INTERVIEW: Soyinka On Biafran Genocide, Islamic Militants, And Other Issues-Telegraph

Prof. Wole Soyinka
By Peter Godwin

Wole Soyinka: 'If religion was taken away I'd be happy'
The Nobel prize-winner Wole Soyinka spoke this week at the Hay Festival in Mexico. In an extract from his talk, he tells Peter Godwin that now’s the time to tackle militants in Nigeria.

Wole Soyinka: We must stop pussyfooting around Islamic militants Photo: Daniel Mordzinski
By Peter Godwin
Peter Godwin Professor Soyinka, you’re not an ivory-tower kind of writer. You are not a stranger to danger, and in fact you’ve been imprisoned on at least two occasions, once in solitary confinement. Can you tell me what that was like?

Wole Soyinka: Writing in certain environments carries with it an occupational risk. When I was imprisoned, without trial, it was as a result of a position I took as a citizen. Of course I used my weapon, which was writing, to express my disapproval of the [Biafran] civil war into which we were about to enter. These were people who’d been abused, who’d undergone genocide, and who felt completely rejected by the rest of the community, and therefore decided to break away and form a nation of its own. Unfortunately, the nature of my imprisonment meant that I couldn’t practise my trade because I was in solitary confinement for 22 months out of the 27, and I was deprived of writing material. So I had to somehow break through the barriers, smuggle in toilet paper, cigarette paper, scribble a few poems, pass messages outside. I was able to undertake exercises to make sure that I emerged from prison intact mentally.

PG There have been high hopes for some African leaders after they were elected – Meles in Ethiopia, or Museveni in Uganda, or Kagame in Rwanda – but who then went to to show a more authoritarian bent. Are you an Afro-optimist or an Afro-pessimist?

WS I’m an Afro-realist. I take what comes, and I do my best to affect what is unacceptable in society. I’ve remarked how similar in many ways Mexico is to Nigeria, and to a number of places: we have the same condition of unstructured, unpredictable violence, both from the state and from what I call the quasi-state. Whether the quasi-state is formed, as its basis, of theocratic tendencies, or secular ideological rigidity, you always have forces, even outside the state, competing for the domination of people. That’s what’s happening on the African continent today. That’s what’s been happening in the Arab states and what led eventually to the Arab Spring. Gradually people come to the recognition after decades of supine submission that they are not whole as human beings.
PG Your parents were Christians, Anglicans, I understand. How has your own religious belief evolved?
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WS I consider myself very fortunate. I was raised in a Christian environment in Abeokuta, but another side of me was very much enmeshed in African values. I gravitated towards what I saw was a cohesive system of a certain relationship of human beings to environment, a respect for humanity in general. I came through a traditional system, where children not only had rights, but had responsibility. In the European world today, especially in America, it seems to be forbidden for children to have responsibilities…
I gravitated towards a deeper knowledge of the orisha, which represents the Yoruba pantheon, very similar in many ways to the Greek pantheon. You have reprobate deities, beneficent deities. I found that more honest than a kind of unicellular deity of either Christianity or Islam.
I don’t know if you’ve been following the news, but just a few days ago some of these Islamic fundamentalists butchered close to 50 students of a technical college. I cannot imagine the religion I was brought up in having such complete contempt for human lives. And yet these are supposed to be the world religions. So that’s why I consider myself rather fortunate that I’ve been able to see what other religions had to offer.
PG: How should Nigeria deal with the Boko Haram, the Islamic militants in the north of the country?
WS: All religions accept that there is something called criminality. And criminality cannot be excused by religious fervour. Let me repeat something I first said at the meeting organised by Unesco a few weeks ago, which was prompted by the recent film insulting the religion of Islam and depicting the Prophet Mohammed in a very crass way.

