An except from Wole Soyinka, YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN, forthcoming Memoirs. Prof Soyinka is Nobel Laureate for Literature


Flight From Auckland - Nov 1995
By Wole Soyinka, 11.09.2005
I was due in Tokyo, Japan, but not for a number of days. I diverted to Auckland where the Commonwealth Heads of
States were gathering for their biannual summit, and it was clear that they alone, at that stage, still commanded the weight of voices that
might save nine innocent men from the gallows. My message was insistent, desperate and even strident: only strong threats will save these lives, strong threats backed by unmistakable indications that such threats will be enforced if the sentence is carried out! Occasionally, very exceptionally I encountered an adviser who listened and thought hard and deep, as if resolved to influence attitudes within his delegation or the routine caucuses. I then walked back into the sunlit streets, desperately plucking courage from such meagre signs.
The day's brightness augured well, but beneath it cautioned the persistent voice of th elife-battered character, Mama Put, from my play, The Beatification of Area Boy’, Which had just begun its run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, England. The coincidences were unnerving. Mama Put was a fugitive from the Delta region, the same embattled oil founts of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people. As if strolling beside me, her voice continued
to resound in my head, straight from the rehearsals:
A sky such as this brings no good with it. The clouds have vanished from the sky but, where are they? In the hearts of those below. In the rafters. Over the hearth. Blighting the vegetable patch. Slinking through the orange grove.
Rustling the plantain leaves and withering them oh, I heard them again last night -and poisoning the fish ponds.
When the gods mean to be kind to us, they draw up the gloom to themselves - yes, a cloud is a good sign, only, not many people know that.
Even a wisp, a mere shred of cloud over my roof would bring me comfort, but not this stark, cruel brightness. It's not natural. It's a deceit.
The Beatification of Area Boy was a play I had written long before Ken's travails, indeed, it was to have commenced
rehearsals in Nigeria a mere week or so before I was compelled to flee the country. Now Mama Put appeared to have taken on Ken Saro-Wiwa's voice from his dungeon. She was speaking of the Nigerian Civil War -one in which, again as it happened, Ken had played an important role. Like a night bird perched on my head, Mama Put continued to intone Ken’s indictment of his latest adversaries - the oil companies and their military collaborators in the Nigerian
Those who did this thing to us, those who turned our fields of garden eggs and prize
tomatoes into mush, pulp and putrid flesh....After the massacre of our youth came
the plague of oil rigs and the new death of farmland, shrines and fish sanctuaries, and
the eternal flares that turn night into day and blanket the land with globules of
Jerked back into the present of Auckland masquerading as a clone of my hometown Abeokuta, my mind grasping greedily at distractions, I wondered, absurdly, if the successful preservation of the woodlands of New Zealand had anything to do with the prominent role of New Zealanders in the wave of ecological championing then sweeping across the globe. And sure enough, later that morning, I came upon a demonstration organised in denunciation of the British Prime Minister, John Major expected at the conference - for his support of the French atomic explosion being carried out in the South Pacific
islands, despite a near-unanimous condemnation by the world.
The demonstration, I soon observed, was beamed at multiple targets. When the Crowd came to an open space, it
stopped, and a street drama began, utilising huge satirical masks. One of the themes dealt
with the social injustices under which the Maoris, the original owners of the land,
still laboured in modern-day New Zealand. I thought -aah, this would have been meat and
drink to Ken! He would have mounted the rostrum, his trademark pipe to the fore,
pugnacious, and… suddenly, there he was, larger than life!
Banners were unfurled and I saw Ken Saro-wiwa hoisted high up above the trees and
It was a most uplifting moment, a morale booster that brought the talkative birds
back into the sunlight, routing the owls and offals of the
preceding night’s fitful sleep.
But they returned. They came
back when no one was watching, taking up patient
positions in ironic response to
the upbeat mood of the politicians. For these would
of no alarms, dismissed all
notion of deadly peril. No one, they said, would dare
those men – and again the magic
mantra - hadn’t Sani Abacha personally given his
word to Nelson Mandela? The
sentence would not be endorsed by the all-powerful
Ruling Council - you wait and
see. What? Hang them in defiance of world opinion? And
while the Commonwealth Summit is
taking place? Really Mr. Soyinka, don’t you think
this is - no offence meant, you
understand, I don’t mean this personally - but really
is over-dramatising the
situation. Sani Abacha merely wants to give them a
The junior Ken and I joined
forces on some of these visits, or else our paths
crossed in
hotel lobbies, our faces heavy
with foreboding. Looking back, I can see what a dreary
contrast we made to the buoyant
smiles that wreathed the faces of Ministers of Foreign
Affairs, Heads of States and
Ambassadors - African, European or Asian. I was
saddened, not angry, because it
was clear that they could not understand. They had
never encountered, nor studied a
creature of Sani Abacha’s cast of mind. It was my
cast of mind that they found
abnormal, the more I tried to wear them down with the
brutality of my conviction: If
you fail to act, that man is going to hang Ken!
