When Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's Nobel Prize-winning author and playwright,
heard that rioting had broken out in his country last November,
he got on an airplane and headed home. Soyinka, among Africa's
best-known writers, spent years in detention and was sentenced
to death in absentia by Nigeria's military government in 1997.
He cut short a trip to Canada to return to Nigeria, he says, in
order to "make sure that the secular voice does not get drowned
or intimidated by the arrogance of bureaucratic forces." He spoke
with FRONTLINE/World's Jessie Deeter in December 2002.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you first suspect that this Miss World contest might
trigger a reaction in Nigeria?
The first thing I must stress here is that normally I'm totally
indifferent to the Miss World contest.
You're not a big fan?
I've never watched one.
I find it voyeuristic. The parade of women struggling to outdo
each other in natural endowments. I love beauty. But I like
the beauty accidentally, not dished up, served up on a platter.
This isn't a moral position?
Not in the slightest. When people try to use the argument
that this is a Western affectation, Western piece of decadence,
I remind them that there are African beauty traditions on that
continent. I just tell them to stuff that argument.
The excuse [for the rioting] was the coincidence of the pageant
and Ramadan, the holy month of Ramadan. This is purely opportunistic
cant. If people were serious about abstinence, then they should
be happy that temptation is all around them because then that
should make them feel more holy. Why should they bother with
what other people are doing? The Christians get up and say during
the season of Lent there shall be no cakes and ales because
they are in the Lenten season. Then the Buddhists will make
their own claims on the calendar. Before we are through the
whole year is out, and nobody is doing anything because somebody
[else] wants to go into mourning. ... I was pleased to note that
the government was not succumbing to this blackmail, this religious
blackmail. I didn't give it any further thought.
Until you heard that Kaduna had gone up in smoke.
I was horrified to find the president of my country heaping
blame on this journalist [a columnist for ThisDay newspaper]
for the murder, for the atrocities, the mayhem which was perpetrated
-- not just in Kaduna, but in Abuja, the seat of government,
a city which is built ... in the heart of the country and is supposed
to symbolize the unity and the plurality of the various cultures.
This is a horrible act of betrayal -- betrayal of the people,
of the constitution and of fundamental human rights of people.
Had you expected something different from President Obasanjo?
There's no question that he's a born-again democrat, but [he's]
one who [also] has not fully lost his military background. In
trying to become a politician, he plays the game of appeasement,
and this is horrible. I always take him to task when he does
that. Because (his responsibility) is to protect the constitution
and to protect the rights of the citizens, their security, guarantee
the security of the citizens.
I was really sickened by the unctuous, sanctimonious noises
I was hearing from the Islamic leaders, who, instead of condemning
their co-religionists who had inflicted this horror on the nation,
spent all their time very graciously accepting the apology of
Are people afraid to speak out, the way you do, in Nigeria?
It's very mixed. I'm not alone. Take, for instance, Colonel
Umar in the north. He's been one constant voice on the side
of democracy, on the side of secularism, even though he's a
devout Muslim. Here and there, there are voices like that. There
is, I can't remember, something Mohammed, who not for the first
time wrote in a very learned, Islamic way to challenge these
bigoted mullahs on their own ground. ... When sharia was inaugurated,
he wrote against it, as Colonel Umar also did and a number of
Is it risky for you to speak out?
During the fatwa
issued against Salman Rushdie by the Iranians, I wrote very
strongly in condemnation of [it]. Some students actually demonstrated
with [signs saying] "Death to Soyinka." ... There are people who
regard me as enemy No. 1. It's a question of not taking undue
Do you think the motivation for the most recent riots was
primarily religious or mainly political?
Politics is the lion's share. No question at all about it
-- political motivations are the strongest.
How do you explain the fatwa issued against the reporter
who wrote the offending ThisDay article?
This character [who issued the fatwa, Mamuda Aliyu Shinkafi governor] was a nonentity who just wants to make himself
[seem] very important. He was the one who started the sharia
expansion into the penal code. You have to consider the psychology
of the little man. By little, I mean politically little. ... He's
sort of the front line of the quote-unquote revolution. He needs
to stay one step ahead of the others. So he issues the fatwa
to try to catapult himself to the forefront. Even the Islamic
council in Nigeria considered this an act of religious arrogance.
He is not in place in any way to issue a fatwa. He's not a religious
leader of any sort. He's just a governor. He got elected; that's
all. And he issued a fatwa. It's such an obscene act.
What was your reaction to the spread of Islamic law in
This thing spread like a virus. One state begins it, and then
the other ones don't want to be left behind. The mullahs take
over ... blackmailing the political leaders. They'll make trouble
for you if you don't [agree]. Some of those governors are not
happy about being compelled to expand the authority of the sharia.
They just happen to succumb to the power of the mullahs. ... When
a country is in trouble, people turn to religion. Look at the
proliferation of churches in Nigeria. I mean, every day at least
a hundred churches spring up.
Churches, not mosques?
Churches as well as mosques. There is a competition going
on, both in building structures, but also in the sense of displaying
overt piety. The expressway between Lagos and Ibadan is clogged
up on weekends by festivals at so-called revivalist churches.
