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34827INTERVIEW: Soyinka On Biafran Genocide, Islamic Militants, And Other Issues

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  • Uba Budo no coração
    Jan 26, 2013
      Sahara 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.
      Details: hayfestival.org