Today, even after the tragic
denouement, I am mildly surprised to find, it is not
anger or
bitterness that I feel as my
mind traverses the few years, only sadness, tinged of
course with renewed pain, as I
recall the responses of those leaders. In the main –
these Heads of States of the
Commonwealth – former colonies of Great Britain from
Canada through Asia and Africa
to Australia - few, despite their varied experience
humanity, had ever encountered,
except in history books, the likes of Sani Abacha.
Maybe even now, they still
believe that Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were all
created perhaps by undetected
spores that spilled out of some secret Chernobyl, or
singular gas seepage from our
neighbouring Cameroons’ Lake Nyos that killed, in the
eighties, hundreds of sleeping
victims between night and dawn.
They conveniently forgot the
lesson of Idi Amin Dada within their own club of
Their Foreign Ministers,
ambassadors, advisers, political analysts etc. were
creatures of bloodless
briefings, of cynical lobbies, of cocktail and
reception circuits where the
formal attire is camouflage for both viper and dove,
records of atrocities are shed
at the door, with a crested visiting card.
The rest, like the rulers they
served, were potential clones of the Abacha breed, and
simply wondered what the fuss
was all about. I knew Sani Abacha – no, not
though we had met twice. It was
simply his type that I knew intimately, a species that
had studied closely, lectured
and written about. I did not share the confidence of
others, but I was hopeful – at
least, at the start. And it was just as well. We were
doomed to be eviscerated by an
invisible blade wielded by a psychopath from a place
called Abuja. My only saving
grace was that I had already felt its thrust, long
before the
noose tightened around Kenule’s
Four Ogoni chiefs in the Niger
Delta had been murdered, denounced as collaborators
with the military government and
the oil companies. These were brutal, horrendous
killings, totally indefensible.
To the extent that the murders had been committed by
Ogoni youth militants, members
of MOSOP - the Movement for the Salvaion of the Ogoni
Peoples - who owed loyalty to
Ken Saro-wiwa, their leader, and that he failed to
condemn the murders in the most
rigorous language, Ken could be assailed with a
measure of moral responsibility.
But to accuse him of complicity, direct or indirect,
an act of cynical opportunism.
To convict him and his companions in a hastily
military court, and on the
‘evidence’ placed before the nation, was an act of
minds totally
devoid of all conscience,
perhaps steeped in a diabolism that required human
sacrifice. And finally, to
proceed to hang those victims, before they had
exhausted all
channels of appeal that were
open to them even within the provisions of the decree
established the ‘judicial
process’, was a step that no sensate person ever
possible – from the Ogoni infant
in his village to the sage Nelson Mandela who arrived
at Auckland airport beaming with
confidence and dismissing the anxious questions of
journalists with a jovial wave
of the hand. Had Abacha not personally assured him, in
telephone exchange, that he
would not execute those men?
Even now, I still relive those
moments of intense isolation, leaving one truly
out’ – spaced out as in spinning
in outer space - an alien among supportive, courteous
mortals, yet with a feeling that
clung to you, that, among the teeming population of
island, you were one of the mere
handful of creatures – no more than two or three, one
of whom was Ken’s son - who
knew, with absolute certainty, that a mass murder was
about to be committed, yet you
were powerless to stop it or persuade anyone to
you. My final moment of
certitude came from a chance crossing of paths.
