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Why I Am a Secular Humanist

An Interview with Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 17, Number 4.

As long as there have been dictatorial military regimes in Nigeria, writer Wole Soyinka has spoken out against them. Championing democracy over the last 30 years earned him a two-decade prison sentence. The current regime, under General Sani Abacha, has given Soyinka a death sentence that has forced him to flee his homeland. He now lives in the United States, and is Emory University's Robert W. Woodruff Professor of the Arts.

Soyinka is the first sub-Saharan African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he received in 1986. He is also a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. The author of the book The Open Sore of a Continent continues to work for freedom in Nigeria. The following interview was conducted by Norm R. Allen, Jr., Executive Director of African-Americans for Humanism.

FREE INQUIRY: Do you consider yourself a humanist, and if so, how do you believe that humanism differs from a more religious perspective?

WOLE SOYINKA: Humanism for me represents taking the human entity as the center of world perception, of social organization and indeed of ethics, deciding in other words what is primarily of the greatest value for humans as opposed to some remote extraterrestrial or ideological authority. And so from that point of view, I consider myself a humanist.

FI: There are several humanist groups in Nigeria. What do you think is the prospect for the future of humanism in Nigeria?

SOYINKA: I take most of my metaphors from the Yoruba worldview. What separates that religion from the so-called universal world religion is that the human characteristics of the deities that belong in the Yoruba pantheon actually make that religion one of the most humanist types of religion you'll encounter anywhere in the world. The Yoruba philosophy drastically reduces the absolute authority of deities over the lives of human beings and therefore reduces the dependency of human beings on the interpreters of the extraterrestrial authority. And so when you ask the question "What are the prospects of a humanist worldview in Nigeria?", I point to this as an example of some kind of qualified humanism that predates any kind of codification of humanistic principles in European terms.

FI: You and some other Nigerian dissidents had been accused of treason by the Abacha regime. Are you in contact with any others who have been accused of treason?

SOYINKA: I've been in indirect contact with the others, and I'm very much concerned about them because they are in the clutches of one of the most insensitive tyrants that the African continent has ever known. One can only ask Abacha what goes on in his diseased mind and what his police tell him.

FI: I wanted to ask you about your book, The Open Sore of a Continent. In it, you are critical of the Nigerian military dictatorship. Please discuss the government's 1995 execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other activists.

SOYINKA: It was easily the most barbarous action ever undertaken by any regime within the living memory of that continent. In Africa we are used to mindless massacres in the name of ethnicity and religion, but I think this stands out on its own because it's an action that is purported to have followed rational judicial process. It was a total travesty of everything that judicial processes should stand for. Anyone should be able to understand what kind of regime we're dealing with after that. Why wait for further proof? Who could expect anything positive to come out of this regime?

FI: In your opinion, how have Western powers responded?

SOYINKA: The response has been a mere slap on the wrist. Actions have been token. This is a regime that should be totally isolated economically, culturally, diplomatically, until its termination.

FI: You dedicated The Open Sore of a Continent to the late humanist Tai Solarin. Who was he, and how important was he to Nigeria's pro-democracy movement? [See "An Interview with Tai Solarin," FI, Winter 1993/94, pp. 37-41.]

SOYINKA: Solarin was an indefatigable warrior in the cause of democracy. He was a passionate secularist and humanist. He was opposed to dictatorship in all forms. He believed very much in freedom of expression, freedom of choice, everyone's participation in the structuring of society, irrespective of sex, creed, and tribe. He had always been a gadfly, a thorn in the flesh of corrupt governments. He was jailed several times. His whole career was one of combativeness against injustice and tyranny, and his loss was a great one.

FI: What role does religion play in Nigeria's political strife?

SOYINKA: It never used to play a very strong role, but it has been deliberately cultivated and exacerbated by the present regime. Right now religion has become a tinderbox within the political structure. Nigeria is far more religiously intolerant today than during my childhood. I was raised in a Christian home, and we lived side by side with Muslims. My family would join the Muslims in observing their festivals, and they would do the same. They would feel offended if my family didn't send them food at Christmas, things like that. It is as if the intolerant aspects of these two religions were sort of mediated by the worldview of the soil on which they took root. There was an accommodativeness about both these religions as well as the traditional religion of Yoruba.

But of late, I'm afraid the insanity of the rest of the world has transferred to Nigeria, has been deliberately cultivated by the Abacha regime, and we are beginning to witness more and more religious strife. There have been really bloodthirsty face-offs between Christianity and Islam in many parts of the country, and even within the sects of the Islamic religion. It is a very dire outlook, I'm afraid, a complication of what is already a bad political situation.

FI: Some writers have argued that African fatalism, most of it rooted in religious beliefs, has done much to make the people apathetic. Have you found this to be true?

SOYINKA: No. You have a continuing history of resistance to or from tyranny in Africa. It is true that they are long periods when the people are totally powerless. But that strain of resistance always runs very deep.

FI: Do you expect democracy to come to Nigeria and if so, when?

SOYINKA: I am not a prophet, but I can assure you that the people of Nigeria will continue to struggle for fundamental dignities. They will continue to struggle for democracy.

FI: How do you feel about the fatwa against Taslima Nasrin in response to her written work? [See "The Songs of Freedom," p. 40.]

SOYINKA: I have nothing but contempt for religions that kill in the name of piety. I find it false, dangerous, and I think that Taslima is the heroine of that society, and the others simply are throwbacks. If they believe passionately in their deity, they should reserve to that deity the authority to exact vengeance. They shouldn't make themselves the instrument of imagined wrongs. That applies to any religion, it applies to the insanity between the Hindus and the Muslims in India, to the Jewish extremists in Israel. It applies to any kind of religion in the world.

FI: Following the death sentence placed on Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini, you issued a strong statement in Rushdie's defense. How was your statement received by Nigerians in general and by Muslims in particular?

SOYINKA: There was a lunatic fringe that issued a fatwa against me, who carried placards screaming "Death to Soyinka" and so forth. But Nigeria is as far as I'm concerned a secular state, and whatever efforts are made by some fanatics to turn it into a bastion of one religion or another really didn't bother me much. The others responded to the threats against me in a very robust way.

FI: Louis Farrakhan argued that Nigerians have only had a few decades to attain democracy and that Westerners must be patient with the slow painful climb toward democracy in Nigeria. How do you respond to this view?

SOYINKA: Nigerians fly the latest jets, we have some of the finest pilots in the world. Technology and cyberspace are not strange to Nigerians, they are used on a daily basis. Faxes and cellular phones abound everywhere. The Nigerians didn't say that they were going to wait 1,000 years before they caught up with modern technology. The latest cars, like the Lexus, are already cruising in Nigeria. I don't believe that mental apprehension of democracy is beyond those who acquire a more complicated facility for operating the latest gadgets. I think it's a very condescending statement, and should be deplored.

FI: How are you doing in the face of such constant threats?

SOYINKA: Well I have to live in constant mental identification with those who are in jail in Nigeria, undergoing the same struggle. Some of them have been given 15 years for not committing any crime at all. And so because of the constant sense I have of the wrongs against the Nigerian people, of which these are representative, I have no time at all to think about my own difficulties.

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This page was last updated 02/13/2004

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