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Prof. Wole Soyinka
The Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, spoke this week
at the Hay Festival in Mexico. In an extract from his talk, he tells Peter
Godwin that now is the time to tackle militants in Nigeria
Professor Soyinka, you’re not an ivory-tower kind of writer.
You are not a stranger to danger, and in fact you’ve been imprisoned on at
least two occasions, once in solitary confinement. Can you tell me what that
was like?
Writing in certain environments carries with it an
occupational risk. When I was imprisoned, without trial, it was as a result of
a position I took as a citizen. Of course I used my weapon, which was writing,
to express my disapproval of the [Biafran] civil war into which we were about
to enter. These were people who’d been abused, who’d undergone genocide, and
who felt completely rejected by the rest of the community, and therefore
decided to break away and form a nation of its own.

Unfortunately, the nature
of my imprisonment meant that I couldn’t practise my trade because I was in
solitary confinement for 22 months out of the 27, and I was deprived of writing
material. So I had to somehow break through the barriers, smuggle in toilet
paper, cigarette paper, scribble a few poems, pass messages outside. I was able
to undertake exercises to make sure that I emerged from prison intact mentally.

There have been high hopes for some African leaders after
they were elected – Meles in Ethiopia, or Museveni in Uganda, or Kagame in
Rwanda – but who then went to show a more authoritarian bent. Are you an
Afro-optimist or an Afro-pessimist?
I’m an Afro-realist. I take what comes, and I do my best to
affect what is unacceptable in society. I’ve remarked how similar in many ways
Mexico is to Nigeria, and to a number of places: we have the same condition of
unstructured, unpredictable violence, both from the state and from what I call
the quasi-state. 
Whether the quasi-state is formed, as its basis, of theocratic
tendencies, or secular ideological rigidity, you always have forces, even
outside the state, competing for the domination of people. That’s what’s happening
on the African continent today. That’s what’s been happening in the Arab states
and what led eventually to the Arab Spring. Gradually people come to the
recognition after decades of supine submission that they are not whole as human
beings.

Your parents were Christians, Anglicans, I understand. How
has your own religious belief evolved?
I consider myself very fortunate. I was raised in a
Christian environment in Abeokuta, but another side of me was very much
enmeshed in African values. I gravitated towards what I saw was a cohesive
system of a certain relationship of human beings to environment, a respect for
humanity in general. I came through a traditional system, where children not
only had rights, but had responsibility. In the Western world today, especially
in America, it seems to be forbidden for children to have responsibilities…
I gravitated towards a deeper knowledge of the orisha, which
represents the Yoruba pantheon, very similar in many ways to the Greek
pantheon. You have reprobate deities, beneficent deities. I found that more
honest than a kind of unicellular deity of either Christianity or Islam.
I don’t know if you’ve been following the news, but just a
few days ago some of these Islamic fundamentalists butchered close to 50
students of a technical college. I cannot imagine the religion I was brought up
in having such complete contempt for human lives. And yet these are supposed to
be the world religions. So that’s why I consider myself rather fortunate that
I’ve been able to see what other religions had to offer.

How should Nigeria deal with the Boko Haram, the Islamic
militants in the north of the country?
All religions accept that there is something called
criminality. And criminality cannot be excused by religious fervour. Let me repeat
something I first said at the meeting organised by UNESCO a few weeks ago,
which was prompted by the recent film insulting the religion of Islam and
depicting the Prophet Mohammed in a very crass way.
The first thing to say is that we do not welcome any attempt
to ravage religious sensibilities. That can be taken for granted. But you
cannot hold the world to ransom simply because some idiot chose to insult a
religion in some far-off place which most of the world has never even heard of.
This for me is a kind of fundamentalist tyranny that should be totally
unacceptable. So a group calls itself the Boko Haram, literally: “Book is
taboo”, the book is anathema, the book is a product of Western civilisation,
therefore it must be rejected.
You go from the rejection of books to the rejection of
institutions which utilise the book, and that means virtually all institutions.
You attack universities, you kill professors, then you butcher students, you
close down primary schools, you try and create a religious Maginot Line through
which nothing should penetrate.
That’s not religion; that’s lunacy. My Christian family
lived just next door to Muslims. We celebrated Ramadan with Muslims; they
celebrated Christmas with Christians. This is how I grew up. And now this virus
is spreading all around the world, leading to the massacre of 50 students. This
is not taking arms against the state, this is taking up arms against humanity.
PG: Is freedom of expression something you see as a
universal right rather than as some Western construct?
WS There are many cultures on the African continent where
days are set aside, days of irreverence where you can say anything you want
about an all-powerful monarch or chief. It’s a safety valve. It’s a recognition
of freedom of expression, which perhaps has not been exercised, and bottled up
grievances; this is the day when you express your grievances in society. So
there is no society, really, which does not boast some form or measure of
freedom of expression. Now, it’s true that freedom of expression carries with
it an immense responsibility. Well that is why laws of libel exist – that when
you carry things too far, you can be hauled up before the community, and judged
to see whether you are right to call somebody a thief, or a hypocrite, and
damage his reputation. But unless you establish that principle of freedom of
expression, we might all just go around with a padlock on our lips.
Audience member: I read somewhere my freedom ends where your
freedom begins. In Europe there have been cartoonists who have mocked the
Prophet. Should they limit their freedom of speech?
Religion is also freedom of expression. People want to
express themselves spiritually. And they also exercise the right to try and
persuade others into their own system of belief. Those nations that say it’s a
crime to preach your religion are making a terrible mistake. All they’re doing
is driving underground other forms of spiritual intuitions and practices.
If religion was to be taken away from the world completely,
including the one I grew up with, I’d be one of the happiest people in the
world. My only fear is that maybe something more terrible would be invented to
replace it, so we’d better just get along with what there is right now and keep
it under control.
The unrest which is taking place as a result of Boko Haram,
in my view, has attained critical mass. When a movement reaches that state of
total contempt even for universal norms, it is sending a message to the rest of
the world, and to the rest of that nation, that this is a war to the end. The
president of Nigeria is making a mistake in not telling the nation that it
should place itself on a war footing.
There’s too much pussyfooting, there’s too much false
intellectualisation of what is going on, such as this is the result of
corruption, this is the result of poverty, this is the result of
marginalisation. Yes, of course, all these negativities have to do with what is
happening right now. But when the people themselves come out and say we will
not even talk to the president unless he converts to Islam, they are already
stating their terms of conflict.

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