129. Wole Soyinka and His CIA Critics
Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 18 March 2021
Publication: The Guardian (Nigeria)
Image courtesy of: Frankie Fouganthin via Wikimedia
At the end of 2020, Caroline Davis, a British scholar based at England’s Oxford Brookes University, published the book, African Literature and the CIA: Networks of Authorship and Publishing. A chapter titled “Wole Soyinka, the Transcription Centre, and the CIA” has caused a storm of controversy. In it, Davis alleges that Africa’s first Nobel Literature laureate was supported by three United States (US) Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-funded organisations: the US-centred Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) and the Farfield Foundation, as well as the London-based Transcription Centre. She further claims that this assistance helped Soyinka’s meteoric rise to international prominence. Davis has used archival records from the CCF and the Transcription Centre to seek to substantiate her claims, and thus quotes extensively from personal correspondence between Soyinka and his alleged CIA-backed funders. The covert CIA funding of the CFF was exposed in The New York Times in 1966 and Ramparts in 1967. The author, however, admits that “there is no evidence that Soyinka was aware of the CIA source of his patronage during the 1960s, or that the CCF or its affiliated institutions exercised a direct influence on his writing.” But, Davis also asserts that Soyinka became aware of CIA funding of the Transcription Centre in 1967, and had not previously questioned the source of his funding.
The author quoted American scholar, Peter Kalliney, as insisting that CCF support did not, in any way, turn Soyinka into a “US puppet,” while citing American poet, Juliana Spahr’s explosive but unverified claim that the playwright had “unusually close ties to the US government” and met frequently with American intelligence in the 1970s. Soyinka had himself observed in his 2006 memoirs, You Must Set Forth At Dawn: “we would discover that we had been dining, and with relish, with the original of that serpentine incarnation the devil, romping in our postcolonial Garden of Eden and gorging on the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge! Nothing – virtually no project, no cultural initiative – was left un-brushed by the CIA’s reptilian coils.”
Journals and Conferences
Davis details how the CIA supported journals in which Soyinka was involved such as Black Orpheus. The Ibadan-based Mbari Writers and Artists Club was also said to have received CIA funding. She notes that CIA-funded conferences prominently featured Soyinka: the 1962 Conference of African Writers of English Expression in Kampala; the Berlin Arts Festival in 1964; and the 1966 First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar. Soyinka himself was editing Africa’s leading politico-cultural journal, Transition, in exile in Accra between 1973 and 1976, when CIA support to it through the CCF was exposed, and it was forced to shut down.
Davis argues that, from 1963, Dennis Duerden, the British Director of the Transcription Centre – through largesse from the Farfield Foundation – effectively became Soyinka’s chief external promoter. Duerden enthusiastically funded the playwright’s attendance at conferences and festivals, and financed stage productions, all reportedly to the tune of £2,000-3,000. The Briton also funded – in partnership with New York’s National Television and Radio Centre – eight 30-minute TV programmes featuring Soyinka and South African writer, Lewis Nkosi, interviewing leading African writers such as Chinua Achebe, Grace Ogot, and Camara Laye, with Soyinka himself also interviewed by Nkosi.
Staging Theatre and Publishing Plays
Davis notes that the drama competition that Soyinka famously won on the eve of Nigeria’s independence in 1960 to stage the play, A Dance of the Forests, had been established by the CCF through CIA agent, Michael Josselson. Duerden reportedly bought the rights to Soyinka’s play, The Swamp Dwellers, in 1964 for £400 for broadcasting in the US, with the Farfield Foundation supporting the production. Davis notes that Soyinka was lukewarm about the project, and had advised Duerden to abandon it before its low-key release in 1966. The Briton also successfully pushed for the Farfield Foundation to fund the production of Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel at London’s Theatre Royal for a month between September and October 1965.
Soyinka then allegedly visited New York in 1966 to request funding from the Farfield Foundation. Duerden registered the Orisun-Ijinle Theatre Company in London, with Soyinka as its Artistic Director. Davis, however, notes that the playwright was unenthusiastic about the London-based group, with his focus firmly on his own Orisun company in Nigeria. The Transcription Centre then reportedly funded a 1966 tour of Britain by Soyinka through the Arts Council. The visit took in a production of Soyinka’s Brother Jero at the Hampstead Theatre Club in London, directed by South Africa’s Athol Fugard; a staging of Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel at London’s Royal Court Theatre; visits to Leicester and Southampton universities; and television appearances on BBC and Granada Television. As the CIA link was exposed in 1966, Duerden reportedly began to turn off Soyinka’s funding taps.
Davis also describes how Duerden worked closely with Rex Collings, Soyinka’s Oxford University Press (OUP) editor, to publish the Nigerian writer’s plays and poetry including A Dance of the Forests (1963); The Lion and the Jewel (1963); The Road (1965); and Kongi’s Harvest (1965). After Collings left OUP to join Methuen in 1966, Soyinka followed him. Methuen would later publish Idanre and Other Poems (1967) and Prisonettes: Poems From Prison (1969).
Political Prisoner Activism
During two periods of imprisonment, the Transcription Centre, the Farfield Foundation, and the CCF launched an international campaign to pressure the Nigerian government to release Soyinka. From 1965 to 1966, the playwright was jailed for holding up a radio station at gun-point to prevent the announcement of a victory speech by Western Region politician, Samuel Akintola, after a disputed election. Davis notes that the three organisations further ensured that Soyinka’s plight was kept alive by Amnesty International, The New York Times, and The Sunday Times (London), even sending a lawyer to assess the playwright’s health condition and meeting his £700 legal costs. Soyinka was jailed again for 26 months in 1967-1969 for seeking to mediate a peace deal with secessionist Biafra during Nigeria’s civil war of 1967 to 1970. All three CIA-funded organisations again launched an energetic campaign for Soyinka’s release through Amnesty International, The Times (London), and the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The Farfield Foundation and the CCF both closed down during this period, after their covert CIA links had been exposed.
Wole Soyinka is yet to offer a detailed response to these allegations which he has dismissed as “putrid, insolent and asinine.” He has, however, threatened to “pursue these women, Caroline Davis and Juliana Spahr, to the end of the earth and into the pit of hell until they reveal to the world when and where I was meeting CIA agents.” He called for a conference to be organised at Harvard University in the US to confront his accusers, though Davis never actually accused him of meeting CIA agents. The Nobel laureate further cautioned that “The battle is joined. The Republic of liars has now extended from Nigeria to the United States.” The time is fast approaching when an irresistible force will encounter an immovable object.
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.