By Akinbiyi Akinsola
Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, also known as Wole Soyinka, was born in Isara, Ijebu Remo division of present day Ogun State, on the 13th of July 1934. His father was Samuel Ayodele Soyinka popularly called S.A. by his friends and colleagues. He was the headmaster of St. Peters School in Abeokuta where he enrolled Wole as a pupil. He was also a minister in the church. Wole’s mother was Grace Eniola Soyinka (nee Ransome Kuti). She was a trader who had a shop in the market. She was also a political activist in Abeokuta with her sister, Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, the mother of Fela Kuti and Beko Ransome Kuti. That Wole Soyinka later became a political activist is not strange. He imbibed it from his mother’s milk. He witnessed the activities of Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti and how she and other women fought oppression and injustice unleashed on the Egba women through excessive imposition of taxes by the colonial administration and local chiefs.
The Soyinkas were practicing Christians and they brought up Wole and his siblings in the Christian and Yoruba traditions. Wole even sang in the choir from an early age. In 1944 he gained admission into Abeokuta Grammar School where he began to develop his love for writing. He won several prizes in essay writing in the school before he proceeded to Government College, Ibadan in 1946. From 1952 to 1954 Wole studied English Literature, Greek and Western History at the University College Ibadan, now known as the University of Ibadan. In the year 1953–54, his second and last at University College, Ibadan, Soyinka began work on "Keffi's Birthday Treat", a short radio play for Nigerian Broadcasting Service that was broadcast in July 1954. It was also at the university that Soyinka and six others founded the Pyrates Confraternity, in 1952, an anti-corruption and justice-seeking student organisation, the first confraternity in Nigeria. Confraternities in Nigerian Universities later got involved in violence; deviating from the founding fathers’ vision. Wole says, “I have no regrets founding the confraternity. The violence associated with confraternity these days are a reflection of the violence and corruption prevalent in the society. The society does not want to confront their own responsibility bringing out the cults. At the time the genuine organization was formed it was praised. If you know a lot of things the Pyrates Confraternity has done you will definitely dispute this allegation.”
Wole graduated from the University of Ibadan with a second class degree and not a third class as was being speculated for many years before the erroneous impression was corrected. After Ibadan, Soyinka relocated to England, where he continued his studies in English literature, under the supervision of his mentor Wilson Knight at the University of Leeds (1954–57). He met numerous young, gifted British writers. Before defending his B.A., Soyinka began publishing and worked as an editor for the satirical magazine The Eagle. He wrote a column on academic life, often criticising his university peers.
After graduating, he remained in Leeds with the intention of earning an M.A. Soyinka intended to write new work combining European theatrical traditions with those of his Yorùbá cultural heritage. His first major play, The Swamp Dwellers (1958), was followed a year later by The Lion and the Jewel, a comedy that attracted interest from several members of London's Royal Court Theatre. Encouraged, Soyinka moved to London, where he worked as a play reader for the Royal Court Theatre. During the same period, both of his plays were performed in Ibadan. They dealt with the uneasy relationship between progress and tradition in Nigeria.
In 1957, his play The Invention was the first of his works to be produced at the Royal Court Theatre. At that time his only published works were poems such as "The Immigrant" and "My Next Door Neighbour", which were published in the Nigerian magazine Black Orpheus. This was founded in 1957 by the German scholar Ulli Beier, who had been teaching at the University of Ibadan since 1950.
Soyinka received a Rockefeller Research Fellowship from University College in Ibadan, his alma mater, for research on African theatre, and he returned to Nigeria. With the Rockefeller grant, Soyinka bought a Land Rover, and he began travelling throughout the country as a researcher with the Department of English Language of the University College in Ibadan.
He produced his new satire, The Trials of Brother Jero. His work A Dance of The Forest (1960), a biting criticism of Nigeria's political elites, won a contest that year as the official play for Nigerian Independence Day. On 1 October 1960, it premiered in Lagos as Nigeria celebrated its sovereignty. The play satirizes the fledgling nation by showing that the present is no more a golden age than was the past. Also in 1960, Soyinka established the "1960 Mask", an ensemble to which he devoted considerable time over the next few years. Those who played active roles in the 1960 Mask included Mrs. Fracesca Yetunde Pereira who later became Mrs. Yetunde Emmanuel, Yemi Lijadu, Christopher Kolade and the late Ralph Okpara. Others were Tunji Oyelana and Jimi Solanke. The 1960 Mask gave birth to the Orisun Theatre.
Soyinka wrote the first full-length play produced on Nigerian television. Entitled My Father’s Burden and directed by Segun Olusola, the play was featured on the Western Nigeria Television (WNTV) on 6 August 1960. Later Soyinka published works satirising the "Emergency" in the Western Region of Nigeria, as his Yorùbá homeland was increasingly occupied and controlled by the federal government. The political tensions arising from post-colonial independence eventually led to a military coup and civil war (1967–70).
