En 1986, Wole Soyinka (auteur de vingt pièces de théâtre, six romans et six recueils de poèmes) devint le premier écrivain africain à recevoir le Prix Nobel de littérature. La même année, il reçut la distinction de Commander of Federal Republic par…  le dictateur de l’époque, Ibrahim Babangida. Soyinka a souvent été critiqué pour son oeuvre qualifié d’élitiste. Il a été aussi un des plus farouches opposants au mouvement de la « Négritude » mené par Aimé Césaire et Leopold Sedar Senghor. « A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude », disait le Nigérien. L’homme est éminent. L’écrivain est complexe. Nous avons demandé à Ashish Beesoondial, chargé de cours d’anglais au MIE, de nous présenter le grand écrivain engagé en matière de démocratie, dont il s’est fait une spécialité.
To be the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is a distinction that carries an obvious recognition of Wole Soyinka’s struggle and commitment to, on the one hand, creating a democratic society in post-colonial Africa and, on the other, to harnessing a vision for a better humanism. To Soyinka, the African writer could not afford to dwell in the colonial past when the present was beginning to show signs of a serious collapse in humanity. This was Soyinka’s primary concern which elicited from events that he witnessed, such as the toppling of the civilian government by the military regime five years following independence in Nigeria, the Civil War in Nigeria as well as despotism and corruption in post-colonial African states.
Soyinka’s unflinching response to the socio-political upheavals that have marred development in Africa has earned him the stature of ‘conscience of society’. His personal involvement has been well-documented and his writings are governed by an outright condemnation of despots: « when power is placed in the service of vicious reaction, a language must be called into being which dos its best to appropriate such obscenity of power and fling its excesses back in its face » (Soyinka, 1974). This is the language of satire – a powerful medium through which Soyinka expresses his revolt, attacks and rebukes vice and folly of man. His vision of society is clear and candid: there is no place for the corrupt and destructive forces whose self-interest primes over the community’s.
As in most of his satirical plays, Soyinka depicts a degenerated society, which he sees as a result of having power-seekers installed at the top. The Beatification of Area Boy (1995)is a contemporary realistic but satiric representation of Nigerian society – one that has not got any better since independence. Society here has been stripped of all positives and the play opens on a symbolical note of much-needed purification. Images of deplorable sanitation, poverty, drug trafficking and rampant corruption are clear statements that there is something rotten in this society. Central to this reflection is that the play focuses on area boys – local touts – or « bullies, enforcers, extortionists, druggists » (1995). Their presence is a sign of malfunctioning of society and therefore a failure of the body politic.The play opened at a time when the most brutal and corrupt regime of General Sani Abacha was reigning and Soyinka is holding a mirror of that society, transmitting it to the audience.
Soyinka’s reaction to this abuse is unsparing. This is not the light satire of The Lion and the Jewel (1959) where Baroka fends off modernity to stay in power and may not be the dark and scathing statement of Bero in Madmen and Specialists (1970) whose cannibalism is an obsessive sign of power. The idea is the same though: of « turning up the maggot-infested underside of the compost heap (as) a pre-requisite for the land’s transformation »  (Soyinka, 1974) and castigate the power-seekers, which is why his satire is mainly geared towards politics. He engages in this near-sacred endeavour to cleanse his land, a responsibility that has earned him a comparison to a ‘carrier’.
This leads to the more profound writing of Soyinka which stems from a metaphysical concern based on a deeply-rooted African sensibility. In his use of the tragic, there is a shift from the realistic mode to the ritualistic. His ‘mythopoeic aesthetics’ as critics have termed it, has evolved from Yoruba mythology, cosmology and African traditions. There is a need for reconstructive, recuperative writing with a view to create a positive identity, which is seen in Soyinka’s exploration of African metaphysics through both myth and literature or as he calls it in Myth, Literature and the African World (1976), a « visionary reconstruction of the past for the purposes of social direction ». His purpose is to develop a ‘self-apprehension’. In the face of de-culturization of African literature, apprehending the African world and civilisation in its own terms and not by foreign standards is of paramount significance to the playwright, which also justifies his anti-Negritude stance. « A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude », he stated famously, « he pounces. » The theatre of Soyinka is the perfect example of ‘Total Theatre’ – a theatre of roots, with music and talking drums, songs, dance and riddles, with a seamless blend of the Western form.
At the heart of the conflict is ritual death or sacrifice – a practice that emanates from ritual drama in Yoruba mythology, or drama of the gods, as Soyinka calls it. Death and the King’s Horseman (1976)is largely based on Soyinka’s imaginative adaptation of mythological and historical material to formulate the view that man is part of a larger community and that he exists within a cosmic whole. In his mythopoeics, society is part of a totality, which explains why the play is about the metaphysical condition of man. The three worlds are intricately linked: the ancestors, the living and the unborn, which also binds seamlessly with the past, present and the future. The well-being of society can only be ensured if this continuum prevails. Hence the Elesin’s duty of self-sacrifice becomes a sacred act – leading the departed king to the other world will restore the communal health. Soyinka’s tragic ritual drama has much to do with the re-enactment of the origin of race and the descent of the gods. It is the unwavering will of Ogun that drives him to cross the void in order to unite the gods with man.
The Ogunnian will is what Soyinka expects from his society’s leaders – a quality Soyinka feels strongly for because, as elaborated in The Man Died (1972), it is this unshakeable will that enabled him hold on to his creativity, sanity and life during twenty-one months of solitary confinement in Kaduna. In a statement that typifies his stance, Soyinka states: « The man dies in him who keeps silent in the face of tyranny. »