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
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
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
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
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.