Professor Wole Soyinka Biography

Akinwande Oluwole “Wole” Babatunde Soyinka, popularly known as Wole Soyinka, is a Nigerian playwright and poet. Wole Soyinka was born on 13 July 1934 into a Yoruba family in the city of Abeokuta, Ogun State in Nigeria. He was raised in a religious family, attending church services and singing in the choir from an early age; however Soyinka himself became an atheist later in life.

In 1940, after attending St. Peters Primary School in Abeokuta, Soyinka went to Abeokuta Grammar School, where he won several prizes for literary composition. In 1946 he was accepted by Government College in Ibadan, at that time one of Nigeria’s elite secondary schools.

After finishing his course at Government College in 1952, he began studies at University College Ibadan (1952–54), affiliated with the University of London. He studied English literature, Greek, and Western history.

In the year 1953–54, his second and last at University College, Soyinka began work on “Keffi’s Birthday Treat”, a short radio play for Nigerian Broadcasting Service that was broadcast in July 1954. While at university, Soyinka and six others founded the Pyrates Confraternity, an anti-corruption and justice-seeking student organisation, the first confraternity in Nigeria.

Later in 1954, Soyinka relocated to England, where he continued his studies in English literature, under the supervision of his mentor Wilson Knight at the University of Leeds (1954–57). He met numerous young, gifted British writers. Before defending his B.A., Soyinka began publishing and worked as an editor for the satirical magazine The Eagle. He wrote a column on academic life, often criticising his university peers.

Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka

After studying in Nigeria and the UK, he worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London. He went on to write plays that were produced in both countries, in theatres and on radio.

He took an active role in Nigeria’s political history and its struggle for independence from Great Britain. In 1965, he seized the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service studio and broadcast a demand for the cancellation of the Western Nigeria Regional Elections. In 1967 during the Nigerian Civil War, he was arrested by the federal government of General Yakubu Gowon and put in solitary confinement for two years.

Soyinka has been a strong critic of successive Nigerian governments, especially the country’s many military dictators, as well as other political tyrannies, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Much of his writing has been concerned with “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it”.

During the regime of General Sani Abacha (1993–98), Soyinka escaped from Nigeria on a motorcycle via the “NADECO Route.” Abacha later proclaimed a death sentence against him “in absentia.” With civilian rule restored to Nigeria in 1999, Soyinka returned to his nation.

In Nigeria, Soyinka was a Professor of Comparative Literature (1975 to 1999) at the Obafemi Awolowo University, then called the University of Ife. With civilian rule restored to Nigeria in 1999, he was made professor emeritus. While in the United States, he first taught at Cornell University and then at Emory University where in 1996 he was appointed Robert W. Woodruff Professor of the Arts. Soyinka has been a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and has served as scholar-in-residence at NYU’s Institute of African American Affairs and at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, US. He has also taught at the universities of Oxford, Harvard and Yale.

Civil war, imprisonment and Release

After becoming chief of the Cathedral of Drama at the University of Ibadan, Soyinka became more politically active. Following the military coup of January 1966, he secretly and unofficially met with the military governor Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in the Southeastern town of Enugu (August 1967), to try to avert civil war. As a result, he had to go into hiding.

He was imprisoned for 22 months as civil war ensued between the federal government and the Biafrans. Though refused materials such as books, pens, and paper, he still wrote a significant body of poems and notes criticising the Nigerian government.

In October 1969, when the civil war came to an end, amnesty was proclaimed, and Soyinka and other political prisoners were freed.


Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, becoming the first African laureate. He was described as one “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence”.

  • Honorary D.Litt, University of Leeds – 1973
  • Overseas Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge – 1973–74
  • Elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature – 1983
  • Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, United States – 1983
  • Nobel Prize for Literature – 1986
  • Agip Prize for Literature – 1986
  • Commander of the Federal Republic, CFR. – 1986
  • Benson Medal from Royal Society of Literature – 1990
  • Honorary doctorate, Harvard University – 1993
  • Honorary fellowship, SOAS – 2002
  • Honorary doctorate degree, Princeton University – 2005
  • Conferred with the chieftaincy title of the Akinlatun of Egbaland by the Oba Alake of the Egba clan of Yorubaland – 2005
  • Soyinka was made a tribal aristocrat with the right to use the Yoruba title Oloye.
  • Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award – 2009
  • Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Lifetime Achievement, United States – 2013
  • International Humanist Award – 2014


Soyinka has been married three times and divorced twice. He has children from his three marriages. His first marriage was in 1958 to the late British writer, Barbara Dixon, whom he met at the University of Leeds in the 1950s. Barbara was the mother of his first son, Olaokun. His second marriage was in 1963 to Nigerian librarian Olaide Idowu, with whom he had three daughters, Moremi, Iyetade (deceased), Peyibomi, and a second son, Ilemakin. Soyinka married Folake Doherty in 1989.

Wole Soyinka Poems

  • Idanre and other poems
  • A Big Airplane Crashed Into The Earth (original title Poems from Prison)
  • A Shuttle in the Crypt
  • Ogun Abibiman
  • Mandela’s Earth and other poems
  • Early Poems
  • Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known

Wole Soyinka Books

Some of his books include:

  • Death and the King’s Horseman
  • Aké: The Years of Childhood
  • The Lion and the Jewel
  • You Must Set Forth at Dawn
  • The Interpreters
  • The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka
  • The Trials of Brother Jero & The Strong Breed
  • Jero’s Metamorphosis; Madmen and Specialists
  • Of Africa
  • Breed; The Road; The Bacchae of Euripides: 001
  • Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World
  • The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite
  • Kongi’s Harvest: A Play,Madmen and Specialists: A Play
  • The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis
  • The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness
  • Poems Of Black Africa,The Road
  • A Dance of the Forests A Dance of the Forests
  • Ìsarà: A Voyage Around “Essay”
  • Season Of Anomy ,Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir: 1945 1965
  • The Strong Breed ,Myth, Literature and the African World
  • The Swamp Dwellers, Idanre & Other Poems
  • A Play of Giants,The Jero Plays
  • Selected Poems
  • A Shuttle in the Crypt

Wole Soyinka – Video


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