image of book cover - Of Africa
image of book cover - Of Africa

Of Africa

Jan 14, 2013

In this masterful talk, Nobel-Prize winner Wole Soyinka focuses on Nigeria and Mali. Mali must be taken back, he declares. "To permit an enclave of extreme, violent fundamentalism [in Mali] is letting the door wide open to fundamentalist violence, not merely in Nigeria, but throughout West Africa."


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 for joining us as we welcome the prodigiously creative and politically bold 1986 Nobel laureate for literature, Wole Soyinka, to this Public Affairs Program.

Mr. Soyinka will be discussing his most recent work, entitled Of Africa, in which he explores many of Africa’s current crises and points the way to cultural and political renewal.

Many critics consider Mr. Soyinka to be Africa's finest living writer. Through drama, poetry, essays, and his memoirs, he has documented the struggles not only of his homeland, Nigeria, but of the African continent as a whole. His work serves as a record of political turmoil and reflects Africa’s struggle to reconcile tradition with modernization. His words, to some, seem piercing. Even so, the depth of his knowledge, combined with the beauty of his prose, makes us even more aware of the brutalities of the time.

In modern accounts, the history of Africa reads like a tragic chronicle of political upheaval, stories of authoritarian rule and of vainglorious military dictators governing in a world of unparalleled corruption. But as the second-largest continent on earth, and the second most populous one, with more than a billion people living in 56 different countries, Africa is so much more than the myths propagated by others.

In Of Africa, Mr. Soyinka uses the 2001 Millennium Commission Report on Africa, spearheaded by the then-secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, as a springboard to both assess critical problems such as famine, religions, ethnic violence, and disease, and to challenge us to muse on a broader imperial discourse that will bring both Africa and the West into alignment. Mr. Soyinka invites us to broaden our aesthetic and accept African standards of art, literature, religion, as he tells us that if Africa's contributions to history have been diminished in the cultural and intellectual valuation of outsiders, perhaps we need to reconsider how we think about this continent, as Africa remains an untapped resource of vast intellectual and spiritual material capable of contributing to a world beset by violent divisions.

Just what is this Africa that Mr. Soyinka so beautifully describes, and what is it that Africa possesses that the rest of the globe does not already have in superabundance? For the answer, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to one of the most compelling literary forces on the African continent and in the West, our guest today, Wole Soyinka.


WOLE SOYINKA: Good morning. Thank you for being here. I will, first of all, let you into a publishing secret. This book, Of Africa, was originally to have been part of a series by Yale University Press: "why such-and-so matters"—"why philosophy matters," "why religion matters," et cetera. I was invited to write "why Africa matters" in the series. I must confess to you that after struggling with it for some time—and, of course, the book has to deal with a fixed format as a series, only so many pages et cetera—after a while, I said, "I cannot do this. It's too big a burden."

Why? Why should anything matter? Africa is. It matters to whom? At one stage, I confess, I actually gave up. I said, "I would rather do something else."

Anyway, I had a marvelous, very stubborn editor—a marvelous editor—and she was not about to take no for an answer. So we pushed and pushed, and finally got it down to the right size, format, the kind of structure wanted. And then guess what happened? Another editor comes along and he says, "What’s this doing in the series? This should be on its own." His expression—a trade book, something like that. Anyway, they took it out of the series.

Then the problem was, what do we call it? At one stage, he said, "I know what. We'll just call it Africa."

I said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. That’s hubris. Let’s qualify it just a little." So we looked for various qualifications. In the end, I said, "I’m talking about Africa, so let’s make it 'Of.' I can say anything I want, as little as I want," and so on and so forth. That’s the book which you have before you.

I know that for most of you here, foreign affairs people and followers, there will be two spots which probably occupy you at this moment quite intensely, those two being the area around Mali, including Nigeria, where it all began, and the Congo, especially.

I’m not going to talk much about the Congo, one, because that situation, apart from being distant from me, is so complex. Its history goes back such a long way, the Congo arena, that it’s not something one can just touch on lightly. The complexities there, the resources there, which of course began it all, the region of Katanga and so on— it's just an enormous pit of anxieties and crises which keeps bubbling up from time to time.

