Professor Wole Soyinka who is 84 today was charged with armed robbery for breaking into the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation studio in Ibadan during the heady days of the Western Region’s political crisis in 1965. Fully armed, he was alleged to have asked the man in the studio to use his own (Soyinka’s) recording, asking the premier to get out.
He is not an elected public office holder, yet his stardom extends beyond the shores of Nigeria. He was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first African to be honored in that category.
Soyinka was born in Abeokuta on 13 July 1934. After studying at the Universities of Ibadan in Nigeria and Leeds in the UK, he worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London. He went on to write plays that were produced in both countries, in theatres and on radio. He took an active role in Nigeria’s political history and its struggle for independence from Great Britain. In 1965, he was arrested for allegedly seizing the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service studio and broadcasting a demand for the cancellation of the Western Nigeria Regional Elections. In 1967 during the Nigerian Civil War, he was arrested by the federal government of General Yakubu Gowon and put in solitary confinement for two years.
On their own part, to mark this birthday, TheNEWS Executive Editor, KUNLE AJIBADE; Editor, ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE, NKRUMAH BANKONG-OBI, IDOWU OGUNLEYE and EMMANUEL OSODI, had a conversation with Soyinka in one of his hideouts in Lagos. He spoke on his life, writings and interventions in the political space, including the radion station tape substitution story
Congratulations on your birthday. You look physically fit and mentally agile. Are there any genetic reasons for these? Or you simply take your healthcare very seriously?
I don’t know why. But I must say I’m not a health fanatic— I don’t jog. When I see people jog, they look ridiculous. From time to time, I go into the bush just to get away from people really, not for the purpose of exercise. I have no idea. It’s just luck.
Would you say that your childhood spent in a very exciting, if not tempestuous, environment of political activism, in a home of a headmaster (your father) and a trader (your mother) who treated their fellow human beings well and lived an incredible life of service to their community, helped to mould you as an anti-establishment humanist who lives by egalitarian ethos?
That word anti-establishment is debatable. One doesn’t set out to be anti-establishment. It is true that there are certain degrees of individualist consciousness, individualist inclinations which abhor regimentation. In relation to what I was saying earlier, I have a very heightened individualist sensibility. In other words, I cannot treat faces as particles in a human congealment. No. Every human being is distinct, but the assertion of that distinctness cannot be at the expense of other individual entitlements. You assert your being to the fullest, but make sure that your space does not encroach on the spaces of other individuals. So, if I seem to be anti-establishment – it isn’t as a principle, it isn’t as a philosophy or attitude. In the process of that self-expression, I may come to consider ‘establishment’ as an enemy of progress – if it enacts policies that are against the self-expression of individuals – with the limitations outlined earlier. Any attempt to impose conformist thinking in society means exercising undue, illegitimate authority on members of society.
When some people wish to highlight conformist conduct in society, they refer to the civil service – ‘Don’t behave like a civil servant’ – meaning, don’t just go by the General Orders, for heaven’s sake, think originally and you might even improve, correct certain anomalies within the establishment. It isn’t as if I set out to be anti-establishment. It’s just that very often I find that establishment stultifies, that’s where the fight begins. You talk about my parents, they weren’t anti-establishment; they were anti-despotism. That is why my mother took part as one of the lieutenants of Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti when they rose against the excesses of the Alake of Abeokuta and his ally – the district officer. They resisted feudal despotism on behalf of the oppressed women. As a child, I participated as a messenger between the different women groups, carried messages, thoroughly enjoying myself when the women rose in revolt. Day after day, they kept up the siege. They were threatened, they were bullied, they were assaulted. They said, “No, this unjust tax must go.” If that is anti-establishment, then it’s okay.
Remember that there are many faces of establishment. Let me give you a visible example – the Road Safety Corps. It qualifies to be labelled establishment but it was ‘establishment outside establishment’. In fact the greatest disaster that ever befell the Road Safety Corps was when it was merged with the police establishment. I wanted – and created – an organisation that was partly, in fact, mostly civilian members. The Road Safety Corps consisted in the majority of Special Marshals – the volunteers. These included religious prelates, journalists, students and lecturers, doctors, businessmen and women, trade unionists, professionals of all kinds – all civilians. They created and operated within their own chapters. It was just a small fraction that made up the uniformed part. They were teachers. For me, this was a functional departure from the traffic police. The idea was to make citizens learn to police themselves rather than be at the behest of ‘wetin you carry?’ Then came the Obasanjo regime which merged the corps with the police! I had long quit by then, thank goodness. That merger ruined the road safety corps. By the time they were extracted, they had picked up all the bad habits of the police. But when the Road Safety Corps was the Road Safety Corps, the fear of the corps – for all road users – was the beginning of wisdom.
They were called Maja Maja out of fear.
No, we hated that name. Our own name for the Corps was Gbekude. – (Chain Down Death!) – taken from a Yoruba play. Some drivers began shouting ‘maja maja’ because the then governor of the pioneering Oyo State, Jemibewon, came up with the logo of a greyhound. You know he was a soldier. His idea was pouncing aggression whereas my impulse was Gbekude. We were teachers – but armed with the rod of correction. Our favourite operational mode was- Operation TITO – Teach-In-Teach-Out. Try and recall the obscene level of carnage on our roads at the time – we were at war against Killers with Impunity.PMN