Furore erupts over allegations of Wole Soyinka’s ties to CIA

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Business Day on 15 March 2021.

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 claimed that this assistance helped his meteoric rise to international prominence.

Davis has used archival records from the CCF and the Transcription Centre, and 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. 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.

Davis argues that, from 1963, Dennis Duerden, the British Director of the Farfield Foundation-funded Transcription Centre effectively became Soyinka’s chief external promoter. He enthusiastically supported the playwright and his work to the tune of £2,000-3,000. The Briton also funded eight TV programmes broadcast in the US 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. Duerden further successfully funded the production of Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel at London’s Theatre Royal for a month between September and October 1965. He worked closely with Rex Collings, Soyinka’s editor, to publish the Nigerian writer’s plays and poetry with Oxford University Press and Methuen.

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; and television appearances. As the CIA link was exposed in 1966, Duerden reportedly began to turn off Soyinka’s funding taps.

The Nobel laureate 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 Saphr, 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 playwright 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.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

prof adekeye adebajo
Professor Adekeye Adebajo
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