The Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, who turns 80 today, has garnered a great deal of honour in his active life as a man of letters and a statesman. Since the early 1960s when he stepped into the world of action, writing plays, poems and essays on the order of genius and declaring his forcefully impressive gestures in a politics of human assertion, he has attracted controversy and validation in equal measures. Not one to do things by half-measures, Soyinka has remained active on all levels. He is a man about whom it is difficult not to speak in superlatives.
Fully dedicated to the cause of humanity in all its complexity and uncertainty, he has always and simply accepted his destiny which he memorably characterized as that of “a lightening rod” in the days before his self-imposed exile from General Sani Abacha’s Nigeria. It is a true self-characterization, but it’s also a partial one. Soyinka may have been the object of controversies, the one who gets blamed when things go wrong, but he has also often attracted great honours. Indeed, there must be very few Nigerians or Africans living who have been as universally and frequently celebrated as Soyinka has.
Like most black intellectuals whose emergence coincided with the advent of political freedom in the black and postcolonial worlds, especially in the decade of African independence, Soyinka enjoyed the attentions of the world’s cultural brokers right from the start. He struck many immediately as immensely gifted, a man of great abilities as an artist and citizen, and although his primary forte was theatre, there was no mistake about the boundlessness of his humanistic vision.
Warmly feted artists quickly reveal their true colours, some as flukes, others as journeymen and journeywomen. Soyinka has happily endured and continued to enchant, surprise and inspire, both on account of the ceaselessly rich font of his imagination, and his uncommon political acumen. Among that early community of postcolonial intellectuals, he is nearly unique in understanding his position as a destiny, full of risks, disappointments, betrayals, and joys, yet not one to be shirked.
Not long after being discharged and acquitted on charges of holding up a radio station by force of arms, Soyinka famously made light of the incident during a conference of writers in Sweden, and he spoke with such an astute irony that other writers present thought he was speaking ill of such an act of courage. The irony should have been clear to all present; it wasn’t because of Soyinka’s unique ability to rise above complacencies. The occasion was a conference of African and Scandinavian writers, and Soyinka was bemoaning “the lack of vital relevance between the literary concerns of writers and the pattern of reality that has overwhelmed even the writers themselves in the majority of the modern African States.”
The irony of Soyinka’s statements should have been clear for other reasons. This was in 1967: messianic Kwame Nkrumah had been toppled from power the year before; Nelson Mandela and his comrades were cooling their heels in apartheid jails; fierce wars of liberation raged in the Portuguese colonies. And it was just months before Soyinka himself would be arrested for his activities during the events leading to the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970) in which over two million citizens of the new nation perished.
This mixture of political responsibility and intellectual foresightedness was not new to Soyinka, and it has not left him. An early play of his, perhaps the first, titled The Invention, was about the racial policies of South Africa. And with the staging of A Dance of the Forests, his first major play, for the Nigerian independence celebrations in 1960, he set in motion a practice of relentless self-questioning, making art out of the missed opportunities in humanity’s efforts to fully humanize itself. He was 26, but the play’s vision was mature, in spite of critics’ quibble over style. In fact, so mature was this vision that all the characteristic features of Soyinka’s dramatic art were present in that play and the so-called “pessimistic outlook” now appears majestic in its prescience.
He has not looked back. Even when he expresses despondent views, such as in his timeless statement in 1984 that his generation of talented Nigerians was “a wasted generation,” such statements were almost always an exercise in communal uplift, a shot in the arm meant to “pierce the encrustations of soul-deadening habit,” as one character puts it in the 1960 play.
So here is a man who, at the old age of eighty, still strikes as if he is a young sapling, a man fully deserving the encomiums that have been pouring out for him in the past several weeks, and more.
At the end of Black Skin, White Masks,Frantz Fanon hopes for a world of peoples who are fully humanized and totally disalienated.
Without question, Soyinka has fulfilled that hope.