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.