Playwright, poet, activist, and Patron of Humanists UK
Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright, poet, and essayist. Born in Nigeria in 1934, Soyinka went on to study in both Nigeria (Government College in Ibadan) and the UK (University of Leeds).
Soyinka spent six years in England upon completing his studies, during which time he worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London. In 1960 he was awarded a Rockefeller bursary and returned to Nigeria to study African drama. During this time, he taught drama and literature at various universities in Ibadan, Lagos, and Ife, where, since 1975, he has been professor of comparative literature. In 1960, he founded the theatre group The 1960 Masks and in 1964, the Orisun Theatre Company. He has periodically been a visiting professor at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, and Yale.
Soyinka has been a strong critic of successive Nigerian governments, especially the country’s many military dictators, as well as other political tyrannies, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. During the civil war in Nigeria, Soyinka appealed in an article for cease-fire. For this he was arrested in 1967, accused of conspiring with the Biafra rebels, and was held as a political prisoner for 22 months until 1969. During this time, he still wrote a significant body of poems and notes criticising the Nigerian government.
During the regime of General Sani Abacha (1993–98), Soyinka escaped from Nigeria on a motorcycle via the ‘NADECO Route.’ Abacha later proclaimed a death sentence against him ‘in absentia.’ With civilian rule restored to Nigeria in 1999, Soyinka returned to Nigeria.
Soyinka is also a formidable critic of Islamic fundamentalism, speaking at the Humanists UK-hosted World Humanist Congress in 2014 on the horrors faced by schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. He implored humanity to ‘Resist, Resist and Resist!’ religious censorship and ‘understand the historic partnership of religion and power on the one hand, and humanism and freedom on the other’.
Soyinka has published about 20 works: drama, novels and poetry. He writes in English and his literary language is marked by great scope and richness of words. You can see a full list of his works on the Nobel Prize website..
In 1986, Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature – the first African to be honoured in that category.