Legendary Nigerian Writer Wole Soyinka on Oil in the Niger Delta, the Effect of Iraq on Africa and His New Memoir

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Legendary Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, the first African to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, joins us to discuss oil in the Niger Delta, the effect of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq on Africa and why he titled his new memoir "You Must Set Forth at Dawn." [includes rush transcript]

Part II of our conversation with legendary Nigerian writer and political activist, Wole Soyinka–the first African ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

For decades, he has been an outspoken critic of many Nigerian administrations, and of political tyrannies worldwide.

He is the author of many novels and plays. His latest work is a memoir titled: "You Must Set Forth at Dawn."

  • 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 joined us in our studio yesterday. I began by asking him about the title of his book.

WOLE SOYINKA: Alright, I’ll tell you the history of the title. My first working title was "Beyond the Word," which is a literal explication of the contents of the book, of the nature of the events which are described in the book. But then one of my editors — I went through three editors, by the way. All of them were on a very positive kind of direction. One of the editors ran into that poem of mine, which contains the lines "Traveler, you must set forth at dawn." Title is "Death in the Dawn." And she became very enamored of that title. When she proposed it, I said, "No, no, no." And then I tried it out on some of my friends, and they said, "No, that’s more lyrical, more poetic." I said, "Yes, I know it is, but, you know, why? Why must — " So, I actually took a straw vote on that with some of my colleagues and so on — "Beyond the Word," "You Must Set Forth at Dawn." And it came — the voting came to about 60-40. And since I’m a true democrat, I decided to go with "You Must Set Forth at Dawn."

AMY GOODMAN: And why did you want "Beyond the Word"?

WOLE SOYINKA: Simply because of an incident which once took place. I had an encounter with a young fellow who believed very much in indiscriminate violence and was praising the bringing down of a plane with innocent people in it. And I said to him — and he said, when I said, "No, I don’t believe in that kind of action, the same forms of violence which is unavoidable and which can be justified in the course of freedom, democracy, justice, and so on and so forth," I said, "but I do not believe in targeting innocents, simply because you have a cause which you think is righteous." And he then in a very supercilious way said, "Ah, but you see, you’re a poet. You’re a poet. That’s why you feel that way." And I said to him, "You know, you’re very lucky I had nobody in that plane. Some of us, even poets, live beyond the word, so be careful to whom you next open your mouth." And I’ve always carried that incident with me over the years, especially as I’ve been thrown in situations where the question of legitimate violence comes up and I’ve had to take decisions myself.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about some of those times. What landed you in jail in Nigeria?

WOLE SOYINKA: Well, the first time, first of all, I was on trial and I was in detention during the trial on the allegation of armed robbery. And what was the armed robbery? I was alleged to have broken into a studio where the prime minister, who was stealing an election, was about to announce the very false results and claim the rights to continue in office, so I was alleged to have broken into the studio, removed his tape, and made away with it, and so I was charged with armed robbery, which carried a life sentence, of course. And so, that was my first brush with the law. I was rather astonished that I should be charged with armed robbery, because it was an exchange, I left my tape there and just took his own away.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say tape, you mean?

WOLE SOYINKA: Oh, you know. We’re talking about the old days, when you had the old-fashioned tape.


WOLE SOYINKA: Recording. What do you call it? A cassette.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, the audiotape, the cassette.

WOLE SOYINKA: The cassette tape. So anyway, I got away without — I was tried and I was freed. Then, the second round was a bit more grim. It was when I went during the civil war–at the beginning of the civil war, when the shooting had just started, and I went on a mission to the Biafrans to try and persuade them to at least hold ceasefire for some time while we worked out something more equitable between the federal government and the Biafran side. I didn’t believe in that war. I felt it was an unjust war on the part of the federal government, because the Biafrans had suffered a great deal. They had undergone the experience of genocide at the hands of a section of Nigeria. And while their action was politically unwise, I did not find it morally reprehensible, and they certainly did not deserve that they should be clobbered anew by the full federal might when they were the immediate past victims. So anyway, I belonged to the group which wanted to create what we called a third force. And so, I went to speak to the leader of the Biafrans, and when I came back, I was arrested. And I was never tried. I was just flung in jail for a couple of years.

