The Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, winner of Africa’s first Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, has published a new book calling for urgent action by Africans to save themselves from the threat of Islamic extremism, against which corrupt regimes seem unable protect the tolerance and spiritual strength of traditional cultures.
“If Africa falls to the will of the fanatic, then the insecurity of the world should be accepted as its future and permanent condition,” he wrote. “There are no other options.”
The book, titled “Of Africa,” brings together other provocative issues Soyinka has addressed over the years, including what he sees as a corrosive failure of Africans’ failure to admit to their historical role as enablers of the slave trade. But the immediacy of the jihadist threat is his more current focus.
Alarmed at the extremists of Boko Haram spreading terror in the northern reaches of his own country, Soyinka is also deeply moved by the crisis in Mali, where extremists who have overrun wide regions of an already foundering nation are destroying unique architectural treasures, including the tombs of Muslim saints and ancient libraries in Timbuktu, which Unesco recently declared a World Heritage site in danger.
Soyinka is a member Unesco’s “international high panel” of advisers. In September, he delivered a dire warning to a United Nations conference on the culture of peace and nonviolence: “Today it is the heritage and humanity of Timbuktu,” he said. “And tomorrow? The African continent must take back Mali – not later, but right now. The cost of further delay will be incalculable and devastating.”
West African regional leaders have recently agreed to deploy 3,300 soldiers to Mali to retake the north from the Islamist extremists in a plan to be presented later this month to the Security Council. France, a permanent member of the council, led the impetus to request regional action.
“Of Africa” is provocative on several fronts. Soyinka is contemptuous of what he believes venal, power-hungry and ideologically muddled post-colonial leaders have done to Africa, noting how Asian countries with a similar colonial past – he mentions Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – soared ahead of their African cousins after independence under good political leadership.
Instead, Africa has Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, under indictment by the International Criminal Court, and his janjaweed militia in Darfur, which Soyinka calls the Ku Klux Klan of Africa. Perhaps most controversial is his chiding if not excoriation of Africans for not being anguished and apologetic about their enabling role over centuries in the capture and sale of slaves, a thriving business for local middlemen that predated the trans-Atlantic trade, as Africans were exported to North Africa and the Middle East, leaving behind black ghettos as far afield as Iraq.
Moreover, slavery has not ended, he wrote, shielded by denial and “the mangy catechism of impunity.” Soyinka, 78, educated in Nigeria and Britain, has also spent long periods of time in the United States, where his large body of satirical, comic or philosophical works for the stage is well known – plays that include “The Swamp Dwellers,” “Death and the King’s Horseman” and “Madmen and Specialists.” Also a poet and memoirist, he has always been an outspoken critic of people and events, which at one point in 1967, during the Nigerian civil war over the Biafra region, got him arrested for his antigovernment writing and speaking. He was a political prisoner for 22 months.
“Of Africa” reflects this outspokenness. On the subject of Africa’s complicity in the horrific slave trade, he wrote that “while the rest of the world– the Japanese, the Europeans, the Americans, and possibly now, haltingly, the Turks – is redressing history, commemorating the termination of a shameful past, expressing remorse for such a past . . . the very opposite, an atavistic assertiveness, is in the ascendant on the African continent in the twenty-first century.”
“In the hundreds of thousands,” Soyinka added, today’s slave catchers are still overrunning ancient settlements, burning crops, slaughtering cattle, poisoning wells, raping mothers in front of their children, girl pupils in front of their teachers, fathers and mothers, pulverizing villages and eradicating cultures.”
They are, he noted, “defiant of world censure [and] in total confidence of immunity.” Throughout Soyinka’s book, which reads like a manifesto for Africans to right themselves and build on their inherent strengths, the author, despite his birth into a Christian family, returns again and again to the Yoruba culture and Orisa religion on the west coast of Nigeria as a satisfying model. He calls it “a paradigm of spirituality for virtually every corner of the continent.”
Many Africans might take exceptions to that blanket claim, though understanding or accepting Soyinka’s argument that traditional beliefs are often tolerant, not prescriptive about personal life, and were conceived to relate people to their environment and the spirits (some of them practical and useful gods) who inhabit it.
“Africa is filled with religions that point the way to the harmonization of faiths,” Soyinka wrote. “The essence of Orisa is the antithesis of tyranny, bigotry and dictatorship.” Therein lies wisdom, he insisted.
But is it an answer, an antidote in the contemporary world, to the scourge of fanaticism? A way out of the violence and fractiousness of Africa? Soyinka never really makes that case. In the end, his book, after wandering through a good deal of history and commentary, has drifted from the here-and-now of intolerant, armed jihadism to something close to an imagined utopia, far from the dust and death of Mali.
“Of Africa,” by Wole Soyinka; 0300140460
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.