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Monday, 6 August, 2001, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
Nigeria's Soyinka back on stage
Wole Soyinka
Soyinka's play parodies Africa's dictators
By Eniwoke Ibagere in Lagos

August will be special for Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka in Nigeria.

He will be staging a play in his native country for the first time since 1994, when he went into self-imposed exile.

Soyinka's new play, 'King Baabu', will be premiered at Lagos' National Arts Theatre, home to many of his works.

"It's fitting I'm returning to the Lagos theatre after many years of absence. We were rehearsing to stage a play there before I left," Soyinka told BBC Online.

Satire

'King Baabu', a satire on the use of power and jumped-up officialdom, is a parody of Africa's past and present dictators.


If we cannot hang such people from the nearest lamp post, I can hang them on stage

Wole Soyinka
Soyinka said he was inspired to write the play by first-hand "menacing experience" under Nigeria's late dictator General Sani Abacha, who wanted the playwright arrested for criticising his military government.

Soyinka first returned to Nigeria in 1998 after overtures from Abdulsalami Abubakar, the army ruler who took over from Abacha and restored democracy in 1999.

"The warped aspect of human nature that makes people think they have the right to dominate others and also inflict very agonising experiences on fellow humans is explored in 'King Baabu'," he said.

"If we cannot hang such people from the nearest lamp post, I can hang them on stage."

In the play's title, 'Baabu' is a pun on the Hausa word 'baabu', which means 'nothing' or metaphorically 'finished'.

Soyinka relates his present with the past in 'King Baabu', through a politically astute and barbed analysis of power via a situation comedy.
Poster for King Baabu
The play is a satire of power and officialdom

He also dwells on how the very private, often puerile aspects of power-obsession can lead to brilliant and sometimes absurd intrigues between people.

Topical

Although Abacha is now dead, 'King Baabu' has lost nothing of its topicality as similar figures remain in power in many countries in Africa and all over the world.

Soyinka said: "Look at (Robert) Mugabe stifling the opposition under the pretence of re-possessing alienated land. He's one of these dictators who want to die in office. In the crudest manner, he crushes all dissenting views, killing his opponents, torturing them, burning their houses!"

Soyinka, 67, said his 17th play overall also mixes Shakespeare with materials from the civil war in Sierra Leone and last year's coup and troubles in the Ivory Coast.

Many of his works show this ability to take universal messages to his audience by fusing specific African experiences with modern theatre and traditional story telling.

After he fled abroad in 1994, Soyinka became a self-appointed diplomat who campaigned against Abacha's regime and encouraged Western countries to impose sanctions on the Nigerian government and its allies.

Human rights panel

According to Soyinka, those who helped the former rulers stay in power through "name-dropping, complacency and denial" were given a mention in 'King Baabu'.

He said he had to change some elements of the play, giving it a much sharper edge, after watching and hearing testimonies of army officers and their collaborators at Nigeria's on-going Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission.

Soyinka, who has also testified before the panel, said: "Until people started coming out to say what they said at the Commission, people didn't believe these things happened."

'King Baabu', with a 15-strong mixed cast of popular Nigerian and London-based actors and actresses, is backed by a production crew from Switzerland.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jo Episcopo
"Soyinka's play is set in an imaginary African country"
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