The first thing to say is that we do not welcome any attempt to ravage religious sensibilities. That can be taken for granted. But you cannot hold the world to ransom simply because some idiot chose to insult a religion in some far off place which most of the world has never even heard of. This for me is a kind of fundamentalist tyranny that should be totally unacceptable. So a group calls itself the Boko Haram, literally:

“Book is taboo”, the book is anathema, the book is a product of Western civilisation, therefore it must be rejected.

You go from the rejection of books to the rejection of institutions which utilise the book, and that means virtually all institutions. You attack universities, you kill professors, then you butcher students, you close down primary schools, you try and create a religious Maginot Line through which nothing should penetrate. That’s not religion; that’s lunacy. My Christian family lived just next door to Muslims. We celebrated Ramadan with Muslims; they celebrated Christmas with Christians. This is how I grew up. And now this virus is spreading all around the world, leading to the massacre of 50 students. This is not taking arms against the state, this is taking up arms against humanity.

PG: Is freedom of expression something you see as a universal right rather than as some Western construct?

WS: There are many cultures on the African continent where days are set aside, days of irreverence where you can say anything you want about an all-powerful monarch or chief. It’s a safety valve. It’s a recognition of freedom of expression, which perhaps has not been exercised, and bottled up grievances; this is the day when you express your grievances in society. So there is no society, really, which does not boast some form or measure of freedom of expression. Now, it’s true that freedom of expression carries with it an immense responsibility. Well that is why laws of libel exist – that when you carry things too far, you can be hauled up before the community, and judged to see whether you are right to call somebody a thief, or a hypocrite, and damage his reputation. But unless you establish that principle of freedom of expression, we might all just go around with a padlock on our lips.

Audience member: I read somewhere my freedom ends where your freedom begins. In Europe there have been cartoonists who have mocked the Prophet. Should they limit their freedom of speech?

WS Religion is also freedom of expression. People want to express themselves spiritually. And they also exercise the right to try and persuade others into their own system of belief. Those nations that say it’s a crime to preach your religion are making a terrible mistake. All they’re doing is driving underground other forms of spiritual intuitions and practices.

If religion was to be taken away from the world completely, including the one I grew up with, I’d be one of the happiest people in the world. My only fear is that maybe something more terrible would be invented to replace it, so we’d better just get along with what there is right now and keep it under control.
The unrest which is taking place as a result of Boko Haram, in my view, has attained critical mass. When a movement reaches that state of total contempt even for universal norms, it is sending a message to the rest of the world, and to the rest of that nation, that this is a war to the end. The president of Nigeria is making a mistake in not telling the nation that it should place itself on a war footing. There’s too much pussyfooting, there’s too much false intellectualisation of what is going on, such as this is the result of corruption, this is the result of poverty, this is the result of marginalisation. Yes, of course, all these negativities have to do with what is happening right now. But when the people themselves come out and say we will not even talk to the president unless he converts to Islam, they are already stating their terms of conflict.
*This is an edited transcript of Wole Soyinka’s event at Hay Xalapa.

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1daful people

growing up in a yoruba community and amongst many yoruba friends,i have come to realize that majority of yorubas are 1daful people. 1daful people that are confused about their believe, their root,ideology,1daful people that are confused about tomorrow.1daful people that have their heart enslaved by fear,fear of the conclusion, 1daful people which off cos with the help of the numerous the professor at their disposal has fashioned out some mechanism of surviving in community like ours which are 'betrayal,hypocrisy and deceit' indeed this are 1-da-FOOL PATHETIC group of people................

british are the devil

the day of judgement is drawing near for this wicked country called britain that sponored the nigerian civil war

They r not running to ibos 4

They r not running to ibos 4 sure... Neutrality has already b d order of d day 4 yorubas, until u cross ur boundaries, then yorubas wil b force to take sides. Mind u igbos r d one running to yoruba till dis moment. Get it straight!

Tolerance is d bst solution

Tolerance is d bst solution to Nigerian problem[s]

No genuine humanity in islam.

A highest population of muslems are real hypocrites, let's be very watchfull should we know the true ones, they are very few. Dont make a mistake by enstrusting them with any important thing like leadership, confidence and so on.


