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Published On: Wed, Jul 16th, 2014

Soyinka: The man lives (1)

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Wole-SoyinkaBy Soyombo Opeyemi

Language is the source of Wole Soyinka’s fame; the reason also for his alienation. The Nobel laureate is a man of complex locution. Besides his political forays, the density and immensity of his literature is perhaps the major thing that trademarks him. The fact isthere can be no indolent or perfunctory reading of Wole Soyinka; his literary rampart is impregnable. You peruse him; then the fortress can give way.

However, the language employed by the playwright in his prison memoir is in a class of its own. Set in the Civil War Nigeria, The Man Died is a riveting account of the atrocities perpetrated by the military regime against the civil populace, in which the author was also a major victim – of solitary confinement without trial for fifteen gruelling months. The abuses fill you with horrors: the flogging syndrome, detention and imprisonment without trial, killing, torture as pastime; sadism and crushing of the civic will; the climate of appeasement against the rule of law, etc.

His critics believe that language and power cannot be placed on the same pedestal. The former must defer to the latter. Language, in all its ramifications, must kowtow to power, however malevolent is the latter. But the human rights activist disagrees, “When power is placed in the service of a vicious reaction, a language must be called into being which does its best to appropriate such obscenity of power and fling its excesses back in its face.”

The author argues that language is a part of resistance therapy. It must be employed to liberate enslaved public psyche. Those who raise eyebrows on the mode of The Man Died but are silent on the evils that provoked the choice of words do so probably for want of bravery or acquiescence in the unassailability of power, even at its most cynical and tyrannical. “Such criticism,” according to Soyinka, “must begin by assailing the seething compost of inhuman abuses from which such language took its being, then its conclusions would be worthy of notice. When it fails to do so, all we are left with is, yet again, the collaborative face of intellectualism with power – that is, the taking of power and its excesses as the natural condition, in relation to which even language must be accountable.”

The Man Died interrogates the silence of the intelligentsia in the face of horrendous human rights abuses, accusing it of criminal complicity through conduct and warning that “the boundaries of the geography of victims of (power) eventually extends to embrace even those who think they are protected by silence.” The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny. In any people that submit willingly to the ‘daily humiliation of fear’, the man dies.

While in Ikoyi Prisons, as a prisoner of conscience, the author saw and heard the accounts of the victims of the Gestapo. The Black Hole in Dodan Barracks; the torture and flogging syndrome by soldiers. The picture of sadists who dined and wined and lulled themselves to sleep with the sounds of the tortured was grim and stupefying. Here is a narration of the writer-activist about one of the casualties of the flogging syndrome.

Often, the offences ranged from being from a particular tribe, to a section of the country, to being in their company, a mild protest at injustice, to what was considered a slight. It was an era of lawlessness… Journalists are usually the first victims of any dictatorship – Segun Sowemimo eventually died as a result of having been “brutally beaten, he and other colleagues, by soldiers on the orders of a Military Governor.” “These soldiers plunder such commodities as palm wine and even food-stuffs from the pedestrians and cyclists as they pass through the check-points.” “We recall that some time ago… a federal officer on duty in Calabar was similarly flogged and his hair scraped before he escaped to Lagos.”

Soyinka himself was framed, said to have confessed to “an arrangement with Mr Ojukwu to assist in the purchase of jet aircraft to be used by the rebel Air Force”, and was later said to have admitted “he had since changed his mind.” He was also said to have agreed with Victor Banjo “to help in the overthrow of the Government of Western Nigeria. Soyinka further agreed to the consequent overthrow of the Federal Military Government.” But the radical was not put on trial. Although there did exist a Third Force, Soyinka had confessed nothing to anyone. “I was framed and nearly liquidated because of my activities inside prison. From Kirikiri I wrote and smuggled out a letter setting out the latest proof of the genocidal policies of the government of Gowon. It was betrayed to the guilty men…” Soyinka believes that “a commitment to absolute ideals cannot plead the excuse of immobilization to turn his back on the fight for an equitable society.” One of the government goons among the academic staff in Ibadan got to know about the letter “made a photostat, and dutifully passed it on to his military bosses.” That was the turning-point in the incarceration of the human rights campaigner and the horrendous sufferings that were to be his lot.

But The Man Lived despite the plot to annihilate him. The machination: “They argued that the public would believe their prepared story which was: while being flown to Jos, I pulled out a gun, tried to take over the plane and was shot in the attempt. A violent man meets a violent end; the dramatist over-dramatizes himself once too often.”

I agree the story would have been believed. Soyinka’s past in holding up the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service at gun-point in 1965 would have stood against him in the court of public opinion. He was alerted, hence his attempt to stymie the scheme through an orchestrated riot at Ikoyi prison on the D-day. Smarting from the failed evil plot to eliminate the gadfly, he was transferred to the Maximum Security Prison and manacled twenty-four hours a day. Public humiliation was to follow. Another forgery announced that Soyinka had been caught ‘skulking along the wall’ in an attempt to escape from prison!

SoyomboOpeyemi via


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