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Legendary Nigerian Writer Wole Soyinka: Darfur Crisis “A Blot on the Conscience of the World”

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Legendary Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, the first African to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, joins us to discuss the ongoing crisis in Darfur, the struggle for justice against oil companies in Nigeria and more. [includes rush transcript]

Today we are joined in our firehouse studio by legendary Nigerian writer and political activist, Wole Soyinka. He is the first African ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and is considered by many to be Africa’s most distinguished playwright.

While fighting for African democracy and justice, Soyinka has been repeatedly exiled from his homeland as well as threatened with his life. At the age of 33, he was thrown in prison without trial for appealing for a cease-fire during Nigeria’s civil war. He spent two years in solitary confinement. Upon his release, Wole Soyinka became a courageous voice for human rights, democracy and freedom. He has been an outspoken critic of many Nigerian administrations, and of political tyrannies worldwide. Much of his writing has been concerned with “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the color of the foot that wears it”.

Wole Soyinka has written a new book titled “You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir.” He joins us today in our firehouse studio.

  • Wole Soyinka, legendary Nigerian playwright. In 1986, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first African ever to receive the award.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Wole Soyinka has written a new book. It’s called You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir. And he joins us here today. Welcome to Democracy Now!

WOLE SOYINKA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to start by asking you about Sudan, since we were just talking about this. What is your assessment of what’s happening and why the genocide there continues?

WOLE SOYINKA: First of all, I think it’s generally acknowledged that a heinous crime is going on in the Sudan, even as we’re talking now. And it’s a blot on the conscience of the world and particularly on the African continent, especially so soon after the Rwanda memory still haunts us on that continent and should haunt the entire world, as well.

Now, why is it continuing? I listened to part of the program just now, and an expression, which was used, happens to be very apt. The Sudanese government has been playing games with the world, with the Africa Union, in particular, have been playing for time in order to conclude its mission of ethnic cleansing in the Sudan. It’s been acting very unscrupulously and using its surrogate, Janjaweed, to execute one of the most atrocious crimes we’ve witnessed since the beginning of this century, which is still very young, of course. And the lack of resources of the Africa Union. Again, I was very impressed by that statement that treating an issue like this as a family affair with a family solution is all very well if you have the resources to back up that principled position. If you haven’t, then it becomes a global concern. And it’s about time, I think, that the international community accepted its full responsibilities in the Sudan.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think has to happen right now?

WOLE SOYINKA: Well, first of all, there is another dimension. There’s another zone of responsibility, which nobody has said much about. Now, these crimes which are being committed, there’s a direct stated, quite overt and boastful purpose to it. The Janjaweed, when they kill, when they murder, burn and rape, they say clearly that they want to Arab-ize Darfur, that part of Africa. In other words, they’re acting on behalf of some very distorted notion of Arabism. Therefore, those on behalf of whom these crimes are being committed, I mean, in their name, so to speak, the Arab world, the Arab League, in particular, also has a primary responsibility to call their erring member to order.

Sudan, after all, wears two identities. It’s a member of the Africa Union, it’s a member of the Arab League. And it’s not enough to leave this task to the Africa Union. The Arab League has a clear responsibility, and I think that if a family member of the Arab world, you know, if a family member errs, then the entire family has a responsibility to say, “You cannot do this in our name. And if you do this, we expel you, we cut you off, we denounce you, and we proscribe you from our community.” I expect that kind of action of deep and profound moral integrity from the Arab world.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Wole Soyinka, the great writer, the Pulitzer Prize winner, won the prize for literature. He has written a memoir called You Must Set Forth at Dawn. You write about your life, and before we talk about that, I want to ask you about Nigeria today. In the last months, we are seeing oil companies post the largest profits in the history of the world of any company, of, for example, ExxonMobil, hundreds of millions of dollars given in the retirement of Lee Raymond, the former C.E.O. We’re talking ExxonMobil, we’re talking Chevron, we’re talking the variety of companies, ones you know well, because they do a lot of work in the Niger Delta of your country, Nigeria. Can you talk about both what happens there and the level of protest that we have seen in the Niger Delta?

