By Soyombo Opeyemi
“IBA- For Those Who Went Before”, the preamble to the memoir of Prof. Wole Soyinka, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, is a narration of the author’s sombre cogitations while aboard a Lufthansa Airlines destined to swing over the old city of Lagos after five years of exile imposed on the playwright by the late ghoul, Sanni Abacha.
I had done a full review of the autobiography – which was an exulting experience – a decade ago. I am usually intrigued by a man that has expended the better part of his life on the crusade to see Nigeria emerge an egalitarian society. He is not alone on this road but has a slant to his activism – an intellectual of first magnitude and international figure.
Soyinka is a fecund and profound writer. I confess, I love his political works. So, I have returned to the memoir, this time not with the eye of a reviewer but simply to appreciate this literary and political work and share the experience with the reading public.
A poignant story of serial losses interspersed with brief but subdued hopes, this preamble chapter grips your soul on the burdens of grief, loneliness, empathy, vacation of natural habitat, of abandoned projects, orphanage, guilt, untimely death and forlorn hope that the author had carried in the five years of peripatetic existence in exile. And here was “The same white-haired monster, that same WANTED man with a price on his head, hunted the world over, who is headed home, steadily lubricated from the aircraft’s generous bar… Perhaps I am just a disembodied self usurping my body, strapped into a business-class seat in the plane, being borne to my designated burial ground – the cactus patch in the grounds of my home in Abeokuta.”
A man locked in a conversation with himself, Soyinka’s heart sank as he recalled the parallel between this return from exile and that of his soul-mate twelve years earlier. It was that same Lufthansa flight that bore the still form of Femi Johnson from Wiesbaden, Germany accompanied by the author, on whose shoulder it unexpectedly but ultimately fell to end “the unfathomable conspiracy to leave him in that foreign land like a stray without ties of family and friends.”
That remembrance also set in motion the pangs of other losses while the activist was abroad. His compeer, Ojetunde Aboyade – former VC of UNIFE, now OAU – had equally paid the debt of nature. “He was one of the breed of tireless intellectual sparring partners, cunning at fashioning theoretical propositions that were guaranteed to provoke you and keep you in animated debate until lunch dissolved into dinner, and then, late supper… No doubt, the human landscape that I left behind had altered irreversibly.”
Even more haunting was the murder of M.K.O. Abiola, the mystery which only the then United States’ officials, Thomas Pickering and Susan Rice, could explain: your host – the object of your visit – was served a cup of tea before your very eyes and there and then collapsed in your presence! The murderous plot did reach Soyinka through their ever reliable Aso Rock source. “It was all too late however, Abiola was already dying, his organs weakened by a devilish regimen of slow poisoning.” That was no doubt a lamentable denouement. Gen Abacha, the ‘Butcher of Abuja’ had, allegedly, slumped in the arms of one of his Indian concubines and the coast seemed clear for the imminent release of Abiola and resolution of the political crisis in which he was bound to play a major role. “Robbed of victory, imprisoned and isolated from human contact for nearly four years and then, on the eve of his second victory.. .- to end up – wasted!” A ‘lingering cruelty’ that must be!
The period of Soyinka’s exile also marked the epoch of repression only paralleled in history by Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Serial murder and incarceration of the opponents of the Fuhrer including journalists by the regime’s Gestapo. The era also marked the beginning of guerrilla journalism, which began before the dissident’s vacation of his cactus patch in Abeokuta.
As the homecomer’s mind went back and forth, he remembered some of those hit and run headlines and victims of their purveyors – Tell, The News, Tempo, etc: Sani Abacha bares his fangs; who killed Bagauda Kaltho?; Scandals rock Aso Rock; Abacha agents on rampage: mother killed, eleven year-old held hostage in police cell…!
Mr. Soyinka did not rule out the possibility of his being murdered abroad by the agents of Abacha. He might not have the fortunes of returning home to his hunting forays or his amateurish viniculture experience. Femi is gone. Oje is gone. Essay – the author’s father – had died while in exile, avoiding the jackboots of Gowon. Wild Christian – his mother – was equally no more. Even the seed of Essay Foundation might never fructify and his uncompleted house might die a hovel. But one thing must never happen. “Agitated by the thought that some misguided friends or family would take my remains to Nigeria, I announced publicly that, if the worst happened, I did not want Abacha’s triumphant feet galumphing over my body, and would settle for a surrogate earth of Jamaica. And I began preparations to buy a piece of land in Bekuta.”
Bekuta was a settlement of slave descendants from Abeokuta. But the matriarch, the only survivor of the original settlers that kept Egba spirit alive in distant Jamaica had passed on in the course of time and so were the festivals and mores that would leave any visitor from home (Nigeria) with mixed feelings. The elements had taken a cruel toll on the out-of-the-way village – finally breaking the spirit of Bekuta – thus dashing the activist hope of sleeping with his ancestors in distant Jamaica if the worst did happen. “Since hoping to find another Bekuta outside Nigeria was stretching the law of probability beyond limits, my mission in exile became even more personalized – to explore every second towards the retrieval of my cactus patch, but purged definitely of a tyrant’s triumphalist tread.”The worst did not happen. Soyinka is back to his cactus patch in Abeokuta, and still kicking at 83. Congratulations sir.
Soyombo, an author, writes via [email protected]