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Re-reading Soyinka – a discovery in a hotel room, a chance meeting at Wimbledon, and a road not taken

The recent furore in the public space concerning the appointment of the new Chief of Staff to the President was drama on a number of levels. Passions roiled hot enough to boil water. One of the incidents most widely quoted in the social media is from Wole Soyinka’s memoirs-after-a-fashion, titled ‘You Must Set Forth at Dawn’.

It is a good time to take down the volume from the shelf in the study and read it again.

General Sani Abacha, the strongman referred to by the literati as “the goggled one” has recently died. A large number of Nigerians in exile are still trying to wrap their minds around the reality in their home country. The new military Head of State, a man of calm demeanour and not a great profusion of words, is visiting the United States. The nation’s pointsman at the United Nations, a certain Ibrahim Gambari, has arranged a meeting with Wole Soyinka.

The Nobel Laureate is known to officialdom as an elusive, “moving target”.  Just to be sure that he would not “disappear into thin air”, the UN pointsman requests him to stay in his own hotel room on the appointed day until the hour of the meeting. As the writer and a group of his fellows sit in the hotel room, killing time, one of them picks up a book from the coffee table. The cover carries a picture of the recently deceased strongman, it is a collection of his speeches, with a foreword purportedly written by the new Head of State.

The meeting takes place shortly afterwards. The Head of State entreats Soyinka to “come home.” At a point a copy of the book from the hotel-room is passed to him. Is he, the writer wants to know, a continuation of the legacy of Abacha?

Gambari’s surprise is clear. The Head of State avers he knows nothing about the Abacha book. It turns out it was done before the man died, ostensibly with the intention of presenting Nigeria’s leader as a world statesman at a time when the country was angling for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. A less charitable observer would label it a well-funded exercise in image laundry at a time in the heat of international disapproval.

The meeting ends on a pleasant note, with the request to “Come home- everybody wants you home” ringing in the air.

The writer would indeed go home, not long afterwards, to a rousing reception from the public. But that is another story.

“Fast-forward” to another story, on another continent. Soyinka is with his son, Olaokun. They are in the crowd at the Wimbledon tennis tournament.  Soyinka is no great tennis fan, though he likes to watch the Williams sisters. A petite young lady, recognising her famous countryman comes gushing forth to greet him.

The final story of the piece concerns a meeting in a swank London apartment. An emissary, Tunde, has flown in from Abuja, bearing a secret, for your ears only message from them. It is a message of such import that it could alter the course of the life of the writer, and of Nigeria

“I am Zainab” she introduces herself. She has just finished studying Law in a UK university. She is doing her attachment.

He shakes her hand. They converse genially. As they part, he remembers to ask

“Zainab – who?”

“Zainab Abacha” comes the tentative response.

Later, the writer packs up the tennis and goes out to search for Zainab in the crowd. He is thinking he may have been rather brusque and wants to make amends. Sadly, he is unable to locate the young lady.

The final story of the piece concerns a meeting in a swank London apartment. An emissary, Tunde, has flown in from Abuja, bearing a secret, “for your ears only” message from “them”. It is a message of such import that it could alter the course of the life of the writer, and of Nigeria.

Tunde is a man you yourself have known for several decades. He once collected a signed copy of your badly-edited novel – BATOLICA – promising to give it to the man known to many in Nigeria as “Maradona”. “Maradona” is one of the dramatis personae in BATOLICA, and he is not painted with a kindly brush.

Tunde is reputed to have spent several months, or was its years, ensconced in the Presidential Suite of a five-star hotel in Abuja with his beauty queen consort. He is a jolly good fellow. You still run into him occasionally at The Club and at social functions.

Back to the meeting in London, as the Nobel laureate would recapture in “YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN”. Tunde goes straight to the point. The message from “them” is that they want Soyinka to run for President. Of course, “they” will support him. He will not have to spend a kobo of his own money. And so on.

Soyinka weighs the matter in his mind. Does he have the temperament for the hurly burly of Nigerian politics? And if “they” sponsor his election and “win” it for him, what would be the payback? At the back of his mind, perhaps, is a paranoid thought. Could this be someone’s ploy to finally put the nail in the coffin of the “Kongi” mystique?

In the end he declines.

The rest, as they say, is history. “They” settle for Olusegun Obasanjo.

He has lived the drama of his people’s lives – savouring the joys and sweating through the agonies, unable and unwilling to detach himself even after becoming a global icon.  “Captain Blood” of the founding band of high-minded youths in University of Ibadan who called themselves Pyrates Confraternity. The “Lone Gunman” snatching the corrupt Premier’s tape from the radio station before broadcast and substituting a mocking parody, as only a dramatist would think to do. The activist braving roadblocks manned by rioting mobs and drunken trigger-happy policemen as he rides into Lagos from the Seme border during “June 12” riots, passing dead bodies lying on the streets.

What indeed might a Soyinka Presidency have been like?

It is a road not taken. No one will ever know, now.

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