News and Views

Interview: Wole Soyinka at 80

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DM: A couple of years ago you were reported as saying that London is a cesspit of terrorism (in reference to its original role as a centre of empire – making them complacent in their attitude to religious proselytizing?  Do you still feel that sentiment? Do you think that applies to Nigeria in the current state it’s in?


DM: And in terms of Northern Nigeria, you were also quoted as saying that it was an attack on the sense and sensibility in the world that has spread to Nigeria and you said education was the solution? That’s a long-term thing, but what is it that currently should be happening?

Soyinka: I think the epicentre of terrorism whether you call it cesspit or whatever you want to call it, shift, if you asked me a while ago, I would have said Somalia, Somalia has quietened a bit – and I think the epicentre right now is in Northern Nigeria.

Soyinka: [Education] is a long-term thing, but at the same time with very firm and visionary leadership – the transformation of the perspectives of youth, to the rest of the nation, to humanity in general, that transformation can take place with, if you like, a revolutionary attitude. All it takes is the will, the understanding – of the danger of failing to fulfil that particular mandate [of] taking those youths away from a kind of tunnel vision of the world and being indoctrinated with the notion that there is only one way to look at the world and to relate to other human beings. To take them away from the sense of us against them – we’re holier than the rest; that the order of the religious prelate is sacrosanct; all that kind of re-education process can be undertaken and successfully carried out, within a year, of determination and mobilisation. When I talk about education, I’m not just talking about formal education; I’m talking also about informal education, so the totality of this sort of transformation package, for me – is not outside the reach – of any, really visionary leadership.

DM: Is there any prospect of that leadership?

Aha! To educate, you have to have people to educate! So the first mission of a nation like Nigeria is to secure itself, secure its people, against those who are on the opposite end of the axis of nation conceding. – So, I’m talking about a serious situation of war. And when I say war, I’m not talking about mental war; I’m talking about totally eliminating the obstacles to transformation of our children.

DM: On CNN you said you were supportive of international intervention…many people are hesitant about the intervention of the Americans or the British, in somewhere like Nigeria….

Soyinka: …Well, look at it this way, our soldiers have performed in many places; troubled spots – they’ve been to Yugoslavia, I’ve seen them in Lebanon, as peace-keeping forces, they’re fighting right now with some troops in central African republic. So if we accept sometimes the moral mandate, to have our troops on the ground in other places, what is so strange about others coming to reciprocate to that when we’re in trouble? I don’t see any coyness, essentially about it – of course, ideally, I’d like to see UN troops rather than bilateral assistance, that’s the idea; but if for instance we’d waited for UN troops to come to the rescue in West Africa, in Mali – after Mali was over-run – or they were partially over-run by the Al-Qaeda, with Boko Haram just sending in their troops for retraining, re-equipping, rest and restoration and then incursion into Nigeria. Nigeria – not just the northern part would have been in a real mess by now; but at that time, it was pragmatic, and essential for anybody to move in that place, and stop the march of militant and inhuman fundamentalism.

DM: Are you satisfied with the way the president has handled the situation…

Soyinka: Not in the least, acted too slow, and too little – is too complacent, he acted like someone who felt the problem would go away if he didn’t address it.

DM: This general complacency in Nigerian politics – is a part of the structure of the country. In the sense that the politics seems to need a very dictatorial strong man?

Soyinka: I think the main problem is the lack of a historic mind. We live in the real world – we live within a certain history of the plague that has landed on us. Anybody who knew the history of Algeria – would know that action should have been taken when a governor declared a certain section of the country a theocratic state; that it goes beyond – one of the reasons I sometimes feel very sympathetic towards Jonathan is that this problem did not begin with him; others landing him a hot potato on his lap, and unfortunately he’s not the kind of person who knows how to respond to a hot potato. He prefers to eat it.

DM: Taking this issue, the insurgency in the north, the unconstitutional dismissal of the CBN governor, and the recent introduction of the anti-gay legislation – in general how do you feel about Nigeria’s democracy post-1999. It sometimes feels like we’re back in the 1966 – when people suddenly felt the civilians can’t handle government – and some are calling for the military and calling for Abacha?  

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