Wole Soyinka’s Protracted Struggle With Àbíkú, the Metaphor of the Nigerian State

Adérónké Adésolá Adésànyà

My reflection on Wole Soyinka (WS), takes me down memory lane, about his work, his activism, his love and labor for a nation that I have chosen to call Àbíkú. To the Yoruba, Àbíkú also known as (emèrè, elére, elégbé) refers to the one born-to-die, the restless wanderer and an in-betweener who oscillates between the earth and the otherworld. For those familiar with Àbíkú ethos , the entity lives to-die, dies-to-live again, in an endless chain of episodic tumultuous journeys. Àbíkú is a thorn in the flesh of beleaguered parents, a palpable and an intractable entity in the universe of a traumatized mother. Àbíkú is also the prodigal spirit, prone to leave a trail of waste in its wake. Àbíkú defies the diviner, teases and courts death seamlessly. The entity remains in a constant state of flux, a perplexing ambivalence of rupture and rapture. What has Soyinka got to do with Àbíkú? Yes, as writer, he has penned a poem about Àbíkú, (John Pepper Clark-Bekeredemo also did in the same year), and I will make reference to WS’s version at some point in this presentation. However, I engage WS as a change agent and as an embattled transformer. I attempt to situate Soyinka within the context of the diviner/herbalist, the one soused with the zeal to keep Àbíkú alive, against all odds but is repeatedly frustrated by the other contenders for the life of Àbíkú. There are indeed many evil geniuses and contenders in Nigeria who do not want Àbíkú to be reformed - those sworn to and charmed by Àbíkú’s theater of waste.

