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‘There’s One Humanity or There Isn’t’: A Conversation | by Wole Soyinka

The following conversation between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Nobel Prize–winning Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in November 2018.

—The Editors

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Wole, what’s your view of Donald Trump’s impact on Africa, and how is he perceived in Africa?

Wole Soyinka: Well, that is one hell of a question to begin with. Let me put it quite bluntly. He is considered a loose cannon that is discharging long-hidden attitudes, racial attitudes, xenophobic attitudes.

Dominique NabokovWole Soyinka, New York City, May 2011

Gates: Was there a cause and effect relation between the fact that a black man occupied the White House for eight years and then his opposite was elected?

Soyinka: Trump came in on a platform of political, racial, and ideological hatred for Obama. He was not even subtle about his mission of dismantling the legacy of this black man.

Gates: And unprecedented, in my experience, to have a politician say, “My prime focus is going to be on undoing the policies of the man who preceded me.”

Soyinka: It’s unusual. In Nigeria and other places, when you hear a president or a governor come in and start badmouthing the policies, attainments, or activities of his predecessor, usually there’s only one purpose. You cancel that, you cancel this, you cancel that, so you can start all over and make your own money. In other words, corruption is often at the bottom of it. [Laughter] This is the first time I have seen an iconoclastic approach, pure negativity on its own as a purpose, as an ideology of an incoming president. It’s like telling Americans, “You people have been sold a dummy. I’m the authentic American and therefore I can do what I want.”

Gates: Is it accurate to say that Donald Trump’s a racist?

Soyinka: Oh, yes, I believe so. I know that politicians can say or do anything, but at the same time, I find it totally diabolical that a dangerous weapon like racism can be used to ascend to office. Political racism is divisive. It’s used as a weapon deliberately to set one side against the other. Any head of state, even a minor elected officer, who can make statements about “shithole countries”—and actually name them!—and who says, “But on the other hand, get me the blue-eyed Norwegians. I don’t mind them coming into the country.” [Laughter] How much more racist can you get? How close to the pernicious doctrine of the blue-eyed Aryan ideal of humanity?

Gates: You tore up your green card when you heard that Trump had been elected president. Why did you do that?

Soyinka: Because I saw what was happening. And many people do not know how emotionally, not just historically or intellectually, attached I am to our diaspora.

Gates: To the African diaspora?

Soyinka: Yes, absolutely, the African diaspora, whether in the United States, the Caribbean, or even Iraq, where we’ve discovered the Zanj.1 One of the little-known facts about me is I have a tiny, minuscule footnote in the desegregation of America, which is that I, personally, desegregated a swimming pool in Atlanta during a conference there in the early 1960s. The thrill of seeing a black man ascend to the highest position in this slave-culture nation was for me as good as watching the lift-off of a rocket into space. And so when I saw what looked like a reversal of the gains of the black diaspora, I became alarmed and despondent. I saw it coming, and I said, “If the Americans allow this to happen, this man spewing divisive and racist rhetoric, I’m going to reduce the status of my relationship to this nation.” So it was not saying I was turning my back entirely on the United States. It was a statement of how I felt. In addition to cutting up the card, I went to the embassy.

Gates: You cut it up?

Soyinka: It was difficult to tear. [Laughter] I didn’t know how to tear it. I cut it up. I carry it around as a talisman, so that if ever I’m denied entry into the United States I will just say, “Okay, I know why you’re doing it. You want souvenirs? I’ll give them a piece.” So I went to the embassy because you have to formalize it as well.

Gates: So you signed the repudiation. You didn’t take it back?

Soyinka: I will consider taking it back when you get rid of Trump.

Gates: You’re a Nobel laureate. I remember many people were surprised—some elated, some shocked—when the committee gave Obama the Nobel Peace Prize shortly after he was elected. What did you think about that?