In an essay of the time, he criticised Leopold Senghor's Négritude movement as a nostalgic and indiscriminate glorification of the black African past that ignores the potential benefits of modernisation. "A tiger does not shout its tigritude," he declared, "it acts." In Death and the King Horsemen he states: "The elephant trails no tethering-rope; that king is not yet crowned who will peg an elephant."
In December 1962, Soyinka's essay "Towards a True Theater" was published. He began teaching with the Department of English Language at the University of Ife. He discussed current affairs with "négrophiles," and on several occasions openly condemned government censorship. At the end of 1963, his first feature-length movie, Culture in Transition, was released. In April 1964 The Interpreters, "a complex but also vividly documentary novel", was published in London.
In December of the same year, together with scientists and men of theatre, Soyinka founded the Drama Association of Nigeria. In 1964 he also resigned his university post, as a protest against imposed pro-government behaviour by authorities. A few months later, he was arrested for the first time, accused of underlying tapes during reproduction of recorded speech of the “winner” of Nigerian elections. He was released after a few months of confinement, as a result of protests by the international community of writers. This same year he wrote two more dramatic pieces: Before the Blackout and the comedy Kongi’s Harvest. He also wrote The Detainee, a radio play for the BBC in London. His play The Road premiered in London at the Commonwealth Arts Festival, opening on 14 September 1965 at the Theatre Royal. At the end of the year, he was promoted to senior lecturer in the Department of English Language at the University of Lagos.
Soyinka's political speeches at that time criticised the cult of personality and government corruption in African dictatorships. In April 1966 his play Kongi’s Harvest was produced in revival at the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. The Road was awarded the Grand Prix. In June 1965, he produced his play The Lion and The Jewel for Hampstead Theatre Club in London.
Soyinka became more politically active. Following the military coup of January 1966, he secretly and unofficially met with the military governor Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in the Southeastern town of Enugu (August 1967), to try to avert civil war. As a result, he had to go into hiding. He was imprisoned for 22 months as civil war ensued between the federal government and the Biafrans. Though refused materials such as books, pens, and paper, he still wrote a significant body of poems and notes criticising the Nigerian government.
In spite of his imprisonment, in September 1967, his play The Lion and The Jewel was produced in Accra. In November The Trials of Brother Jero and The Strong Breed were produced in the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York. He also published a collection of his poetry, Idanre and Other Poems. It was inspired by Soyinka’s visit to the sanctuary of the Yorùbá deity Ogun, whom he regards as his "companion" deity, kindred spirit, and protector.
In 1968, the Negro Ensemble Company in New York produced Kongi’s Harvest. While still in prison, Soyinka translated from Yoruba a novel by his compatriot D. O. Fagunwa, entitled The Forest of a Thousand Demons: A Hunter's Saga.
In 1970 he produced the play Kongi’s Harvest, while simultaneously adapting it as a film of the same title. In June 1970, he finished another play, called Madman and Specialists. Together with the group of fifteen actors of Ibadan University Theatre Art Company, he went on a trip to the United States, to the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theatre Centre in Waterford, Connecticut, where his latest play premiered. It gave them all experience with theatrical production in another English-speaking country.
In 1971, his poetry collection A Shuttle in the Crypt was published. Madmen and Specialists was produced in Ibadan that year. Soyinka travelled to Paris to take the lead role as Patrice Lumumba, the murdered first Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, in the production of his Murderous Angels. His powerful autobiographical work The Man Died (1971), a collection of notes from prison, was also published. This book was later banned by a Nigerian court from circulation. He went on self exile to parts of Europe and briefly to Ghana for some time. His novel Season of Anomy (1972) and his Collected Plays (1972) were both published by Oxford University Press. In 1973 the National Theatre, London, commissioned and premiered the play The Bacchae of Euripides. In 1973 his plays Camwood on the Leaves and Jero's Metamorphosis were first published.
During the years 1975–84, Soyinka was also more politically active. When General Gowon reneged on his promise to hand over power to the civilians in 1976, Soyinka and other intelligentsia kicked against that decision of Gowon to hang on to power. In series of rallies, lectures and protests, they got the political system heated up and eventually Gowon was toppled by a government that made good its promise to hand over power to the civilians.
At the University of Ife, his administrative duties included the security of public roads. He was first made the Chairman of Oyo State Road Safety Corp from 1980 to 1983. In January 1988 he was appointed Chairman of Federal Road Safety Corp. He recalled about his days at the Road Safety Corp, “There was no remuneration, no allowances; I never used any government office, absolutely nothing. The Road Safety Corp made soldiers to sit up. For once they found that there was a civic arm, which they were compelled to obey.”
During Nigeria’s second Republic, he criticized the corruption in the government of the democratically elected President Shehu Shagari. He also criticized the agricultural programme of the regime tagged Green Revolution. He queried, “Green Revo Wetin?” He described the programme as, “neither green nor revolutionary.” In July 1983, one of Soyinka's musical projects, the Unlimited Liability Company, issued a long-playing record entitled I Love My Country, on which several prominent Nigerian musicians played songs composed by Soyinka.
