34827INTERVIEW: Soyinka On Biafran Genocide, Islamic Militants, And Other Issues
- Jan 26, 2013Sahara Reporters October 19, 2012
INTERVIEW: Soyinka On Biafran Genocide, Islamic Militants, And Other
By Peter Godwin
Wole Soyinka: 'If religion was taken away I'd be happy'
The Nobel prize-winner Wole Soyinka spoke this week at the Hay
Festival in Mexico. In an extract from his talk, he tells Peter Godwin
that now’s the time to tackle militants in Nigeria.
Wole Soyinka: We must stop pussyfooting around Islamic militants
Photo: Daniel Mordzinski
By Peter Godwin
Peter Godwin 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?
Wole Soyinka: 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.
PG 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 to show a more authoritarian bent. Are
you an Afro-optimist or an Afro-pessimist?
WS 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.
PG Your parents were Christians, Anglicans, I understand. How has your
own religious belief evolved?
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WS 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
European 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
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.
PG: How should Nigeria deal with the Boko Haram, the Islamic militants
in the north of the country?
WS: 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,
“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
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?
WS 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.
*This is an edited transcript of Wole Soyinka’s event at Hay Xalapa.