I think for the longest period growing up, Wole Soyinka held the literary crown jewel in my mind for many reasons mostly non-literary – his first works I’d read were his simplest plays and poems; then I got exposed to Chinua Achebe and quickly crowned him instead, for longer.
Soyinka’s exploits as a nationalist, his daring, his deliberate manner of speech and mostly his friendship with Bola Ige endeared him to me steadfastly as a lodestar.
But in writing, Achebe was the storyteller who sought to communicate his thoughts most clearly to the reader.
Studying English in the Arts faculty for years, Achebe’s book provided more depth – where he was direct, Soyinka was superfluous.
Where Soyinka was verbose, Achebe was succinct – as though the former sought to impress or obfuscate and the latter sought to communicate and teach.
It’s no wonder that Achebe novels often feature on school reading lists while Soyinka’s poems were more recommended – poetry being a mistress who has to be constantly wooed before she yields her goodness.
And Achebe created lasting characters in greater numbers than Soyinka.
Yes you can’t forget Soyinka characters like Brother Jero, Bandele, Egbo, Sagoe, even Joe Golder and the others from The Interpreters – but Achebe was so deliberate that even Unoka, Ikemefuna, Edogo and several minor characters in his works seemed to come alive in one’s mind.
I admired Soyinka greatly and in many ways still do but the older I grow, the more I see him and Achebe in greater light and I lean towards Achebe in certain ways, especially in his refusal to become the expectation of the West – which I think Soyinka sometimes pandered to.
When it was ‘African’ to magnify Africa through writing, many others did – except Soyinka, who then famously declared that a “Tiger doesn’t need to proclaim its tigritude” – in response to the growing writing culture of Negritude espoused by the likes of Leopold Senghor and co.
And the West loves him for it – perhaps even rewarded him.
These are my personal musings – Soyinka in my eyes is a great human, one of the finest of our specie but still human.
Achebe also had human flaws, chief of which I feel was his inability to move on from his roles.
Achebe had been one of the propaganda directors for Biafra – and he seemed to carry that role on until death.
Chukwumerije had also been but he was able to cast himself in another role afterwards – Achebe’s final work seemed to me to be the last act of a play that had long ended
“Death is the saving grace of the greatness of men” I once said this to mean that perhaps if men lived long enough like metal, then golden men would rust before our eyes as even gold might.
Achebe’s death elevated him from the questions bound to follow that work; Soyinka lives.
And in living, Soyinka becomes rusty – taking ideological positions a younger Soyinka would rebel against.
I like to think Ige’s death disillusioned Soyinka – they were mystical soulmates but where Ige found his expression in politics, Soyinka found his in the arts.
And both men separately drank from the fount they chose, but through each other, they sometimes took sips from the fount the other chose – Ige once said something about cleansing his mind from the murkiness of politics with the beauty of the arts.
Ige died; Soyinka drank.
Soyinka stepped into politics somewhat by proposing a political party – and he had the credentials; intellectually and perhaps ideologically but he had no mystical soulmate and gradually, I think he lost his way, at least politically.
He sought an Ige but found none like him.
Soyinka’s friendship with Bola Tinubu first, and then Rotimi Amaechi was (And is) a mistake – those men do not have the moral fibre that Ige did.
But as Soyinka was a good friend to Ige, so he is now to his friends but these friends are nothing like Bola Ige – that’s the problem
Just musing in my head anyway – if anyone wants to rekindle an old rivalry, they’ll find me oscillating between my love-hate relationship with both deities.
To reduce it to an ethnic perspective though would be the basest form of engagement to have on both of them, the worst.
And I say that not without recognition of the role ethnicity plays on outlook – but because if some of us can rise above it then anyone can.
And if any choose not to rise above that then our risen status earns us the right to treat them with scorn and shun engagement with them.
The literary crown belongs to Achebe but for ideological perspective on nation-building, I’ll stick with Soyinka – but only as he used to be, not as he is now.
Thank God one drank from the pristine fount that sprung from him back then, the water it springs now is quite strange.