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Nigerian Nobel laureate draws crowds at Berlin lit fest

By dpa news     Sep 8, 2007 in Entertainment
Tall, with a soaring crop of white curly hair, Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's 1986 Nobel Laureate for Literature, is not a man you miss in a crowd.
In the past few days Soyinka, a handsome 73-year-old, has been a focus of attention at Berlin's 7th international literary festival, attended by over 150 writers, poets and philosophers from 51 nations.
A first-time festival guest, author-poet Soyinka - long hailed as one of Africa's greatest living wordsmiths - sits on a small divan encircled by a knot of journalists at the "Haus der Festpiele" theatre in Berlin, fielding questions.
A prolific author with a stream of novels, poems and stinging political writings to his credit, Soyinka has for years been an outspoken critic of Nigerian administrations, and also of political tyrannies worldwide, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe.
Back in 1967 he first clashed with the Nigerian authorities, being arrested by the Federal Government of General Yakubu Gowon and put in solitary confinement for seeking to broker a peace during the Biafran conflict. For 22 months he languished in jail until an international outcry led to his release.
Forty years on, Soyinka - asked for his assessment of life in present-day Nigeria - pauses, then replies: "I would say we are in a state of limbo, in a kind of neither-nor outcome.
"We are in a situation where at least three or four presidential candidates are in courts and tribunals contesting the elections.
"There are lots of government and senatorial applications being examined by tribunals at this moment, so everybody is waiting for the decision of the courts."
Ask him about his role in Nigeria today and he shrugs. "Oh, it's always been the same, ensuring the citizen has a voice in the destiny of the nation," he says - a task by no means easy in the past. In the early 1990s he left the country, fearing for his life.
When the Berlin festival began in mid-week, Soyinka read excerpts from one of his books, "The Open Sore of a Continent," vividly depicting conditions in Nigeria during the military dictatorships. It was a time when his passport was confiscated by General Sani Abacha.
During the past decade, Soyinka has spent a lot of time in the United States where he has been a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, then the Elias Ghanem professor of creative writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
When civilian rule returned to Nigeria in 1999, he accepted an emeritus post at Ife (now Abafemi Awolowo University) on condition that the university bar all former military officers from the position of chancellor.
During his time abroad, Soyinka says he spent far more time than he would normally do attending literary jamborees. "That was because Sani Abacha was such a pain in those years. You had to use every available platform against him," he says.
Asked about Darfur, Soyinka reveals that a year ago he was asked to lead a commission of Nobel laureates on a visit to Sudan in a bid to find out more about refugee conditions, and to examine the policy of the Sudanese government.
"But at the last moment we couldn't go because the Sudanese government refused to provide us with visas. So we've never been. The excuse then was they were preparing for a conference of the Arab League, which was a purely a meretricious opportunity for them to prevent us from going," he said.
"I don't need to stress to you the situation in Darfur - the millions and millions of refugees who have been driven out of their villages, their ancestral homes, and of the raids of the notorious camel- and horse-riders who are really a surrogate of the Sudanese government's own policies."
The African Union, he insisted, bore primary responsibility for the regress of the situation in Sudan. "What rapidly needs to be done is for the African Union and the African League to get together to enforce the peace in Sudan with, of course, the full assistance of the UN," he said.
The mass outflow of refugees bore a certain parallel to events in the Balkans in the 1990s, he said, claiming Sudanese policies amounted to genocide.
Now it seemed it was willing to accept the presence of a United Nations peace-keeping force on its territory after more than four years of violence.
"It's of course very, very late, but l don't believe it's ever too late to prevent further atrocities against human beings," he added.
The Literature festival, which got under way on Tuesday evening, continues until September 16 with 254 events taking place at city theatres, museums and libraries, and authors reading from their works at city prisons and youth corrective centres. dpa cf sc
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