AMY GOODMAN: And what kept your spirits up and your sanity during two years of solitary confinement?

WOLE SOYINKA: I think, first of all, it was the realization of the purpose of the abnormal thing that was being done. You don’t lock somebody up by himself or herself unless you have very bad designs on that individual. You want to break him down, you know, destroy the mind. If you didn’t want to do that, if all you want to do is keep him out of action to ensure he doesn’t interfere in your war or take action against you, well, just give him the normal dose of imprisonment. In this case, I was placed in solitary confinement, and I knew there was only a purpose, and that was to destroy my mind, so I invented exercises for myself, meditation, tried to invent mathematical formulas, which I then tried to solve. I hated math in school, so I began to try and recollect those aspects of that discipline, which I disliked intensely. I had no paper, so I scribbled things in the ground, made diagrams, geometrical shapes, and then tried to calculate the relationship of the angles to the lens, and so on. In other words, things which I actually hated in school, I brought them all back and sat down, began from the most elementary principles, the laws of permutations and combination, etc., etc., so all that kept my mind very, very active.

AMY GOODMAN: I think I interviewed you during the reign of Sani Abacha, when he was dictator of Nigeria. You were here. I believe a death sentence had been issued against you.

WOLE SOYINKA: No, there’s always a mistake about that. I was placed on trial for treason. I was declared wanted, dead or alive. And with a group of others I was tried in absentia. Before sentence was actually passed, Abacha very kindly took his leave of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it was right before. But can you talk about your country, Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa and when, in a case like Sani Abacha, you had a military dictator who was shored up by other countries and, perhaps more importantly, other companies, and that’s the oil companies that take their oil from the Niger Delta?

WOLE SOYINKA: You see, the outside world, especially during the Cold War and for some time afterwards, both sides — includes both the Soviet bloc and the western capitalist bloc — believe very much in collaborating with the — what I call the mythological strongman, the strongman of Zaire, the strongman of Ghana, the strongman of Zimbabwe. That syndrome, "strongmanism," as I call it, was very much an obsession with western and eastern powers. Sekou Toure was a strongman for the Soviet Union. So, it was both sides of the ideological divide.

And what that meant, of course, was that in one case, you dealt directly with one individual who imposed his political and economic will, strategies of social transformation, on the entire population, very rigid draconian totalitarian form of government, but leaning presumably towards the progressive side. On the other, you had direct unabashed exploitation, the multinational companies, the agents, you know, the business agents of various governments, and they enjoyed that facility of being able to pick up the phone, speak to only one individual, receive oil concessions, receive troops — no, even to suppress, to oppress the people, you know, whose land they were exploiting for the either oil or diamonds or whatever.

So, this preference, instead of going through a democratic process in which your activities are monitored by the house of assembly, complaints are brought, committees are set up, commissions are set up. Accountability is the law on the proper democratic dispensation. And these companies, of course, didn’t want that. All they had to do was pay one individual, you know, just "What’s your bank account in Switzerland? What’s your bank account in Saudi Arabia, in Britain?" And so, this "strongmanism" created an atmosphere of suppression — a reality of suppression and corruption which is still with us today. They’re not dealing with military dictators, because everything was simple.

AMY GOODMAN: Which is still with you today. Explain.

WOLE SOYINKA: Very much with us in certain parts, but it’s changing slowly. It’s changing slowly. But the legacy is still with us. In Nigeria, for instance, we are supposed to be practicing a democracy, but we have an ex-military man who has not given up his bad old ways.

AMY GOODMAN: I remember when Obasanjo first — well, second became, because he had been a leader before and had come back, and he was being introduced in this country. He was taken to Dr. Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta and escorted around by the head of Chevron Corporation and then brought up here to New York.

WOLE SOYINKA: That is itself significant. See, they’re accustomed to dealing with corporate heads, you know, directly, and those corporate heads were very much at home with dictators.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking with the legendary Nigerian writer, the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to our conversation with the Nobel laureate, Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who is actually Fela’s cousin. He joined us in our studio yesterday, and I asked him about his perspective on the invasion and occupation of Iraq and how it affects Africa.

