You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir
You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir

You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir

Apr 17, 2006

Full Video

Nobel Prize-winning author and activist Wole Soyinka discusses the current crisis in Nigeria where President Obasanjo tries to subvert the constitution and remain in power for a third term. Soyinka also calls for immediate UN intervention in Darfur.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us this morning as we welcome Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. He will be discussing his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn.

Much too often, the history of Africa reads like a tragic chronicle of political upheaval and change. Of late, it is a story of authoritarian rule and of vainglorious military dictators governing in a world of unparalleled corruption. And in the postcolonial era of Africa, it is also about the enormous challenges that individuals must grapple with when having to make the right choices about who will govern them.

For over thirty-five years, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, playwright, novelist, lecturer, teacher, actor, political and human rights activist Wole Soyinka has been in the forefront of protesting the tragic politics of his homeland, Nigeria.

In fact, during Nigeria's civil war in 1967, as he courageously spoke out on behalf of the disenfranchised voices of his countrymen, his life took a decisive turn. In appealing for a ceasefire during the Biafran crisis, our speaker was arrested, accused of conspiring with Biafran rebels, and was held as a political prisoner for twenty-two months, until his release in 1969. This story was recounted in a book called The Man Died: Prison Notes.

In writing about those turbulent times, our speaker established himself as one of the most compelling literary forces on the African continent. His words are often piercing, but the depth of his knowledge, combined with the heat of his rage and the beauty of his prose, are tools which Professor Soyinka employs to depict the brutalities of the time.

You Must Set Forth at Dawn is a personal narrative that comes alive mainly because Professor Soyinka uses his own personal experiences of protest, harassment, incarceration, and exile within a broader framework of historical and literary references, which ultimately expose the injustice that he witnessed in Nigeria.

Professor Soyinka, since your earlier acclaimed memoir, Aké: The Years of Childhood, so many of us have been waiting for the sequel that would vicariously take us beyond the days of your innocence to the more tumultuous years you lived as an adult. I now believe that this moment has arrived, for with the publication of You Must Set Forth at Dawn, you have once again succeeded in capturing our hearts and imprinting lasting impressions on our minds.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to the conscience of the African continent, our guest this morning, Wole Soyinka.

It is indeed an honor and a privilege to have you with us.


WOLE SOYINKA: I should first explain that these memoirs never should have been. I swore I would not write my memoirs after the age of innocence, which I put roughly at about eleven. That's when one begins to censor, to become inhibited in narrating one's experiences. Up to that age, one is very frank. Everything that happens as far as a child is concerned is open, accessible to all.

From that age, one begins to learn, in studying the conduct of adults and their relationships, to be a little bit more reticent, holding back.

So what's the point of an autobiography if you are not going to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

In addition, however, another reason why I wrote these memoirs was that I felt, as I grew older, that I was getting reduced, I was being nibbled at, that people were eating bits and pieces of me and then regurgitating the pieces and spitting them back at the public. I no longer recognized what or whom they were writing about. I'm talking about a different kind of critic, who doesn't bother much with a text, but studies where the author last sneezed, what he ate, where he stubbed his toe, whom he has been speaking to, and builds up a whole superstructure over a little core, a tiny factual core, sometimes even a factoid.

After a while, I thought I could recover a sense of myself by putting pen to paper. This, perhaps, was one of the reasons why I broke my wise early decision not to move beyond the age of innocence.

So that is one authorial justification for beginning to set down these memoirs.

The second, however, is far more political. It is also why I wrote Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years, which was never published here. It was an account of my early forays into the political life of Nigeria and my development, a pot-boiler account of my student days.

I was sent by the president-who-never-became-one, the late President Mashood Abiola. He won an election regarded by everyone as free, fair—easily the fairest and most orderly we ever had in Nigeria. The elections were annulled, and we set up a very heavy campaign, internally and outside, to actualize that mandate, which had been freely given by the people. One day he knocked on my door and asked if I would go to the United States to speak at a congressional hearing. A lobby had gotten some representatives together. They had tabled Nigeria for a hearing in Washington, D.C. He asked would I please go and lend my voice to narrate exactly what had happened.