Let not continue to criticize each other. let not allow the past to be own doing now but look up to the future with the experiences of the past. The Yoruba have their ideology and believe strongly in it and all the achievement by their Heros; Awo, Soyinka, etc.
The Igbos have their ideology and believe strongly in their quest, ikenga and achievement of their respectable Heros; Achebe, Zik, Ojukwu, etc.
The Hausas do have their ideology and believe as well in the achievement of their Hero; Gowon, IBB, Buhari, etc.
The same with other minorities.

Answers to fools

I agree the yorubas made a mistake joining the war but who would have thought things would turn out this way. the real issue is, the reason for the very 1st coup was meaningless and not justified, the igbos only suffered the consequence. But let it be known that Ojukwu himself, always held awolowo in high regard till his death.
The issue of biafra has passed decades ago, things are getting worse by the moment and one person is blaming a dead man. Is it what achebe said awolowo did, that is affecting anambra today. Is it not time to face the problem at hand and forget forgone issues..


Yoruba are the only ones reading... and if they don't read Achebe would not have become world renowned... Nightmare comes in different version!
Already Achebe is a best seller, the book is already sold out in most Western countries and even in Africa!
Problem with ignorant Yoruba's is their stupidity in continuing their evil against Igbos even after they have got their pound of flesh (Over 3million innocent souls). They forgot one thing... They live closer to the water than Igbos, so flushing them off wouldn't be too difficult...
Biafrab can stand and fight the military might of all super powers combined for 30 months, yet come out on top because they believe in Ofo na ogu! There can be no rest for those who disturb sleep! Yoruba people after you war criminal Awolowo helped to imprison Wole Soyinka for speaking the truth about Biafra, where the Yoruba's today?

So Boko Haram is reading love verse?

Now can you tell us which verse and from which book that every known terrorist reads from including your Boko Haram, before undertaking any of their evil???


Awolowo comited succide after the millitary failed coup which he was the power behind in agreament to restore power to him from IBB who invited him to Dondarn barack,questioned him & let him go with a promise to call to justice when the need arise. Awo came home & killed himself.

Boko Haram Fundamentalist are agent of Satan

The so-called Boko Haram fundamentalist are agent of satan. There is no place in the Holy Quran where it is stated that your christian neighbour must be killed. A muslim should not take up arms against his neighbour except in self defence. That is if your neighbour want to kill you. Have we forgotten the experience of Maitasine of Kano in 1980-1981. You don't dialogue with terrorist. Government must do everything humanly possible to uproot, destabilise and exterminate them. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is a universal prince that love humanity and recognise the sanctity of people religion. In one of his Quranic injuction, He said our food is lawful for them and their own lawful for us. There is evidence in the Holy Quran that there is compulsion in religion. Boko Haram are agents of Satan.

Chinua Achebe never lied in

Chinua Achebe never lied in his book. His book was not about tribalism. He was just stating what happened during d civil war and some ppl av made it a war between yorubas and ibos. Question is: did Awolowo make d policies he said in his book or he didnt? He did and he had his reasons. So pls lets stop all dis tribal sentiments. We r bigger dan dat!


Who told you yorubas reads or buy Achebe's books.for your information his books are world wide.You most most be the biggest fool of the century.Nothing good can come from a yoruba person

MR TSAKUWA do not vent your anger on the truth

The truth is always bitter to hear,you don't have to get mad just because you've heard the truth,Prof Wole Soyinka has made his point,and that's the gospel truth. Its sad that u see things this way,try and understand that you muslims have made religion come to be,remember the days of Jesus Christ,there was no such thing as Religion,every one went to the Synagogue to worship God,but these days every one keep dragging whose side God is on. Every day we argue over nothing,there is no way God will creat something and ask that same thing to destroy His creation,come to think of it,can you kill your first son? Or destroy something that has real importance to you? Please think twice,there is no way a christian will kill because you insulted God,they would only punish you but they won't kill you! Minimise the killings! Else this country might split up!

