Prominent Nigerian Dissident Ends Exile


Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s most prominent dissident, returned to his home country Wednesday after four years of self-imposed exile, in an expression of confidence that the new military government is serious about democratic reforms.

Soyinka, an outspoken critic of Nigeria’s past military rulers, was the latest and most important exile to heed a call by the new military ruler, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, to help build democracy in Africa’s most populous country.

The exiles’ return raises both hopes for democracy and fears that their penchant for frank criticism might merely put them at loggerheads with a new regime.


Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for literature, recently met in New York with Abubakar, who urged the playwright to return.

Abubakar, who took power in June following the death of dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, has promised to hand over power to a civilian government in May. He has freed scores of political detainees and actively sought to rehabilitate his oil-rich nation.

The country’s new military rulers also have agreed to make their personal assets open to public scrutiny. Abacha allegedly stole millions from the coffers of this West African nation of 104 million and turned Nigeria into an international pariah known for human rights violations, massive official corruption and mismanagement.

Local news reports and rights activists said Soyinka was expected to remain in Nigeria for a week, giving lectures and meeting with journalists and pro-democracy activists.

“You can imagine that if someone like Soyinka is going back home from self-imposed exile, it is something to be welcomed,” said Z.J. Gana, a senior diplomat at the Nigerian High Commission, or embassy, in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. “This is a conciliatory move. It would not have happened if Abacha was around. It is something positive.”

The Reuters news agency reported that hundreds of well-wishers sang freedom songs in Soyinka’s native Yoruba language at the airport and surged toward him as he arrived on a flight from Germany.

Soyinka drove straight to the home of the late Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of 1993 elections, Reuters said. The vote was annulled by the army, and Abiola was locked up. He died in detention in July.

“What I looked forward to so much was the day I would hug Abiola, but that never happened,” Soyinka told reporters. “Let us not talk about that now. Let us concentrate on the inspiration that Abiola and his family have been to us.”

Soyinka, who teaches at Emory University in Atlanta and is the first African to win the Nobel literature award, fled Nigeria in 1994 after learning that the military authorities were going to arrest him for criticizing the government.

In March 1997, he was charged with treason along with other dissidents in connection with a series of bombings. Soyinka denied committing any crime.

Abubakar’s government dropped the treason charge.

Other observers said the return of Soyinka and other dissidents would close a chapter in a long history of opposition abroad.

“It shows they recognize the democratization process,” Dan Agbese, editor in chief of Newswatch, a respected weekly magazine based in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, said in a telephone interview. “They should be able to make some positive contribution to the transition process. Many of them have acquired some stature abroad, and they may bring it to bear back home.”

Among the others who have come home at Abubakar’s urging are Odige Oyegun, former civilian governor of the midwestern state of Edo and his deputy, Peter Obadan; former Sen. Bola Tinubu; retired air force Gen. Dan Suleiman; and reform campaigner Tokunboh Afikuyomi.

Gana, the diplomat, cautioned that such political heavyweights might be out of touch with current affairs and surprised by their inability to command a sizable audience.

“For some of them, it was easier to make noise outside than being in Nigeria to be reckoned with,” Gana said. “Some of them will recognize that they will be irrelevant in the scheme of things . . . that they are [no longer] recognized in Nigeria.”

Unless returning dissidents are ready to confront today’s problems, which include soaring inflation, a downturn in agriculture and shortages of necessities, observers say, their stay may be short-lived.

Some pro-democracy activists also are skeptical that the returnees will actually be allowed to play a significant role in the political transition. They remain unconvinced that Abubakar’s military regime is much different than Abacha’s. Nigeria has been ruled by military governments for all but 10 years since gaining independence from Britain in 1960.

“Ordinarily, the return of exiles would have been a good development,” said Segun Jegede, director of programs and projects at the Lagos-based Committee for the Defense of Human Rights. “But the situation on the ground now does not favor their safe return because Decree No. 2 has not been repealed.”

This decree gives the government virtually unchecked powers to detain people without trial. The law has been abused in the past to forcibly silence critics and, in some cases, simply to settle personal vendettas, local rights activists said.

Jegede said that, although Abubakar had ordered the release of scores of political detainees, his group had evidence that 292 others remain behind bars. Among them are 60 people arrested during protests following the death of Abiola. Supporters of Abiola believe that he was poisoned. The official cause of death was a heart attack.