So I flew out with twelve hours' notice to testify. It was an interesting experience, the first time I was ever up before congress people. Abacha's lobby was very heavy. They were paying three different companies, on retainer, millions of my money to actualize a lie.

It went very well, I thought. The ambassador of Nigeria came and had a good ride, as the Nigerians gutted and rocked his car. But at the end of it, when I was on my way back, I got a message: Would I please wait, stop over until Abiola himself came, and we could work out some more strategies?

That is how I became so actively involved in the attempt to actualize Abiola's mandate. He arrived and said, "I don't think you should go back yet. The Babangida group is gunning for you, and if you go home, you might find your passport taken or other forms of harassment." So I said, "Okay, I'll stay, if you think I'll be useful here."

Now, what do you do, as a writer, when you suddenly find that you are in an unplanned exile? As news came from Nigeria about how the military was digging in, how the hawks on the one side were sitting on Babangida, who, himself, was not over-reluctant to stay in power, and the positions were getting hardened, I realized that I was in for a longer exile than I had planned.

So I decided, "I'd better set down a few lines about what has been happening to me so far, what I've seen happen to Nigeria, so that when I go home," which looked as if it would be by the back route, "there might be a record." And that's how Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years came to be written.

I began thinking about the memoirs under nearly identical circumstances as happened with Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years. When Sani Abacha decided to hang on to power and began demolishing all his opponents, after about a year of dodging his people, the opposition got it together and impressed upon me the need to go once more into exile. The purpose? To set up an opposition radio station.

So I left Nigeria. Because the protests at the annulment of Abiola's election were so heavy, I was convinced that this would be, maximum, a year's battle. One year became two years, three years. Again, I found myself in an identical position of beginning to plan to return through the clandestine route, the smugglers' route.

Not many people have anxieties about their survival, except through illness. In our case, this is political illness. I thought I might catch this flu if I attempted to go back into Nigeria, and I did not know whether I would survive.

So I decided on "Penkelemes 2," and that is how the memoirs began. You must forgive me for inflicting this third one on you. After Aké, I said, "No more." Then there was "Son of Aké," and finally, "Aké Rides Again," which makes the title very appropriate: You Must Set Forth at Dawn.

One of the comments made so far by some of the reviewers has been that there is so little of my personal life in there. For me, biographies after one's childhood are interesting only if they extend outside oneself and serve to trigger memories, reminders, in participants in one's life drama, or else even create contention.

We die at such a fast rate in Nigeria that many of the principal actors in one's life story just keep conking off. So it's better to set something down quickly while they are alive and can dispute the facts, and then we can continue the dialogue from there.

History has an unpleasant way of repeating itself. It gets very boring. Some of the events narrated in the memoirs are repeating themselves in Nigeria today. For many of you here who have been following Africa closely, your attention has shifted away from the Congo, perhaps. You are looking anxiously towards what is happening between Ethiopia and Eritrea. But Sudan and Darfur, firstly, and then maybe, secondly, Nigeria, are the two potential flashpoints in the minds of many Africa-watchers today.

In Nigeria, we have a most unexpected repeat of the kinds of events which provoked the writing of my memoirs. We have a situation where a "democratically elected" president [Olusegun Obasanjo] has been struggling, using all kinds of means to try to subvert the constitution to give himself a third term.

Rallies against his attempt are broken up brutally by the police. Former politicians who formed opposition parties are tear-gassed at rallies. The government's own mechanism for trying to force the acceptance of these changes by the populace, in the guise of consultations, is headed by one [Ibrahim] Mantu, who goes around to various cities and proposes the amendments which would allow the president to stay on for another term of office. Even his own rallies become disrupted simply because the opposition is supposed to come and make their point, but no—suddenly the area is cordoned off and declared a security zone. The minute an opposing voice approaches and is recognized, he is beaten up and dragged off by the SSS. This is a democratic dispensation.