Omoluwabi, how old are you

Omoluwabi, how old are you doing the Nigeria/Biafran war to know if Achebe is telling lies or not?. You yorubas are noisemakers,selfish, cowards and betrayers. Respected Soyinka agree with his fellow genius.Why a pauper like you talk when elder agreed on what happened in the past.

Achebe is simply

Achebe is simply jealous!
Any Yoruba must not buy his book, and one that buys it is an omo ale!
Yoruba are the ones who reads, if we do not but it. The man will forever remain a dejected soul! Typical of Igbo man , just because he needs money he wrote lies against the Yorubas to sell. O ni jere! Wicked man!

You must be a true Boko

You must be a true Boko Haram.


There is only one Wole Soyinka.
God, I wished Awolowo had Soyinka's mind and phylosophy.
The bright lights that shined in Nigeria's hay days are getting older and dying, but the problems of Nigeria persist and getting worse.
For what you represent Mr Soyinka, i take my Hat off to you.


Educated fool. Why not talk of the Xtians we see in Boko haram?

Wole Soyinka

What way of life has Wole Soyinka questioned? Are you accepting that senseless killing in the name of Islam is your way of life? If so then you are truely a zombie.

Why do Nigerian Muslims imbibe unprogressive brands of Islam? Do you people not see progressive Islamic countries like Qatar, UAE, Malaysia, Bahrain, Turkey etc. Instead you are all struggling hard to be worse than Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan.

I wish you and your kind all the best in your journey to perdition.

The First Case of 419 Played on Nigerians by the British Governm

1914 = 1st transposed 419 to Nigerian by the British Colonial Government.The Almalgamation of Northing and Southern Nigerian in 1914 was a classic case of the no 1 419 played on us.

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Your outburst is nonsensical.

Your outburst is nonsensical. No intelligent Nigerian would ever accuse Soyinka of stealing money from the FRSC. I might not like his atheistic comments but sadly he speaks the truth. A lot of people have been killed in the name of religion and muslin leaders are more culpable than anyone else.

When last did you hear about a Christian suicide bomber or a riot because someone abused Jesus?

Don't be a fool.


I find wole soyinka's outburst as not only idiotic but crass nonsensical.Who gave him the right to question other people's way of life? if he find it expedient to worship his OGUN OR ONDO OR WHATEVER PART OF TREE HE CAN SCUPTOR, HIS AUDACITY AND TEMERITY TO Abuse other people mostly muslims that worship One true living God is to say it mildly, outright stupid.

Let him first return the money he looted when he was the head of the newly established federal road safety commission; FRSC, BEFORE EMBARKING ON HIS ARROGANT AND CHILDISH TANTRUMS.


There Can Be No Progress With The North

Not only did criminal northern leaders institutionalise corruption, planted social, economic and political injustices and destroyed the nation they are the enemies of progress that are opposed to anything that will advance nigeria. Untill the north is kicked out, nigeria cannever progress and the nation will ultimately collapse.

Re: Norher leaders are the most unprogresive and corrupt on eart

It honestly stumps me the way some people like you talk..... You don’t think before you talk? Though I know your type as always short sighted and narrow minded on national issues. You are a fool….so kept it up. But don't forget that that the looting you are talking about must have been a collaborative act by the three major regions which I believed is the usual thing in this country.

Northern leaders are the most unprogresive and corrupt on earth!

Northern leaders are the most corrupt criminals on planet earth. Look at how they looted and totally destroyed nigeria. Nothing works in nigeria because of the criminality of northern leaders who went about vandalising and looting the nation to destruction for more than 4 decades since independence. Northern leaders institutionalised corruption and corrupted the rest of the nation destroying the values of hard work and enterprise in the south.

There can be no progress untill the north is removed from nigeria. President Jonathan owes the south the duty to kick out the north once and for all!

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