In addition, I know that my friend President Kagame is under fire and has been accused in places of fueling some of the problems, supporting the rebels, the rebels here and there. I don't really know very much—even though we met in Lagos quite recently. One never knows with presidents and politicians and men of war. I'm not willing to say anything here which might be prejudiced by the fact that he's somebody I happen to admire because of what he’s achieved after the Rwandan massacres, an unprecedented act of recovery and of handling the past, which, to me, should be considered on a par with what happened after apartheid in South Africa. So I have that kind of background record of prejudice.

So I shall talk, in effect, about Nigeria and Mali. Let me explain to you how it began in Nigeria, what we're witnessing today. The other reason I'm talking about Nigeria, of course, is that Nigeria is the latest arena of religion-fueled crisis on the African continent. It is simply the latest.

Of course, it was not always so. The circumstances, the events which led to Nigeria becoming, shall we say, the center of, I'll call it, an aspect of religious imperialism—of course, those circumstances are not just religious; those circumstances are also political.

In my childhood, I grew up in a Christian family, a religious family. But the harmony, the harmonious coexistence that existed between Christians and Muslims, on the one hand, and animists, followers of the traditional religions—that kind of coexistence, if one speaks about it today, will sound as if this is one of those stories of the good old days, the better old days. But, alas, it is a fact.

What has happened since to turn Nigeria into a hotbed of religious intolerance—murderous levels of religious intolerance? It began, of course, with the struggle for political power.

What did the British do when they were decolonizing? As always, the colonial powers, whether it's France, Britain, or Italy, wherever they could, tried to make sure that power was left in the hands of the most pliant section of the nation so that there could be a continuity of control which catered to the interests of the departing colonial powers. The British—and this is not just speculation; it's all coming out in the wash, now that the statute of limitations on information and so on have expired—if you get hold of a book by Harold Smith, who was a British colonial officer in Nigeria during independence, you'll be able to be enlightened about the methods which the British used to ensure that power went to one part of the country; that is, to the more or less feudal north.

Not only was the first political result, the immediate pre-independence election result falsified by the British; even the census was falsified to ensure that power went to the more or less feudal north—less Westernized, not as radical as the southern part. Not only did they ensure that power went to the north, but they left mechanisms to ensure that power remained there.

This legacy, directly or indirectly, led to the first military coup in 1966, when a group of young soldiers rebelled and took over the reins of power in the north. It was a very bloody coup, which witnessed the murder of the then-prime minister, Tafawa Balewa, the premier of the north, which then held power; Ahmadu Bello; and some senior officers in the army. There followed a revenge coup. That saw to the elimination of the first military dictator, if you like, Aguiyi-Ironsi, who was an Igbo man. It was largely directed against the Igbo, because those who made the first coup were largely Igbo. The northerners felt that it was directed against northern leadership. So it was a counter-slaughter.

This slaughter then carried on. There was what we call a mini-elimination, mini-genocide, if you like, against Igbo in the north. They were hounded back to the east.

This counter-coup was followed by yet another gory passage of killings. Igbos were hounded everywhere, et cetera, et cetera, and this led to the Igbo deciding to secede from Nigeria. The secession failed. It eventually led to the civil war. The Hausa-controlled military was now in charge—the leader was actually Christian, by the way, from what is called the Middle Belt—General Yakubu Gowon. The north was sort of pacified as a result of that, but the simmering continued. The Igbo continued to feel marginalized.

Eventually, years later, there was yet another coup, which, frankly, did not carry any ethnic tinges at all. It was a straightforward military coup. The soldiers who took part were both Muslim and Christian. It was staged against General Yakubu Gowon, who was planning to turn himself into a permanent ruler of Nigeria. The soldiers wanted to go back to barracks and re-form the culture of the military. Corruption was rife, of course—one of the main accusations, as always. Corruption everywhere. It was becoming institutionalized. That was a straightforward coup d’état.

After that, a succession of coups d’état, which eventually threw up, as far as I was concerned, one of the most brutal dictatorships we ever had—that of General Sani Abacha. That was during the time when I was compelled to take what I called a political sabbatical away from Nigeria for some time.

I'm back in Nigeria. I have been back a number of years, for those who still ask the question, "Where do you live now?" I do live in Nigeria. I have lived there for the last few years.

