The Lion and The Jewel: Soyinka’s Most Enduring Work?

The Lion and The Jewel: Soyinka’s Most Enduring Work?

Today is the 80th birthday of Wole Soyinka. I may not be a fan of his but his work and achievements have their own stories.

Written in 1962, the play The Lion and The Jewel is probably Soyinka’s simplest and least-known work but it will perhaps turn out to be his most enduring due to its evolving contemporary relevance. It is also one of the outstanding works from post-colonial literature to come out of Nigeria, if not the entire Commonwealth.

It is a play about two men, Lakunle and Baroka, both vying for the hand in marriage of a village belle, Sidi. Lakunle a school teacher represents what Peter Palmer Ekeh calls a ‘good citizen’ i.e. one who rejects the traditional ways and embraces civic responsibility by way of adherence to modern colonial sensibilities and morality. Baroka the village Bale (leader) represents the ‘lucky citizen’ one who eschews colonial modernity and personifies the primordial character of Nigerian society i.e. the “Nigerian Way”. Sidi is a young virgin who is virtually unaware of the deeper tensions of the traditional primordial and modern colonial forces contending over her; her destiny is to either become a good or lucky citizen depending on who marries her. The good citizen conscientiously by moral constraints puts more into society than he or she receives from it, while the lucky citizen is a spontaneous maximiser who exploits society for what its worth. In the end, Baroka wins Sidi to his side. He deflowers her by deception, claiming he is impotent making Sidi drop her guard then demonstrates his full potency by taking her unawares. The man who takes her virginity becomes her husband.

Lakunle is one who thinks and lives by the codes morality, decency and would prefer to win Sidi’s hand in marriage through adhering to formal ethical rules. Though not necessarily immoral or indecent Baroka who operates with cunning and expediency prefers informal rules which if broken are settled informally. Herein lies the meaning of the play and the condition of Nigerian society which makes the concept of contrary institutions necessary.

A contrary institution is defined as “any institution which due to perverse or incomplete internal development delivers divergent or contrary outcomes to those it was originally intended”. (Clusters) of institutions intended to reduce alcohol consumption but results in an escalation in the incidences of drunkenness are contrary. Just as anti-corruption institutions that result in increased incidences and magnitudes of corruption are contrary. The amorphous and unstable interactions of Lakunle and Baroka in their pursuit of Sidi also represent formal and informal institutions, respectively. This interaction is what produces contrary institutions.

Fellow Nobel laureate in Economics, Douglas North, famously complained “why do informal constraints undermine formal institutions?” especially when he makes a further claim “formal rules change, but informal constraints do not”. From a colonial perspective, as it refers to Africa, Ekeh would contend that the informal rules of the primordial public are ancient, customarily accepted by the majority and enforceable but the rules of the civic public are the opposite, hurriedly and improperly rushed in by way of colonisation hence not customary. However, for African society to operate in the present day, formal rules take precedence over informal rules which constitutes a dilemma when it comes to enforcement. A precondition for contrary institutions is legal pluralism as seen in formal courts and traditional law and custom as well as other aspects of society e.g. a native marriage on Friday and church wedding on Saturday by the same couple. There are too many informal authorities whose judgments are binding on citizens which in turn further fosters negative competition and undermines positive cooperation. If Lakunle had won Sidi’s hand in marriage by following formal procedures it would be binding but Baroka’s rape of Sidi through informal stratagem is also binding.

Rape though not graphically represented in the play is the product of an unidentified contrary institution. Wole Soyinka, who personally has despised rape all his life, saw its rise in Nigeria as a spin-off of modernisation and uses it as an emotive dramatic device. Nevertheless, rape is a very serious crime in the indigenous primordial sense because it tampers with familial purity/honour, violates female pride, and is punishable by stiff fines and macho violence. Virginity also has a great primordial value for the same reasons, to lose it through rape is trouble doubled. In the colonial modern civic sense rape is also a serious crime because it violates the rights and freedoms of the victim, and is punishable by jail sentences. Neither the primordial nor the civic spaces tolerate rape but from the tensions and uncertainty manifest in their interactions emerges a neoculturation that “permits” violation of a female’s honour as a means to marriage; a solution. Lakunle threatens to take Sidi’s rape by Baroka to court but it easily is rendered unnecessary since no one takes it seriously; Sidi loves Baroka and marries him.

