Wole Soyinka is famed for winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 based on his significant contributions to poetry and drama. Though his award was highly controversial and the Nobel Committee’s ‘choice’ felbious, Soyinka won the prize anyway, deservedly. He was the first African to win the prize. There are very few urban Nigerians that do not know who Wole Soyinka is; he is a living legend.
Nnimmo Bassey is characteristically modest but highly effective environmental campaigner, priest and poet who won the Right Livelihood Award 2010 for environmental activism particularly in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. His close friend and collaborator, the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, was the first Nigerian to win the award in 1994; Bassey was the second. It is amazing that many of those who claim to be intellectuals and “current” in Nigeria do not know who Nnimmo Bassey is. Why is Soyinka so famous and Bassey barely known among many Nigerians?
Even before 1986 Soyinka had become a flamboyant media-magician highly skilled at courting attention assiduously and reinventing himself. Soyinka essentially operates at lofty and abstract level of activity which most Nigerians cannot engage in but admire with endless adulation. As philistine as Nigerian society has been categorised Soyinka’s ‘grammar’ remains a delight for millions. ‘Democracy in Nigeria’ has become Soyinka’s specialty with the presentation of Nigeria / Africa as “Bongo Bongo Land” his major focus. This is often assumed to be responsible for his perennial high rankings in the reputable magazines that publish lists of ‘the most influential people / thinkers’ in the world. The Western world always loves those indigenes of the continent who say Africa is ‘Bongo Bongo Land’.
Since 1986 Wole Soyinka has abandoned Literature almost completely save writing some memoirs. Such was Soyinka’s embarrassment when he recently applied for the post of Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford and got resoundingly rejected. The reasons given were Soyinka at 81 was too old, he had not written much significant literary material for ages and his professional commitment to the job was highly doubtful. The ‘Man of Letters’ without significant literary works or commitment to his craft is an unlikely career lapse but it happens. The man who got the job, Simon Armitage, is a former probation officer. This reminds me of Soyinka’s prison memoirs, ‘The Man Died’. Soyinka remain an intellectual giant.
Some have claimed that Soyinka did not get the job due to racism. In ‘Bongo Bongo Land’? ‘Negritude’ nihilism too?
Nnimmo Bassey does not court media attention; his visibility is purely due to his hands-on activism / campaigning work. Ken Saro-Wiwa did attain celebrity then “cause celebre” status after he won the prize. An activist who lives and works in the “ecocidal hotspot’, the Niger Delta, Bassey has to take on and challenge the practices of multi-billion dollar oil corporations (with global political clout) responsible for the heinous pollution and its consequences in the region. Bassey is the ‘man at the front’ who has campaigned strongly against continued oil drilling and gas flaring, and even more so for oil-pollution clean-ups and compensation for those communities inhumanely ‘sacrificed’ for oil prosperity. The Western world and media are not going make him a favourite or hero courtesy powerful oil corporations.
Bassey’s courage to call the United Nations Climate Change Conference (2009), the “Copenhagen Summit”, an “abject failure” because of its shallowness quickly reminds us of the Chinua Achebe’s fate with the Nobel Committee for calling Nobel Laureate Albert Schweitzer and author Joseph Conrad ‘thoroughgoing racists’ because of what they said or published. Save that Nigeria would have had a different Nobel Prize winner. The Right Livelihood Awards committee is a totally different entity, speaking hard truths did not stop them from giving Bassey the award.
Bassey is on the ground living closely with the people he fights untiringly for using practical and workable methods. Every major polluter and all governments in the world are very familiar with his name. Most in the Niger Delta are grateful to him but it ends there, in the region. Within Nigeria over 80% of the population have never been to the Niger Delta nor are they aware of its ecocide and pollution nor do they care. They tend to be more concerned of the revenues produced by the region and how it is shared, nothing more. That is another reason Bassey is not so famous within Nigeria. Shareholders, investors and rent seekers and their clients would wish he was not there.
In conclusion, this article is about two intellectuals who have won great prizes. Julien Benda in his classic book, ‘Treason of the Intellectuals’, stated that intellectuals have a choice between ‘privilege and power’ and ‘truth and justice’; the difference is clear. It is fair to say that it is not the prize you win that makes your stature or persona but what you do with it. However, it appears the more you use your prize in a thoroughly moral direction the less likely ‘the system’ is to be comfortable with one’s fame or recognition.