||William Shakespeare. Wole Soyinka. W. S. What illustrious initials. But I’m thinking of our own W. S., that is, Wole Soyinka. It’s hard to find something new to say about him at this juncture. Definitely more will be said when he eventually vacates planet earth. No, perhaps I’m wrong, we can still find something new about him even now. Not much has been said about the flurry of activities that occupied him in the struggles to establish a democratic order and a vibrant civic culture in Nigeria and other tyrannized regions of Africa.
The man did a lot during the trying moments of military dictatorship. He networked feverishly all over the globe meeting with presidents and powerful shapers of global public opinion canvassing for the downfall of the nefarious Abacha junta. He attended numerous international conferences delivering often path-breaking lectures on the need to institute genuine democratization processes in the crestfallen nation-states of Africa. He constantly drew our attention to the need to pursue and uphold the moral imperatives of June 12 (the date of the annulled presidential elections won by late politician and businessman, M.K.O. Abiola) even when it had become unfashionable to do so. He founded a formidable pro-democracy machinery that had a truly transnational reach. He even set up a pirate radio station, Radio Kudirat, (named after the assassinated wife of M.K.O. Abiola) to meet the – as at then- lofty and difficult goals of democracy and civil justice. In between these various exertions, he composed a play, The Beautification of an Area Boy which addresses a topic of urgent social concern- urban youth delinquency. It was also his way of reminding us that he is still wedded to his muse.
In other words, Soyinka has accomplished a great deal within the last decade. He could have sat resting on his oars if he had so wished and no one would have blamed him. He could have elected to become an international cultural christmas tree. Ten years ago when he turned sixty, Nigeria was held in the grips of an implacable military dictatorship. The perennial fuel scarcity which began around that time grew to be a national disgrace. However, the Association of Nigerian Authors deemed it fit to organize a series of events to mark his sixtieth birthday. Dignitaries- political and cultural- from all over the world (Africa, Europe, Africa, Asia and North America) trooped in despite the miasma of dictatorship, despite the disgraceful petroleum scarcity and despite the lack of electricity and other basic amenities of modern existence. Even Henry Louis Gates Jr., the star of African-American at Harvard graced the occasion and donated $250, 000 (on behalf his faculty) for the filming of Soyinka’s great dramatic masterpiece, Death and the King’s Horseman. On the final dinner to round up the festivities, I had a chat with the man fondly called Kongi, after one of his most memorable characters. He was very attentive and disarmingly friendly. In the midst of so many eager hangers on I talked about some of his works and he listened with polite dignity. I even commented on his physique and he took no offence. As he made to drive off in a black jeep, he handed me his phone number and his address at Abeokuta where he then lived. I didn’t visit him neither did I call. I regret it till this day.
When he turned seventy (July, 2004) he made a dramatic appearance at a gathering of writers in which I was present. The venue, Jazzville- a hang-out for various kinds of artists- at Yaba, Lagos. No one had expected he’d turn up as he had sent his son, Makin to represent him for that occasion. The build up to various events to mark his birthday had been simply overwhelming. Actors’ guilds, theatrical associations, writers’ organizations and cultural troupes of all kinds vied with each other to stage the most befitting performance to mark the momentous day. But Soyinka simply wasn’t interested. He complained about the ‘strain’ of having to attend so many public functions now that he was no longer a young man. But he made one exception, he attended the writers’ gathering I had chosen to attend. Towards the tail end of the occasion, he had showed up unexpectedly with a still startling mane of grey hair accompanied by an American writer. The event was quite close-knit and had its special moments of magic- Asha’s stunning singing and poetry by a muscle artist. There were a couple of teenagers who had traveled the length of the country to see their literary idol. After the mandatory taking of photographs, Soyinka graciously made his way to a metallic grey Mercedes jeep. I didn’t try to talk to him on this occasion. I felt I had had my chance.