In the second part of his interview, Professor Wole Soyinka speaks on his meeting with Asiwaju Bola Tinubu ahead of the 2019 elections and what he told him about President Muhammadu Buhari and some All Progressives Congress (APC) leaders. The Nobel laureate also speaks on what he told former VP Atiku Abubakar and former President Goodluck Jonathan when they separately approached him to support their presidential bids. He opens up on the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) strike which has led to the shutdown of public universities for over five months and his problem with former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Excerpts:
Going back to the history of the nexus between literacy and development, the universities have all but collapsed. They are standing simply because of their physical structures, that is, what in most people’s mind constitutes universities has left. On the other hand, we have the advent of the social media which has taken away the discipline required. Those twin happenings have also had their impacts…and then the closure of public universities for over five months. This also has effects on graduates’ performance.
I am not going to say much about our universities for the simple reason that, many years ago, I offered a solution and that solution now has even become more urgent.
I proposed that “universities, close yourselves down, come together for a massive congregation. Close yourselves down for a year and have a congregation made up of faculty, student representatives, workers, stakeholders and others in which we define what we understand by university. We define our vision of what university should be given the present circumstances. Then we agree on a set of university laws which will be generated from within the university, not dictated from outside, so that it becomes our own thing. We create a new adaptive culture, university collegial spirit”.
What did I get? They said Oh! I was speaking for government. I said, “Listen, I didn’t say government should close down the universities, you already have the autonomy, you have the power to come together and say what you want”.
That was during the time of IBB. If that proposition had been accepted, we wouldn’t have been where we are now. Add together the number of months universities have closed down since then and see how many years they total. I said during that period, students would go and do their National Youth Service, whether 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd or final while the universities convene national university congregation, meet and decide their future. What you have now is piece meal, agitations here and there, going all over again. If it is not allowances today, it is payment tomorrow…and the students, the young generation lose a very valuable part of their lives.
They keep coming, starting all over again. So, it’s only a holistic approach for me to universities. The crisis will not be solved by meetings between ASUU and Ngige (Labour Minister) or the Education Minister. The cure will take place when the universities say, “Wait a minute, we an autonomous entity and will discuss even how to generate funds and be less dependent on government”.
Now, that monster called social media, I am very glad you raised it. I don’t know what we are going to do about it, but I have said it many times that maybe the 3rd World War will be started by the social media. It is the most devastating distortion of a beautiful technology. It is the mild conversion of the human genius because it is genius and has proven the positive aspects. It is responsible, for instance, for the Arab Spring but those who dominate that social media…my sons succeeded in closing down at least 30 fake Wole Soyinka’s platforms. I don’t (have) Facebook (account), I don’t blog or tweet.
I keep away from these and yet, time and time again, a new Wole Soyinka platform appears. We closed them down; it had to be physical threat after we tracked their location. We tracked that all the way to Bosnia, next to a petrol station. That was the address of the owner of this ‘Wole Soyinka’.
They put words in your mouth, they create friction, enmity; instead of using them (social media) as instruments of learning and genuine communication, improvement, suggestions, all they think is that it is a play thing, insulting, concocting, manufacturing, they have celebrated my obituary. Each time I read them I said “let me take my bottle of drink before it becomes true”. It is a serious problem and I am glad the government of the US is tackling the originators, instructing them to do something before serious damages are done to communities.
But the point that it is driving illiteracy to the heights is incontestable. The new generation takes it as the easy way out for self-expression. But our learning of self-expression itself is a discipline, something which you practice, perfect and use positively and which can even become lucrative. Some of them have succeeded in that. So, who is going to teach or cure them?
Recently, I was in London on my way from Canada and I stayed a couple of days. I went for my morning coffee. As I was taking my coffee, I heard someone speaking Yoruba. That was a week ago at Chelsea in London.
Then I looked up, was I hallucinating? It was a half cast performing ‘419’ with his laptop. So, it was he alone, with his laptop on one side and phone on the other. I think he suspected that I understood what he was saying because of the way I looked up sharply.
And he didn’t know you?
No, he didn’t because of the way I dressed. I enjoy my anonymity whenever I am outside the country. But he suspected that I must have understood what he was saying. He never spoke another word.
