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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 October 2007, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
Watching Wole's return to Biafra
Forty years ago, Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka travelled to Nigeria's secessionist Biafra region to try and calm growing tensions. The visit saw him thrown in jail, forced to spend 22 months in solitary confinement. Now he has returned to meet those who ordered his detention. The BBC's Mark Rickards accompanied him:

Wole Soyinka
Soyinka was accused of conspiring with the separatist rebels

Outside the airport there is a line of black cars waiting, their tinted windows making their occupants invisible.

As we come through baggage reclaim there is a mad scrum and in the middle of it is Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's Nobel Prize-winning author.

I am surrounded by large men in dark glasses who demand I get into a car.

As we are not far from the dangerous Delta region of the River Niger, the thought of kidnapping flashes briefly through my mind.

Mr Soyinka climbs into a land cruiser, I am led to the car behind and we speed off with hazard lights flashing and sirens blazing.

It is the beginning of Wole Soyinka's return to Biafra.


Wole Soyinka, affectionately known as "the prof" by many Nigerians, has been collected from Benin City Airport by a group known as the Sea Dogs.

Further investigation reveals that they are part of a fraternity set up in 1952 with Soyinka as one of seven founding members - hence the honour of a motorcade.

Wole Soyinka and Odumegwu Ojukwu
It was Soyinka's first meeting with Ojukwu (right) that put him in jail

We are now heading for Asaba and the first stop on an emotional journey back to the civil conflict of 1967.

Back then Nigeria teetered on the brink of civil war.

The people of the east, referring to themselves as Biafrans, felt that they had suffered discrimination and persecution at the hands of the Nigerian Federation and their leader Odumegwu Ojukwu declared his intention to create an independent state.

Violent conflict seemed inevitable, and a group of Nigerian intellectuals then resident in London argued that someone should travel to Biafra to speak to Ojukwu and attempt to head off hostilities.

It fell to Wole Soyinka to undertake that dangerous mission to a jittery and volatile region.

He met with Ojukwu and later returned to Lagos.

Suspicious of his motives, the federal government imprisoned Soyinka on suspicion of his involvement in the sale of military aircraft to the east.

He was to spend 26 months in jail, all but four of them in solitary confinement.

Now he has returned to see both Ojukwu and back in the west Gen Yakuba Gowon, the former leader of the Nigerian Federation who authorised his detention without trial.

Wooden guns

We arrive in Asaba and the Sea Dogs drop us in the lavish palace of Professor Edozien, and from there across the River Niger, where in 1967 Soyinka had slipped through a loosely observed blockade into Biafra.

In the feverish marketplace of Onitsha, the town on the eastern bank, he remembers his first visit well.

"There came this group of very young vigilantes with wooden guns," Soyinka says.

"They handled those wooden guns as if they were real guns. It was a kind of portent of what was to come, of a people unprepared for war but with absolute faith."

Wole Soyinka and General Gowon
If the boot had been on the other foot, I would have slung your arse in jail much earlier
Wole Soyinka (l) to Gen Gowon

Soyinka was arrested at wooden gunpoint and taken to Enugu, the capital of the self-proclaimed state of Biafra. Here he waited for the opportunity to speak with Ojukwu.

When it came, Ojukwu was polite but firm.

At the time, he said he was representing the people, and it was they themselves who had pressed for secession.

Forty years on, he is blind and infirm yet fiercely unrepentant.

Soyinka guides him to a chair and he reiterates his position.

"If you want Nigeria, I do not think it is impossible - but you will just have to train yourselves into really believing the equality of citizenship," he says.

"If you are not prepared for it, forget Nigeria."

We revisit the Presidential hotel where Soyinka stayed.

He remembers the size of the rats in those days and feels that, unlike the rest of Enugu, the hotel seems to have taken a turn for the better.

We still choose to stay overnight somewhere else, leaving behind the long shadows of the past and the distant memories of oversized rodents.

Civil war

Returning to Lagos, Soyinka is concerned that Gen Gowon will pull out of the interview.

They have met before, but Gowon seemed nervous - understandably so, face to face with the Nobel Prize winner he slung in jail.

But confirmation comes through: Gowon will meet us at his house.

As we enter, he points out that Soyinka is spot on time in a country not famous for punctuality.

"We civilians have to teach you bloody soldiers about discipline," jokes Soyinka.

They talk through the background to the Biafran war and Gowon acknowledges the suffering that was experienced on both sides.

"No victor, no vanquished" was his theme at the end of the war and he is keen for Soyinka to know that he was serious in his intention to ensure that no-one felt excluded from Nigeria.

Soyinka points out that there were some terrible atrocities committed by federal troops.

Gowon accepts that this happened, although he says he was not aware at the time.

After all the horrors of the civil war, Nigerians need to forgive, he says.

Finally, Soyinka is ready to challenge him about his imprisonment.

"Ah yes," exclaims Gowon. "You were my house guest."

Soyinka tells him of the solitary confinement, the hardship, and Gowon seems genuinely surprised. "I had no idea," he says.

Soyinka breaks the sombre mood with a flash of humour: "Let me tell you publicly, if the boot had been on the other foot, I would have slung your arse in jail much earlier."

As we leave, the two men embrace and there is a palpable sense of forgiveness and relief in the air.

Wole Soyinka's return journey is complete, a journey not only back to Biafra, but also back to confront those whose actions 40 years ago placed him in solitary confinement.

It is where some of his finest poems were written.

The ghosts of Biafra can be found in the pages of his work, scribbled on scraps of paper as the terrible history of the civil war was itself being written.

Wole Soyinka's Return To Biafra is broadcast on BBC World Service on Wednesday 24 October at 0806 GMT.

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