If WS saw and presented himself as the personification of Àbíkú in his poem, I subvert that position and argue that Nigeria is the ultimate Àbíkú! In view of the nation’s ‘epileptic’ nuance and the way the polity appears to have defied all solutions to correct and contain its many socio-economic challenges; in view of how WS has travailed many times to bring health to its fractured state, and his efforts have been in vain. Àbíkú, the nation state, continues to taunt WS. What more can WS, the diviner/herbalist, do to arrest Àbíkú - to keep this evil child alive? What other embodiments has WS not assumed in his passionate pursuit to salvage a ravaged nation? How far has is he able to go, and how long will Àbíkú remain charmed to remain among the living, or intractable? In the twilight of WS, the famed lion, what lies ahead of the jungle so familiar yet so erringly bizarre? Will Àbíkú triumph again in a well-mastered craft of disappearance, or is there finality to the endless trope? In the race against Àbíkú, and in the struggle to redeemed a battered polity, who and where are those to take the baton from WS as he reaches his twilight?
I began to follow the scholarship of WS, and recognized him as a scholar-activist from very early in life. Many of his texts that I read as an avid reader and as a student helped me to form that notion about him. Of the many works of WS, The Trials of Brother Jero , and The Lion and the Jewel , and You Must Set Forth at Dawn , stood out for me. Regarding The Lion and the Jewel, I have admitted elsewhere and even now that I have not particularly gotten over the way WS scripted Lakunle out as a contender for the love of Sidi, the village jewel also coveted by Baroka (the Lion), the Baale of the Yoruba village of Ilujinle. Till this day, I find the fact that the ‘old cow’ Baroka ‘hunted,’ seduced, and finally took Sidi, the prized jewel from Lakunle, a very bitter pill to swallow. The trump card the playwright played remains one of the sore points of my intellectual ‘travels’ with WS. This was my first encounter with Àbíkú in the work of WS, and not his poem that I cited earlier on. The truncation of Lakunle’s hope, to me, is Àbíkú per excellence. Lakunle’s travail in that text encapsulates hope denied, not even deferred. One is confronted with a rude and sudden eclipse that is typical of the Àbíkú trope. It is also a masterstroke in the gross abuse of power. Notwithstanding my anticlimax with the text that I eagerly followed to that point of rupture, I continue to draw hope and inspiration from the writings of WS. Why? I believe, as many others, that his writings especially the ones with very critical tenor, the satires that gnawed at the very core of the corridors of power, have helped one to nurse some other kind of hope, no matter how faint, for Nigeria. They have also helped one to frame WS as one of the critical voices, and the significant icons to emerge from that country. His works foster a deeper understanding of the Nigeria of many eras, the continent, and to an appreciable degree, humanity. I have never shaken hands with WS though I have been at many gatherings that he graced, including those held in his honor. The most recent being a birthday celebration held for him by his friends, kith and kin in the literary world in the month of December 2013, Lagos, Nigeria. His white hair that sharply contrasted his black safari suit stood him out in the crowd. Although, I realized that his writings by far announced his importance at the gathering, for me, it was my recollection of his activist-intellectual trajectory that made such an ineffable impact on me. It may indeed, be the gravitating force that have attracted people to him for a significant part of his eighty years sojourn on earth. I hold him in high esteem. Who does not, one may ask? For those on the other side, one can only use the Yoruba saying “Egan ko pe ki oyin ma dun,” literary, derision does not diminish the sweetness of honey to bring closure to the question. A great many Nigerian, young minds of my age arguably share my opinion about WS, the literary icon. If they read his literary works and their imports for the society, they would have come to similar resolve about his persona, his passion for his country, and his zeal for the transformation of the continent. In these lofty agenda, WS could at one moment be a one man riot squad, and in the next assume leadership or membership of puritanical groups. Noteworthy are his struggles in the company of fellow compatriots such as prodemocracy groups in the endless battle against military cabals and or ‘poli-thugs’ (a pun of political thugs) that have ravaged Nigeria over the decades.  
The many exploits and travails of WS are well known, and I will just concern myself with those that I experienced. On April 22, 1990, I was at a birthday celebration of Mr. Felix Adenaike, the erstwhile Editor-in-Chief of Nigerian Tribune, when the news about Gideon Orkar coup broke. First, the news permeated the public space in hush hush tone, and later it went viral. Soyinka at the very time was at Dodan Barracks, of all places to be at the time of a coup! He must have gone there for very serious issues other than to hatch a coup plot. He never seeks favor from the corridors of power, so something far more important had taken him there. For those at the April 22 gathering, it was time to chew less chicken and to gobble less rice, and to be summarily severed from wine in readiness for the impending sobriety. We were sure to begin the ritual of worry once again - about where the course of the ship of the nation would thereafter drift. WS did not participate in the Orkar coup, history bear witness to that. Though he had criticized the Ibrahim Babangida (IBB) administration at one point of the other, many believed that his being at Dodan Barracks at the time cast some aspersion on his person and provided his detractors reasons to validate the rumors that he cultivated the friendship of IBB to a questionable level. However, many who knew WS very well would argue that he is not one to mortgage the fate of a nation, important national issues on the altar of friendship. He was always at loggerheads with those he perceived as enemies of the progress of Nigeria. Such was the fervor with which he approached national issues. The project of the Nigeria state and of characters within the state has been a staple in Soyinka’s literary trope for many years. Indeed, from the 60s through the 90s, and up till date, WS has been fighting different military and civilian administration with his pen and voice of reason. For his effrontery to denounce bad governance, electoral robbery, injustice, corruption, and every imaginable ilk, WS was arrested in 1965 and 1967; he hijacked the Western Region Radio station. In the wake of the annulment of June 12 1993 presidential election, he along with others canvased on the Internet to unsettle illegal military rule. They unleashed Radio Kudirat on the despots. Like a cat with many lives, and in order to live to fight again, WS fled Nigeria on motorbike across the Benin Republic border in 1994. Many episodic fights and flights later, the essence of WS, his public intellectual status has come to be defined not by his books but by his struggles and the many interventions punctuated by periods of incarceration in Nigeria. Clearly, a discussion of WS without tying it to Nigeria will be incomplete. Rightly so! This was a man whose nationalistic fervor was carried to the summit, many times at the expense of his own life, and sometimes putting the lives of his children, Olaokun and Ilemakin, who sometimes joined his activism, also at risk. WS, in defiance of death and despotic rulers, survived imprisonment, persecution and sentencing by the military juntas of Yakubu Gowon and Ibrahim Babangida. He triumphed heavy state policing by the regime of Sanni Abacha, and face offs with Olusegun Obasanjo. Of the four, the bellicosity and brutality of Abacha is unparalled. Ws’s confrontation with the tyrannical Sanni Abacha is comparable to the face off between Aláàfin Abíódún of Old Oyo empire and Bashòrun Gáà, or the confrontation between Alexander the Great of ancient Greece and Persian Darius in the battle of Issus! It was a battle not only for self, but a struggle to rescue Nigeria from the throes of tyranny, insanity, kleptocracy, and all the other ills that bedevil the embattled country.
However, WS wrestles not with just literal entities, he battles Àbíkú and its many configurations. He reached crossroads many times, and ironically his Àbíkú  poem captures the very essence of these metaphoric crossroads – his frustrations with Nigeria. If Àbíkú is a metaphor on the unchanging nature of pain and the continuous cycle of suffering and death, then Nigeria as the Àbíkú nation becomes WS’s samsara, the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. Nigeria, Àbíkú the wanderer, the prodigal and the plunderer taunts back using the poet’s voice in the first stanza:

