In 1964, in Ibadan, Nigeria, a young playwright named Wole Soyinka founded Orisun Theatre, a group that specialized in semi-improvised satirical sketches on the country’s political situation. There was no shortage of material for satire: Only four years into its independence from Britain, Nigeria was already in the grip of a corrupt government that was trying to establish itself as a one-party “democracy.” But theater in Nigeria–especially political satire of the kind that distinguished Orisun Theatre–was a risky business. As Soyinka recounts in his memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn, the group’s players were often set upon by progovernment members of the audience and by the police, and performances became so rife with violence that the group had to be trained in self-defense tactics.
The experience of Orisun Theatre opens a window onto the intimate and complex relationship between art and politics in Africa. In a continent of rampant and often brutal political oppression, artists have almost no choice but to address politics, whether they like it or not. Yet this very involvement renders them vulnerable to the violence of the state. This is especially true for writers, whose medium is language and whose powers of advocacy, therefore, pose a particular threat to autocracy. While modern African writers began writing in the shadow of, and often in response to, colonialism, independence posed its own dilemmas. In much of Africa independence did not, as had been hoped, herald a new age of liberation and endless opportunity. The faraway colonial enemy was simply replaced by a near enemy, the African dictator. Thus many African writers found themselves living under conditions that were so repressive that the act of writing itself inevitably became a politically charged–and dangerous–activity. Writers such as the Guinean Camara Laye, the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Cameroonian René Philombe, among many others, have been censored, harassed and even imprisoned because of their work.
Political oppression not only threatened the writer’s freedom of expression; it also hindered the audience’s ability to read. The social and economic conditions that denied many Africans access to literature and even to literacy were often the direct result of the corruption and greed of the autocratic regimes that came to power after independence. Given the extent to which politics impinged on both their writing and their audience, withdrawal into an ivory tower of art became morally impossible for many African writers. Creating art was not enough; they also had to fight for the conditions on which art depends for its survival.
One of Africa’s most renowned writers, Soyinka has wrestled throughout his career with the dilemmas confronted by the African writer. You Must Set Forth at Dawn provides a captivating, close-up depiction of those dilemmas, and of Soyinka’s own response to them. Faced with brutal political injustice in his native Nigeria, a country that has been under various military dictatorships for most of its forty-six-year history as an independent nation, Soyinka was repeatedly forced to assume the role of political activist. But political activism raised its own quandaries: How was the artist to plunge into politics yet also keep his hands clean of the very corruption and moral compromises against which he fought?
Soyinka was born in 1934 in Abeokuta in southwestern Nigeria, then a British colony. His 1981 memoir Aké paints a lyrical picture of the world of his childhood, where the traditional beliefs of his indigenous Yoruba culture mingled with his parents’ deep Christian faith. Early on he set his mind on a career as a playwright and began writing seriously as a university student in England in the 1950s. He returned to Nigeria in 1960; over the course of the next decades he taught at various universities in Nigeria and abroad, and continued to publish plays, novels, memoirs and poetry. His work, particularly his plays, soon won him international attention, and in 1986 he became the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Soyinka’s accomplishment as a creative writer lies largely in his innovative fusion of Western ideas and art forms with the cosmology and traditions of his indigenous culture. Thus his 1963 play The Strong Breed ties a purification rite of the Niger Delta to the Christian Passion. His 1973 play The Bacchae of Euripides fuses motifs from Greek and Yoruba mythology. Opera Wonyosi, his 1981 play, transposes Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera to an African setting. While not as highly regarded as his plays, his novels and his poetry also reflect this eclectic mélange of Western and indigenous forms. In his work Soyinka often engages directly with issues of power, corruption and oppression; it is a testament to his skill as a writer that he avoids didacticism. A prolific creative writer, he has also published many works of nonfiction, including memoirs, literary criticism and political commentary.
Spanning his days as a student in England in the 1950s to his recent misadventures with the Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, You Must Set Forth at Dawn is much more than a memoir. It is also the chronicle of a nation’s history, encompassing all the milestones in Nigeria’s turbulent past–from its first elections, which were rigged by the British in order to put power in the hands of the conservative north; to the first bloody military coups of 1966; to the Biafran Civil War of 1967-70, which pitted eastern secessionists against the north; to the 1993 presidential elections, whose rightful victor, M.K.O. Abiola, was promptly jailed after Abacha’s 1993 coup d’état.
Over the forty or so years that the memoir charts, Soyinka’s relationship to both his art and his politics underwent drastic changes. As a young man Soyinka had great faith in the artist’s ability to inspire political and social transformation through his work. He writes that he first resolved to use his art in a politically conscious way after being disillusioned with the Nigerian nationalists he met in England in the 1950s, the very nationalists who were then being groomed to lead independent Nigeria after the departure of the British. The ardent fervor with which Soyinka and his fellow students initially ran to greet their nation’s designated liberators quickly turned into dismay. The nationalists were pretentious and shallow, disdainful toward the very people they were supposed to represent. “Their version of the message of the committed minority…was, ‘Come back quickly and stake your claims. The earlier you position yourselves, the bigger your slice of the national cake!'” It soon became clear to the young Soyinka that these were not to be “the transforming agents…in a process of liberation” but merely the “flamboyant replacements of the old colonial order.”
