and (ii) the representatives of the ‘proud' ancestral past turn out to be victims of past despotism and violence crying for justice. Their presence causes a play-within-a-play, depicting past evil, to be enacted. The work (A Dance of the Forests) ends in a spate of negative prophetic utterances and a climactic failure to lead a half-child (abiku) to safety. The play, therefore, aims at countering the (now) unfounded euphoria of the independence days. Why celebrate the birth of an abiku? But, like the officials in the play, the Nigerian officials in charge of the independence celebrations rejected the play."
Indeed, that part of independence celebration where the play was to be staged was aborted. Nigerian officials, ever self-righteous, refused to accommodate the play. It cut too keenly to the heart of the matter, which was their ineptitude to steer a buoyant country that carried the hopes and aspirations of millions of Africans both on the continent and in the Diaspora. They could not allow a university upstart to upset their apple cart. But their zealousness could not avert the doom and gloom Soyinka's play predicted. It took barely four years in 1964 before the seams began to come apart, with the election fraud in the Western Region's House of Parliament that soon snowballed into great conflagration whose fire could not be quenched until 1970 when the Nigerian Civil war ended, with millions of lives lost and an opportunity of building a healthy nation gone with the wind.
Soyinka would be imprisoned for two excruciating years while the war raged for attempting to persuade both sides to consider the option of peaceful settlement. The cryptic novel, The Man Died is the product of that prison experience. Ever since Soyinka has crusaded for a better society built on a true democratic foundation. He and others in National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) fought the military to a stand still until 1999 when the junta relinquished power to civilians in what Soyinka and many others have called a quasi-democracy, a democracy that is yet to properly address the yearnings of millions of Nigerians who merely standby and watch, with corruption at its most profligate state. Distinguished Professor of English at New Orleans, U.S., Niyi Osundare has described the corruption in the country as the ‘Grand Commander of the Federal Republic of Nigeria!'
HOWEVER, while Soyinka continues to decry Nigeria's inability to fully transit to meaningful democracy; while he continues to call for a national conference with the peoples of Nigeria coming together to decide their future and the enthronement of fiscal federalism and other healthy parameters that guarantee equal social, economic and political rights to all citizens, the Nobel laureate has found passion in his first love, promotion of Yoruba, nay African, indigenous culture.
As he turns 79, Nigeria's jewel of a lion though still fiery in the need to exorcise the demons that have continued to strangulate Nigeria's political space, he continues to push for cultural reformation and restoration. Only recently he came out with an African religious manifesto, which he urges all of humankind to adopt. In his new book, Harmattan Haze in an African Spring, the literary giant postulates that since the two biggest world religions - Christianity and Islam - have been the biggest promoters of violence for several centuries, it was time the world looked the way of African religions in which he grew up, which he avowed have never caused a brother to be set up against brother in cowardly defence!
For Soyinka, the legitimacy of any religion stands to be questioned when it becomes an agency of violence against fellow man in some abstract defence of its essence. No African religion or god or their priests for that matter, he argues, ever ask their adherents to fight on their behalf like the promoters of Christianity and Islam religions unabashedly do. Herein should the world learn from the religious harmony Africa's religions promote to diffuse needless tensions the destructive agencies of the two foreign religions foisted on Africa.
Also, as chairman of Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, Osogbo, established in honour of German scholar, Ulli Beier, to promote indigenous culture and their expressions, Soyinka has been consciously promoting the rich culture of his Yoruba people all over the world. The Osun Osogbo Grove that Beier's wife, Suzanne Wenger, gave international status also falls into this sphere. He intends to fetch the Osun water and take it to Yorubas in the Diaspora like Brazil, Cuba and other Latin American countries with significant Yoruba presence to carry further the healing and restorative powers of Osun Osogbo.
Like an elder who will not allow the goat to suffer parturition pains in tethers, first class literary high priest and avatar, Soyinka is beginning to feel the burden of old age and the need to come home and assume his position in providing cultural, religious and traditional direction for his many children at home and abroad. This is a sacred duty he owes his many grandchildren and others who must sit at the feet of the grand old man and learn a thing or two about how the world works.
And, Kongi will not flinch from his ascribed role!
PERHAPS to cap Soyinka's celebration at 79, we shall drink from the fine wine Osundare has brewed to toast the man, when he says, "Wole Soyinka at 79? The inimitable dramatist himself must be surprised at the longevity which fate has so generously placed on his plate; for hardly any other Nigerian writer of note has run a greater political risk than he has done, nor constituted a serial persona non grata to successive Nigerian governments, military or civil.
"He survived General Gowon's gulag and was magnanimous enough to accept the ex-military ruler's 'bygone is bygone' after the cessation of hostilities. He outsmarted General Sani Abacha's hired assassins and lived to pen a 'beatified' epitaph for the goggled murderer. General Ibrahim Babangida taught him never to dine with the devil without a very, very long spoon. Some Nigerians are still wondering who that 'masked gunman' is/was, who held up a radio station in an effort to embarrass a satanically oppressive Premier.
"And this political activism is matched by an equally impressive literary and professional achievement. For the past 50 years or so, there has been no silence in Soyinka's house of words/ideas. Those who expected a lull after the 1986 Nobel glory have only found a writer still setting forth at dawn, his temperament primed at the rising sun.
"It is absolutely impossible not to marvel at the staying power of this Long-Distance Runner; this zestful wine which mellows into grace every passing year.
"So Happy Birthday, Akoni. Here's 79 cheers to the Lion who deserves his Jewel!"
The work (A Dance of the Forests) ends in a spate of negative prophetic utterances and a climactic failure to lead a half-child (abiku) to safety. The play, therefore, aims at countering the (now) unfounded euphoria of the independence days. Why celebrate the birth of an abiku? But, like the officials in the play, the Nigerian officials in charge of the independence celebrations rejected the play