Eventually, we democratized. The moment democratization took place, the old tensions, of course, resurfaced, as the decision had to be taken regarding who should hold the reins of democratic power. Somebody from the south who was an ex-military ruler but now civilianized—General Olusegun Obasanjo—took over the reins of power, and with him, political elements in the north felt that the south had now had its turn. Obasanjo was there for eight years. He was a southerner. He was a former military ruler. When he came back, he had two terms of office. The North felt that power should now shift back to their region.

The north felt that this was compulsory —not just a gentlemen's understanding. The business of alternation between north and south was entrenched in the constitution of the ruling party, the NPN [National Party of Nigeria]. Within that party understanding, they would always present candidates alternately between the north and the south. The Nigerian constitution does not recognize such an arrangement, but within the party this was the understanding.

After Obasanjo, the NPN fielded a northerner, Yar'Adua, who was already a sick man. He had a terminal disease. His running mate was the current president, Goodluck Jonathan.

There was a bizarre episode into the second year of Yar'Adua’s presidency—many will be aware of it—when Yar'Ardua virtually became a ghost president. The whole nation kept asking, "Is he alive? Is he dead?" The nation was ruled for some time by what we called—"we," the media and people like me—what we called the secret cabal, which issued orders in his name. He was flown to Saudi Arabia at one time for treatment. He was flown suddenly back under the cover of darkness. Was he well? Was he capable of functioning as president?

His wife was involved in this. In fact, I publicly accused her of spousal abuse because I felt that the president was being held prisoner at the time. Heavy contracts were being signed in his name. It was a very, very unusual situation, in which some carefully selected individuals were invited to just pop in and say hello and return, announcing to the nation that they had seen the president and he was well. But he was never filmed. Nobody actually ever saw images of him. Nobody heard his voice. He raised his hand once to wave goodbye, they said, so he was okay. This dragged on for weeks. It was amazing. And why? That’s important. Why was this taking place?

For the ruling party, it was critical for the president, Yar'Adua, to remain alive as long as was possible while they arranged his successor from the north, because Jonathan, the vice president, was from the south. So this game went on for a long time. Eventually it was no longer possible to hide the fact that Yar'Adua was dead. So Jonathan was sworn in. Even when he was sworn in, the Cabal determined that he would not automatically—the constitution says that the vice president must be sworn in as president. But no. They started bickering over terminologies—"acting president?" "deputy president?"—all kinds of formulae not in the constitution.

I’m narrating this so you understand the tensions that were going on during the long, six, seven months, when the president of the most populous nation in Africa was completely hidden away until he was brought in under the dark, in a most irregular manner, in which the military was involved without knowledge of his deputy. In fact, Nigerians thought that they were witnessing a coup. So it became a desperate issue, the succession. That's really where we are headed—the succession.

Several formulae were presented to Jonathan. Okay, he could become president, but he had to sign an agreement. All this was not in the formal public domain but I'm telling you that these were some of the mystery tales that came out of this situation.

He was given conditions: He could sign on as president, "but you will only complete the remaining term of Yar'Adua. You will not run for office in your own right, because the presidency is now supposed to go to the north."

However, Jonathan stood election, won election, and is now the current president.

Then rumors began to filter out that Jonathan was planning to run in his own right for a second term, as constitutionally allowed. This group, which I call hardcore northerners—I always try to make this distinction; Jonathan has some northern supporters and he has opposition in the south as well—the divisions are not as rigid as often projected. But, as I’ve said publicly, in Nigeria there is a hardcore north which believes that power must always remain in the north, who openly declared that it had only been lent to the south for a while and was now due for return.

When they began to fear that Jonathan was going to run for a second term, they saw power receding, because the rest of the country was saying, "Look, whatever arrangements you make within your party, that’s your business. This is not a constitutional thing. Everybody is entitled to run for office, including Jonathan, because the constitution allows it."

As I said in a long interview in TheNews magazine once, this hardcore north began to prepare for war, for internal unrest—virtually for war. It was this hardcore group which activated the almajiri [Muslim students], which brought to the fore the difference, the religious difference, and exploited it. They began to send the almajiri outside for training, to Somalia, to Mauritania, and in recent times even to Afghanistan. They began to pile up homemade bombs, even rockets.

This hardcore north believed that their mission was every bit as justified as—you must have heard of the MEND [Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta], the Delta unrest, whose militants came and virtually held the government to ransom, because they felt that they were not receiving their fair share of oil revenue, whereas their land was steadily degraded from oil drilling. It's a long history, if you want to go into that. You all remember Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged by Sani Abacha because of this struggle.