I give you these details because we may be entering yet another round. Many of you may wonder, what on earth is going on in Nigeria? This is supposed to be a democratic government. How is it that once again this seventy-two-year-old man is manning the barricades? The fact is that another seventy-two-year-old man is trying to subvert my political existence and the political rights and dignity and respect which every single citizen is supposed to be entitled to, under any kind of law.

For those of you who are in a position of influence, I was very happy to note the statement by Negroponte [testifying before a Senate committee] in which he warned about the potential destabilization of the Nigerian polity if this process continues. I had breakfast with the German ambassador in Nigeria about six weeks ago, and he was assuring me that no, no, no, Obasanjo had absolutely no intention, that he could not do it. It's not possible. He met him a few days before. He has such a good sense of honor that he would not attempt it. He would lose everything. He has become a statesman. He handed over power voluntarily. There was no way he was going to do this.

The other flashpoint I mentioned was the Sudan, where refugees are being attacked even in their own camps by the Janjaweed. The war has spread into Chad, creating a very complex situation in that part of the continent.

Why, after Rwanda, is it taking so long for there to be very positive action in Sudan? Kofi Annan and Colin Powell have been in Darfur. So in addition to the reports of the intrepid journalists who first exposed the situation, you have authoritative voices, witnesses to what's happening in the area. I am mystified that, after the failure to take seriously the warnings in Rwanda, with the abundance of evidence and warnings which have come from the Sudan, the global community—and the United Nations, which ultimately bears the responsibility—have taken so long to act.

This timeworn slogan of "a family affair" has to come to an end. The African Union (AU) has a habit of saying, "We'll handle it. Keep off. Don't make any sanctions yet. We'll talk. We have a peer-review commission, during which we talk frankly to one another."

The Sudanese government is talking very frankly to Darfur, and their language of frankness is one which destroys the fabric of society and dehumanizes the people of the region.

At times like these, when an organization like the AU or any other regional organization seems to be slow or is incapable of redressing a situation of gross human violations, it should become immediately a UN responsibility. African soldiers serve everywhere—from Lebanon to the Balkans, in Yugoslavia. Nobody said then, "It is a family affair in Yugoslavia, please. We don't want non-native soldiers here." Why should the African Union, if it cannot act, have the right to keep other people out?

By now, an equivalent of the NATO forces that went into Yugoslavia, and restored the ethnic Albanians to their rightful homes—that kind of operation should be in effect in Darfur today.

So one appeal that I would make to all the groups is to find some means of terminating this inadequate acceptance of responsibilities, when we do have a global mechanism that can override those partial acceptances.

Those are the two major issues I place before you today.

JOANNE MYERS: I would like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: You said that what was done in Yugoslavia should be done now in Sudan. I was projecting myself back into 1999 and remembering those weeks when wave after wave of NATO bombers were attackingYugoslavia. The television station was taken out, and trains, with people in them—the unfortunate mistakes or collateral damage that happen in war.

NATO did this without authorization from the Security Council because they were afraid of a Russian veto.

Let's suppose they did this in Sudan today or tomorrow. They would probably still be afraid of a Russian or a Chinese veto, so there would not be a resolution in the Security Council. We would have on our front pages and on our television screens pictures of Sudanese men, women, and children killed by NATO bombings, and the ethnic cleansing would be speeded up in Darfur, as it was in Kosovo during those weeks.

You would probably speak up and say, "This may not be done in the right way, but it's the right thing to do, and Africans should support it." But how many African intellectuals and people who purport to speak for Africans would take that line? This is, in a way, what the Sudanese government is presenting to us all the time: "If you hand this over to the UN, it will be like Iraq, it will be like Afghanistan. Another African country, another Muslim country, another Arab country will be subjected to this savage bombardment by Western, white powers, by the madman Bush and his henchman Blair."

Do you think that NATO or the United Nations is capable of acting in this way under that kind of barrage of criticism, and given the incredible tension between north and south that we see not only in the UN, but in many parts of the world today?

