Speaking Truth to Power: The World today and a role for the artist

-Olu Ojedokun, Ph.D.-

One of the proudest moments of my life was at the secondary school I attended, King's College, Lagos .  The occasion that gave rise to this was being chosen as a young 'budding artist' to paint and design the auditorium's stage of the august and illustrious college.  A few weeks later seated in rows with fellow students I beamed with pride as the newly unveiled stage was graced by the presence of his Excellency, the then Nigerian President, Sheu Shagari, the guest of honour at the College's annual Speech Day.  A year later I was awarded a prize for ‘Services to College Life' for that singular contribution.

I do miss the ability and the opportunity to paint and ‘draw' for it gave me a certain measure of freedom, self expression and contentment.  To some extent, I believe for me, writing now forms an outlet by which I can give expression but yet attempt creativity.   This little reminiscence from my past allows me to provide a prelude into a role for the artist in today's World.  Through this piece I hope to signal some intention to extend my writings beyond my usual ‘Nigerian' centred remit of discourse.

I was recently reminded that an artist's role is to captivate its audience for, however, long the people have asked for their attention.  Some have suggested that in playing that role the artist sometimes with luck stumbles into the ‘truth'.  I accept that it is not necessarily the artist that  generally has the luxury of deciding what the truth is, however, it is through their art that they are able to gain an entrance into the world of ‘truth speaking'.   To give some weight and life to this view I shall in this article focus on some of the quotes of two artists, Vaclav Havel and Wole Soyinka and their speaking truth to power.  Using a brief biography of the two and direct quotes.

Václav Havel, became the first President of the Czech Republic (1993-2003) after the demise of Czechoslovakia . He has written over twenty plays and numerous non-fiction works, some of which have received international acclaim, He has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, and the Ambassador of Conscience Award.  Beginning in the 1960s, his work turned to focus on the politics of Czechoslovakia . After the Prague Spring, he became increasingly active. In 1977, his involvement with the human rights manifesto Charter 77 brought him international fame as the leader of the opposition in Czechoslovakia ; it also led to his imprisonment. The 1989 "Velvet Revolution" launched Havel into the presidency. In this role he led Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic to capitalism and multi-party democracy. His thirteen years in office saw radical change in his nation[1].

Akinwande Oluwole "Wole" Soyinka born 74 years ago is a writer, poet and playwright. Some consider him Africa 's most distinguished playwright as he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, the first African so honored.

Soyinka was born into a Yoruba family, specifically, an Ijebu/Egba family in Abeokuta . He received a primary school education in Abeokuta and attended secondary school at Government College , Ibadan . He then studied at the University College , and the University of Leeds from which he received an honours degree in English Literature. He worked as a play reader at the Royal Court Theatre in London before returning to Nigeria to study Africa drama. He taught in the Universities of Lagos, Ibadan , and Ife (becoming Professor of Comparative Literature there in 1975).

Soyinka has played an active role in Nigeria 's political history. In 1967, during the Nigerian Civil War he was arrested by the Federal Government of General Yakubu Gowon and put in solitary confinement for his attempts at brokering a peace between the warring parties. While in prison he wrote poetry which was published in a collection titled Poems from Prison. He was released 22 months later after international attention was drawn to his imprisonment. His experiences in prison are recounted in his book The Man Died: Prison Notes.

He has been an outspoken critic of many Nigerian administrations and of political tyrannies worldwide, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe .  A great deal of his writing has been concerned with "the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it". This activism has often exposed him to great personal risk[2].

What unites these two artists is their ability and willingness to speak truth to power and the impact they have had on their respective societies at great personal risks.  The two see truth and political power as opposed.

Vaclav argues that:

"….. As such, that 'dissent' has the opportunity and even the duty to reflect on this experience, to testify to it and to pass it on to those fortunate enough not to have to undergo it.  Thus we too have a certain opportunity to help in some ways those who help us, to help them in our deeply shared interest, in the interest of mankind.

While Soyinka argues that truth and power forms an antithesis, an antagonism, which will hardly ever be resolved.[3]  To quote him directly he says:

"…as forming an antithesis, an antagonism, which will hardly ever be resolved. I ……………, can simplify the history of human society, the evolution of human society, as a contest between power and freedom. And whether this contest is being performed along ideological lines or along religious lines, ultimately, really what we have is truth versus power. Truth……is freedom, is self-destination. Power is domination, control, and therefore a very selective form of truth, which is a lie. And the polarity between these two, in fact, forms for me the axis of human striving in the creation of an ethical society, an ethical community."[4] 

I have tried to allow but a little glimpse into the background of these two artists to show that ‘Speaking Truth to Power', whilst it sounds right and apt never comes without costs and sacrifices.  However, much ideas and thinking are the subject of public scorn in a land of pragmatists and pioneers, these artists have a huge impact on the sort of world we live in and the way we treat each other. In their commitment to understanding and improving the social world they have faced hostility, incomprehension and rejection but their lives are rich, complex and dramatic.  Speaking Truth to Power may annoy, excite, inspire and anger but it will also open up debate and invigorate discussion; it offers a vivid picture of how important our intellectuals are and how much we owe them.

I realise that we cannot all paint or design college stages, we cannot all write plays, books or be the poet, however, with the remarkable tool and space of the internet we can do much.  We can give self expression and reflect on our experience of truth speaking, testify to it and to pass it on for we all of the chattering classes have a certain opportunity to help in some ways in the interest of mankind.

The challenge today is therefore to:

"Take time to be aware

It is the opportunity to help others.

Take time to love and be loved

It is God's greatest gift."

The writer is a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria .


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%A1clav_Havel

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wole_Soyinka

[3] Soyinka, Wole (1998)., Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley Conversations with Wole Soyinka. http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/Elberg/Soyinka/soyinka-con0.html [Accessed 14th April 2005].

[4] Soyinka, Wole (1998)., Interview Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley Conversations with Wole Soyinka. http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/Elberg/Soyinka/soyinka-con0.html [Accessed on 14th April 2005].


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