Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's Nobel-winning author, sees his country's many problems — misgoverning politicians, systemic corruption, violent extremists, and kidnapping bandits — yet he does not despair.
At 87, he says Nigeria's youth may have the energy and the know-how to get the troubled country back on track.
Soyinka credits young Nigerians — about 64 million between 15 and 35 years of the country’s more than 200 million people — for trying to fundamentally reform the country. He cites the Oct. 2020 #EndSARS protests against police brutality, comparing it to the “positive watersheds of resistance” during the years of military rule Nigeria endured for nearly 30 years.
Although the protests one year ago ended in shootings and the deaths of more than 30 protesters, Soyinka says the widespread demonstrations organized on social media show the promise of the young to achieve change.
“The kind of energy and intelligence which created the #EndSARS movement is one, for instance, that can be used on a much broader scale to involve masses of people,” he said.
In his first novel in nearly 50 years, “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth,” published in September, Soyinka has created a fictional Nigeria rife with crime, corruption and chaos with an oppressive ruling party called the People on the Move Party (POMP). And the population is anything but happy, although there is an ironically-named annual Festival of the People of Happiness.
The satirical novel depicts a trade in human body parts — by a company named Human Resources — and a pastor of a megachurch who preaches Chrislam — a mix of Christianity and Islam. Yet Soyinka's unsparing portrait of Nigeria is also mixed with a hopeful spirit.
In 2015, Soyinka endorsed presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and asked Nigerians to forgive the leader of his past as a former dictator who ruled Nigeria from 1983 to 1985. Now Buhari is president and Soyinka is critical of him.
“Right from the middle of the first round of his government, it has failed on many levels and it is up to Nigerians to wake up and reverse the direction in which they are being taken,” the author said of 78-year-old Buhari's administration.
He said Buhari has a record of “putting people in crates” when they do not agree with him, including separatist leaders Sunday Igboho and Nnamdi Kanu, currently in the custody of Nigeria's secret police.
Soyinka says Nigeria started going in the wrong direction back in 1955 when the West African giant started to get “unearned and undeserved wealth” from oil.
“We didn’t manufacture anything from the oil, we just used it raw for what it is, sold it, took the money and wasted the money,” Soyinka, who in 1986 was the first Black author and the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
“Productivity went down and the little economies which sustain a people … began to disappear,” he said.
Although the enormous wealth from exporting crude oil made Nigeria one of Africa's largest economies, its people continue to grapple with poverty and underdevelopment.
Ten years after Nigeria discovered oil in vast quantity, it suffered its first military coup in 1966, opening the floodgates for a succession of dictatorships that occupied Nigeria for nearly all years until 1999 when democracy was restored.
It was during one of those military regimes — in 1994 under the late Sani Abacha — that Soyinka, a thorn in the flesh of military heads of state, went into a self-imposed exile after leading pro-democracy protests.
It has been more than 22 years since Nigeria returned to democracy but Soyinka believes the nation has “never really recovered” from those dictatorial years. Moreover, he feels much of the changes he fought for are yet to materialize.
“What we’ve had again is reinventing the wheel," he said. "Each ruler comes and says, ‘Oh yes, I am listening to people. And they want to change. Therefore, let’s meet and tinker with the constitution.' Rather than going deep inside and creating a totally different society from what is there. Once they get into power, it’s the same result.”
In the northeast part of the country, a 12-year war against the Islamic extremists of Boko Haram and their offshoot the Islamic State West Africa Province, extremists continues to hold the region to ransom, banditry that had led to the killing of thousands and abduction of many including schoolchildren rages on in the northwest and central states while a violent separatist movement is emerging in the southeast.
Soyinka feels things would have been different if leaders did not “pretend that what was happening was just a blip on the screen, whereas it was very deep inside the society.”
“They refused to take action at the right time. They compromised. They appeased. They excused. They even rhetorized the danger, the reality. And in the process we lost our humanity completely,” he said ruefully, his face suddenly solemn.
“So, each time we point a finger to the state, those in governance look at us and they see themselves as a reflection of the rest of the society. Pot calling the kettle black. (They say,) ‘Come and chop small. We are the same.’ And, of course, we move in and chop with them. That is what has happened to us as a people … Everything has lost value.”
Soyinka says to reverse the trend Nigeria must undergo a “brutal” and “marathon” soul-searching in which “we call ourselves names and tell ourselves the truth without any compromise.” The country needs a leader who will “take the bull by the horns” and acknowledge that “so far, so bad,” he said.
Soyinka is traveling internationally to promote his novel and he keeps up a constant commentary, often calling out leaders in successive governments. He, however, admits he is not as strong as thought.
“I am really tired,” he said with a chuckle. “I just live a normal life as I can. No special recipe or anything of the sort. Just take each day one by one.”
He is also tired of reading his own obituaries. In Nigeria, fake news reports about Soyinka’s death are rampant on social media, the most recent one in mid-October. He said he has probably read the news of his death more than he has read his own works.
“I am getting bored with dying,” he said, flinging his two hands as though he is giving up on death itself. “There is nothing creative about it. I am just bored each time I read my obituary. It’s been going on for years.”