WOLE SOYINKA: When I said that the UN should go in, we are now talking in terms of military language, strategies, and tactics. I'm not advocating bombing even the home of the president in the Sudan. I am saying that there is already a most inadequate African peacekeeping force. There should be a much larger, United Nations-backed force.

The actual amount of military force that is used has to be proportionate and related to the obstruction that is placed in the way of carrying out the mission of the United Nations.

Do you remember the Dutch general who sat helplessly while very violent cleansing was taking place—totally helpless, simply because of inadequate force? He didn't need to bomb the Serbs. All he needed was an adequate force to intervene and prevent the violence against the other side.

So I'm not talking about massive bombardment or stealth planes or cluster bombs or anything of the sort. What is required is the exertion of the principle of authority, for the United Nations to say, "The Africa peacekeeping troops are inadequate. We will supply the logistics for ferrying even more troops there to keep the peace."

The developing world is very suspicious of the superpowers, and especially distrustful of America and its motives. But this is where management comes in. I wouldn't recommend that American troops be sent there. But the United States can give logistical support to the African or Indian or Nepalese troops.

Look at the furor in the Arab world, the Islamic world, over the publication of the cartoons, the alleged desecration of the image of the prophet Muhammad. These are not images which are being desecrated in Darfur. If there can be that level of moral outrage because of the desecration of an image by one individual editor and some cartoonists, the Arab nations should be taking the lead in redressing the situation in Darfur, because this violation is being carried out in the name of Arab purity.

There's no question at all about the racist angle of what is happening in Sudan. The Arab nations should be the ones who take the lead against their renegade brothers and sisters in the Sudan if they want to earn the approbation of the world.

Very often we permit ourselves to succumb to the demands and language of political correctness. This is one of the crippling mechanisms of the United Nations and world organizations. The Arab nations should be encouraged to take the lead in the Sudan.

QUESTION: Obasanjo is probably the one African leader in whom the West reposed the most hope in recent years. Should one imagine that everybody was wrong, and that this fellow always harbored authoritarian tendencies? Or is it, rather, that Nigerian political culture, for all that it is democratic, either is also so deeply authoritarian or has such authoritarian currents that even a person like Obasanjo, who is better in many ways than his predecessors—he, too, succumbed to this "big man" mentality and came to see himself as indispensable, and therefore threw away all the democratic restraints?

WOLE SOYINKA: It's a mixture of the two.

I know Obasanjo intimately. I refer to him very often as my friend. But as some newspaper commentators have said, with friends like yours, who needs enemies?

We haven't spoken to each other, the way we used to, for the last few months, since this became clear. But when we did interact, I was able to get a good measure of the man. I can say categorically that, yes, he does have authoritarian tendencies, but then he also very much wants approval by the international community. He does also have a vision of Nigeria. He has certainly taken the lead. He has been the most forceful anticorruption leader we have had, using the instrumentation of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to establish that there are no sacred cows. But this is also being used to get rid of political enemies.

There's nothing endemic in the Nigerian nature towards authoritarianism. Independence did not come in a straightforward way. The memoirs of some of the British colonial officers note that they were instructed by the Home Office to rig the first elections, so as to give power to the less progressive side of the nation. The British not only rigged the elections, they even rigged the census to make lopsided the proportional relation between the north and the south in terms of population and to ensure that power remained with the north, which the British felt could be more easily manipulated after independence.

As a result, some areas of Nigeria feel that they are divinely appointed to rule. It has been a contest for power, rather than for service, participation. The issue of power, of who runs Nigeria, has become obsessive. It transfers from groups to individuals. The military came in and contested one after the other.

So you never had the culture of democratic participation, even during those periods when we had democratically elected rulers. One side always felt, and could prove, that elections had somehow been manipulated. We have not gotten over that syndrome.

Now, Obasanjo was a very reluctant president. He was plucked from prison. The elections were manipulated. Somehow, the fact that he came into power was not too bad, since we needed a bridge—a former military man who had ruled the military, who tasted the other side, being a prisoner, and was very nearly shot for alleged coup plotting. Many Nigerians felt that, despite all that they knew about him, the human side of him surely must come to the fore. Not many people have the experience of virtually walking away from the gallows at the very last moment. So the combination made people, both outside and inside, repose a great deal of confidence in Obasanjo.