WOLE SOYINKA: Well, some of these companies and the governments that they represent, in some cases, make a mistake when they think that the indigenous of the land from whom this wealth is extracted, illiterate, not knowledgeable, uninformed, this is the fundamental mistake which they make. The thing they do not — those who actually live there and whose land has been degraded, whose fishing ponds are being polluted, whose farm lands have been totally rendered useless for farming purposes, whose very air has been completely toxified by decades of gas flaring, they make a mistake when they think they do not observe the digits of profit, the statistics of profit being turned in by the companies, in other words, to the detriment of their own existence.

And so, the militancy in the oil-producing region has escalated in recent months. You must have heard of hostage-taking, and I personally, I’m in a position to tell you that I have participated in the efforts to release those hostages, which came to a successful conclusion. So I am in touch with some of these people, these young people, highly motivated. They are not thugs. They are not riffraff, as they are sometimes portrayed. They are disciplined. And they are determined to correct decades of injustice, and that’s all they’re really after. You may disagree with their methods, but believe me, nobody should underestimate the very deep motivation that impels these people.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about a negotiation that you were involved with and how you get involved and who was taken.

WOLE SOYINKA: Foreign workers, foreign oil workers. There was first the batch — the first batch of four. And I made an appeal publicly that hostage-taking is not in our tradition and that we can — there are other methods for fighting their battle. And they responded.

AMY GOODMAN: The company that they — in that case?

WOLE SOYINKA: No, I’m talking about the militants.

AMY GOODMAN: I know, but the company that they took the workers from?

WOLE SOYINKA: Oh, Shell was involved. Shell was definitely involved, and one or two others I can’t remember now. And they’ve been warning the stations to close down their operations, and so on. And so, they released those four. And so when the government, instead of responding in a responsible way, committed certain, you know, took certain violent actions in that area under the pretext that they were trying to bomb out the barges of oil bankers. But, of course, they killed innocent civilians. So the militants got increasingly, you know, frustrated and distrustful, and they went ahead, blew up a few more flow stations, disrupted supply planes and abducted nine foreign oil workers. Eventually they released six.

And so, it was over the remaining three that an appeal came to me, in fact, from both the United States and some of the peace brokers in Nigeria, you know, and asked if I could intervene, see if I could get in touch with these militants and speak to them and try and set out some means of resolving, once and for all, the whole situation. So, I was able to get in touch with them. And in addition to the efforts of the elders and the sort of softening of the position of the federal government and the action of the United States, which sent a negotiating team there, a very serious negotiating team, I must say, which understood very well that, as I told them, they better not try any Rambo tactics in the Delta region, and we said, in fact, we were more concerned about Rambo tactics on behalf of the federal government of Nigeria.

So, anyway, over days that situation was resolved, but on one condition. There was a new condition which was placed before the federal government, and that is of the agreements, known as the Yenagoa agreements between the rebels and the government, must now be overseen by a consortium, a commission, an international commission, made up of the United States and Britain, which have oil companies in that area. And so, there’s the situation in which I left it in Nigeria when I left Nigeria.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think oil fuels the conflict in Sudan and Chad?

WOLE SOYINKA: In the case of Darfur, oil is not a very big issue. There is a clear case of a exaggerated sense of racial purity or racial belonging. The assertion of race, the minority Arab peoples there, have suddenly — well, not suddenly. This has been brewing for some time. It’s connected with what went on in the south, the intransigence of the Sudanese government, even the element of having — face-saving, having lost face, I think. We mustn’t underestimate that in the southern region, the notion of a rebellion taking place in another part of the country. I think we are dealing with human beings with a lot of ego, both collective and individual ego. This has fueled the crisis in Darfur. I think oil is playing a very little role in the Darfur.

AMY GOODMAN: But since oil is in Sudan in another region, it does shore up the government, just overall, its power.

WOLE SOYINKA: Yes, but the negotiations which took place between Khartoum and the southern Sudan has sort of limited, I think, the anxieties of the Khartoum government about accessibility to oil.

AMY GOODMAN: Wole Soyinka is our guest. We have to end the program here. Part two of our conversation with Soyinka tomorrow on Democracy Now! His book is called You Must Set Forth at Dawn. Tomorrow we’ll talk about his life.

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