This hardcore group believed that their cause was every bit as justified as that of MEND, which was one of the most absurd claims in the history of struggle.

So when they were ready, they unleashed the almajiri on the nation. The motivating factor, the message, for these almajiri was, "Your religion is in danger. It's in danger from the south. Unless we get rid of these southerners at the helm of office, your religion is doomed." If you remember, one of the wild statements made by this movement, which is called the Boko Haram—one of their spokesmen said that they would not even talk to the president of Nigeria unless he converted and became Muslim.

For the foot soldiers, in the main, it remains a religious issue. With the exception of a few of the furtive leaders however, maybe one or two of the hardcore northerners, the leaders are just cynical politicians after power, but who have unscrupulously unleashed religious emotionalism to fuel the total commitment, passion, and single-mindedness of those whom we call today Boko Haram.

What happened in the meantime, however, was that—the almajiri are not quite the same almajiri who trained in the Nigerian madrasas [Muslim schools], who sit at the feet of the mullahs and virtually ingest the Koran. Certainly not. It's a new breed of almajiri. The hordes of the unwashed, shirtless, jobless, and so on—the solid hardcore almajiri, who were sent for training—have also seen another breed of Islam that you might call the Islamic purists. They met them in Mauritania, they sat at the feet of the teachers, met them in Somalia, some of them, of course, in Afghanistan.

They soon began by settling scores among themselves. Anybody who wants to prove that the struggle for political power is involved in this just has to look at the history, the trajectory of the Boko Haram. You realize that they began by settling scores among themselves. I'm talking about the northerners. They even brought an ex-governor to heel—and a sitting governor to heel—by warning him that if he did not apologize for the attack on their leaders, which they said was unwarranted, which they claim was unprovoked, that it was instigated by a political rival in the north, his whole family would be eliminated. He made an abject apology in the papers for the killing of Yusuf, their leader.

There were therefore, first of all, political scores to be settled. But then the main mission—to destroy all other religions except theirs and turn Nigeria into an Islamic state—that took over. Their understanding of Islam is a very purist one. They looked at those who had unleashed them and said, "Wait a minute. You're just as impure as the rest. You have all these mansions. You have private jets. You're driving around in expensive SUVs, flying all over the place," and so on. "You'e not good Muslims."

So the killings continue among even nonpolitical rivals, but also politicians. It extended to retired officers and so on and so forth. Today it’s sometimes difficult to understand who, really, the Boko Haram consider their enemies. Churches, of course, are first targets everywhere. Wherever possible, they bomb them and/or machine-gun the worshippers. Then they move to markets, marketplaces, where people are just minding their small, petty trade, eking out a living. They throw the bombs indiscriminately. They machine-gun the customers, the traders and clients. Sometimes they make the excuse—"Oh, somebody here gave some information to the military or the police."

They move to the urban areas. Those of you who know Nigeria know that the most luxurious way of traveling around for many is on the back of a motorcycle. We call them okadas. They move to the okada park, these motorcyclists, day and night, rain or sun, who carry passengers around. There's a gory picture, which I’ve never forgotten. It looks almost like some kind of motorcycle acrobatics display in which the motorcyclists went all the way down in a row, just like that. But no, it wasn't, of course. They were all dead. The motorcyclists were just blown apart where they parked—one of the latest atrocities.

And, of course, the Boko Haram—this is a name given to them, because their slogan is "Boko haram," "The book is anathema." "Western education is a sin." That's what boko haram stands for. They have one of these longwinded names, "the pure path of defenders of Islam et cetera et cetera" But the whole of Nigeria knows them just as Boko Haram.

Among their many targets are schools. They closed down the University of Maiduguri by waves and waves of attack. They went to an institute very recently, a tertiary institute, in Mubi, Bauchi state. They had done their homework, because when they got there, they had a list of names. Now, why these students were targeted remains a mystery—whether they had been reported to Boko Haram for speaking against the movement or whatever—but they went there with a list and called out the students one by one, shot or knifed them to death. About 46 students were massacred in one day in cold blood. Anything at all which has to do with books, education, Western education, is haram—forbidden. The rampages go on, of course, until today.