Soyinka: I can tell you frankly that I did not find it a positive gesture. Heads of states find themselves sooner or later compelled to take drastic action, some kind of action that cannot be considered in the nature of peace, but that may be justified by circumstances—I mean, if you are being attacked, for instance. If you come and attack even my so-called Nigeria for no reason at all and the head of state does not take appropriate action, I’ll be in the forefront of those who want to throw him out of office. And I believe that people in that kind of position where they have to make difficult choices should not be lumbered with an award called the Peace Prize. After he has left office you can look at his entire record and see whether some policies were put in place or some actions were taken that furthered the process of peace. Because for me peace is not a trivial virtue. It’s something that the entire universe craves sooner or later. One shouldn’t have to live up to a prize. A prize should be post facto. That’s the only reason I was against the award.

Gates: How would you assess Obama’s legacy as president?

Soyinka: From the way it affected me personally when I was a green-card holder, a permanent resident of this place, I can say thank goodness for Obamacare at critical times for my family. So I know the value of that. I know its meaning for ordinary people. And for anyone to set about dismantling it, for me it amounts to a crime against humanity.

On foreign policy, obviously Obama was firm when necessary. I remember his first declarations after he became president: “We offer a hand of friendship, but at the same time we are ready with the fist of resistance.” I think that spells out what should be the philosophy of any ruler in the world. Some people thought he was cautious to the point of timidity. I disagree entirely. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction makes it possible for a third world war to be started just like that. We’re living in a very volatile world that requires balance and caution.

He demonstrated it in that unbelievable exploit of getting Osama bin Laden. It takes a cool, principled, and committed leader to authorize that kind of operation as a signal to the world that you don’t commit that kind of atrocity without expecting repercussions. It took courage. People made the argument that it was extrajudicial killing. I find that very amusing. It was a global crime and Obama took action.

Simultaneously, however, Obama’s, shall we say, ecumenism, his sense of commitment to the equality of cultures, sometimes led him up the wrong path. His Cairo statement, for instance, I thought was a disaster in terms of the liberation of humanity—when he spoke about his, not quite approval, but endorsement of the right of any culture to force women to be veiled. That kind of speech made humanity a relative concept. For me, there’s one humanity or there isn’t. No culture has a right to degrade its womanhood. Even if you can do nothing about it, you at least must never make a statement that supports any notion of cultural relativism, not when the dignity and fundamental rights of humanity are involved.

And Obama, I believe, carried too far his distancing from the black community. I found that very troubling. Until full racial equity is established—it won’t be in my lifetime, it probably won’t be in yours—as a sort of unthinking, casual way of social existence, there must always be some kind of notice taken of the disadvantaged section of society, whether we’re talking on gender lines or on racial lines. And I believe Obama turned his back on that kind of recognition.

I think those are the major issues I had with Obama. Otherwise, I thought his was one of the most progressive tenures in the White House, and I think Americans have a right to lament their choice in the last election. [Laughter]

Gates: Every time I visit South Africa I’m shocked at the class divide. A small class of black billionaires has arisen since the end of apartheid. (Curiously, three of the country’s top ten richest men suffered imprisonment under apartheid.) Nevertheless, the class divide within the black community in South Africa is huge. Do you see that changing?

Soyinka: I believe it will evolve. Right now, one views it with surprise for one reason. The party that eventually came to power, the ANC, has been part of the fabric of South African politics and development from the beginning of the black struggle—as a moral force, a political, ideological force. Definitely it was socialist. The Western powers, of course, insisted it was communism, communism was coming to take over, etc. But socialism was the guiding principle of the ANC.

I frankly expected a far more radical transformation in South Africa. It hasn’t been as fast as one expected, and that is disappointing. Some of the factors can be traced to that monster again, corruption, at the top. And that’s really disheartening because we were looking forward to pointing to South Africa as a model of fast reform, a greater egalitarian political consciousness after decades, centuries of oppression by a minority. And it’s just disastrous for us that this “revolution” is unraveling before our eyes.