WOLE SOYINKA: Not only for the African continent, but for the entire world, this is one of the most unbelievably monumental disasters, miscalculations, acts of governmental irresponsibilities with consequences which will be with the world for a very, very long time. A lot of Africans do not fully understand the issues in Iraq or else are indifferent. They have their own problems. If you like, they have their own mini-Iraqs on their hands, and so the blunders of countries like the United States are spoken of almost in a kind of academic way, not in terms of the effect, the impact of such blunders on the world, impacts such as the distrust of the United States, distrust even of some of the very positive role it can play in a situation like Darfur, for instance. But that distrust runs so deep that the soul of Darfur can just expand and pollute the entire region, whereas if the moral authority of the United States had not been so badly damaged, it might have been able to influence what’s happening in Darfur a lot more, operating through the Africa Union or through the United Nations. So Iraq, the ramifications of the events in Iraq really have been very bad for Africa, generally.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Niger Delta, we talked about it in our first part of the interview, but the level of militancy, the anger at the oil companies coming into the Niger Delta, this organization called MEND, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, can you tell us who they are?

WOLE SOYINKA: They’re very young, mostly, very highly motivated people who, however, have links with some of the elders, the progressive elders in the region, in Bayelsa, for instance, in Ijaw region, many belong to the Ijaw ethnic group, and from all indications, they’re very articulate. The ones whom I’ve spoken to asked me to intervene in a number of ways in Nigeria, very articulate, and at the same time, they’re reluctant rebels. Take, for instance, an email which one of them sent to me, said, "Prof, listen. We are people who would rather be with our families raising our children, sending them to school. We’re not happy sort of carrying out operations in the creeks. We want to be home. We want all this to be over so we can return to our families, but what future do our children have? There are no schools, there are no clinics. All the wealth in this region is going to Abuja, is going to sustain the rest of the nation, so it’s about time that we took a stand. We want you to understand this." This is the kind of language which they use. It’s not bravado; it’s not crude, thuggish kind of people, at least the ones whom I’ve spoken to.

AMY GOODMAN: The way it’s conveyed in the United States is kidnappers, thugs, people who blow up oil pipelines.

WOLE SOYINKA: Well, it’s unfortunate that they have that image. I’ve discussed this with them also. I’ve tried to persuade them, for instance, that hostage-taking will be counterproductive and will actually alienate lots of supporters, that they should — they must learn not to follow a particular pattern of condemnable violence. And I have a feeling that once the negotiations, which have yielded a certain result at the Yenagoa Accord, once the conditions, the conditions of those accords are fulfilled by the government, once the international community actually supervises and compels the federal government to, you know, abide by those agreements, I have a feeling that we will — and once a greater deal of autonomy is conceded to that region, in other words, the right to control their own resources, to pay a tax to the center and to determine the priorities of their own development, whether it’s education, health, to actually develop that entire degraded area. Once these just demands are met, I have a feeling that we’ll see the end of unrest in the Delta region.

AMY GOODMAN: And the responsibility of the oil companies, what do you see it as?

WOLE SOYINKA: Oh, that’s part of the conditions also. The oil companies are expected to pay compensation for the damage they have done to the environment. Yes, that’s one of the conditions they’ve written there.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Wole Soyinka. You talked about health just this past week in South Africa, saw African leaders gathering to talk about prevention of AIDS and new H.I.V. infection. Can you talk about AIDS in Africa and what people here should understand?

WOLE SOYINKA: Well, first of all, there was a very serious level of ignorance even among African leaders at the beginning. There was a lot of denial. AIDS was not what AIDS was. H.I.V. did not lead to AIDS, and oh, all kinds of theorizing from these ignorant leaders who should have left this epidemic to the medical scientists to deal with, to the virologists to deal with, and they kept trying to follow policies which are contrary to the scientific findings of this plague, and so they lost a lot of time, a lot of time. Villages have been — entire villages have been completely denuded of population. AIDS is rampant in many of the urban cities today. It’s reached Nigeria in alarming proportions.