I’m sort of delineating the various areas they target just to indicate how difficult it has become for outsiders and insiders as well—people outside the movement—to pinpoint what they actually want. But, of course, they have declared it from the very beginning. When the government says sometimes, "Come and talk to us. Come and talk to us," some of us don’t understand that, because they've already said what they want. There are always ancillary targets along the way. But this is a fundamentalist, murderous Islamic sect, which targets streamline Muslims just as viciously as it targets the Christians, who, of course, are the first-line targets.

Sometimes Nigerians—one has to remind them from time to time—forget that we've been through this before. We had the Maitatsine, an extreme and deviant Islamic movement, for whom, in fact, the principal and main—almost entire—targets were the orthodox Muslims. The Maitatsine, who were the new Luddites, if you like, of the Islamic movement, who believe that, not just books, but anything to do with modern inventions—motorcycles, motorcars, planesare haram. So anything above a bicycle, they killed the rider or the owner.

They succeeded in gradually building an enclave in the ancient city of Kano, which they made impregnable. Eventually the government had to take them out. The police failed. The military failed. The air force had to bomb them out of existence. The Maitasine took prisoners, they waylaid trains, until eventually the movement was crushed.

So there’s nothing extraordinary in Nigeria with extreme movements coming from time to time. They have been there before, not necessarily so murderous.

Within Islam itself, there is enormous conflict of doctrine, degrees of purism, if you like. When this latest began, it was an echo of the Maitatsine, but the government failed to understand this early and tackle it the way it should, in my view, have been tackled. It was treated as a legitimate social protest within the nation—accurately, yes—there were issues of unemployment, marginalization, corruption, all these factors exist and they are legitimately cited. But fundamentally we have a virus, which is not peculiar to Nigeria, and that’s the virus of extremism. What has been happening outside has finally landed in Nigeria, with a vengeance.

We’ve had Abdulmutallab, who tried to bomb a plane over Detroit. I was certainly one of those who criticized the United States when there was a move to declare Nigeria a terrorist state because of what at the time we thought was just an aberrant individual. But no, this thing had begun before Abdulmutallab. It is the Nigerian politicians who unleashed it against the populace in the first place.

And now Mali. My position on Mali is absolutely clear. If Mali is not taken back—and I've said this to our foreign minister, I've said it publicly, I've said it to our government officials—if Mali is not taken back, Nigeria is permanently destabilized. In fact, for me, it's already very late. To permit an enclave in West Africa, an enclave of extreme, violent fundamentalism, is absolutely letting the door wide open to fundamentalist violence, not merely in Nigeria, but throughout West Africa. That place—northern Mali—is now available for regrouping, rearming, and attracting hordes of volunteers. This is a place that's now a refuge for them, northern Mali, where they can all go.

I think the AU [African Union] now recognizes this. There have been meetings on how to cope with this. But I think they have not been candid; the governments are not candid enough or are not far-seeing enough to understand the danger, which nobody now denies. At the beginning there was denial—"al-Qaeda is not involved." The proofs are there now.

I had a meeting with the former national security advisor, General Azazi, in fact, and he admitted that, yes, what we have been screaming all along is true, that al-Qaeda was involved. The government now accepts it. Many of the governments in West Africa accept that al-Qaeda is involved. It doesn't take much imagination to see how this strengthens the hand of militant extremists, very violent throughout West Africa.

When the tombs, these UNESCO-declared World Heritage tombs, were smashed so gleefully on video, we said the library of Timbuktu is next, because these are people who—it's just impossible to penetrate their minds, because they deliberately close their minds, even to the issue of dialogue. I'm one of those who said to the government, "Stop talking dialogue. This is a security issue. It's not an Islamic issue. It's a sectarian issue. This is a sect which is absolutely committed to a position and a path where rationality, dialogue is impossible."

Each time, the government says, "Oh, yes, we're willing to talk." It's necessary and so on, but we've been through this before. One is not a warmonger because one says, "You're wasting your time by trying to talk to these people." No. One is going by experience, by a general understanding of the mind closure that can affect even hundreds of thousands of people. It's like a disease.

I've met some of these individuals before, and I know that the only language that they understand is that they should be weakened to a certain extent, so that the overall society can survive.