In vain your bangles cast
Charmed circles at my feet
I am Àbíkú, calling for the first
And repeated time…

The Yoruba say “Àbíkú so olóògùn d’èké,” meaning “the born-to-die ridicules the herbalist”, making his potions, enchantment, and chants worthless, ineffectual. As WS, the diviner/herbalist intervenes for the umpteenth time, Àbíkú taunts and dares him to even use the weapon of Ògún, the Yorùbá god of iron, (and an entity that Soyinka has been associated with, and whose lore the writer often explored), believing all will be in vain! Àbíkú boasts in the third stanza:

So when the snail is burnt in his shell,
Whet the heated fragment, brand me
Deeply on the breast - you must know him
When Àbíkú calls again…

In brazen mien, Àbíkú revels and predicts outcomes of endless battles with those who encounter him/her in the seventh stanza:

Night, and Àbíkú sucks the oil
From lamps. Mothers! I'll be the
Suppliant snake coiled on the doorstep
Yours the killing cry.

Indeed, were people not traumatized by the tortuous nature of Àbíkú? Decades after decades, the batons of leadership changing from one roguish leader to another, and band of thieves pretending to be statesmen, visionless groups brandishing empty ideology, WS must have come to the realization that the struggle to contain Àbíkú is a failed enterprise. The endeavor of rescuing the Nigeria nation appears to be an aborted one, just like Àbíkú. In You Must Set Forth At Dawn, WS hinted at this realization. Adesanya and Falola (2014) also alluded to the frustration of WS, a.k.a. Kongi or the Lion, with Àbíkú in their poem:

The decades the Lion had rumbled
To tame the bewildering jungle
Are shorter than doomsday
The Lion had roared hoarse,
Far too long for the desire change
In the tumultuous wilderness

The poets also hint at another reality, the ominous days ahead. Àbíkú is the antithesis of WS, which explains why their worlds are always at variance. WS is a lone ranger; Àbíkú a player.  Whereas Soyinka seeks normalcy, and completeness, Àbíkú thrives in chaos, and endlessness. The journey of Àbíkú does not end.  Indeed, Àbíkú’s pathway is the famished road. WS is Kongi – meaning the one hard to break, an irrepressible and an indomitable force, thus he plunges on in defiant frenzy to tame and conquer Àbíkú. In the poem Àbíkú, WS presents himself as the personification of Àbíkú, the spiritual problem child who would always come back to torment his mother, the Nigerian government. He emphasized the fact that he would always be around to criticize the Nigeria government. But he fails to recognize the nation as his alter ego. It is the nation that actually torments WS, perhaps gives him sleepless nights about how to redeem it and reposition it as a potentially powerful, productive and wealthy nation state. Eight decades, three of which were spent on the warpath with the seamless Àbíkú, and there is no closure. Now, that the night cometh for WS, and one notes that old age takes the wind out of the sail of even the strongest of boats or ships that have sailed many seas and seen many shores, many questions remain unanswered. In his twilight, WS’s struggle against Àbíkú is threatened, and victory elusive. It is threatened not by WS’s lack of vision or verve to pursue his transformative agenda but by the absence of protégés to carry on. The poets, Adesanya and Falola, therefore pose pertinent questions:

In the flickering light
The poet’s eyes scan the Lion’s den
The quizzical gaze on the dias
Meets a barren vista
Where is the pride?
Where are the broods?
Show me a Lion’s pride without its cubs
The planter seeks the seeds
For the next planting season

Where are the people to take over the struggles of WS or to continue in the trajectory that will ultimately lead the nation to the desire destination? It is interesting to note that at some sessions of the 2014 African Studies Association (ASA) held at Indianapolis, the need to pass on the baton to the next generation was reiterated. The ASA outgoing president harped on it during the 2014 Annual Meeting. The clarion call was also reiterated at the tributes sessions held for Ali Mazrui, and Jacob Ade-Ajayi, and during the Women Caucus Session.  The timeliness of the calls and comments cannot be overstated for the ASA given the staggering list of icons of the Africana disciplines and notable pioneering scholars who died this year. Its import is also pivotal to rethinking how leaders envision the future and they need to work towards that future. In the case of WS, one is aware of many ominous facts: many of his comrades in struggle – those I would like to call “the rescue mission team” - are dead. Whether it is Beko Ransome-Kuti, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, or Gani Fawehinmi, among others. The anti-military, pro-democracy, ombudsmen, and positive forces in Nigeria continue to be depleted. Those who are not dead are in the diaspora, thinking of the nation but keeping a guarded distance from the chaos in the country. There is clearly a palpable absence of ideological structure for emerging activists to build one, so emerging voices develop independent of past ideologues, or they are simply not bound to them.