We’re watching the change of power from Jacob Zuma to Cyril Ramaphosa. I know Ramaphosa personally. As a businessman before he became president, he took advantage of the concerted effort to devolve commercial power to the blacks. He benefited from that; so did many, many others. It now remains to be seen whether he tries to spread, shall we say, the luck of timing to the rest, especially the black impoverished majority.

Gates: Where did South Africa go wrong? Was it under Mandela or was it after Mandela passed the presidency to Thabo Mbeki?

Soyinka: No, I don’t think that you could for one moment attribute it to Mandela. The transfer of power—we’re talking about both economic and political power—is always a very delicate problem, I think, in any society that’s just coming out of a particularly pernicious sociopolitical dispensation. South Africa is not unique in that respect. We saw it in the Soviet Union. But the pace is slow. In South Africa the wealth almost entirely belonged to a very small minority. That transitional process now is the problem.

I have seen efforts, for instance, to tackle the issue of housing, to move people away from the old shanties to decent, dignified, low-cost housing, and these are positive moves. The ownership of land is an issue to be handled with the greatest sensitivity, but at the same time resolved soon. There may come a time when a government, especially if it’s strongly in power and has become truly multiracial, as South Africa is rapidly becoming, must say to the land monopolists, “Listen, we’re heading for another explosion. Let’s sit down and talk and really adopt a policy that requires sacrifice, that requires relinquishing certain material advantages.” If that takes place, I think we will be able to see a faster improvement in the conditions of South Africa.

Gates: How does that compare with the yawning class divide in Nigeria?

Soyinka: They are probably on the same level. The difference in Nigeria, of course, is that it’s not marked by race, so it’s not really as apparently agonizing as in the case of South Africa. We created—as in South Africa—a new class of millionaires from the military ranks and their collaborators in civil society. The oil wealth was just taken. That’s why each head of state wants to be the minister of petroleum, because you have a mono-economy. All money comes from one source. And once you acquire the machinery to extract it, which guarantees at least a certain level of employment, then you proceed to neglect the alternative, once-indispensable sources of income. So it becomes very critical for a president, or somebody from the privileged classes who gets into power, to sit on that, and then treat it like a personal largess to dispense at will rather than using it constructively for the overall transformation of society. It’s greed and it’s the lust for power. Because as long as you have the resources, those will guarantee loyalty. That’s what’s been retarding the progress of Nigeria.

Meleko Mokgosi/Jack Shainman Gallery, New YorkMeleko Mokgosi: Fully Belly II, 2014; from Pax Kaffraria, a book of Mokgosi’s paintings about the effects of colonialism and nationalism in southern Africa, published by the Hammer Museum in 2014

Gates: What do you see as the future of Nigeria? There have been times when you’ve wondered if Nigeria really should be a nation.

Soyinka: Oh, yes, of course, invariably. We’re pursuing a centralized, an overcentralized system of governance, and yet we say that we are running an “American form” of republicanism, of democracy, and so on. It’s just a distortion. So in Nigeria today you hear the word restructure, restructure, restructure. Allow the states to create their own wealth and utilize that wealth along the lines of their priorities, which differ from state to state. But if all the resources are going to the center and then the center doles out the very minimum it has to by the constitution (which itself requires changing), then it can use the rest of the resources in its hands to prop up useless, unproductive, and corrupt states. And this is what has been going on for so many years.

The cry today is, let’s decentralize. Let each state either stand on its feet, or else merge itself with other states. Give up a bloated bureaucracy. Give up a bloated legislature that consumes in many cases over 50 percent of the resources of each state. What kind of a society is that, in which each leader is free to generate projects that are of no relevance whatever to the people? They’re merely sources for taking the percentage off, creaming off, and neglecting development completely, barely paying salaries. Obviously, the system is not working.

Gates: Help us to understand the role of religious fundamentalism in Nigeria particularly, both Islamic and evangelical Christian.