On the streets of Auckland,
where I exorcised my restlessnes and frustration with
incessant walking, between
appointments, a car drew up with young Ken, the son of
the condemned man, and some
workers from the Body Shop and other NGOs who
were looking after him. Ken
leapt out, thrust a cyclostyled statement from the
company. If ever there was a
scripted form of Pontius Pilate washing his hands
handing Christ over to his
executioners, this would be its very corporate
equivalent! If
anything untoward happened to
the Ogoni Nine, the statement declared, others were to
blame - the agitators whose
aggressive tactics only hardened the mood of the
regime and undid all the careful
work of silent diplomacy being undertaken by their
company, and well-meaning
Yes, we were to blame, not
Shell! Not the oil exploration companies. Not the
regime, its corporate allies,
its kangaroo courts, but we! I handed back this
tract of
self-exoneration of company
unctuousness and - it seemed clear to me - accessory
knowledge. In my distraction, I
thought I had spoken aloud and flagellated myself long
afterwards for an outburst that
was wrung out of me without consideration for the
presence. But he assured me,
much later, that I had the sequence of events all
For what I thought I had blurted
out without thinking was, He’s dead. They’ve decided
hang them. This statement -
Shell knows of the decision already. Even today
the words still ring in my head
as I thought I heard them, clear as the tolling of a
Walking myself into a state of
total exhaustion from a sweaty pace around the humid
streets of Auckland, mostly
along the harbour, beginning to feel somewhat dizzy,
recognising why - I had had only
my usual morning espresso that day - I entered a
restaurant off the beaten track
where I attempted to stuff my insides but again,
drank. Then, instead of
returning to the hotel, I went to the improvised
office of the Body
Shop NGO - it was abandoned, the
volunteers were between hotels, waylaying and
canvassing whatever delegates
they could. I knew why I remained there, in that
abandoned office – it was to
await the news. I did not wish to be found, did not
wish to
be invited to join in canvassing
one more statesman or delegate. I returned to my
room only when it was late, and
news of the confirmation of sentence by Abacha’s
military ruling council had been
formally announced.
Now I had only one thought - to
get out of New Zealand! I had an engagement in Japan
- a gathering of Nobel Laureates
- but we were not expected for two more days. That
was just too bad. I sent a
message, but did not really care whether or not I was
not met,
or if I upset the protocols that
appear to be encoded in the national genes of the
Japanese. I had only one goal in
mind - to escape the island that would shortly host a
wake for complacent heads of
states, their political advisers and their pundits.
would fashion statements of
indignation and perform other accustomed rites of
assaulted dignity - that would
be their problem, it was no longer mine. The statement
from Shell may not have been a
death warrant, it was so clearly a death certificate
that I
no longer thought of Ken as
being in the world of the living, and I had no wish to
encounter politicians and
statesmen after the event. Above all, I most certainly
did not
wish to speak to the press….so
what is your view on these executions, Mr. Soyinka?
Finally, I did not wish to
witness the agony of a son when the now inevitable
hole in his
life yawned before him. All
these sent me looking for the next plane out of
heading in the direction of
Tokyo where I knew I would have a clear two days alone
before I was again obliged to
face the world.
I obtained relief from this
irrational dread of pursuit only when the plane was
and out of New Zealand air
space. Arrived in Tokyo, esconced in a temporary suite
my polite hosts, I awaited the
It came in the morning, in the
form of a young journalist, ushered into my suite by a
geisha-attired woman who had
been specially assigned to look after me, sitting just
outside my room at all times - I
later discovered - as if my hosts from the Shinbum,
publishing house, feared that I
might go into depression, do some kind of harm to
myself. Ken Saro-wiwa, and his
eight companions, the young man said, had been
hanged in Port Harcourt prisons,
shortly after the rejection of their appeal by the
Supreme Military Council of Sani
Never were hosts more gentle,
more sensitive, self-retiring yet solicitous. The
editor of
the newspaper house, sponsors of
the conference, called on me. His brief stay was
virtually soundless. In the most
delicate manner, he indicated that the contents of the
envelope that he was leaving on
the table were for me to use in any way I wanted, that
was a gift of sympathy from his
fellow executives who wished to ensure that I lacked
nothing, yet were conscious of
my likely preference to be alone. If I wished to look
the city however, I need only
inform the lady by the door and she would get in touch
his office. Even the choice of
the young journalist who broke the news could not have
been more deft. He looked more
like a medical intern with practised bedside manners,
tried to hide his astonishment
(and relief) that I took the news so well. How was he
know that I had prepared myself,
that I had left Auckland wondering only how soon the
killing would be carried out!
He tiptoed his way out, saying
that he knew I would wish to be alone. Not that he
his calling - he left his card
on the table by the door - if at any time, I wished to
make a
statement, he would remain on
Being prepared for the worst is
always one thing; confronting its stark actualisation
another. There is a point at
which the mind threatens to fold up, succumbing to its
destructive power of
evocation….how does one erase the image of a friend
comrade, suspended in the
immense loneliness of a prison yard! This was more
harrowing than the mere
degradation of land: my human landscape had become
irremedially desecrated.