Poetry Scores is doing a project with Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate in Literature from Nigeria. I owe my familiarity with his work to a 1996 assignment from my editor at The Nation magazine, John Leonard (R.I.P.), to review Soyinka’s then-new book in the context of everything he had written before it. That was a lot of reading to do for $150, though I’m actually forever in John’s debt for the challenge and the education. This is my Nation review.
Coffin for an Oligarchy
Review of Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis by Wole SoyinkaFirst published in The Nation magazine, August 12/19, 1996
By Chris King
“Wherever there is a wicked majority, Wole Soyinka will be over here, with the minority, to balance it out,” I was told by Noble Obani-Nwibari, vice president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. “Wole Soyinka is from a majority ethnic group, the Yoruba, but he has done very much for the Ogoni people. I cannot rest in this our struggle, because one day if I, an Ogoni man, did nothing, what if that same day Wole Soyinka was fighting for the Ogoni? That man challenges me.”
Soyinka does indeed challenge us all, as activists and readers. In a poem about apolitical poets, the winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature once quarreled with verse sloganeering. In the same poem, he declared that if he had a slogan, it was “DANGER – DREAMS AT WORK.” But, for the moment, Soyinka the dreamer has hung up his hat. A screaming philosopher wrote The Open Sore of a Continent.
For now, let us savor poetic moments from past work: perhaps Egbo on the edge of orgasm in The Interpreters, “hanging by the finger-tips to a sharp-edged precipice while the blood coursed sweetly down his mouth.” Or something tiny like the penmanship of his father’s American correspondent, in Isara: A Voyage Around “Essay,” whose letter “t” appears as “a cheerful acrobat dancing on its one leg, amusing the rest of its alphabetic audience.” Or we can simply delight in remembering a literary career that has been, along with much else, a series of love letters to a worthy father.
The polemicist Soyinka marvels that he had developed a metaphor using the Ogoni situation back when Ken Saro-Wiwa was enduring merely “the normal travails of a political activist.” But Soyinka’s work has been pregnant with the Ogoni tragedy from the beginning. In the very early play The Swamp Dwellers, the city is a den of thieves and timber contractors, and the bush is an overfarmed, polluted place in the Niger Delta, “poisoned by the oil in the swamp water.” Oil erupts everywhere in Soyinka’s imagination. It “casts an evil shade” in Shuttle in the Crypt, his prison poems. In his 1973 novel Season of Anomy it gives off, with slaves and gold, the stench of West African history, “a smell of death, disruption and desolation.”
Long before Nigeria’s current dictator, Sani Abacha, strutted into power, Soyinka had developed a keen nose for what he calls in the present work “the diabolism inherent in the phenomenon of power.” He predicted Abacha in the 1967 play Kongi’s Harvest, in which an autocratic ruler embarks on a Five Year Development Plan, hanging an opposition leader in the name of Harmony. Before that, in The Trials of Brother Jero, Soyinka had presented the power trips of a prophet who caters to “strange, dissatisfied people. I know they are dissatisfied because I keep them dissatisfied. Once they are full, they won’t come again.” Appropriately, this play has become both a standard Nigerian school text and the recent subject of interdictions, as Adewale Maja-Pierce notes in Index on Censorship. You can’t say Soyinka wasn’t warned – in Ake, his childhood memoir, Soyinka’s paternal grandfather advises that “book-learning, and especially success in book-learning only creates other battles.”
Ake showed the boy Wole politically active while still in school, serving as “Oddjob man with the Women’s Movement” against unfair taxation, forming what would become a habit of “settling down longest wherever there appeared to be some promise of action.” Indeed, Soyinka, like the hero of Season of Anomy, belongs to a generation “born into one long crisis.” As early as 1965, surveying the political scene in The Interpreters, he could recite a litany like “lost elections, missed nominations, thug recruitment, financial backing, Ministerial in-lawfulness, Ministerial poncing, general arse-licking, Ministerial concubinage,” then leave an ellipsis, knowing the list goes on.
After Soyinka’s two-year detention (1967-1969) during the Biafran War, that “experiment on how to break down the human mind,” his voice turned ever more baroque and bizarre. Madmen and Specialists (1987) is written by the Samuel Beckett of West Africa. The chorus is made up of cripples from the war, including a blind man with lines like, “The limbless acrobat will now perform his wonderful act – how to bite the dust from three classic positions.” The citified African sell-out appears here as Dr. Bero, “a specialist” who gives “the personal word of a scientist. Human flesh is delicious,” especially “the balls.” The specialist first ate flesh as a means to an end: “It was the first step to power you understand. Power in its purest sense.”
Greed for power is typically figured as cannibalism in Soyinka’s work. In The Apotheosis of Master Sergeant Doe (1988) he inventories the “cannibal larder” of Africa’s military dictators. Even the pompous ambassador in The Interpreter tentatively declares “the nature of dictators to be rather ... predatory on human beings.” As a child Soyinka was fascinated with the traditional ruler’s ritual cannibalism of the previous king’s heart and liver. “I would watch the Alake on our visits,” he writes in Ake, “wondering if I could detect the stain of human blood on his lips.” Those same eyes still behold the jaws of power with that question.