Soyinka: It comes in various shapes, and people think it judicious to be evenhanded, but when we’re dealing in deaths by the hundreds, and sometimes by the most horrendous means, we have to be very blunt and frank. There’s benign and negligible religious fundamentalism and there’s malevolent and vicious fundamentalism, and unfortunately, it is the Islamic religion that is producing that really corrosive and destructive kind of fundamentalism. At least those who commit these crimes against humanity claim that they are Muslims. And it’s not sufficient for the leaders, especially very belatedly, to keep saying, “This is not Islam.” We know that this is not Islam. The important thing, what is critical, is that it is the proponents of “authentic Islam”—according to them—who are committing these crimes against the community. At the beginning they were cossetted. They were mollycoddled. The government bent over backward to ignore the excesses. Their own religious leaders kept mute for quite a while, until they themselves became targets.

There were exceptions, I must always stress that. Thank goodness, there were, indeed, exceptions who from the very beginning screamed out loud, “This is not us. This is not our religion. These people are renegades. They’re psychopaths. We want nothing to do with them.” But for political reasons the government refused to take this minority seriously until recent times, until we had shameful, shameful episodes like the abduction of the schoolgirls who were taken into the forest and kept for years, traumatized, dehumanized. One atrocity after another.

Ultimately, it’s an issue of impunity. Either you have a constitution or you do not. Either you have laws or you do not. If you have laws and a group of people insist on flouting those laws, claiming that they are authorized by their scriptures to commit crimes, then they’re not part of the general polity.

The first response should have taken place when the state of Zamfara decided to adopt sharia law as the legal system. We said, loudly, that this is against the constitution. The constitution does not allow for a theocratic state. However, as usual in these matters, the policy of appeasement was adopted by the then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was planning to perpetuate himself in power. And we told him, “You have to take action.” But he was wooing those very sections for support in order to prolong his stay in office. And so impunity reigned. One thing followed another, both on major and minor scales. Human rights became a secondary thought, if any. All kinds of punishment not in the constitution, in the law statutes, were adopted, such as, for instance, amputation for petty thieving. Yes, one instance did take place before international pressure caused that government to put an end to it. But one at the very least had already been carried out, and others were threatened at the time.

You remember the notorious case of the woman who was to be stoned to death? You asked earlier, don’t I feel sometimes that Nigeria doesn’t deserve to survive? I made up my mind that if that sentence was carried out, I would tear up my passport. I could not conceive of living in a nation, calling myself a citizen of any nation that permits such cruelty, to bury a woman up to her neck and stone her head into mush. I don’t care if it’s being done in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.

So religious fundamentalism has been allowed to take root. It could have been stopped. It could have been put in its proper place. Religion is your private business. You want to organize yourselves, to worship together? The constitution permits it. If you want to adopt a culture that does not impinge on the rights of others, a culture that is dictated by a religion, I don’t think anybody will interfere. You want to veil yourself from top to toe? I might find it revolting to look at, but I’m not going to tear off your hijab. But you cannot flout the constitution in a way that imposes on other sections of the community, you cannot impose on others a mandatory observance of your religious laws.

Gates: Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, is often praised throughout the United States, particularly by philanthropists. What’s your take on Kagame and Rwanda?

Soyinka: Kagame’s government is beginning to slip into the contradictions that he sought so valiantly at the beginning to eliminate. I’m still very positive on Kagame and his government. I believe he has achieved much for that nation, considering its history and the truly dismal sociopolitical reality that he inherited. Allowing for the enormity of the crime that nation committed against itself—give it its proper name, genocide—I give Kagame a hefty pass. But I believe also that it has a human rights record that requires very serious attention. He needs to revamp his government agencies, especially the security services, and so on.