So that's the history up to now of Nigeria and Mali. We now have people saying: let's create a volunteer army to take back Mali. If you hear my voice in agreement, understand that it's not that I love war or bloodshed. It's just that I do not see any other way to restabilize that region of West Africa.

Thank you very much.


QUESTION: John Hirsch.

First of all, thank you very much for coming here today. It's a real privilege to have you with us at the Carnegie Council.

I want to ask you to explain further how these issues might be dealt with. As you know and everybody here knows, similar problems are going on in Afghanistan. For over a decade, the United States and NATO and so on have been there. There has been this long discussion about whether one can defeat the Taliban or negotiate with them through the government at some point.

A similar kind of question arises in Mali. There's discussion about whether the deployment of an ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] force can be successful in the desert of northern Mali or whether there should be some kind of a negotiation. I sort of see the same question with regard to Boko Haram.

I wonder if you could comment further on whether there is, in any of those three, a possibility of a dialogue. What does a military engagement entail, and what might its outcome be?

WOLE SOYINKA: From what I've said so far, you will see that there are different sectors of even the Boko Haram, that there is a political split among those who actually unleashed the Boko Haram. In fact, a number of them are now afraid. As I said before, the Boko Haram—the leaders now look even on their handlers, their original puppet masters, as being less than pure, as being, in fact, first-line enemies of Islam.

So the political aspect has to be to split the movement, definitely, and a dialogue with the more reasonable section, whether they become reasonable through fear or through realization of the impossibility of their mission. But there's always a section within even movements like Boko Haram which can be dialogued with.

The problem comes from saying we'll treat Boko Haram as a legitimate movement in its own right. There are those who repudiate today the extreme actions of Boko Haram, and those are easily identified. Some of the political leaders, including certain legislators, have been arrested and are being interrogated right now—even one or two, I think, on criminal charges, because it has been proved that—at least there’s a prima facie case that they have instigated the murder of political rivals and so on. People like that can be used.

So it’s a multipronged approach, in addition to trying to cut the supply source by now creating more jobs. President Jonathan has done something towards that. More schools are being opened, so that the control, that control which the mullahs used to have over the almajiris, is being whittled down by sending the hordes of these school people to the new schools, supervised schools, being controlled by the government. So education is involved. We are educating the potential foot soldiers, creating opportunities for them—in fact, splitting them up.

Because that’s part of the problem. When they are together, the indoctrination is very easy. It's infectious. Splitting them, but then also stiffening the security approach. And that includes asking for help where help is needed.

The language of "it's a family affair"—I don't buy it. I think most of the world recognizes the fact that terrorism, however you describe it—whether of the secular kind or the religious kind—is cross-border. What is happening in Mali will affect what's happening in Australia. That's the reality. African leaders sometimes try to say, "Oh, it's an internal affair. Leave it alone. We'll sort it among ourselves." This, for me, is very unrealistic, very naïve and, in fact, escapist talk.

But definitely the security aspect is important, and the preparation also for an eventual reconciliation, not blanket amnesty. Even with the Delta region, I objected to what Yar'Adua did, which was a blanket amnesty. Within any movement, you have the opportunists, you have the sadists, you have the psychopaths. All movements, throughout history, have their share of the unprincipled, and it's important always to separate, as far as is possible, the grain from the chaff.

So it's this multipronged approach which is necessary.

QUESTION: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute, with my colleague here, John Hirsch.

I want to ask you a little more exterior question about Nigeria. I have in mind what happened in the Côte d'Ivoire, where the presidents of three or four West African states, including President Jonathan, actually went to Abidjan, actively engaged in the affairs of another country to try to convince him that he had lost the election, that he ought to leave and let President Ouattara take over.

My question is about the role of Nigeria in Africa. At the United Nations—our institute is right across the street from the United Nations—the never-ending debate over how the Security Council ought to be re-formed to reflect the realities of today as opposed to the realities of 1945, when it was first constituted—always, in all those proposals, it is posited that an African state ought to get permanent membership and ought to have the veto. Then it comes down to which African state, and the usual debate is between Nigeria and South Africa. The Kenyans try to get involved, but, really, it's Nigeria and South Africa.

My question to you is, number one, should there be a state which represents leadership of a continental nature in Africa? If there should, should that state be Nigeria or should it be South Africa?

WOLE SOYINKA: I'm going to contradict myself here. Earlier I probably gave, quite truthfully, the impression that I don't very much believe in a quota system or geographical spread.

