Wole Soyinka is 80 this year and has long inhabited that illustrious pantheon of African literary greats, the Godfather of whom was the late Chinua Achebe. But Soyinka achieved something that his contemporary, Achebe (whose frail health in later years made him seem like a much older man), never did: in 1986 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the citation reading: “[he] in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.”
With his resplendent, silver afro giving him the most iconic profile in Nigeria, when Soyinka talks, and he does so in long, gravelly sentences, you listen. And whilst his most famous dramatic works may be substantially metaphysical in theme, his current outlook seems more forcefully political. Or perhaps this is a product of what his admirers and questioners most want to talk about: how do we solve the “˜problem(s)’ of Nigeria? When, in reality, Wole might prefer to ponder the mysteries of the universe, the audience the RAS’ “˜Africa Writes’ lecture last night brought him firmly back down to earth.
And the problem-du-jour in Nigeria is currently quite clear: the case of the 300 school girls kidnapped by the islamist group Boko Haram from a small town in the country’s northeastern Borno state. The imaginative #BringBackOurGirls campaign has galvanized a previously ambivalent international community to pay attention to a conflict that was formerly viewed as a parochial “˜Nigerian problem’. One gets the feeling that even in Nigeria the insurgency in its poor northern regions has been viewed as something that could be effectively contained and had little impact on the oil-rich southern states.
Soyinka, however, seeks to dispel the notion that “˜Boko Haramism’, as he calls it, is a spontaneous, temporary and isolated problem: “it is a product of decades old political tactics”. Over the last twenty years, “religion has become mixed with politics to create a toxic brew”. Relations between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria have deteriorated as politicians sought grassroots support to buttress their own power. Mixed with the international rise of conservative islam after the Iranianian revolution, “people [politicians] became surrogate ayatollahs in their little religious ponds.”
Soyinka links this rise of religious radicalism with another blight of modern Nigeria: impunity. This word is often associated with a failure to prosecute powerful individuals guilty of corruption. However, Soyinka argues that it extends far beyond this to include those who engage in violent sectarian action – beatings and lynchings – in the name of religion, and survive unpunished by the legal system. “Boko Haramism”, says Soyinka, “began with the culture of impunity on religious grounds.”
Soyinka asserts that “When the first northern governor declared his state theocratic we should have said “˜No!…but the President, seeking an unconstitutional third term, needed votes from the north.” But whilst Boko Haram may have its origins within the “˜Almajiri’ foot soldiers of northern politicians, something then happened that they did not expect. The foot soldiers turned on their political mentors, forming the wild and uncontrolled movement we see today.
The insurgency has now grown beyond the capacity of the Nigerian state to control. The government and army “cannot handle it” and perhaps, should not even be expected to: it is “the responsibility of the global community. A crime against humanity has been committed.”
Soyinka calls for a new generation of Nigerians, artists or otherwise, to step up and accept leadership, for his time has now passed. It is the task of a new generation to “respond to those who think they have a divine right to mess up our lives.” But in truth, few have the wit, energy and wisdom of Soyinka to address such a problem in so convincing a style. Wole may be nearly 80, but he is certainly not done yet.
Magnus Taylor is Editor of African Arguments