I would have preferred that the constitution had not been changed to lengthen his tenure in office. I can understand, for once, the possible justification of unfinished business. He was, after all, rebuilding society, not even from Ground Zero, but from below level. But I still think that it would have been a marvelous gift to the continent if, after this herculean task of transforming the nation, he had submitted himself in the usual way to whatever the constitution permitted, rather than change it.

Gates: Is there a particular nation in Africa in which you see hope in terms of democracy, economic fairness?

Soyinka: I no longer use the word “hope.” I just look at the records of the past, the advances made since then, and the evidence of sincerity in the policies that are set. Hope, despair, and so on—I’ve now moved completely beyond that.

I have not been there for quite a while, but from reports and comparative studies, I would say that Malawi looks as if, since they got rid of President Hastings Banda, it’s been progressing almost continuously. Unless one actually visits and interacts with people it’s dangerous to make a pronouncement. But from the little I know, I would say that Malawi might be—quietly, not sensationally, not spectacularly or dramatically—one example of a nation that is progressing at a pace that would maintain a modern democratic society.

Gates: In a time of social upheaval and injustice writers have often resorted to allegory to make their most powerful appeals to the imagination of freedom. Now, as a master of the mythic mode yourself, how do you see the role of the writer/activist today in the world that you’ve been describing?

Soyinka: One of the things I like to stress when I’m confronted with this kind of question is that one must always take this issue away from contemporary times, so that it is understood that in all societies there have always been artists of conscience, sometimes structured in a ritualistic way. You have it in your black culture. I know you have it in Ethiopian culture. You have vestiges in societies that mark the celebration of All Fools’ Day—called different names in different places—in which the alternative voice is heard, either directly or through artistic contrivances, either in plays, in masquerades, burlesques, in which an alternative voice is given. So when we talk about the role of the activist today and the writer, it’s not an innovation. In Africa and so-called developing countries, it is dishonestly posited as some Western notion. I find that not just blasphemous but criminally blasphemous. So nothing for me has changed. We’re merely using new instruments. We’re using cartoons, which are a prominent feature in many societies. We’re using plays, sketches, guerrilla theater, living theater. And music of course.

It’s a continuum. I always like to stress that; nothing innovative is really happening. It’s just that we now have a means of communication that highlights the plight of writers who are involved in this kind of activity. It’s intrinsic to the social temperament, which is never monolithic. Otherwise, humanity is dead, and humanity doesn’t like to die. It just continues revitalizing itself, reshaping itself in many ways, and adjusting to specific conditions.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby/Victoria Miro/David ZwirnerNjideka Akunyili Crosby: ‘The Beautyful Ones’ Series #4, 2015; from a recent exhibition of Akunyili Crosby’s work at the National Portrait Gallery, London

What’s the difference between a totally unknown young man setting himself on fire in Tunisia—which began the Arab Spring in that particular nation, where dissidence had begun earlier—and, apart from the intensity of the consequences for the individual, the woman in Egypt who bared her bosom on the Internet in protest? The Egyptian woman was saying, “Okay, you say there is liberation, but we, the women, we don’t feel it. We’re still subjected to these discriminatory and humiliating conditions as human beings.” And so she bared all, at least down to her waist, posted it deliberately on the Internet. That’s her form of protest. The other one set himself on fire. During the suffragette agitation, women chained themselves to railings in front of Westminster. Society always finds a way, even in the crassest and most hermetic seizure of society, of saying there’s an alternative. So I don’t see any difference at all in the way today’s writer confronts unacceptable situations in his or her own society.

Gates: What is your explanation for the sudden burst of creativity by African women writers? Are we in a renaissance?

Soyinka: It’s a phenomenon. It really is very heartwarming. But let me narrate something that happened in Nigeria. Some years after the civil war, somebody told me, there was a meeting of the Igbo ethnic organization called the Ohanaeze, in which a decision was made about how to reposition the Igbo people, enable them to recover from the trauma and devastation of the civil war, in short, catapult them to the preeminent position that they had had in the nation.2 And they decided that they were going to start concentrating on the education of their women, and that the men for a change should tackle the economic fortunes of the Igbo. They were to go out and trade and do business, to raise funds for this economic resurgence, and their women must go to school; in other words, reverse the traditional position.

