Wole Soyinka is a writer of plays, novels, political memoirs, and an activist who the Nobel committee described as “one of the finest poetical playwrights that have written in English…full of life and urgency.” Born July 13 1934 at Abeokuta, Soyinka grew up in an Anglican mission compound in Aké and also spent time in his father’s ancestral home in Isara, Ijebu Remo. He would not only witness, but also run errands for the women, among whom was his mother, a trader, who led alongside hundreds by sister, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, would defy the authority of the Alake, Ladapo Ademola, leading him to abdicate the throne in 1948. Soyinka’s father, a primary school headmaster whose initials he imagined as “essay” afforded him access to classical Greek tragedies such as the Medea of Euripides, which engaged his mind profoundly. In his words, “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.” Such was his philosophy, his life and career which took him to the prison during Nigeria’s troubled years and around the world as one of Africa’s most respected voices.
Soyinka was educated at St. Peter’s School, Ake Abeokuta; Abeokuta Grammar School, 1944-45; Government College Ibadan, 1946-50, University College, (now University of Ibadan), Ibadan, 1952-54, University of Leeds, England, 1954-57. Encouraged by the interest shown in his play, Lion and the Jewel by members of London’s Royal Court Theater, Soyinka left for London to work as a dramaturgist at the Royal Court of Theater in London 1958-59. With the Rockefeller bursary he returned to Nigeria to study African drama. On the eve of Nigeria’s independence, his work was selected and commissioned for the national celebration. Soyinka’s Dance of the Forest prophetically called for candid introspection. It did not take long before the newly independent Nigeria fell apart, and Soyinka participated in correcting the injustice, albeit hilariously with his substitution of his own recorded broadcast for the Premier’s message on the radio. His next moments would be spent behind bars. He also ran into trouble when he was during the Nigerian Civil War, suspected of sympathizing with the Biafrans. While serving his second jail term, he translated The Forest of a Thousand Demons from Yoruba, a fantastical novel by D. O. Fagunwa. After his release in 1969, Soyinka left Nigeria and did not come back till 1975 when there had been a change of power. For the next one decade he continued with his activism, also through his days at the University of Ife. The book which he wrote on his solitary confinement, The Man Died was banned by a court of law in 1984. By 1985, the rumours of him making the Nobel shortlist had become prominent, even as he settled into a safer life under the new regime of Ibrahim Babangida. In 1986, Soyinka was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature for the “sparkling vitality” and “moral stature” of his work. The Swedish academy praised him for fashioning the drama of existence with poetic overtones in a wide cultural perspective. Soyinka dedicated his award, which was Africa’s first, to the imprisoned South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, thus lending a voice to the condemnation of Apartheid. Many great awards and fellowships followed for him in that year. During the years of General Sani Abacha, worst among Nigerian dictators, Soyinka was charged for treason, but the charges were dropped by successive government after Abacha’s demise. As Nigeria’s third attempt at democracy finally achieve stability, Soyinka continues to write, teaching, and criticizing the vices that he sees.
Soyinka’s works covered politics, and literacy, and humanity. His play, The Trial of Brother Jero, is a light satirical expression of religion. In the play he presents to the reader a person who hides under the Church Brotherhood to bring people to supine submissions. To him, modern religions are unideal and he considers himself fortunate being an adherent of African Traditional Religion. In his book titled Ake, The Years of Childhood, Wole Soyinka acquaints the world with his childhood.
Soyinka is a man of many awards, recognized for his struggles and clamors nationally and internationally among theses are : the Honoris Causa doctorate from the University of Leeds, 1972. the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1986. Agip Prize in Literature, 1986. Honorary doctorate, Harvard University, 1993. The 1994 UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Promotion of African culture, human rights, freedom of expression, media and communication. Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award, 2009
At the Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan, his alma mater, Wole Soyinka is compared in artistic scholarship with the veteran writer William Shakespeare with their initials (WS) graphically intertwined.