But the United Nations is a unique organization. It's the only one of its kind. One cannot apply this stringent rule of, quote/unquote, "deserving" to membership of its apex body, the Security Council. In any case, who defines "deserving"? Actually, all countries have their problems.

So, yes, the gap is evident. It's obvious that there's no representative from Africa. We know there’s something wrong with that system. The United Nations—one of its articles of faith is democracy, or at least a principle of equal representation.

Nigeria, South Africa—it should be neither. I would like to see a small country, a small nation, identified, one which is not problematic, one whose governance is quite stable, in which it's possible to identify an individual leader who is not plagued by the problems of, let us say, Nigeria and South Africa, the sorts of problems which result in groupings of rivalry around these behemoths. I would like to see a tiny, inconsequential nation that can supply the maturity required to sit on the Security Council.

I don't see either South Africa or Nigeria, no. This follows also the principle of representation, as long as one symbolic, but active and intelligent representative is found. Not Nigeria or South Africa, no. Too many problems in those two countries.

QUESTION: James Starkman.

How would you comment on the state of constitutional succession across Africa where you have a functioning judiciary as well, such as what’s playing out in Egypt right now? There is an alliance between the judiciary and the military, to a certain extent, in Egypt. Is there a constitutional framework among many countries in Africa today whereby you could look to a better future?

WOLE SOYINKA: Egypt—a very peculiar case, the situation there, which is only to be expected. Anything can come out of a post-revolutionary situation, which is what Egypt is undergoing at the moment. It's interesting, from the point of view of international affairs, constitutional politics, and even internal alliances. It's a very strange situation. It's strange, but it's not unusual. The way it's playing out, I think, is what is strange. Sometimes I get quite confused, who's on whose side.

Within the rest of Africa, I cannot immediately think of a like case. I'm not very familiar with what’s happening in Libya at the moment. I think the present government is just struggling to sort of tranquilize the various militant groups and so on.

That's a very interesting situation. Ultimately it probably will be decided by the masses, the people. I think they’re already pouring into the streets, on either side, for the president and for the judiciary. Why this is peculiar is that we have a military which says it wants to uphold the constitution, wants to uphold the principles of democracy, and therefore it says, in principle, it's against any kind of Islamization, and then points a finger to the government and says, "This is the enemy of democracy."

On the other hand, quite legitimately and technically, the president can also say, "No, no. This is where democracy lies."

So it’s a very fluid situation. Quite frankly, I don't know how it's going to play out. It's fascinating, though. I think the Egyptians are about to go through another baptism of fire.

QUESTION: Edith Everett.

This is most fascinating, I must say. A two-part question. The first is, could you describe the difference between the south and the north [of Nigeria], and why this tension exists?

The other is kind of an impression. When you spoke, I had the feeling that there's an Islamic extreme tsunami happening, not only in Africa, but around the world. It creates a serious problem for those of us who want to respect Islam and those who fear it so much because of what we see in places like Mali and others. Could you comment on that? You were a boy and you were a Christian and you lived with Muslims. That’s not possible anymore, it seems like. What will be the end of this?

WOLE SOYINKA: First of all, it's a very convenient division which we all use between the north and the south. But, of course, it's a big mixture. People who say "the Islamic north, the Christian south"—it's not strictly accurate. Within the north—and this is part of the problem of those who use religion—they realize the north is not uniform. There are huge areas of both Christian and animist in the north, just as in the south there are huge areas of Muslims. In fact, the very fact that the Boko Haram is attacking churches all over the north indicates how much Christianity also exists in the north.

This is part of what frightens those hardcore Islamists and northerners—the recognition, in fact, that even the north is not thus united in terms of this aggression towards Christianity. Some of the victims in the north are Muslims who are considered to be quite comfortable with the kind of cohabitation that I experienced in the south in my childhood.

But it's convenient to say, largely, the Muslim north and, largely, the Christian south.

Now, this wave—I use the word "education" sometimes, but then I sometimes feel that people don't want to be reeducated. By that I don't mean Western education, but educated in terms of opening minds to the horizons, opening their minds even to those among them who are educated in the way in which I speak about.

I've cited in that book a statement by Ismail Serageldin, who happens to be the director of the Library of Alexandria. He is not an exception. He's among several other Muslim scholars who come out and say, "Listen, nowhere in the Koran will you find what is being preached and what is being acted upon."