Now this was told to me confidentially by a very reliable Igbo. The women who traditionally had occupied the lower rungs of society—they suddenly felt energized intellectually, creatively.

This, I suspect, in turn then created emulation among that generation of women in Nigeria, especially in the west. It’s the only explanation I have. That’s why I tend to believe this story, because of the sparkle in women’s creativity, the cultural entrepreneurship—the visual arts also, the magazines, journals that have been launched by Igbo women, and so on. There have been some novels of very good quality.

Gates: Do you have any favorites?

Soyinka: One thing I’ve learned, especially in that country called Nigeria, is never to mention any favorites.

Gates: I knew you’d say that. [Laughter] But the energy reminds me of the energy of your generation at independence.

Soyinka: It’s a similar outburst of creativity.

Gates: Were you surprised when the Swedish Academy named Bob Dylan a laureate?

Soyinka: Yes, I was surprised, and at the beginning I had a sort of mixed reaction toward it. Afterward I came down heavily on the side of the negative.

One, compared to the music industry, I believe that literature is very shortchanged in terms of accessibility to funds, to popular recognition. Let’s face it: the literary worker has to work twice as hard as a music worker, especially pop music. I’m not talking about classical music, the heavy stuff. I considered it one of those gestures: “Let’s break the mold for the sake of breaking the mold.” I wasn’t impressed at all. Even if you’re going to do that, you should proceed as you do normally for literature. You want to take the lyrics out of the music and say this is literature also, in spite of its being in the musical mode? Then you must apply the same stringent standards, and I do not believe that those standards were applied. I look at the list of poets who’ve been nominated in the past. I compare their work with the lyrics of Bob Dylan, and it is ridiculous.

Gates: You’ve been coming to the United States for almost sixty years. Do you experience racism here?

Soyinka: I’m largely protected. People in our position, I think we’re largely protected from it, but we encounter narratives of ongoing racism. Occasionally we feel it also. I was speaking recently to the former secretary-general of the Commonwealth who reminded me of certain details I’d forgotten about my own experience, my own fight against racism. He reminded me of the circumstances when I ended up integrating that swimming pool in Atlanta around 1962, I believe. I think the motel was called Atlanta Americana. It was quite a violent confrontation, and I have been comparing that personal experience with today’s sociology of racism in the United States, and there’s no question that enormous strides have been made.

The black revolution has not been for nothing, and I don’t want people to be as negative as that, but it’s always a shock when you witness American society succumbing to attempts to reinstate that execrable mentality. The number of unarmed black people who are shot by the police, the generation of “I can’t breathe,” the shooting of that young man, Trayvon Martin, the killer acquitted in a court. There was a motion—I hate to use the word, but I’m sorry—that was a motion toward the lynching days, only by a different methodology. It was within this context that an aspirant to the highest office in the United States was elected, despite his racist rhetoric.

Gates: So what you’re saying is America at its best elected Obama, but somehow the reaction to America at its best was to elect America at its worst?

Soyinka: That’s right. I mean, I didn’t expect any different, and I was just surprised that the American electorate didn’t seem prepared for it, and so every day there’s a new shock. Every day a new alarm. And I know that even those who elected Trump will be asking themselves, what on earth did we think we were doing? I’m sorry, but I’m not going to offer my solutions because I don’t have any.

Gates: What is Trump’s fascination with Putin? How do you explain this?

Soyinka: I have no idea. All I know is that there’s a history behind all of this, and one of these days, knowing the United States of America as I do, that secret will come out. [Laughter]

Gates: So is Putin the most powerful man in the world now?

Soyinka: All I can say is that even Putin is more believable as a leader than Donald Trump.

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