Upon returning to Nigeria in 1960, therefore, Soyinka began to develop his art as a means to “propagate progressive ideas, mobilize the people, and expose their [new] betrayers.” His chosen medium–drama–was effective in this respect, since it was performed live in front of audiences to which a Nigerian novelist would not have had access. Almost immediately after his return, he infuriated the new ruling elite when the run of his play A Dance of the Forests overlapped with the country’s independence celebrations that year. The play was eerily prescient in its depiction of the corruption of postcolonial Nigerian politics.
Soon, however, Soyinka came up against the limitations of art as a tool of political and social transformation. In 1965 the regional elections in Soyinka’s western region were rigged, taking away power from the elected party and giving it to the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), an ally of the corrupt federal government controlled by the north. The electoral crisis marked a turning point for Soyinka. He writes that the crisis,
with its lack of alternatives, informed me with a quiet certitude that I was finally tired of dramatic sketches that, however scabrous, drew only symbolic blood from the veins of Power. Suddenly, that language of intervention…became inadequate, even self-indulgent.
The creation of art, no matter how subversive, no longer satisfied Soyinka’s hunger for direct, meaningful action. So when he was informed one day that the NNDP was planning to announce the results of the stolen elections on the radio that evening, thereby making them official, he decided to take matters into his own hands. That night, in the city of Ibadan, he held up at gunpoint the station that was to broadcast the announcement, and made the station’s duty officers replace the tape announcing the results with his own tape, which called on the NNDP to drop its stolen mandate, leave town and take its reprobates with it. This extraordinarily daring act placed Soyinka, who had already made a name for himself in Nigeria and abroad as a playwright, at the forefront of the country’s opposition movement.
From then on, he would be drawn time and again into the country’s and the continent’s political turmoil. In rich, vivid prose, You Must Set Forth at Dawn depicts these numerous political entanglements: His attempt, when civil war erupted between Biafran secessionists and the government in 1967, to create a bipartisan “Third Force” that would bring an end to the conflict; his efforts, along with the writers Chinua Achebe and John Pepper Bekederemo-Clark, to intervene on behalf of a general unjustly accused of treason and sentenced to death by the dictator Ibrahim Babangida; his struggle, during the first unstable days of postapartheid South Africa, to engineer a meeting between Nelson Mandela and his political rival Mongosuthu Buthelezi, chief of the KwaZulu nation; his endeavor, in the first year of Abacha’s reign, to organize a million-man march to protest the dictator. Alas, Soyinka’s efforts were not always successful, and sometimes he paid dearly for them. He spent almost two and a half years in prison for the stance he took during the Biafran Civil War, a detention that would become the subject of his 1972 memoir The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka. Nonetheless, his growing international fame as a writer and persecuted dissident also enhanced his clout, affording him privileges enjoyed by few other Nigerians. His signature Afro–which grew ever more distinctive as it turned white with age–was recognized everywhere he went. In one episode in the book, he describes making his way through a string of impenetrable roadblocks during riots in the capital Lagos simply by sticking his head out of the car window. At the roadblocks, he would immediately be recognized by the attending guards and ushered through.
Soyinka’s memoir makes clear why a writer in his position could not simply stand on the sidelines in the great battles of postindependence Africa. Yet the book also suggests the perils to a writer’s integrity of involvement in the dubious world of politics, particularly the moral gray zone created by dictatorships. As Soyinka admits, to be both politically effective and ethical is not always an easy balance to strike. As he puts it, “A public cause, a clamorous need, sometimes imposes choices that appear, on the surface, to contradict one’s democratic convictions and, indeed, lifelong pursuits.” For Soyinka, as for any other activist facing similar challenges, it was ultimately a question of the extent to which the ends justified the means. Thus, he sometimes found himself confronted with the dilemma of whether to collaborate with the very dictators he denounced–a phenomenon he characterizes as “dining with the devil.” While harassed by many of Nigeria’s dictators, Soyinka was also courted by some, mainly those who sought to improve their PR image through association with him. Under certain circumstances, Soyinka found cooperation justifiable. In one of the more humorous episodes in this memoir, he recalls working with the military head of state Olusegun Obasanjo to steal back an ancestral bronze head of a Yoruba deity that had been stolen decades earlier by a German archeologist. With Obasanjo’s blessing, Soyinka traveled to Brazil and managed to smuggle out the mask from the private collection of an art collector, only to discover later that the mask was not the real thing but a cheap replica of the original–itself securely ensconced within the Museum of Mankind in London.
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.
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.