What Makes a Hero

Wole Soyinka's Nobel Nominees: The Malala Heroines

With his white beard and his white hair that rises like a mushroom cloud above his brain, Wole Soyinka is an imposing presence even before he speaks. And the 78-year-old Nigerian activist and novelist, who won the Nobel for literature in 1986, speaks with the authority of a man who’s lived history, and made it.

When asked whom he’d like to see get the Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow, he clearly hadn’t given the question much thought. But then he did. “The Malala heroines,” he said. “Not an individual, but all those, whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Nigeria or so many other places: these young women who are fighting so hard” for their education and their freedom.

Elsewhere in an extraordinary interview with The Daily Beast’s editor-in-chief Tina Brown on stage at the annual Hero Summit in Washington D.C., on Thursday, Soyinka put Africa’s troubles into context.

“One has to confront history honestly,” said Soyinka. The terrorist group Boko Haram, whose members recently slaughtered scores of Christian students at a school in northern Nigeria, is part of “a worldwide movement,” he said. It is affiliated with Al Qaeda and preaches a narrow, perverted form of Islam. Its partisans have gunned down academics, murdered students in their beds, tortured them “in all kinds of ways.” They “act outside the pale,” said Soyinka, and “should not be considered as humans.”

Soyinka said that after “years of appeasement,” the Nigerian government “woke up very late to the menace.” It is now trying harder to educate young people who might be lured into the Boko Haram’s ranks, even as it hopes to hunt down the leaders.

Soyinka has spent years fighting the corrupt and ruthless regimes in his own country and elsewhere on the continent. He has been called, as Brown noted, “the conscience of Africa.” And precisely in that role, Soyinka drew a direct line between the African tyrants of today and the Africans—yes, Africans—who enslaved other Africans, then sold them into the horrors of the Middle Passage that took them to the Americas in 18th and 19th centuries.

“The descendants of those collaborators [with the slave trade] are still with us,” said Soyinka. To be sure, “the guilt of the West is beyond anything that has been recorded in films and tomes and painting,” he said. “But we have to understand part of the problem today has to do with the mentality of dominance” among some Africans themselves.

The debate about African complicity in African slavery was rekindled earlier this week by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., (a former student of Soyinka). Gates wrote about the role of “mulatto,” or mixed-race slave traders on the African coast at the height of the horrific commerce that saw some 12.5 million people sold into bondage. “No family wants to find skeletons in its closet, and no people wants to discover lives being bought and sold, especially by their own, in the past,” Gates wrote.

Asked about this after the session, Soyinka said he found it impossible to understand how anyone could deny this part of history. There is, after all, nothing new about evil. The way it worked in the past, is often much the same as the way it works in the present.