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Fighting for Nigeria: Thoughts from the Life, Career, and Activism of Wole Soyinka

[By Adeoluwa Adebayo]

For a nation judged as the giant of Africa, Nigeria is a conundrum. From the attainment of independence to the collapse of the first republic ultimately resulting in a civil war, the meandering military governments intertwined with the second and third republics, to the current democratic dispensation (which is the longest in the country’s history) Nigeria has had mediocre leadership which has failed to provide welfare and security for its citizens. In 2018, Nigeria overtook India to become the poverty capital of the world, and the 2020 Fragile States Index ranked Nigeria as the 14th most fragile state in the world and 10th in Africa.


Through the chaos, there have been individuals who through their lifetime serve as a voice in the wilderness consistently speaking the truth to Nigerian Leaders. Margeret Ekpo, Herbert Macaulay, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Gani Fawenhinmi, Ken Saro Wiwa, Omoyele Sowore, Oby Ezekwesili top the list of these individuals. One voice that has stood the test of time and the whips of Nigeria’s military & civilian rulers from pre-independence till date is the literary giant, Wole Soyinka.


Wole Soyinka (WS) was born into a family of outspoken individuals, his mother Grace Eniola Soyinka joined her aunt-in-law Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti to protest outrageous taxes levied against shopkeepers by the Alake of Egbaland with support from the British colonial officers. Soyinka’s activism will not begin till he was on scholarship at the University of Leeds in England where he joined a community of West African students, with whom he explored the idea of a pan-African movement to set South Africa free from the apartheid regime.


He returned to Nigeria in 1960 to research traditional performance practices in Africa at the University of Ibadan courtesy of a Rockefeller grant. His return was near the time of Nigeria’s independence and his play A Dance of the Forest – a satirical piece portraying the Nigerian colonial elite as a new type of oppressor – was presented at the Nigeria independence celebration. The play ruffled the feathers of the colonial elite. At the age of 31 in 1965, he was arrested after taking over the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service and broadcasting a message denouncing electoral fraud in Western Nigeria. This bold act which young Nigerians replicated in October 2020 when they occupied the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos for 9 days during the #EndSARS protests landed Soyinka in prison and he was only released two months later after an outcry from the international community.


While he continued to blossom in his career as a playwright producing the legendary play, Kongi’s Harvest in 1965, Soyinka did not deter from seeking a Nigeria that works for all. With the coup and counter coup of 1966, the young Nigeria nation descended into a civil war. With the hope of brokering peace, he secretly met with the military governor of Eastern Nigeria, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu who had seceded the region into a new country, Biafra. The Nigerian government led by Yakubu Gowon was displeased with the meeting and subsequently arrested him. Wole Soyinka (WS) would be in prison till 1969, a period he mostly spent in solitary confinement.


His incarceration did not break him, with scrap materials he continued writing critical pieces against the Nigerian government. His collection of notes from prison served as the base for his memoir The Man Died which was published in 1972 and was banned by a Nigerian court in 1984. WS continued to be a heavy critic of successive Nigerian governments. As his career grew, authoritarian African leaders and the apartheid regime in South Africa were not spared from his whip of words.


He became the first African to be awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. In his prize acceptance speech, This Past Must Address Its Present he said: “And of those imperatives that challenge our being, our presence, and humane definition at this time, none can be considered more pervasive than the end of racism, the eradication of human inequality, and the dismantling of all their structures. The Prize is the consequent enthronement of its complement: universal suffrage, and peace.” The award further exposed WS to the international community and it was a testament to the fact that one does not need to quit a career to stand up for the rights of others.


WS would have to flee Nigeria on a motorcycle through the Benin Republic to the United States in 1994 when the military regime of Sanni Abacha sought his arrest. In exile, he supported pro-democracy activists in Nigeria and abroad publishing The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis in 1996. The Abacha regime charged him with treason in 1997, the charges were dropped upon Abacha’s death in 1998. He subsequently returned to Nigeria as the country transitioned into its current democratic dispensation.


WS has not failed to be a consistent voice in criticizing successive governments to date. Presently 87 years old (Tuesday, July 13), his opinion is still sought on major ills battling Nigeria, and here lies the problem – a country whose highest demography is under the age of 35 cannot continue to seek a voice in him. It is understandable why young Nigerians are reluctant to take the reins of this country owing to its steady decline, even with consistent criticism of its leaders and systems from prominent activists like WS but in their reluctance lies the opportunity for them to fix the country.


WS has for most of his life been a lone voice. While in some instances he has led and supported efforts on fixing Nigeria, none of them is known to have a long-term strategic outlook. With Nigeria having experienced 22 years of uninterrupted democracy, a fresh opportunity presents for a new crop of Nigerians in their 20s and 30s to define a long-term agenda on what they would love Nigeria to be and begin to take daily steps to actualize it. More like WS, they must be prepared to stand the test of time against all odds.


Happy birthday, WS!


Image of the author - Adeoluwa AdebayoAdeoluwa Adebayo is a Nigerian and a Brand Strategist. He is an avid believer in ‘Project Nigeria’ and has dedicated his life to producing leaders that will work for Nigerians. When he’s not on ‘Project Nigeria’, he plays on the intersection of brands, innovation & storytelling. His engagements on social media are from @theadeoluwa.

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