The mosques, not to be outdone, are taking a huge spread along
the expressways, and then they clog up the traffic in turn.
I suppose the next one will be the traditional religionists,
very soon. Everybody is worshipping.
We're really going into an epidemic of religion, there's no
question about that. The only difference is, for one reason
or the other, the Christians seem to be less violent than the
Muslim fundamentalists. I mean, that's a fact. Some of the Christians
are nonviolent. (But) they also have responded in kind. In Kaduna,
they mobilized, and they resist and so on. But the truth, however
much it is unpleasant to (say so), the fact is that the first
people to go out and start a slaughter appears to be the Muslims.
Why is that?
It's a question the Muslims have to answer themselves. It's
not the religion itself at fault. We all know what the teachings
of the Koran are, and we know what the teachings of the Bible
are, and it's very difficult to justify the killing from the
teachings of these holy books. So it's the leaders who are failing
their followers. I mean they should be issuing fatwas on all
who go out and kill an innocent person.
What might improve the situation in Nigeria?
Nowadays there's a very strong sense, in the most unlikely
quarters, that we are dealing with a very unwieldy and badly
constructed nation. That's why the cry for a sovereign national
conference, which was derided at the beginning, is now beginning
to find (supporters) in formerly hostile areas. The purpose
of this is to understand that our country needs desperately
to be decentralized -- not broken up, but decentralized.
you're saying more power to 36 states. But wouldn't that lead
to more extremism rather than less?
When states began to expand the penal code of the sharia,
they effectively seceded. The constitution is what defines a
nation ultimately. The moment some part acts against that constitution,
it's opted out of the national entity. My position is that this
process has already begun. ... My voice is with those who say,
"Look, it's about time that we sat down at a sovereign national
conference and redefined the articles of (our nation)."
What kind of change are people looking for?
[People want] greater control of their own lives, less reliance
on the mullahs, and a greater say in governance, governance
being a kind of monopoly of some little cliques.
What about the changing role for women in Nigeria today?
It varies. You can see what's happening in the sharia states.
... The penal code allows them to bury a woman up to her neck
and stone her to death for adultery while a man goes free. On
the other hand, in other parts of the nation, there's equal
opportunity for women. In certain businesses, in government
departments, there is no question in the professions, medicine,
engineering, that you will find the women taking their place.
... You have the first women doctors in parts of the south going
back to earlier in the last century, whereas in other parts
of the nation, women are still not allowed to step out of purdah.
Why have you chosen to express most of your recent political
views through poetry?
I have a recent play and am working on other things as well.
But I work in all these media, various genres, consecutively,
currently. So it's not that I chose. It just happens that this
volume of poems, that collection, was ready.
There's quite a bit in these poems about religious fundamentalism.
I've been exercised by [the idea of] religious fundamentalism
taking the place of communist ideology. It's part of the inadequacy
which exists in people (who) need the discipline, even the tyrannical
rigor, of dogma to be able to feel secure. I foresaw the rise
of religious fundamentalism ... quite early, which is why my poetry
sort of took on that direction.
Other plays of mine, like Requiem for a Futurologist
--that one was written at least 20 years ago. It dealt with
religious gullibility and superstitions and so on. So it's been
a theme with me, and I've sort of watched the dark evolution
of the sinister strain of faith. Pick up the news about the
Hindus, the Sikhs, the Hindus against Muslims, Buddhists against
Muslims, never mind who the aggressor might be. What's happening
did not come as a surprise to me.
Do you consider the current situation more dangerous or
less dangerous than the conditions in Nigeria that led to your
imprisonments and to a death sentence, which drove you into
Religious fundamentalism is more dangerous, I think, because
it is amorphous, it's multidirectional. Military dictatorship,
you can focus on it, you can fight it directly. It's a band
of power-driven people. (But) fundamentalism acquires adherents
in some of the most unlikely places. It manifests itself in
very dangerous and arbitrary forms. If you asked me which I
would rather be fighting any time, I'd say military dictatorship
-- that's easier. ... There is a battle, if you like, for the
soul of the nation. It's all a question of whether one will
surrender to the atavistic forces -- the intolerant fundamentalist
extreme voices of unreason. This has been the constant battle.
NEXT - Read Soyinka's "Twelve Canticles
for the Zealot"
Links relevant to this article:
Read an extensive profile of Wole Soyinka by the Guardian's
Maya Jaggi that chronicles the writer's activist history.
and the Beast"
Wole Soyinka discusses the Miss World contest and subsequent
riots, Sharia law and the state of his Nation in this op-ed
in New Perspectives Quarterly. In it, Soyinka alleges
(among other things) that anything could have triggered the
riots in Kaduna; the ThisDay article merely happened
to set off the throng of "bigoted murders" this time.
of Kaduna Riots"
This article from allafrica.com describes Soyinka's efforts
to take Nigerian government leaders to task for not cracking
down on those who sparked the riots. Soyinka fingers the Nigerian
government for "refusing to accept responsibility for those
who were killed, maimed and property destroyed in broad day
light; refusal and accceptance of responsibility for the right
of every individual in this pluralistic society."
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