Between Truths and Indulgences

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka on Africa's role in the slave trade and its consequences.


''Are these the kings of whom the griots sang? Are these their descendants? We do not know them, but we know from which lines--between those who resisted, and those who fawned on the presence of their enslavers--the majority are descended .... If, in a freak teleological reversal, the world were to follow Napoleon's example and reinstate slavery after its abrogation ... we recognize among us those who would be first in line to offer up their own kith and kin; their genealogy is branded on their foreheads like the mark of Cain.

The righteous armor of demand for ancient wrongs is thus sadly dented. The ignominious role of ancient rulers, continuing into the present, serves to remind us of their complicity in the cause for which reparations are sought''


Fifty years ago, on the eve of Nigerian independence, my publishers entered a full-length play, A Dance of the Forests, for a drama competition to select a work that would be commissioned for the national celebration. As it happened, it won. At the last moment, however, the commission was withdrawn. Why? And what was the play about?

The action centered on a "Gathering of the Tribes," a grand assemblage of a people in festive circumstances -- not too difficult to discern as an "Independence Day"-type celebration. However, the forest denizens took over the ceremony and brought the humans to judgment for unexpiated crimes against their own kind. The Independence Committee felt that this was no piece for expressing the euphoria of a newly liberated nation, a sentiment with which -- little did they know it -- I did sympathize, but only to a limited extent. I felt that the insertion of a warning, the recognition of a watershed for candid introspection, was equally appropriate, indeed essential within the act of celebration.

The process of the independence struggle had already thrown up ominous signs of human inequities that would bedevil a newly liberated entity -- a familiar tendency toward self-attrition, once the external enemy is gone. I staged the play on the "Fringe," as it were, and still partook in other events that marked the Great Day. I experienced no contradiction in all this -- to participate in the insertion of a landmark event in national consciousness, yet exhume a shameful, glossed-over history as a warning for the future. That history was that of African's culpability in the enslavement of her own kind.

Prominent in interventions over ethnic cleansing in Darfur, civil wars from West Africa to the Congo, through references to internal race wars in Mauritania and Sudan and the yet unfinished business of internal slavery across the continent, that self-censored history of the African past has nonetheless obtruded itself as a recurring reference point, inescapable as Africa's humanity struggles to understand why notions such as "independence," "self-governance," "liberation," etc., have failed to alter attitudes between one ruling class and the ruled, between one "master race" and the subservient, be all such designated by class or race, as products of external origination or local in-breeding or self-perpetuation.

In a UNESCO address to mark the 200th year of the abolition of the slave trade in the Haiti, I returned to this theme, evoking the corruption of sacred African ritualism by slave suppliers and middlemen for the purpose of obliterating the memory of their own people as they were herded toward the various Points of No Return--from Badagry in Nigeria to the coast of Mauritania. This is what I wrote:

'' ... we know those who would be first-in-line (today) to stock the slave ships on the African coast. They are the spiritual descendants of those ancestors, inhuman yet superstitious, who not only waged wars to keep up the supply of their own kind across the Atlantic, but devised internal rituals to wipe of their memory, fearful that, if they died overseas, their ghosts would return and haunt them. They are scattered all over the continent and known by different names such as Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin, Macias Nguema, etc., etc. They are the unrepentant perpetuators of a dismal history that is again turning Africa into one vast slave encampment.''