Dining With Devils | The Nation


Dining With Devils

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If "dining with the devil" posed one ethical dilemma for Soyinka, the question of armed struggle against Nigeria's dictatorship posed another. "I had wrestled intermittently with the problem of violence," he writes. "To be caught up in a violent situation, compelled to respond to it, presents no agonizing choice; to initiate one is another matter." He had been compelled to use violence--or at least the threat of it--during the electoral crisis in the western region, when he had held up the radio station in Ibadan. But Soyinka only seriously considered the option of armed struggle when confronted with Abacha's ruthless regime. From the beginning of Abacha's reign in 1993, it was clear to Soyinka that this was one dictator with whom cooperation or collaboration, even of the most superficial kind, was beyond the pale. Abacha was, he writes, "the most repellent of the species" of dictators that had ruled Nigeria, a monstrous "human aberration" who stopped at nothing to secure his grip on power and to silence his opponents. (Among his more notorious acts was the execution, in 1995, of the writer and Ogoni rights activist Ken Saro-wiwa, who challenged the government's cozy relationship with Shell Oil.) The enmity between Soyinka and Abacha quickly came to a head when Soyinka tried to organize a march in protest of the dictatorship, and in 1994 Soyinka was forced into exile, secretly crossing the border into Benin.

About the Author

Fatin Abbas
Fatin Abbas is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Harvard.

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Once in exile, Soyinka gathered together Nigerian students and workers and formed the National Liberation Council of Nigeria (NALICON), which lobbied the international community against Abacha, broadcast an opposition radio program into Nigeria and worked with other dissident groups to oppose the dictatorship. Despite the efforts of NALICON and other groups, however, Abacha continued to consolidate his hold on power, jailing and assassinating his opponents. As Soyinka writes, "A monster had reduced us, collectively, to a plantation of slaves, and the word 'liberation' could not be restricted to being a mere rhetorical device." As peaceful means of protest were exhausted, Soyinka decided that armed struggle was the only way that Abacha's regime could be effectively challenged. "To concede genuine revulsion at the phenomenon of violence," he writes, "does not, however, contradict an acceptance of its sometime necessity--and even justice." Yet Soyinka is quick to disavow the indiscriminate use of violence, especially at the cost of innocent lives. As it turned out, Soyinka and NALICON would not have to resort to arms; in 1998 news reached them of the sudden death of Abacha, who had suffered a heart attack in the arms of a prostitute.

As You Must Set Forth at Dawn amply demonstrates, Soyinka has navigated the difficult quandaries attending political involvement in Africa with admirable courage, wisdom and integrity. What the heroic self-portrait of his memoir obscures, however, is that Soyinka's political stances are not always praiseworthy. For example, he lauds Rwanda's president Paul Kagame as "one of the continent's extremely rare breed of leaders." If anything, Kagame is all too typical of the continent's leaders. While he helped rid Rwanda of its genocidal Hutu government in 1994, he has subsequently amassed his share of human rights atrocities, both in his own country and in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Another example is Soyinka's often quite hostile attitude toward Islam and Arabs. Soyinka has frequently expressed the view that Islamic civilization was as devastating to Africa as Western colonization--a view that is questionable for many reasons, the most obvious being that the geographic reach of the Western powers in Africa was so much more extensive than the reach of Islamic civilization ever was. But Soyinka ventures into even murkier territory when he tries to define African identity on the basis of racial purity, as he did in the early 1990s during an acrimonious debate with Ali Mazrui, a Kenyan Swahili scholar of political science at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

Soyinka had taken issue with the public-television series The Africans: A Triple Heritage, which Mazrui had made in 1986, partly because of the emphasis it placed on the role of Islam in Africa. Attacking Mazrui, Soyinka charged that "The Africans was not a series made by a black African," implying that because Mazrui had Arab ancestry (like a vast number of other East Africans) he was not a black, i.e., "real," African. Soyinka repeated the charge years later, when Mazrui objected to another television series about the African continent, this one made by Soyinka's good friend Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. This time Soyinka declared that unlike Mazrui, he was a black African "with no hang-ups."

As Mazrui pointed out, in defining African identity on the basis of race, Soyinka was in effect affirming the same logic championed by racists. If Soyinka was willing to discount a Kenyan as an African because of a certain percentage of Arab blood, Mazrui argued, he might as well discount the black American civil rights leaders W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X, because of the European blood in their veins. Mazrui also observed that there may very well be an etymological link between the name of Soyinka's own ethnic group, the Yoruba, and the Arabic adjective for Arab, "Arabiyu," and that one of the Yorubas' own origin myths traced their ancestry back to Arabia and the Persian Gulf. The debate revealed one of Soyinka's less attractive features: a narrow-mindedness that seems to be in direct contradiction to many of the democratic ideals for which he has stood.

This is not to say that You Must Set Forth at Dawn depicts a false picture of Soyinka. But the critical eye that he turns on others is--perhaps inevitably--seldom turned on himself. Here is yet another pitfall of political engagement: the self-mythologizing of the activist-intellectual. Still, while one may not always agree with his views, there is no doubting Soyinka's courage in responding to the predicament of the African artist. Confronted with the knowledge that the pen is not always mightier than the sword, Soyinka was never afraid to act upon that knowledge, or to engage directly in the fight against political injustice. "I am, contrary to all legitimately cited evidence," Soyinka confesses, "actually a closet glutton for tranquillity. An oft-quoted remark of mine--'Justice is the first condition of humanity'--does, however, act constantly against the fulfillment of that craving for peace."

At first glance, the message of You Must Set Forth at Dawn seems to be about the impotence of art as a means of resistance and the necessity of recourse, as Soyinka puts it, to weapons "more lethal than portable typewriter and paper." Yet Soyinka's most powerful weapon has always been the eloquence of his voice as a writer. This political memoir thus ironically affirms the triumph of art. For it was Soyinka's achievement as an artist in the theater that made him a significant actor in the theater of politics, and that has earned him a lasting place in the history of African letters. Even if Soyinka's art is not as lethal a weapon as the gun with which he held up the radio station in Ibadan, it will outlive both him and the regimes he opposed, exposing the vanities of men in power.

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