At 74, Wole Soyinka remains one of democracy's great champions on the African continent. The adage "criticism, like charity, starts at home," has long been a favorite truism of the Nobel Prize-winning playwright and political activist. Sadly, there remains much to criticize, as political turmoil, ethnic warfare, graft and corruption continue to plague his home continent. From genocide in Darfur, to despotic misdeeds in Zimbabwe, to lingering repercussions from the often capricious creation of arbitrarily constructed countries by colonial powers in the 19th century, multiple crises across Africa call out for searching critique and harsh condemnation. Yet, many African and African-American political leaders and intellectuals remain reluctant to react meaningfully, through a misguided fear of airing dirty black laundry to a Western public with a long history of bias against Africa and its people.
I have known Wole Soyinka for 35 years. We met at the University of Cambridge in 1973, when I was a first-year student in the English Department, and Soyinka became my professor. He was living in exile, having just published "The Man Died," the memoir of his 27 months in prison during the Nigerian civil war and a searing indictment of the Nigerian government. In one-on-one tutorials, he introduced me to African literature and myth and, as editor of Transition magazine, published my first essay in literary criticism. He encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. in English literature and became the first director of my dissertation. Over the years, we have become friends and colleagues. We trade stories on everything from Euripides and Shakespeare to which red wines go best with spicy food to which laptop is lightest and fastest (Soyinka is a techie, like his patron god, Ogun).
Yet, I remain astonished by his ability to move me—not just as a literary artist, but also as a political commentator and democratic activist—with the raw force and honesty of his social critique. He is the only writer I can think of who could just as easily be a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Peace as for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I sat down with Soyinka recently, in an interview for The Root, to ask my friend to help me contextualize some of the turmoil in the news recently over events in Africa. The International Criminal Court is seeking a war crimes indictment against Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, for the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe has rendered cash, food and the most basic daily necessities out of reach for most of its people, as President Robert Mugabe continues to resist a power-sharing agreement with the opposition. Of al-Bashir, Soyinka echoed a growing sentiment, arguing that he "should be seized, wherever he is, and put on trial." And if al-Bashir is tried for war crimes, he went on, Mugabe deserves to be indicted for crimes against humanity. "When you take a bulldozer to the homes of your opposition and just turn living, teeming areas into deserts overnight simply because they disagree with your political policies, that is a crime against humanity," he said, in a decisive tone.
While many influential thinkers and leaders are calling for the two leaders to be held accountable, Soyinka, in typical style, pushed the contemporary discussion to its historical limits, linking modern dictators from Uganda's late Idi Amin to Mugabe to their opportunistic predecessors who drove the African slave trade. It is a painful linkage, he said, that blacks in the diaspora, especially African Americans, still struggle to reconcile. "If African Americans confront that history," he told me, "they will discover that [today's war criminal regimes] are the same people, they're descendants of their mental kin, and they are treating their own people in exactly the same way" as Africans treated other Africans whom they captured and enslaved, then sold to Europeans or North Africans to be shipped to the New World, Europe or the Middle East. I know well of the raw nerves exposed when it comes to tracing black Africans to the source of the slave trade. When I introduced this idea a decade ago in my PBS series, Wonders of the African World, a firestorm ensued: One wit even wondered aloud whether a fatwa should be placed on my head.
Of course, the responsibility for the current state of affairs rests not solely with black Africans. With provocative flair, our conversation turned to the often illogically carved-up nation-states of Africa, created by colonists to serve European commercial interests rather than to reflect ethnic and religious affiliations and rivalries. Of his home country, Nigeria, Soyinka posed the question: Is it really a nation, or is it merely a space whose boundaries were drawn to define the Niger oil-producing Delta?
For all the cerebral provocation, Soyinka remains tapped into broader concerns. He is closely following the U.S. presidential campaign, saying that he is optimistic about the far-reaching effects an Obama presidency could have on the state of international affairs generally, and in Africa specifically. "There are dictators who will be very alarmed by the possibility of an even more liberal attitude towards things like democracy now championed by somebody of African descent," he said with visible delight. But, while fascinated, he is not distracted. In the midst of a consuming presidential race and a widening economic meltdown, Soyinka and others like him are here to remind us that there are always issues—too complex for the scrolling news ticker, too uncomfortable for buzzy water-cooler chatter— that demand pause, outrage and action.