Wole Soyinka, the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, once fled to the United States from Nigeria. Now the fickle winds of politics are pushing him in the opposite direction.
Back in the 1960s, jailed for alleged associations with rebels amid the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, Soyinka composed protest poems on toilet paper in solitary confinement. “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny,” Soyinka wrote in the collection of prison notes he later published. In the 1990s, the Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha confiscated Soyinka’s passport after the playwright urged Nigerians to stop paying taxes in defiance of military rule in the country. Soyinka managed to sneak out of his homeland and take refuge in the United States—a period he described to me as his “political sabbatical, because I never accepted, really, that I was in exile.” Abacha sentenced Soyinka to death in absentia. Soyinka’s crime was said to be treason.
Soyinka is now 82 years old, and his latest flash of activism involves Donald Trump. While spending Thanksgiving with his family in the United States, Soyinka says, he followed through on a pledge he made shortly before the U.S. election: to destroy his U.S. permanent-resident card, or Green Card, if Trump won the presidency. Soyinka has been based in Nigeria for some time—ever “since our dearly beloved dictator Sani Abacha kindly took his leave of us” (translation: died of a heart attack) in 1998, Soyinka told me by phone from the Nigerian city of Lagos. But over the years, he’s left Nigeria for stretches to teach at universities in the United States and around the world, most recently at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He said he obtained his Green Card during his “political sabbatical” at Emory University in the ’90s, with the help of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Soyinka told me that he has now rendered his Green Card “inoperable,” without going into further detail. “I don’t have strong enough fingers to tear up a Green Card,” he added. “As long as Trump is in charge, if I absolutely have to visit the United States, I prefer to go in the queue for a regular visa with others,” he said. “I’m no longer part of the society, not even as a resident.”
His self-described “Wolexit” from the United States is an act of protest against what he views as Trump’s xenophobic campaign rhetoric regarding specific ethnic, racial, and religious groups, including blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims. It’s a statement by a man who in the past has warned of humanity’s terrible tendency toward “[p]olarizations within various micro-worlds—us versus the inferior them.”
“Trump’s wall is already under construction,” Soyinka recently told The Interview magazine in Nigeria. “Walls are built in the mind, and Trump has erected walls, not only across the mental landscape of America, but across the global landscape.”
But Soyinka is not necessarily urging others to follow his example and join the resistance to Trumpism. He appears to be withdrawing from the political dysfunction he denounces instead of trying to resolve it. He has characterized his decision as a “personal” and “private” one, to which “[n]o one else is invited.” (Soyinka vowed to tear up his Green Card in a question-and-answer session with students at Oxford University, not in some showy press conference, and he hasn’t much welcomed the media attention surrounding his move.)
In discussing that choice, he casts himself as an aging activist seeking tranquility—rather than the next cause to champion—in a tumultuous world. After a long career of outward struggle, he seems to be turning inward. In tampering with his Green Card, Soyinka told me, “I delivered myself from uncertainty, from discomfort, from internal turmoil.”
“As one grows older, one becomes more sensitive about such things, especially as one is inclined to close the world around one as much as possible … and therefore devote one’s time and energy to activity in congenial spaces,” he said. “The U.S. for me, watching that election—it was no longer congenial.”
“There is inevitably some kind of apprehension when someone rides to power on what one considers a negative outlook on a multinational society like America still is today,” Soyinka explained. “What horrified me was not so much the individual demagogue, but to watch … [the] swelling numbers of his followers—to expect, for instance, that listening to that kind of rhetoric [from] a would-be leader of peoples, that crowds would diminish. But they did not. … It’s like seeing a people in a different light for the first time.”
Soyinka recalled his interactions with leaders of black-power movements in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s: “I witnessed the assertion of the black peoples. And one was encouraged by that beginning transformation, which attained its apogee with the election of the first black president of the United States, and [the first American president with] African [heritage] for that matter. One didn’t thereby imagine that racism would die or anything of the sort. But I think that that temporary summit of black equality, this symbolic ascendancy of Obama, [suggested] that social consciousness in a progressive way would be the norm. Mr. Trump’s campaign was a sharp, deliberate reversal, almost as if Barack Obama had just been tolerated all along.”
More broadly, he observed, “this is a critical period globally, with extreme violent, brutish religious fundamentalism, which of course must be fought to a standstill.” His own country, Nigeria, is plagued by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram. “But with a situation like this you also need a large mind which is capable of distinguishing, which is capable of plodding [its] way through, the nuances of this violent, oppositional situation, not somebody who will use the excuse of the solidarity of hatred for these religious extremists as an opportunity to rope in, to have a blanket attitude towards, those who, for instance, profess the Muslim faith.”
“Once you create outsiders, you enlarge the colony of outsiders,” Soyinka continued. “You don’t have enough within the original catchment area, [so] you then begin to include others, not merely on the grounds of religion, but on the grounds of race, tendencies. The minorities become social targets, whether directly or indirectly.”
These worries notwithstanding, Soyinka recently told Nigerian journalists that “Trump is not really my business,” and that Trump should be allowed to go about his work after winning the election. “We [should] just watch [to see] whether our worst fears will be effected,” he advised. “There are born-again humans all over the place, in all religions. Why not in politics?”
In the meantime, after decades of speaking out against dictators and kleptocrats, Soyinka is retreating to Abeokuta, the Nigerian city where he grew up. “For me, my little hole in Abeokuta is not just home,” he told me. “It’s a one-man nation. It’s the obvious place to return to.”