Will the Real Wole Soyinka Please Stand Up?
During colonial order one of the things the French and English did was to co-opt co-operative traditional leaders and elevate them to community leadership; often over tribes who had their own Kings and Queens. That was a dictatorship unique to Africa. A system that collapsed with the blowing of Harold MacMillan’s ‘winds of change’.
However the collapse of colonialism was soon replaced with a deep quest for ethnic identity; which went ags Thomas Sankara. The nation was soon replaced with a tribe; and the tribe wanted to concentrate power on itself at the detriment of other’s development.
Some say there’s nowhere where such is more visible than in Nigeria with its hundreds of tribes and no national identity. A Nigerian friend said ‘in the Federal Republic of Nigeria there is nothing called Nigerian’ but an Igbo, Yoruba etc. The Nigerian identity only exists outside of the country that has invested much to bury under rubble the genocide of Biafra. That blockade that resulted in the starvation and death of more than a million Biafrans seems to be the elephant in the room whenever two Nigerians, no matter how educated meet.
In the same story written by journalist Alison Flood, Soyinka gave reasons why he felt that Achebe was not the revered Father of African contemporary literature as Western opinion makers branded him. “Those who seriously believe or promote this must be asked: have you the sheerest acquaintance with the literatures of other African nations, in both indigenous and adopted colonial languages? What must the francophone, lusophone, Zulu, Xhosa, Ewe etc literary scholars and consumers think of those who persist in such a historic absurdity? It's as ridiculous as calling WS [Wole Soyinka] father of contemporary African drama! Or Mazisi Kunene father of African epic poetry. Or Kofi Awoonor father of African poetry. Education is lacking in most of those who pontificate”.
However some people close to the issue; who understand that there are at least four Africans who could equally nominate Achebe given the Nobel rules that a Laureate has such a prerogative, have argued that Soyinka was not playing his cards open and that his opposition to Achebe’s nomination is driven by tribalism. They argue that him being of Yoruba descent and Achebe of Igbo meant his denial to endorse a fellow author and Nigerian was a continuation of Nigeria’s obsession with rewriting history for ethnic expediency.
In an old interview on 28 April 2005 with freelance journalist Simon Stanford for the Swedish Academy Soyinka expressed his satisfaction with the fruits that accrued after he won the Nobel Award for Literature in 1986. He acknowledged that among those was the swelling of his constituency, increased prestige and monetary benefits; which then left many wondering why at some stage on the same interview he would say “you have monsters like Chinua Achebe who come up from time to time and who would have died a happy man if he'd succeeded in hanging a Nobel Laureate for literature.”. Achebe was still alive then.
Why was, and still is Soyinka so opposed to Achebe enjoying the same fruits which’s sweet taste he knows all too well? "This conduct is gross disservice to Chinua Achebe and disrespectful of the life-engrossing occupation known as literature. How did creative valuation descend to such banality? Do these people know what they're doing – they are inscribing Chinua's epitaph in the negative mode of thwarted expectations. I find that disgusting", he reportedly told Sahara Reporters.
However differences in intellectuals meritocracy are not new. Sudanese academic, scholar and writer Prof Taban Lo Liyong once took a jibe at his celebrated Kenyan contemporary Ngugi wa Thiong’o, accusing him of seeking glory at the expense of the collective and blocking his professional elevation. “He never thought of lowering the ladder to help me climb up to a senior lectureship. When one day a colleague of ours were discussing this turn of events, and I had said I never thought Ngugi could be that bad, the late philosopher – sage Professor Henry Odera-Oruka cautioned us thus: ‘Don’t call a man bad until he has been tested by opportunities. It’s only after he has responded to temptations and fallen or not fallen that you can now call him good or bad”.
With only four Africans having won the Nobel Award for Literature, Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, South African’s Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee being the only ones; save for Gordimer who passed away early this year, being one of the few who can nominate Achebe for the award, all eyes are once again on Soyinka if ever he will retract his stance on the issue or will continue to believe that “He (Achebe) deserves his peace. Me too! And right now, not posthumously”