The life and experiences of Prof. Wole Soyinka, particularly in a piece aiming to recount his courageous actions, would be inadequate without the well-known tale of how he infiltrated the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation studio in Ibadan during the political crisis in the Western Region in 1965.
Regarding this, Soyinka succinctly dismisses the query by stating:
“I had reached a stage where the people were rising, moving forward—people of dignity who refused to let their voices be stolen, arrogantly and contemptuously. There were numerous instances in my life among such people. I was one of them, and my voice was being taken away. I couldn’t simply accept that someone would steal my voice. I felt a kinship with the majority of the people.”
Soyinka’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War, which led to his imprisonment, is an even more significant event in his life, without which his life story would be incomplete. He expresses:
“During independence, we were essentially a family of artists. There was a creative family, and that family was being torn apart. In 1967, I was in Stockholm attending the Scandinavian-African Writers Conference. It saddened me greatly that many faces were missing from Nigeria, expected but absent: Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara—the Biafrans were even absent in safe Stockholm. The drums of war were no longer silent.
It was our last opportunity to meet and discuss what seemed inevitable but still had a slight chance of being averted at the last moment. When I returned to Nigeria, I was deeply saddened, feeling as though I had lost a part of myself—several parts. I wondered if this was it. Would we become enemies, facing each other across the firing line? Some were prepared to take up arms, like Christopher Okigbo.
At that time, I had already encountered Christopher Okigbo in Brussels, by pure chance, at a hotel called Hotel Koenisburg. I knew he had come to procure weapons for Biafra, and I confronted him about it. All these unplanned encounters intensified my sense of urgency. Later, I had a meeting in London, which I mentioned in my memoir, IBADAN, where we discussed the possibility of embarking on a last-minute intervention mission to Biafra. As I disclosed in my memoirs, Aminu Abdullahi, who is now deceased, volunteered to attend that meeting in London.
We gathered around the Transcription Centre and were still determining which direction some of us would choose. Would JP consider himself an Easterner or a Westerner? It was the disintegration of a vibrant circle of creativity. We decided that Aminu should not go because he appeared to be a northerner. We said, ‘Look, you won’t even get past the first roadblock.’
There was intense bitterness and murderous paranoia at that time, which was understandable due to the earlier pogrom. I attended the conference, but my colleagues were absent, and upon my return to Nigeria, the first skirmishes had already occurred on the northern border. I realized that soon it would be impossible to travel to Biafra. I felt restless.
I knew I couldn’t function until I crossed the lines in search of them. I said, ‘When I get there, I will find Christopher (Okigbo) somewhere’ and then reach Ojukwu. That was why I went—to seize a last opportunity to change the course of events. Some people mistakenly believe I went across to persuade Ojukwu to abandon the secession. No, I didn’t go to convince Ojukwu to renounce anything—it was far more complex.
Some of us still believed that it might be possible to avoid an all-out war. I want to emphasize that I can’t entirely agree with the idea of unity at any cost, which simplistically states: ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ What an infantile notion! It lacks a logical or rational basis. Sometimes, ‘small is beautiful’ and ‘small is perfectible.’
At any time, people have the right to say, ‘We want to leave this union, whatever it may be,’ any political or other type of union. Peoples always have the right to propose a referendum in a particular area. This, for me, is an integral part of democracy. Look at what’s happening even in England today—Scotland seeks independence. Cameroon and Nigeria detached themselves from Nigeria long ago and joined Cameroon. Ethiopia-Eritrea serves as an instructive example, as does the more recent case of Sudan. When situations become unmanageable, people explore options for separation.
I want to stress that there is absolutely nothing morally wrong or harmful in people declaring, ‘We want our autonomous unit.’ The notion ingrained in our minds, to chant or be conditioned by the slogan: ‘What the white man has joined together, let no black man separate,’ is pure nonsense.
What kind of nonsense is that? Indeed, I prefer that we remain united, if only because I dislike the hassle of obtaining visas whenever I want to visit a former neighbor or collaborator. Additionally, I appreciate existing within a multitude of cultures. It offers a wealth of resources and an endless array of sensitivities. However, to wage war for the sake of ‘unity’? No! We should take the civilized path—through a referendum.
Instead, we squandered an estimated two million lives through bullets, illness, and starvation to preserve a European myth. It reflects a lack of maturity.
In this interview, Soyinka offers advice to the Abachas and appeals to President Jonathan Goodluck to remove Abacha’s name from the list of recipients of national honors for the upcoming centenary celebration. He states:
“My advice to young Abacha is, ‘Don’t challenge those superior to you; you are a novice. Don’t attempt to interfere in matters you don’t comprehend. Learn from my approach towards your sister, whom I encountered without hatred, and learn to deal with history similarly. Above all, refrain from promoting slander’… We must speak candidly.
It is a sign of our current state that the son of an internationally recognized thief, a thief whose crimes are being exposed daily, feels entitled to defend his father’s name at the expense of truth. This is where I wish to conclude this topic. I reiterate my call to President Jonathan to have the moral courage to retract—I know he won’t do it, but we will continue to voice it at every opportunity—he must find a way to revoke that Centenary Honors List because it brings disgrace and shame upon our nation.
It embarrasses me to identify myself as Nigerian when a sitting president compiles a list of a hundred supposedly worthy individuals and includes the name of a detestable dictator. If he wanted to honor the military, it should have been enough to select one representative of the group—perhaps someone like Murtala Muhammed.
So that the military cannot complain of being overlooked; however, placing Sani Abacha on that list alongside Chinua Achebe, Emeka Anyaoku, Mike Adenuga, and others is an abomination. That Honors event was an abomination. Jonathan’s action was a symbolic rejection and a