‘A writer is first a citizen’
LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) - When Nigerian Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka contemplates the role of a writer in society, he defines it in terms of action.
In 1965, upset that a politician who had rigged the vote was about to claim victory in a radio broadcast, Soyinka, then 31 and already a famous writer, stormed the radio station armed with a pistol, and substituted the politician's tape with one denouncing the usurper.
Arrested and charged, Soyinka was acquitted on a technicality. For the writer, poet and playwright, now aged 73, it was one incident in a long career of politics - interspersed with arrests, spells in jail and years of exile - combined with a literary and teaching career.
"There came that moment when the robbery of the people's voice was about to be legitimized," Soyinka, recalling the event, told The Associated Press in an interview in Lagos. "And I happened to be one of maybe three, four, five people who knew. It was a moment when an individual had to take a decision ... take stock of yourself and act."
Soyinka's most recent arrest was in 2004, when he was taken by police amid swirls of tear gas for participating in a protest in Nigeria's biggest city Lagos against President Olusegun Obasanjo's government. He was released without charge hours later.
Age has not slowed the writer, whose hoary Afro and matching white beard are recognizable around the world. In between lecture tours, a recent residency at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and work at the Black Mountain Institute - the international literature center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas - Soyinka finds time to be in Nigeria every other week. Here, he attends political meetings, marches, news conferences and issues statements in response to the unfolding political situation.
"The writer is first and foremost a citizen and the writer's responsibility is not different from that of a citizen," Soyinka said, nursing a glass of wine in the garden of a Lagos gallery where he came to see an exhibition of Nigerian paintings. For him the only difference is that the writer can make good use of language, "the most immediate means of communication. But that's about all."
Ahead of presidential elections due in April, the African Renaissance Party led by Soyinka is backing Pat Utomi, a university professor and candidate of the African Democratic Congress. Utomi, who promises to break with Nigeria's past of corrupt misrule and bring intellectual rigour to government, is an outsider in a field dominated by powerful establishment figures.
The April 21 polls would set up the first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power in Nigeria's history since independence from Britain in 1960. Previous electoral transitions have been interrupted by annulments or military coups. The current campaign already has seen violence, and a feud between a top candidate and Obasanjo - who is barred from running because of term limits.
Soyinka traces his activist disposition to his childhood in Abeokuta - a hometown he shares with Obasanjo, though the two did not meet until adulthood. In the 1940s, the city's women rose up against taxes imposed by the local chief under British colonial rule. In his much-acclaimed memoirs, "Ake: Years of Childhood," Soyinka describes the uprising and the role he played as a messenger for the women, which put him in a position to hear the arguments of adults reflecting political and social divisions.
Soyinka says his subsequent habit of confronting authorities had its seeds in that early political education, "and maybe my combative temperament."
In his latest book, "You Must Set Forth at Dawn," published in 2006, Soyinka recounts the dilemma he faced in 1967 as Nigeria plunged into a secessionist war in the southeastern region that called itself Biafra, pitting rebels against implacable federal authorities in Lagos - then the capital - in the wake of an orgy of sectarian killings that had swept the country. As an informal go-between for elements that sought "a third way" to defuse the tensions, Soyinka approached Obasanjo, a regional military commander at the time.
According to the account, his apparent betrayal by Obasanjo resulted in his arrest and detention in solitary confinement for more than two years by the Nigerian military government of the time. These experiences, which led to his first exile from Nigeria, are documented in his 1972 book, "The Man Died". There was to be another unsuccessful collaboration between the two men whose paths crossed again and again as Nigeria's postcolonial history unfolded.
As military ruler in the late 1970s, Obasanjo provided diplomatic cover for an escapade led by Soyinka to Brazil to recover an ancient Yoruba bronze head, Ori Olokun, stolen from Nigeria in still unclear circumstances in the 1940s. Soyinka and his companions stole what they thought was the head, only to find out it was fake. Their cover was blown by elements in Obasanjo's government, and they barely escaped from Brazil without arrest. Meanwhile, the real bronze head was at the British Museum.
"That madcap episode embarrasses me until this moment," said Soyinka, who is now a bitter critic of Obasanjo, accusing him of dictatorial ambitions.
Soyinka also dealt closely with another military ruler, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, under whose government he undertook to set up a road safety corps to try to stem the carnage of accidents on the country's dangerous highways. He broke with Babangida as his regime grew increasingly authoritarian.
Gen. Sani Abacha, who came after Babangida, responded to the writer's criticisms by sending a death squad after him. Soyinka fled into exile in 1994, returning only after the dictator's death four years later.
Some of Soyinka's critics have accused him of having a fascination for people in power."Soyinka is evidently obsessed with temporal power," said Adewale Maja-Pearce, a Nigerian writer who has written critical studies of Soyinka. Citing his relationship with Obasanjo and Babangida in particular, Maja-Pearce argues that the writer was usually the one diminished by such encounters.
The 1986 Nobel literature prize winner - the first black writer to get the award - insists on the need to engage all classes of Nigerians.
"People sometimes take a snobbish attitude, saying we cannot engage on this level because it's not pure enough for us," said Soyinka. "On all levels humanity is involved. And wherever humanity is involved, that's my constituency."