I bought another coffee, hoping he would continue so I could locate his home but he didn’t. That was a Yoruba man performing ‘419’. Many of them think ‘419’ was invented for them. That’s part of our problem today: Illiteracy and crookedness.
I read an article where the writer said they nearly lost you to journalism; that you went for an interview and you were asked to write and that, long after others had finished and left, you were still writing until the invigilator asked you to submit whatever you were writing. So, you wanted to be a journalist?
Yes, I went for an interview virtually straight from school. The question that somebody had done something somewhere, go there and cover it. I didn’t mean to cover more than a page but I was enjoying it (laughs) with twists and turns until I saw the figure looming over my head and the invigilator came and asked, “What is this? Did I ask you to write a book?” Anyway, that was how I failed that journalism test. He didn’t give me back my script; if he did, maybe I would have done something with it.
Another story; you wrote your PhD thesis and decided that you were not going to submit it as academic work and then turned it into a book.
Don’t mind them. It is a mythology. What happened was that I decided not to do a PhD and I told my professors; they wanted me to do it. One Prof said at least I should do something; he then instituted the MA in one year, rather than two years. I was impatient to go and start my writing.
He organized a group of us to do long essays and tests. Tony Harrison, the poet, was among us, though I don’t think he completed the program. At a point, I asked myself, why am I wasting my time? I left. Later on, I decided to do a research because I wanted to set up my own company and also generally wanted to reform the traditional form of theatre. I was able to get the fellowship because they assumed I would write a PhD, the other one I walked away from. I call myself a doctor of dropout.
But you went on to get the professorship? Very few people are able to do that. You don’t have a PhD and went ahead to get professorship.
Well, I am not just a creative person; there is (also) this intellectual aspect into my make-up. I kept that alive through essays and lecturing and eventually wrote a book…all of which generally go into consideration for professorship depending on what kind of university it is.
Some universities won’t touch you if you don’t have a PhD. On the other hand, one of my Profs never even got 1st degree and he got a professorship right away on the basis of his works on William Shakespeare. It is all a question of scholarship and how you want to do it. But, there was no way I would ever write a book with all those long footnotes that are longer than the materials. Everything is footnotes.
There was a difference. When you started writing, most of what you wrote was incomprehensible to most people; you said that is what it should be.
No. I didn’t say that is how it should be, maybe other people did. I was argued and I said no, it is comprehensible. You can read it carefully. I try to tell people, not all works are ingested at the same seating.
I am a student of literature. I know books which I would leave for a while and then return later. Don’t misunderstand me; I didn’t set out to write that kind of book (that is incomprehensible). I wrote the way I felt internally and used the kind of expressions which are my armory.
After you wrote books like ‘The man died’ and then you wrote ‘The Lion and the Jewel’ which was more interesting to read, and even ‘The trials of Brother Jero’, it was like you mellowed when you wrote ‘Ake’. That was a book I saw many people hugging even though there are some phrases in it that required the use of a dictionary to interpret but it was more interesting to read.
It is interesting in the sense that I said I had to wait a long time to write ‘Ake’ because I wanted to enter into the mind of the child as that child was at the time I was writing and so I had to be patient.
I think one day something happened and I found I could enter, I entered that period and I began work on it. So, creative works operate very often in that manner. Mind you, some people make up their mind from the beginning and decide when and what they are going to write. They wake up in the morning in those days of typewriter; they put up a sheet and don’t get up from there until they have covered a few pages, making corrections. They won’t do more than those pages.
There are also those who things built up inside for a long time, sometime for even years and then they write in a white sheet. It is the only way they can write…they wait until the critical mass had built up and the materials can no longer be contained inside. I partially belong to that group.
It is already formulating, gestating. So, when people ask me how long it took me to write a book, I say it took me years, but, in actual fact, it took, maybe weeks. But it’s been building up, inside I have been writing, and listening to it, meeting the characters and then they are ready to burst out. It is a very remarkable and varied process and that’s what makes creative writing so fascinating to some of us.
In October 1986, you were put on the stage, most unwillingly, dragged, kicking and screaming there, but you were also held up as a beacon because you would be the first African to win the Nobel Prize. It appears people made more of it than you did. So many people thought so much of that and how much you were deserving of it, even before the award. Yet, the way you came across it was like it was another day in the office.