And so, long before Soyinka the polemicist, Soyinka the poet of power and disappointment wrote of villagers with oil in their water, murderous business cartels and their paramilitary troops, uncomprehending district commissioners, “the slave in khaki and brass buttons,” the “world industrial seesaws” that ruin dependent economies and the technocratic cannibals who manage them. Though he insisted in an “Author’s Note” to Death and the King’s Horsemen (1976) that political crisis in the literary work merely provides the “catalytic incident” for a metaphysical drama – in the case of that particular play, “an evocation of music from the abyss of transition.”
Open Sore is not so metaphysical, and is tuned only to the most bitter music. It is a howl from the abyss with hope for a transition to someplace human once again. Soyinka sounds quite like the Oba’s praise singer in Death and the King’s Horsemen, once secure in the knowledge that “our world was never wrenched from its true course” but now forced, through the anguish of events, to lament, “Our world is tumbling in the void of strangers.” The strangers ruining the Oba’s world were British colonialists, while Soyinka’s demons are “a carefully nurtured feudal oligarchy and their pampered, indolent and unproductive scions,” but it is the same void. Most torturous to Soyinka is that these strangers are alien to thought; “Abacha has no idea of Nigeria.”
The irascible Nigerian pop idol Fela made a record called Coffin for Head of State after the military raided his home, tossing his mother out a second-story window. Fela’s suggestive phrase would be a more apt subtitle for this book, which is not really a “Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis.” There are a few first-hand reports of Abacha’s “kill-and-go” Mobile Police, import-license scams in the Shagari era (1979-1983), Soyinka’s efforts to end the 1993 interim government, his recent suffering at the hands of government propagandists (“WOLE SOYINKA IN SEX AND FRAUD SCANDAL”) and his 60th-birthday-party protest march, which prompted his exile. Taken together, these personal incidents occupy only a handful of pages. What is most personal about this text is Soyinka’s gift for invective – he produces what he once called “monster prodigies of spleen.” He describes the Abacha regime as “yet another circus of political mutants and opportunists,” “aliens from outer space,” “practiced, back-alley abortionists of democracy.” Their methods are “nothing but plain thuggery,” “the hostage-taking tactics of two-a-penny terrorists” evincing the “straightforward will to domination by an anachronistic bunch of social predators.” Woe to Abacha’s “megaphone” Dr. Walter Ofonagoro and that “inundating spittle-launcher situated somewhere in his head,” or chief Odumegwu Ojukwu, who “has demonstrated a remarkable involvement with the project of browsing where the pasture appears greenest.” If words alone could kill, Nigeria would be quite a few oligarchic corpses closer to democracy by now.
Open Sore is a passionately written recent history of Nigeria, that “tightly sealed can within can, within can of worms” encasing the annulled 1993 presidential election of Basorun M.K.O. Abiola and the resulting “spiral of murder, torture, and leadership dementia that is surely leading to the disintegration of a once-proud nation.” Even here the real drama of Nigeria so deftly collaborates with Soyinka’s strange imagination – he calls enemies “colorful dramatic personae, a veritable tapestry of rather unappetizing prostitutes” – he must repeatedly stress an incident’s historicity because it looks so much like one of his inventions. Consider the case of the physician interrupted from ministering to death squad victims during the Shagari-Adewusi heyday. While his patients bleed to death, the physician undergoes torture; the torturer, it turns out, once studied under the tortured.
Soyinka hammers nails in the coffin of oligarchy and injustice all over the world. He anatomizes what he calls “the spoils of power” with a revealing glance at the case of Richard Nixon. He exposes the common control method of tribalizing dissent, and explains its effectiveness in recent years: “Man resorts to his cultural affiliations when politics appears to have failed him.” He interrupts structural analyses to plumb human costs, mourning “the condition of the internally exiled” under a repressive regime and the “violation of the human essence” that daily life demands. Imagine a U.S. writer with the strengths of Gerald Early, Ishmael Reed and Adolph Reed Jr. chronicling our political underbelly from Nixon to Iran/contra and the S&L swindles, through the Desert Storm massacre up to the Patriot movement and the counterterrorism bill, naming names and heaping scorn where scorn is due, not flinching from the most terrifying implications of the connections he makes and describing their toll on our character – then you will see what Soyinka has done for Nigeria.
At its heart Open Sore becomes a philosophical inquiry: What is a nation? When is a nation? Will Nigeria survive? Should it? There is no sentimental attachment to nationhood, especially given the dangers of nationalism under a military regime: “A bugle rouses the nation to its mission of keeping the nation together while a mailed fist and studded boot silence the protestations.” Soyinka is mindful of the millions of victims “uprooted from their homes, turned into stateless nonpersons, degraded from creatures of feeling or sentience to mere digits in some abstract evocation.” He is loyal to the Nigerian public, which, he reminds us, did not repudiate nationhood; they announced their hunger for it by electing Abiola across all lines of supposed division, only to see their will criminally flouted. “A nation is a collective enterprise,” Soyinka writes, in words that should be translated into all languages; “outside of that, it is mostly a gambling space for opportunism and adventurism of power.”
For Nigeria, Soyinka’s message is simple: Recognize the results of the June 12, 1993 elections or expect the worst. To international observers, he says: Revive your comatose moral outrage and put it into action, or expect the worst. He calls – in the wake of Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda – for a series of international forums on the national question before it is too late. Like the Zapatistas’ intercontinental referendum on neoliberalism, this seems a sensible yet visionary question. Let us hope that future faces of the never-ending crisis permit Wole Soyinka to dream again.