Tragically, Lakunle was still willing to marry a raped girl but she wants her 60-year-old rapist. The message is ‘keep it formal and you can be guilty of wrongdoing, keep it informal then you can get away with murder’. As JPO de Sardan noted African societies in the post-colonial era created institutions that neither resembled primordial indigenous nor modern colonial forms. These new “neither here nor there” rules of societal organisation are necessarily contrary institutions. The play thus tells the story of many ‘Nigerians’ i.e. the Nigeria we once had and miss for its expediency; the Nigeria we want but cannot have because of civic incapacity; and the Nigeria that emerged spontaneously and favours corruption and rule-breaking. The consequences are a warning.

The play also represents Nigeria as the “land of empty talk and nefarious silence”. Lakunle speaks with evocative vocabulary of civic ideals but no one listens to him. You cannot preach a new morality to a society that is not interested in it for whatever reason. Today civic morality fails to persuade the hungry majority especially when their leaders are visibly amoral. Baroka knows if you are silent, cunning and break the rules you get what you want. A common accolade for those who have done well for themselves through corruption and thieving in Nigeria is “he does not talk, he just looks, he knows what he is doing”. This again is Baroka. Nigerian society has become all about money and short-term advantage, and those who excel at it.

As the play concludes it represents Nigeria as the “land of sense” (Baroka’s sense) i.e. a society where gaining a short-term advantage is king. Lakunle is a gentleman (in a pejorative sense) and hence too moral and too decent to win or deserve anything. In Brazil, such means of conducting individual daily lives is known as “Jeitinho”. Unfortunately, a short-term advantage is mostly secured at the expense of medium and long term benefits because trust, reciprocity and goodwill are annihilated between people daily leading to society-wide coordination failures and poverty traps. McCloskey affirms that society is successfully coordinated by a healthy mix of positive cooperation and positive competition and warns that an overly focus on competition destroys society. As for sense, it is no surprise that Nigerians are reputed to be skilled at making institutions become contrary, home and abroad. Corruption in all its forms is almost a “Nigerian Thing” while the perennial misgovernance of the Nigerian state, moral decadence of all forms and post-human (even ghoulish) spontaneous maximisation are all manifestations of contrary institutions. One ponders if modernisation came too fast to Africa as Samuel Huntingdon claims? Many disagree.

We must not overlook the fact that Baroka is a village leader and represents those in government who lead increasingly by way of sense backed up by immorality and amorality. Claude Ake emphatically argues that African leaders, especially of the independence era, abandoned the very civic ideals that got them into power and resorted to expediently adopting the [primordial] conveniences of tribalism, religion, nobility, monarchy and cost-avoidance. Lakunle represents the now non-existent breed of Nigerians who sincerely embraced the role of civic institutions and that of the good citizen; these were bitterly frustrated and disappointed men and women. Their children are who caught hell and were left stranded with the introduction of the emasculating structural adjustment program are sworn not to be like their parents, they find it better to be lucky citizens. This would be a grave disappointment to Soyinka who five decades ago wanted and encouraged the youth of Nigeria to develop indigenous civic morality, responsibilities, sensibilities and institutions. But the cause is not lost though. The helplessness, hopelessness, frustrations and lost freedoms (in the parlance of Amartya Sen, another Nobel laureate) have brought the Nigerian youth to its knees and squeezed an increasingly large numbers of them into a sober awakening.

The Lion and The Jewel should be revisited, it gives readers and audiences insights into what might have been of Nigerian society and maybe what could still be. Times have changed continually in Nigeria since 1962 but this play gives each new time that arrives a message that “we are still facing the same central challenges in the way we live and we can live better”. The better society can still be truly attained. The youth are not excluded from these insights and should embrace them. This is perhaps the lesson embedded in Soyinka’s The Lion and The Jewel and endure I hope it will.


Grimot Nane


Ekeh, P P, (1975), Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp 91-112

Soyinka, S, (1962), The Lion and the Jewel, 1st ed, Oxford University Press

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