Leadership and nation building is like a franchise. A franchise thrives when succession line is secured, when training is assured at every phase of growth and expansion. Great men have their flaws and failings. Some of the flaws of WS have been articulated by critics, observers and associates: Some say that he ridiculed people to a fault; even reeling out the weaknesses and ignorance of statesmen, their wives and henchmen to their faces. Without any doubt, WS is not charitable with criticism; and he could not have been successful at all if he had chosen to be a diplomat. The tact and acquiesce that diplomats deploy to mediate their universe is not part of his pedigree or training. He told the truth with candor, and did not suffer fools gladly. Another flaw, even by his own admission, is that WS is not a team player. He may have sailed in the same boat with comrades, associates, and fellow pro-democracy acolytes such as Femi Falana et al. he never solely committed to group mobilization nor mentored those to follow his trajectory. He was a resolute fighter. He was also not liberal with his political capital. Perhaps, this was not part of his vision. What he had in intellectual power, he lacked in institutional building. WS knows very well that dealing with Abiku is never a solo effort – it required community-oriented labors. It required investment and devotion delivered with religious intensity by the parents, the Yoruba diviner, comradeship of other deities, the extended family, innumerable rituals and so on and so forth. An Abiku case is never treated with kid’s gloves. How else could one contain such an entity without resorting to group mobilization and subscribing to communal efforts? In a parallel analogy, those who desire to build institutions must make sacrifices and investments. The Yoruba saying, “A kii f’oju boro gbomo lowo ekuro, literally, one requires force to extract the edible part of the palm kernel,” best encapsulates the team effort necessary to contain an intractable entity ike Abiku. By looking at and confronting the phenomena of Nigeria at a different level Ws missed a cogent strategy - the need to connect with others, people of similar zeal, mindset and nationalistic persuasions. Those who thrive in praise and adulation, or those who craved posterity of a different kind from what books assured WS, could very well have thread such pathways. Not WS. For his failure to invest consciously in mentoring or grooming, or bonding with the next generation remains a prominent pitfall. Paradoxically, it on this note too that one has to concede the Àbíkú idiosyncrasy to WS. Àbíkú does not desire offspring hence the Yoruba supplicatory and incantatory name Dúrósomo , given to Àbíkú in a bid to make him or her reproduce and populate the earth.

To repeat, WS’s lack of lieutenants remains the cog in the wheel of his protracted battle with the Àbíkú nation. It may also be why in You Must Set Forth At Dawn, WS proposed regionalism as a final recipe for redeeming a fractured nation state held together by fragile web. While regionalism assures autonomy and self-determination, it also portends fragmentation – and ultimately may bring about a fatal or redemptive finality - the death or transformation of Àbíkú.

Aderonke Adesola Adesanya and Toyin Falola, “The Lion and the Jewel” of “Ogun Abibima Literature,” Ivor Agyeman-Duah and Ogochukwu Promise, eds. Essays in Honor of Wole Soyinka at 80. (Oxfordshire, UK: Ayebia Clarke Publishers, 2014), pp. 166-177.

Ajiboye, Goke, Abiku, (New York: Vantage, 1982).

Chekwas, Sam, Ogbanje: Son of the Gods, (New York: Seaburn, 1994).

Clark-Bekeredemo, John P,  “Àbíkú.” Black Orpheus, (1961?): 4.

Karim, Aisha “Crisis of Representation in Wole Soyinka’s Season of Anomie,” Mediations, Journal of Marxist Literary Group, (2009) 24.2: 102-121.

Kotun, Debo, Abiku, Arcadia, CA: Nepotist, 1999.

Mobolade, Timothy, “The Concept of Abiku,” African Arts, (1973) 7.1: 62-64.

Soyinka, Wole, “Àbíkú,” Black Orpheus (1961?): 7.

---. The Trials of Brother Jero, (Ibadan: Spectrum Books Ltd, 1964).

---. The Lion and the Jewel, (London: Oxford University Press, 1966).

---. You Must Set Forth At Dawn, (Random House, 2007).