• ‘The Penkelemes Years’ – Independent Newspaper Nigeria

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     Could Wole be said to be a lucky young chap? Yes, but only to the extent that, among his contem­poraries, he was one of the few that had the rare fortune of be­ing born and bred in an academic milieu. His father was the head­master at Saint Peter’s School in Ake parsonage in the era when religion and education were two sides of the same coin. ‘Essay’, as the headmaster was fondly called, had passion for books and gave the child Wole his first com­munion at the altar of Literature.

    At age 11, the young Soyin­ka gained entry to Government College, Ibadan, after winning a scholarship by dint of diligence under the tutelage of the head­master. How interesting it was watching the young boy, barefoot, with a heavy wooden-box on his head, on a long trek to Apatagan­ga, where his induction into an­other face of civil rights began (he once travelled from school to Mushin in Lagos to listen to the fi­ery speech of Pa Imoudu against colonial misdeeds). For the first time, Wole tasted freedom from the iron rule at Ake. For a heart that longed for self-expression, the coast could not be clearer. But that again was the beginning of many troubles for the young chap. One after the other, he en­gaged the bullies in a combat of words that often resulted into injuries being inflicted on him. Having received ‘traditional inoc­ulation against fear (?)’ from his grandfather at Isara Remo, young Soyinka never turned his back on any battle. He usually had the last laugh, it seemed.

    Wole was naturally endowed; was born into the right environ­ment and above all, possessed a stunning passion to be the best in his education. He was a vora­cious reader, always in search of knowledge. ‘Essay’ recognized this and wanted his son to be the youngest ever to enter the bud­ding University College, Ibadan. But the boy wanted freedom from father’s control and would secure that through a scholarship to uni­versity. Young, yet Master Wole had his own mind. He toiled and moiled for the entrance exam to University College while working at Medical Supply Centre in La­gos immediately after his second­ary education. This job was not really his choice but having failed the Daily Times test (he wrote more than required!), the avail­able became the desirable. With his success in the School Certifi­cate examinations, he became the head of his section when his boss was suddenly transferred. Behold the sight of Wole at 17 dealing with old top civil servants across the nation – in the age when liter­ary seed was just sprouting in the colonial Nigeria!


    Wole soon bid farewell to Med­ical Supply and was exceeding­ly delighted to join his senior cousin, Olukoye Ransom Kuti, at University College, Eleyele, where he had frequented during his days at Apataganga. Even at the College, Wole had not dropped his garb of delinquency. In one of his escapades, he nearly cut off the ear of his friend when his game of throwing a knife at a board went pass the target! On the whole, it would seem that the influence of the strays that were accommodated by his parents at Ake and that of boarding envi­ronment vitiated the Christian teachings and iron-discipline life young Wole should have imbibed from his parents. But again, Soyinka had his own will, which was ‘strengthened by the traditional incisions he received from his grandfather (?)’ at Isara Remo, which was bound to affect his spirit and alter his course in life. And if Wole rejected the existence of God and preferred the gods from his post-primary school days, it was because of this ‘gap’- this being an exercise for another day!

    Wole did not stay long at Uni­versity College before he received scholarship for studies at Leeds, United Kingdom. There, Soyin­ka was a quintessential brilliant scholar. His presentation on ‘Tip­ping’ won an oratory contest of the varsity. He told stories on BBC and staged a play at the Stu­dents’ Drama Festival – all a rare feat for a Nigerian at that time. However, it was not all erudition for the black prodigy. He enlisted in the varsity’s Cadet Corps – lib­eration struggle against colonial injustice in (South) Africa being his aim. He was not prepared to be a mendicant in a foreign land. He, with other colleagues, chose site jobs for holidays – bartending, bricklaying, portering – whatever job could earn some pounds!

    Before he returned to Nigeria in 1960, Mr. Soyinka’s play – The Invention – premiered at Royal Court Theatre, London. Not real­ly a huge success – not necessarily by the standards of the British genteel or worshippers of Sarah Bernhardt whom Wole abhorred. Even the playwright and proba­bly the other apostles of the lib­eral George Devine did not view the night as great. But nothing daunted, why give in to depres­sion when the whole world was still before the young playwright?


    While in France to earn some francs after graduation, and be­fore his home-coming, he encoun­tered Premier Ahmadu Bello. A sore memory it was as he was ac­corded the ant audience from the excessively ornamented Nigerian overlord. Juxtaposing that with the profligacy of their children in U.K., the fecund graduate knew that the Nigerian project would be still born, hence his Indepen­dence play, ‘A Dance in the Forest’ that decried the past and painted a pessimistic future. And how prophetic it turned out to be in spite of being stood down at the last minute for the Independence celebrations!

    If Wole Soyinka thought Pen­kelemes was only the preserve of the political class, he was soon hugely disappointed as the uni­versity system he chose in order to insulate himself from politi­cal lust for power itself became infected with the same disease. The home-comer watched with disgust as the University College, Ibadan sacrificed its autonomy on the altar of expediency. It was simply lust to grab power, remain in power and die in power (the present ASUU should remember this). From treachery to sabotage, from cowardice to opportunism, varsity autonomy was buried by the academics of the first repub­lic. If Ibadan was bad, Soyinka’s recourse to University of Ife was worse. He was soon hit by Akin­tola/Fani-Kayode’s NNDP’s mal­feasance. He again fled to Lagos University, where the same wind overran him. But Soyinka fought back gallantly. His fiery spirit ab­horred injustice and would match violence with violence as a last resort.

    On the theatre frontline, ‘The Republicans’ denounced the AG cross-carpeters to NNDP, espe­cially the traditional rulers. ‘April Fool’s Ship’ captured the titanic clash between Prime Minister Balewa and President Azikwe, revealing the impotence of the latter.

    Soyinka used the arts as a tool of political activism and social engineering. This cause he es­poused at a few conferences he at­tended outside Nigeria. He wrote in newspapers to denounce the execrable conduct of public offi­cials at independence. It was his knowledge of and relationship with the media that he explored to make that famous broadcast against Akintola’s reckless re­gime. Armed with a gun – in a commando-like operation – he supplanted the premier’s spool with his own at the Broadcast­ing House, Ibadan. Akintola, get out with your renegades, he broadcast. It must be mentioned that Soyinka was close to the Akintola family and would have been bought if he had named his price. He later gave himself up and was detained and tried but then operation wetie e had begun in earnest with Soyinka as one of the masterminds.

    Mr Soyinka’s intellectual and physical fight against enthrone­ment of feudal fascism in the in­dependent Nigeria will remain indelible in the annals of the country. Interestingly, the literary icon has put on record his activi­ties in the pre-independence and immediate post-independence era in his memoir, Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years; his childhood life he had earlier captured in Ake.

    Today, Prof Wole Soyinka is 90 but regrettably Nigeria remains a conclave of Penkelemes after 63 years of self-government. The Nobel Laureate can’t retire! If he described his generation as a wasted one, the reader would appreciate, for the same political evils he fought against in his 20s are exactly what he is up against in his 90s… For instance, Muham­madu Buhari rode on the wave of popular support to Aso Rock in 2015, defeating an incumbent president for the first time in the annals of Nigeria. Lamentably, Buhari proved to be a weepy re­versal of epic proportions. By the time he left government in 2023, he had reduced the landscape of Nigeria to smouldering rubble…

    Congratulations to the world-renowned scholar and in­tellectual activist at 90.

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