I discuss the symbol of the veil in the book, for instance. In fact, in that book I quarrel with President Obama, in part of his speech in Cairo, when he spoke about the veil and said that traditions should be respected. I said, "Wait a minute. Even within Islam, there are many traditions. Which one do you ally with? Which one do you recognize as being the authentic one?"

When I say education, I think it’s just bombarding intellectual space, learning space, spaces of encounter, widening it to embrace and to propagate the existence of alternate views of life, of religion, of politics. It’s the only answer I see.

QUESTION: Edward Kabak, chief counsel of Promotion Marketing Association and itinerant intellectual and occasional poet.

Before my question, I just want to make one quick remark on this gentleman's remark about the Egyptian judiciary being on strike. One might say if Antonin Scalia went on strike, he'd get a million Facebook likes.

Anyway, my question to you, sir, is, given the fact that in the Congo we have had perpetual war over resources for 15 years or so and an incredibly porous state of borders, does a military solution—and I'm not generally a friend of the military—a long-term solution, involve a different kind of pan-African construct of a military that can respond to these kinds of challenges or does everything have to take place on an ad hoc basis?

If one is sympathetic with the notion that an extremist movement requires a very stiff hand, basically, to deal with it, what are the contours of a military solution to that in terms of the present situation in Nigeria and others that take place, perhaps, given the extremist movement and the incredibly porous state of borders in many countries in Africa?

WOLE SOYINKA: Once upon a time, the military had credit—immediately post-independence. With the corruption, the petty internal political warfare, which has taken its toll on the nations, on development and so on, the military came in like the army of Saint George, in shining armor. People thought this was the solution, this was the fix.

But we know also that countries like the United States exist where the military remains subservient to the political will, to the civic will. Wherever that combination is possible, I think it should be used. There's nothing wrong with a military council, but the military council cannot be left, from experience, to take decisions by themselves, because they only think one way; they are trained to think one way. The politicians, which occasionally throw up good, solid statesmen, will accept the necessity for a military solution, but simultaneously with the other aspects of social reconstruction that we're talking about. The military has no luxury for that.

Within Africa, I’m afraid the military—in any case, when they came in, they proved themselves just as grasping, greedy, ethnic-based, sometimes religious-based. Among the early casualties in the military of this Boko Haram were senior officers, including generals, who were found to be part of the cells of Boko Haram, who were relieved of offices. Amazing escapes took place of some of the Boko Haram leaders under military stewardship. Those soldiers were relieved of their duties. It caused Jonathan to cry out at one stage, "Even my government is infiltrated by the Boko Haram."

So the military—they're just mortals like the rest of us, I'm afraid, flawed mortals, especially within Nigeria. Many of them are corrupted beyond belief. Some of them were the worst oil bunkerers during the MEND period. They found that they were working in association with MEND to steal crude and sell it on the high seas and protect the barges.

Military high command, yes, so that when the politicians meet and say, "Look, this is the flashpoint which we must control immediately," as I think should be declared in northern Mali, then the military high command is called—

QUESTIONER: Which military is it at that point?

WOLE SOYINKA: I thought you were talking about the military high command. I mean across the nations, just as you have right now. You do have an AU army, which has been successful so far in Somalia. It is that kind of movement which I think should be reinforced, in concert, from South Africa to even Algeria, because Algeria is involved in the Mali thing—for the military high command to come together and bow to the will of the politicians.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you so much for your generosity of time.

You may also like

APR 11, 2024 Podcast

The Ubiquity of An Aging Global Elite, with Jon Emont

"Wall Street Journal" reporter Jon Emont joins "The Doorstep" to discuss the systems and structures that keep aging leaders in power in autocracies and democracies.

APR 9, 2024 Video

Algorithms of War: The Use of AI in Armed Conflict

From Gaza to Ukraine, the military applications of AI are fundamentally reshaping the ethics of war. How should policymakers navigate AI’s inherent trade-offs?

MAR 28, 2024 Podcast

The Humanization of Warfare: Ethics, Law, and Civilians in Conflict

This panel explored emerging ethical and legal questions surrounding the humanization of warfare, touching on issues of international law, just war, and civilian protection.

Not translated

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

Request Translation