When General Ibrahim Babangida annulled Nigeria’s freest presidential election, the June 12, 1993 election and Chief M.K.O. Abiola was denied the opportunity of claiming his mandate, Wole Soyinka and other political activists and people of goodwill marched through the streets of Lagos in protest. Soyinka was one of those who urged Abiola to claim his mandate. For speaking out loud against this injustice, he incurred the wrought of the military government. In November 1994, Soyinka fled from Nigeria through the border with Benin and then to Europe and later the United States. Living abroad, mainly in the United States, he was a professor first at Cornell University and then at Emory University in Atlanta, where in 1996 he was appointed Robert W. Woodruff Professor of the Arts. In 1996 his book The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis was first published while he was in exile. He also became the second president of the International Parliament of Writers (IPW) which was established in 1993 to provide support for writers victimized by persecution. He served as the organisation’s president from 1997 to the year 2000. At home, the military government of Sani Abacha proclaimed a death sentence against him "in absentia". He only returned from exile in 1999 when the military had gone back to their barrack.
On his return from exile, Kongi kept himself busy by writing, and delivering public lectures. He also takes time to comment on some public issues. His play King Baabu premiered in Lagos in 2001, a political satire on the theme of African dictatorship. In 2002 a collection of his poems, Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known, was published by Methuen. In April 2006, his memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn was published by Random House. In 2006 he cancelled his keynote speech for the annual S.E.A. Write Awards Ceremony in Bangkok to protest the Thai military's successful coup against the government.
In April 2007 Soyinka called for the cancellation of the Nigerian presidential elections held two weeks earlier, beset by widespread fraud and violence. Before his death in 2010 President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was honest enough to admit that the election that brought him into power was greatly flawed.
In the wake of the Christmas Day (2009) bombing attempt on a flight to the US by a Nigerian student who had become radicalised in Britain, Soyinka questioned the United Kingdom's social logic that allows every religion to openly proselytise their faith, asserting that it is being abused by religious fundamentalists thereby turning England into a cesspit for the breeding of extremism. He supported freedom of worship but warned against the consequence of the illogic of allowing religions to preach apocalyptic violence.
Recently, the literary icon pleaded with the Nigerian media to put the Chibok schoolgirls story on the front burner. “It would be a huge shame to allow the girls to be forgotten.” On amnesty for members of Boko Haram, the professor said “the process must be approached with caution.” He did not agree with “any blanket approach that precluded restitution first on the part of the murderous gang.”
For his hard work and dedication to duty, the Professor has been variously honoured all around the globe. The greatest honour bestowed upon him is perhaps the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is the first African to win the much coveted prize. His awards include the following: Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International, John Within award by the British Arts Council in 1968, Jock Campbell – New Statesman Literary award in 1969, Agip Prize for Humanity in 1986. In October 1986 he was awarded Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (C.F.R.). However, Soyinka threw away the national honour in protest against the annulment of the June 12th 1993 presidential election. Soyinka has been conferred honorary degrees in various institutions around the world. His honorary degrees include: Doctor of Letters Hon. D. Litt.), in 1973, by the University of Leeds, England. Yale University, Yale, USA also conferred a similar honorary degree on him. At home in July 2011, the Lagos State University, Ojo, in Lagos followed suit among other universities.
In addition, the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife named Soyinka Emeritus professor in January 2004. Other Emeritus professors at the time were Prof. I. A. Akinjogbin of the Department of History, Prof. Adesanya Ige Grillo of the Faculty of Medicine, and Prof. David Ijalaye who was a former Deputy Vice Chancellor.
There is also the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in his honour, a biennial prize which showcases the best in literary works produced by an African. The first edition was won by Seffi Attah with her book Everything Good Will Come. The second edition was also won by a Nigerian Nnedi Okoroafor with her book Zara the Wind Seeker. A Nigerian and a South African jointly won the third edition. Wale Okediran with his book The Tenants of the House and Kopalno Matwo’ with Coconut emerged winners. The 2014 edition is focused on drama. It is meant to give playwrights an equal opportunity to win. The organizers of the prize are Lamina Foundation founded by Dr. Ogochukwu Promise. Mrs. Fracesca Yetunde Emmanuel is the Chairman Board of Trustees of the Foundation. The event is sponsored by telecommunications giant, Globacom.
In the words of Prof. Biodun Jeyifo, “Prof. Oluwole Akinwande Soyinka has etched himself into global literary consciousness. He has risen above the norm of his professional calling and reached for heights unexplored by the rest of the world in literature and dramatic arts.” Jeyifo further emphasisied that, “After William Shakespeare and Christopher Mallowe, nothing significant happened in the world of drama until Soyinka came on board.”