And very belatedly, but at long last, this disease is now being taken seriously. Collaboration is going on with outside bodies, foundations, for instance, such as run by Clinton, who is collaborating also with Nelson Mandela’s own foundation. There’s a consciousness and a late, but very serious-minded effort now to stem the tide of this disease. Educational policies in — the wife of Museveni, for instance, is one of the leaders in the campaign against AIDS, the first lady, and my own brother is involved, is a medical doctor, is involved in the AIDS campaign. There’s a lot of serious work being done.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Wole Soyinka. His memoir is called You Must Set Forth at Dawn. You have a chapter called "Requiem for an Eco-Warrior."

WOLE SOYINKA: Yes, that’s Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged together with eight of his companions by Sani Abacha, one of the most traumatic moments of the struggle against Sani Abacha. I was in Auckland during the Summit of the Commonwealth Heads of State to persuade them to intervene very forcefully and urgently on behalf of those nine Ogoni people. Unfortunately, they found it difficult to believe. I spoke to prime ministers. I spoke to foreign ministers. Ken’s son was there, Ken Jr., he was also, you know, part of the campaign, frantically trying to make them understand that Abacha was not a creature they knew, that he was very different from everything they had ever known, but they found it difficult to believe.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Ken Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned by Sani Abacha, but he had taken on Shell Corporation on Ogoni land.

WOLE SOYINKA: Taken on Shell Corporation very, very fiercely. In fact, he was — when I was in Auckland, one of the unforgettable moments was when the group of activists, New Zealanders, were staging some street drama all over the place with huge effigies of Shell, slogans, and so on, and I was walking despondently through the streets wondering what on earth was going to happen to Ken in prison, and suddenly, as I write in the book, there was Ken, and I just saw this huge sign was up. "Free Ken Saro-Wiwa!" "Shell is Hell!" etc., etc., And it was a really uplifting moment, all the way from the Niger Delta to New Zealand to find this demonstration, supposed to educate the heads of state about the imminent danger in which Ken and his colleagues stood at the time, but it, unfortunately, came to nothing, and Abacha went ahead and killed those people.

AMY GOODMAN: November 10, 1995 was the day they died. It’s 11 years later. Do you see progress?

WOLE SOYINKA: There is some. There is a greater consciousness now of the responsibility, which is owed by the oil companies, but those responsibilities are not yet being made concrete. They’re not being effective. We had statements of intent, and in some cases we’ve had a road here and there built, a clinic here and there, but we’re talking about undoing the damage of several decades, and it’s something which has got to be done in collaboration with the federal — with the government. But above all, above all, the resources of those people must be returned to them to manage, and let them pay, as happens in all other areas, let them pay tax to the center. This is one of the proposals, for instance, of the People’s Constitutional Conference, which is going on in Nigeria as I’m speaking to you, called PRONACO.

We’re saying the Nigerian constitution, as it stands, is a fake. It is forced upon the people by the military, and the contents, the structure of our constitution makes for centralization, which is a military — which is a love of the military, complete centralization. You see, now, we’re no longer under the military. Let more and more autonomy devolve onto the states, so that you weaken the center and you give the people, you return the power, the authentic power to the people to manage their own destinies, and we’ll meet at the center for essential things like defense, mutual defense, etc., etc. So that’s — we’re trying to change that pattern of militaristic thinking.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you say to countries like the United States, where oil is so important and the U.S. increasingly turning to places where they end up using force to get that oil, whether it’s Iraq, Nigeria, certainly a major oil provider in the world? What do you say, as a Nigerian, to the people of the United States?

WOLE SOYINKA: Well, simply that they must understand that what fuels their industry is really the blood of other people, and that therefore, a greater sense of responsibility across waters is demanded from this government, of which, of course, the United States is the most conspicuous consumer of this product. Running away from a mess which you created simply because there is an easy access to oil somewhere else does not lessen the responsibility for what has already taken place.

AMY GOODMAN: Wole Soyinka, the legendary Nigerian writer, first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His latest memoir is called You Must Set Forth at Dawn.

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