Once he got there, power went to his head. Today he thinks that he's indispensable and that Nigeria will collapse without him.

QUESTION: A few months ago, Obasanjo spoke here at the Council on Foreign Relations, and I said to him, "Transparency International puts your country very low on the corruption index. Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Do you have any comment on that?" He was quite angry that I asked such a question, because he was one of the advisers of Transparency International, of which I am also a member.

I would be interested in your observations on the issue of corruption in Nigeria and in Africa generally.

WOLE SOYINKA: I nearly interrupted you to say, "And he blew up, I suppose."

Obasanjo doesn't like to be contradicted. Even when we are alone, speaking frankly to each other, he blows up. Then you have to say to him, "Listen, you can blow up as much as you want. This happens to be the truth. You cannot escape from it." He can storm off. A few minutes later, he will come back, open another bottle of beer, and we will continue the conversation.

Corruption has eaten deeply into Nigerian society and into much of African society. But much of that responsibility also lies with the outside world, the trading partners, the multinational corporations, who place tempting, irresistible deals before our leaders. The culture of dictatorship has not helped matters. These companies, and the Western world, for a long time, loved the myth of the strong man. Mobutu Sese Seko could not have acquired as much as he did without the shameless complicity of the Belgian government and the Swiss banks. Most of the money which has been siphoned away was done so with the assistance of the international banking industry.

Businesses encouraged the strong-man syndrome, because all they had to do is pick up the phone and say, "Listen, where's your account? Can we do what we like here without intervention? If the natives get restless, would you please get ready to send a few soldiers?"

It has been a collaborative system of corruption.

I praised Obasanjo just now, that, very belatedly, he has begun to do something about it. He has unleashed the EFCC, and we are having some very big names quaking in their boots, making confessional statements and working out deals. It's the first time in Africa that a chief of police was hauled up before the courts for massive corruption, disgraced, and thrown out of office.

But this man was charged with having stolen thirteen billion naira. What did he get in the end? Six months in jail, all of which he spent in prison hospital. Six months for a man in that position who abuses office.

We had unsolved murders, the sack of an estate by an assistant inspector-general of police, disappearances. Corruption goes beyond the mere stealing of money. It's destroying the fabric of society.

Why was he given a slap on the wrist? The question you have to ask is, how did the inspector-general of police acquire so much money in such a short time? It's simple. The money was not all his. He was also being used as a laundry basket. This is linked with what happened during the elections, monitored by my good friend Jimmy Carter, who is sometimes rather indulgent towards dictators. Even he said he had never seen anything so brazen as what purported to be Nigeria's last elections. What instrument was used to rig those elections? Of course, the police.

So if you wonder how all that money came into the account of this man and why he got away with only six months, you must go back to the politics of Nigeria and begin to understand why some of us keep screaming, "This is not an election. This is naked fascism."

So politics, greed, and outside collaboration are the reasons for the phenomenon of corruption in the African continent.

QUESTION: Can you expand your discussion of Nigeria to the individual person living in the country? What can be done to allocate more resources to all of the people?

WOLE SOYINKA: We have been tackling the issues of structural imbalance in Nigeria, working towards the decentralization of government—in other words, more autonomy, more direct control of economic and development policies by the state, by the local governments. Some of you have heard of the Pro-National Conference Organisation (PRONACO), which was our alternative to Obasanjo's attempt to manipulate the constitution. Obasanjo's so-called consultative conference on political reforms was a response to our attempt to tackle the constitution in a most fundamental way and a more inclusive way. PRONACO has been holding its plenary sessions, despite threats and violence by the government, because the constitution which exists right now has been continuously a bequest of just a few people. For the first time, an exercise is going on, consultative to local governments, ethnic nationalities, and civil rights groups.

