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Kongi at 89: The Lion marches on

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Adebayo Obajemu

Emeritus professor Wole Soyinka clocked 89 last week, precisely on 13 July. The professor of Comparative literature and the first Black African to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature, is a polymath difficult to categorise and define.

This is due to his many sides, which lop intellect and activism together in a career of public engagement and academia that spans more than fifty years.

Very early in his riveting, intellectually tasking career, he chose drama as an avenue to make interventions in public life, poke fun at and ridicule society’s foibles, follies, insincerity and inadequacy in public and private life, reserving his acerbic cynicism at those in authority, who oppress the people in a language the Nobel Committee said “was laced with poetic overtones.”

Soyinka’s “A Dance of the Forest “was the official play performed during the country’s independence in 1960. He has acquainted himself well with a brilliance so rare in all the literary genre-drama, poetry, prose, literary criticism and essay writing, making his significant mark in all of them.

It’s really difficult to read and absorb Soyinka, the reason some giants of literary criticism, such as the troika of Chinweizu Ibekwe, Ihechukwu Madubuike and Onwuchekwa Jemie, criticised Soyinka and dismissed him as elitist obscurantist writer in their seminal work, “Towards the Decolonization of African Literature”.
This charge in the 80s led to a literary firestorm with eminent critics like Yemi Ogunbiyi, Biodun Jeyifo, Kolawole Ogungbesan and others engaged the trioka in a heated intellectual exchange, which really enriched the literary landscape and upped the body of scholarship on Soyinka.

Similarly, his politics has been equally controversial. His most recent interventions lately was when in 2019 he endorsed the presidential candidacy of professor Moghalu, the former deputy governor of the Central Bank, against other candidates.

 

Before then, he had endorsed former president Buhari, a rabid human rights abuser in his first shot as head of state, in 2015, which tasked his advocacy pedigree. But he ran into stormy water when he criticised the followers of the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Obi in the 2023 February election, with the Obidients, a term used to describe Obi’s supporters coming hard on him in the social media space.

About two weeks ago, he criticised the Emir of Ilorin, Alhaji Sulu Gambari for supporting those opposed to the celebration of Isese religious festival in Ilorin, saying it was wrong to deny others the rights of self-expression whether in religious, social or political spheres.

A natural rebel and iconoclast, he used his writings to look at the society, reflect its strength and weaknesses, and some of his characters, like the characters in the plays of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, have come off the pages of their writings and jump into our streets with recognition. Lakunle, Brother Jero and many others have become a part of our cultural repertoire; they reflect the failings in our system, the hypocrisy in our religion and the fraud, which charlatans have introduced into piety.

The major leitmotif in Soyinka’s writings is just the Yoruba cosmology, but cultural and spiritual.

His corpus and range is intimidating, as a preeminent playwright, novelist, poet, and essayist in the English language. He was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, for “in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashioning the drama of existence”, the first sub-Saharan African to be honoured in that category.

Soyinka is not just about literature, while not being a politician he has defined our politics since independence, symbolizing a resistance to the perfidy of politicians. At different levels, he had actually attempted to go further, as in the time in 1965, when he seized a radio station to the time he flew to Enugu to see Odumegwu Ojukwu, the leader of the separatist Biafra in a bid to avert civil war.

 

Soyinka along with the prominent novelist Chinua Achebe and giant of poetry John Pepper Clark went to General Ibrahim Babangida in 1986 to plead for clemency for the soldier- poet, General Mamman Vatsa, a friend of Babangida, who, infact, was said to be his best man at Babangida’s wedding. Vatsa had been accused of being the leader of a failed putsch against Babangida, who was then a military head of State of Nigeria.
Hours after the literary troika left the Dodan Barracks residence of Babangida’s, Vatsa’s execution was announced.

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Soyinka has been a strong critic of successive Nigerian (and African at large) governments, especially the country’s many military dictators, as well as other political tyrannies, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Much of his writing has been concerned with “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it”.

During the regime of General Sani Abacha (1993–98), Soyinka escaped from Nigeria on a motorcycle via the “NADECO Route.” Abacha later proclaimed a death sentence against him “in absentia.” With civilian rule restored to Nigeria in 1999, Soyinka returned to his nation.

In Nigeria, Soyinka was a Professor of Comparative literature (1975 to 1999) at the Obafemi Awolowo University, then called the University of Ifẹ̀. With civilian rule restored to Nigeria in 1999, he was made professor emeritus. While in the United States, he first taught at Cornell University as Goldwin Smith professor for African Studies and Theatre Arts from 1988 to 1991 and then at Emory University, where in 1996 he was appointed Robert W. Woodruff Professor of the Arts.

 

Soyinka has been a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and has served as scholar-in-residence at New York University’s Institute of African American Affairs and at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. He has also taught at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Yale, and was also a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Duke University in 2008.

In December 2017, Soyinka was awarded the Europe Theatre Prize in the “Special Prize” category, awarded to someone, who has “contributed to the realization of cultural events that promote understanding and the exchange of knowledge between peoples”.

Soyinka was born in Abeokuta on 13 July 1934 , widely acclaimed as one of the most important dramatists writing in the English language.

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Soyinka was born into a Yoruba family in Abeokuta. In 1954, he attended Government College in Ibadan, and subsequently University College Ibadan and the University of Leeds in England. After studying in Nigeria and the UK, he worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London. He went on to write plays that were produced in both countries, in theatres and on radio.

 

He took an active role in Nigeria’s political history and its campaign for independence from British colonial rule. In 1965, he seized the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service studio and broadcast a demand for the cancellation of the Western Nigeria Regional Elections. In 1967, during the Nigerian Civil War, he was arrested by the federal government of General Yakubu Gowon and put in solitary confinement for two years, for volunteering to be a non-government mediating actor. He reflected his prison experience in his highly acclaimed work :” The Man Died

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