Let’s put it this way, I think prizes are good things, they are good for the occupation, they encourage not just the recipient but also others, it boosts. It takes what you are doing out of the ghetto and places it in the public place at a very different level. It’s not that I am against that. It is not that I am displeased about the prize, but I think prizes are good as long as you don’t think they set you apart as a (human) being.
For me, my entire struggle has not been about Nobel Prize. It has been to make sure I retain as much of what I know I am. I don’t allow people to turn me into something else or a Nobel Prize winner rather than Wole Soyinka, and that has been the real problem.
It’s not a light burden at all because you lose such a large portion of your anonymity. We were talking of disguises just now. It is not that it is bad to be noticed or admired but it is also a nuisance sometimes. You want to enter into a sharp corner and eat amala without being noticed, this stopped and I resent it.
Why should one deny it (Nobel)? For me, it shouldn’t set one apart. One should not now be treated as a guru. I have continued to do what I was doing before I won the Nobel Prize. Only that I am (now) more conscious. You have to reassure some people that you haven’t suddenly grown horns and a tail.
Some say we have been a bit too hard on our country in the sense that a lot of the things happening in the country are positive. Do you think that democracy has deepened from the administration of former President Obasanjo to the current one?
This is one of the reasons why one ends up staying put. There are the positives; one cannot go on looking at the negatives. Nigeria has the highest percentage of capable, intelligent and creative people, anywhere in the world. I am talking about power population, the proportion. We are into space; we have Nigerians who have contributed to the components of some of those rockets you see flying who work with NASA. Many Nigerians have carried out experiments in space.
During my period of exile, when I was moving around, lecturing, I met Nigerians whose works I have attempted bringing to the attention of the academia. I remember one Nigerian who claimed he found cure for HIV/AIDS and I asked what could be done with his work. Eventually when we talked they found out it wasn’t quite the cure. I have had so many encounters. I was invited to address the American Society of Surgeons when it was headed by a Nigerian doctor.
He didn’t have to ask me twice. I was on the plane, going. So, I have encounters like that in various fields. Look at our achievements in the music industry. I am not a pop music fan but I recognize talents. So, we shouldn’t dwell too much on the negatives. But, if the system of governance is such that all it does is lead to brain drain, this negates all their attainments of these people because these are the kinds of talents that we need to build the nation.
When we started the Union of Writers of the African People in Senegal, we created a sister organization which was the Union of African Researchers and Scientists and when you talk about my ding-dong about with my aspiring partners, it is an opportunity also for giving credit. So, let the whole world hear that I am about to give credit. When I returned from Dakar, I saw then President Obasanjo and told him that we needed to make the association very strong for the future of this nation, it is technology and science and he gave his support.
He sent me to the head of the Institute of International Affairs. I remember travelling to Latin America to the black section trying to recruit for this nation scientists and technologists. I know what efforts were really made to build a strong, scientific, technological unit here. I was involved in the nuclear program which ended up in my disgusting leaving that particular endeavor over geographical balancing.
What sort of nonsense is that? We are talking about science and technology… But, this is Nigeria for you and that was the setback we had. I remember being assailed by some of our respected friends here on hearing that I was involved in the program. I asked, is nuclear technology only for destruction? Isn’t it also for peace and energy? So, why should I not be involved in it? At that time, they thought we were trying to build up nuclear bomb to counter apartheid. I said to them “I am not for bombing people”.
But, why should we not develop atomic energy as long as we can do it cleanly and even supply power?” I collaborated at many several levels with many governments without blinking. Once you are on the right track, I don’t hesitate in contributing in that direction. Each person has to some extent, in their own way, contributed to the building of democracy. At the same time, virtually all, including the late President Yar’ Adua, who led for a short while, contributed to the deterioration of democracy. I have given example of the closure of a state House of Assembly that took our voices away, cheated us and turned us into mutes. I find that kind of action really unforgivable.
This was under Jonathan. I have great respect for him especially the way he contributed by conceding defeat to Buhari. This is one of his most glorious moments. They wanted to recruit (bring him back as President) him and I said, “What is it? Leave the man alone. He has wiped off a large portion of his deficit by quitting the way he did. Why are you bringing him back? If you bring him back that means you are bringing me out”. This man cannot come back and of course I became an issue, not the person we were talking about. Not after what he did when he was in power. Look at how he stopped (former governor) Oshiomhole’s plane mid-air because he was going to campaign for somebody. I don’t forget things like that. Buhari didn’t win any election, Jonathan lost it but that doesn’t sink, they don’t understand what that means.
One of the current candidates for President is very close to you and you referenced it when you mentioned NADECO and General Abacha’s administration. He is more like your son, so to speak.
Yes, you are quite right. There is a personal aspect but he will tell you, for instance, that, before, I made the statement. Midway into Buhari’s first tenure, it was clear that he was a disaster. And I went and met him and said, “Elections are coming, please find somebody else. Don’t let Buhari get back in office. Not just him, a number of leaders in the APC. This man is a disaster. Get somebody, we will work with you. Get somebody from APC because I wasn’t going to touch anybody from PDP for anything, especially the PDP of that time”.
You know politicians, I said, “let’s have some new blood in his place. Let this country have a genuine change”.
That is how close we are. I cannot forget. He is a very good man but some over eager characters keep putting words of praise in my mouth regarding him. On the social media they will say “Wole Soyinka pays Tinubu tribute”. I have not said anything to Tinubu since that our meeting which took place shortly before the 2019 general elections. We haven’t even met and yet, on the social media, people keep turning me into a praise singer, not knowing that they are doing him a disservice because I am obliged to denounce it and say, “This is a lie, I never said this”.
One thing I would like to say in addition is that he is my friend, we are close, we worked together against Abacha government, ate together, drank together, clothed together.
He moved from NADECO to NALICON. He also has a very good brain. But when it comes to political issues and choices, my position is still the same as I said to Atiku when he came to me. I told him, “Look, you people, it’s time your generation left this stage. So, that’s my position. I am sorry”. And we chatted and that was it. The same thing I told Jonathan, “It’s time you left the stage because you did this, did this. So there is no difference”. I still respect Jonathan, I consider him…I have not forgotten our first chat when we met at Eko Hotels, I won’t tell you (laughs), ask him.
Tell us about the Iyan Conferences that you had with General Obasanjo. Do you still have those conferences after the death of Prof Aboyade?
We talked about Nigeria, the positives and the negatives. When people talk about me, I am sure the negatives will be heavy but the positives will also be there. My problem with Obasanjo has been very straight forward; he likes to put people down to boost himself up and, in the process, sometimes utters, deliberately, untruth words. We talked about history; I am a respecter of history. Where there are impacts of history, I cannot sit down and be silent when part of the history is distorted.
That would be the most irresponsible of me as a creative person, public intellectual and as an activist. I cannot really say more than that. We used to fight, his wife, late Stella, called me uncle until she died. Obasanjo used to ‘steal’ my aparo (bird) when I went hunting and I took the ‘aparo’ back. When somebody ‘steals’ your aparo, it means you are friends. Nobody can ‘steal’ my aparo and get away with it. Let me tell you this compliment. I am 88 years old, it is not a question of mellowing, it is a question of truth when the opportunity comes to say it; he (Obasanjo) is actually a very bright person, a likeable person.
He is a clown also, but then he is a very cunning clown and uses his cunning ways to cover some devilishness. These are some of the characteristics that fascinate me about Obasanjo. And, he comes up with some good ideas, even outside office; he wants to pull down his predecessors…like his intervention on this security issues which should be the concern of everybody. And when I got his invitation, I accepted, right away. I could not attend but I sent a memo about what I think should be done.
He replied and thanked me. This should be the kind of relationship between people. Some of my best friends, I don’t speak to them for about a year. There is one of them I have not spoken with for one and a half years because he did something which I found not right. That was it. But, eventually, we came back again. Isn’t that how human beings should be? It can’t all be smooth all the time.
There must be a time you cross each other out, thoroughly and if the event which caused it is public, the crossing out has to be public and if it is a private thing, you can handle it on a private level. That is all I am guilty of. If you want to crucify me for that, I am ready.