This involves also the Niger Delta region, where very militant action is ongoing. I got to speak to some of the militants, even those who were holding the hostages. Fortunately, with a combination of the international community and civil rights groups, we were able to ease the intransigence of the militants.

However, the same thing will happen again, unless the federal government agrees to and is seen to execute the agreement which was signed by the federal government and the Delta militants.

The situation is very different from Iraq, I assure you. It is a different breed of people. What did the trick eventually was that the negotiating team was able to persuade the militants that this time an international body would supervise the implementation of the agreement. The militants said, "We had an agreement the other time, and all the federal government is doing is sending its air force to come and bomb us." But this time both the British and American governments agreed that they would set up a monitoring body to supervise the implementation.

Let me relate an interesting incident which occurred two years ago, before this most recent militant action, which didn't surprise many of us. A fleet of buses arrived in Abuja, the capital, out of nowhere. The caravan would stop, and the occupants would come out, walk around, look, go back inside the buses, move to the next stop. They went to the secretariat; they went to the banking structures; they went to the hotels. They didn't say anything to anyone. Then they disappeared.

Later on, we discovered that the communities in oil-producing areas had contributed money, hired these buses, picked their representatives, and driven to Abuja, because they wanted to see how their money was being spent. They didn't say anything to anyone. They didn't give a press conference. They just went on the trip, and then they went back.

Who should have been surprised if military action then began some months after that, and why these youths are so motivated, so dedicated, and ready to risk their lives for the amelioration of conditions?

So listening, observing, and refusing to be alienated simply because you are in the seat of power: those are the conditions which we are trying to impose on successive regimes. Very often, they don't listen.

QUESTION: You described the situation in Darfur and that the African Union, even though it sent troops, hasn't been able to affect the situation. Why do the African nations lack the political will to do something in Darfur, given that this is a case of ethnic cleansing against black people?

WOLE SOYINKA: It's the problem of leadership all over again, leadership and the will to act, and to act without this handcuff called political intimacy—let's criticize each other behind closed doors. Then one side gives promises— and the Sudanese government has given promises to the AU. Those promises were just to buy time.

What we need is African leadership which stares starkly at the realities, rather than the pronouncements of government. When that will happen, how soon that will happen, whether it will happen before the Sudanese government has achieved its goal—which is to cleanse those areas—I do not know.

QUESTION: How can the media shape the political culture in Nigeria?

WOLE SOYINKA: Let me pay a compliment to the Nigerian media, which certainly is one of the strongest, boldest, and most irrepressible in the entire African continent, including South Africa. For instance, it was one of the magazines which began the exposé of the inspector-general of police.

They are very investigative, and they have contributed quite a lot to the modest amount of moral cleansing (for a change) that has taken place in Nigeria. Of course, they must be at the forefront—not only in Nigeria, but in Africa—because the moment an exposure is made in the foreign media, the response of the powers that be is, "Oh, they're just trying to trash African governments. They don't know what's going on. We know whom they're working for. They're Bush people; they're Blair people. We can ignore them." But when the information comes from within, it naturally strengthens the hand of civil society and leads eventually to remedial action.

The media definitely has played a very strong role. What is required now is for the civil society to be strong enough to take on the government directly.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for being our window into Nigeria and Africa today.

You may also like

JUN 14, 2024 Article

A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Sophie Flint

This interview series profiles members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort. This discussion features Sophie Flint, a a project manager for Strategic Resource Group.

Left to Right: Nikolas Gvosdev, Tatiana Serafin, Peter Goodman. CREDIT: Noha Mahmoud.

JUN 13, 2024 Podcast

How the World Ran Out of Everything, with Peter S. Goodman

In the final "Doorstep" podcast, "New York Times" reporter Peter Goodman discusses how geopolitics is connected to the goods that end up on our doorstep.

JUN 4, 2024 Article

Space-Based Data Risks to Refugee Populations

Space-based data is quite useful for observing environmental conditions, but Zhanna Malekos Smith writes that it also raises privacy concerns for vulnerable populations.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation