WHEN NIGERIAN writer Wole Soyinka was a student in Britain in the 1950s, he enrolled in the infantry. The future Nobel laureate intended to exploit the colonial power's training resources to ready himself for a war of African liberation. But when the Suez crisis broke out in 1956 and he was called up to serve with the British forces, Soyinka realised his mistake. After declining the call-up, he only narrowly escaped being court-martialled. He convinced his superiors that he couldn't possibly have sworn loyalty to Her Majesty by ensuring that no intelligible English emanated from his lips. Those years were formative for the emerging playwright, poet, essayist and activist who watched appalled as the first generation of African nationalists began visiting England regularly, more interested in bedding white women than transforming the colonial order. His expectation of pan-African liberation dimmed as he witnessed the lavish spending of the self-preening new leaders, who spoke with vicious condescension towards the societies they claimed to represent. 'The conviction of liberation and expectation of collective energy made some of us feel that we could entrust the future of the continent to these first generation leaders,' says Soyinka, 71, on the eve of the publication of his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. 'It was inconceivable that, coming out from under the yoke of external colonialism, any group of leaders would dare to treat their own people with the same contempt as the former colonial powers. 'Of course, some recognised from early on that these leaders saw themselves only as stepping into the shoes of the colonial masters, so were a little bit more prepared. But collectively we failed to take the necessary actions to stop it.' Soyinka fell out of favour with Nigeria's new political elite on his return from Britain in 1960. During a festival commemorating Nigeria's recent independence, he staged A Dance of the Forests, which cast doubt on the country's ability to shed the colonial culture of corruption. The play drew sharp criticism for metaphorically depicting Nigeria as a mythical half-child who is born old and must, therefore, die young. He also attracted fire from intellectuals associated with the so-called Negritude movement, which endeavoured to define and promote an African spirit, and took exception to his use of European literary techniques. Soyinka cautioned his Negritude critics against promoting a stereotypical opposition between western rationalism and African emotionalism. 'A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude,' he wrote. 'It acts.' Yet Soyinka says he later came to accept 'that Negritude was an insurgent tool that was needed for the peculiar nature of French colonialism, which tried to make its colonials French and denigrated African values - unlike the British, who felt that the black man could not apprehend European civilisation, so left their colonials alone with their culture.' Today, Soyinka's main critics are those who consider his writing grandiloquent and overstocked with adjectives. The Nigerian novelist Ben Okri, who borrowed the title of his Booker Prize-winning novel The Famished Road from one of Soyinka's plays, once said: 'He deprives us of a great deal of wisdom with the fury of his complexities.' Nobel laureate South African writer Nadine Gordimer called his work 'overly self-conscious'. In 1965, protesting against a rigged election in western Nigeria, Soyinka held up a radio station at gunpoint and switched the tape playing a speech by the self-declared winner with one proclaiming his illegitimacy. He was charged with armed robbery and detained for three months, before being acquitted on a technicality. In 1967, he was imprisoned for 27 months, mostly in solitary confinement, for allegedly assisting the Biafra breakaway movement. That Soyinka was attempting to persuade the Biafran leadership of the recklessness of separation was irrelevant, as he was never charged. What Soyinka feared most in prison was that he'd be killed, while the outside world was fed lies about his activities. 'Once I was able to smuggle out the truth about my experience, to debunk the lies of the government - once I got word back that the wrong versions of events weren't believed - suddenly I felt like I could relax,' he says. 'What frightened me most was that I would have been made to die a lie.' Initially, the depravations of prison life made Soyinka hell-bent on spearheading prison reforms. He launched a hunger strike, even while he feared being blinded by the harsh desert wind that swept through his cell. Yet he came to realise the futility of seeing the prison system in isolation from the wider despotic regime. 'It doesn't take long to recognise that the immediate cesspit is only another facet of society itself, and you go back to what brought you there - the transformation of the entire society,' he says. After Nigeria fell under the rule of General Sani Abacha in 1993, Soyinka called for international sanctions in an effort to end the regime. The strongman retaliated by barring him from leaving the country. After Soyinka's friend, writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, was executed in 1995, Soyinka fled, riding a motorcycle for 12 hours to get across the Benin border. He denies that his Nobel status gave him immunity. 'That concept, which especially the western world has, is completely ill-founded,' he says. 'Abacha would have died a happy person if he could have put in his curriculum vitae that he hanged or shot a Nobel laureate. That is why he killed Ken Saro-Wiwa in the face of world protest.' In 1997, Soyinka was sentenced to death in absentia, but returned to Nigeria the next year after Abacha's death. He accepted a post at Obafemi Awolowo University, after securing a guarantee than none of Abacha's former stooges would be made chancellor. During the past decade, Soyinka's activism has concentrated on condemning religious fundamentalism. Recent poems protest against the ascent of Islamic Sharia law in Nigeria's northern states, which impose penalties of amputation and stoning. Before the 2002 Miss World pageant was cancelled due to riots, Soyinka promised to personally accompany the contestants onto the stage. In the BBC's 2004 Reith Lectures, Soyinka described Osama bin Laden and George Bush as a 'twin strain of the same fanatic spore that threatens to consume the world in its messianic fires'. Although he remains a gadfly on the frontlines of Nigerian politics, Soyinka gets equally fired up about dogmatism in the US. He holds posts at the universities of Nevada and California and is scathing about the influence of political correctness on academic life. 'Universities should sponsor research into what's happening,' he says. 'The world would be shocked at the revelations. Language is being debased and distorted in a sanctimonious and fascistic attempt to purge language of its quirks and idiosyncrasies. Soon language will be produced by robots - synthetic language. People whisper their complaints privately, and when we meet after work for drinks their anguish is poured out, but they're afraid. Would-be professors have been denied tenure because of the most ridiculous complaints.' Last October, Soyinka cancelled a lecture tour to Australia, outraged at its visa requirements. 'Everything was set and then there was this 'Pro Forma for Offshore Applicants Aged Seventy and Over'. I cannot describe my emotions on seeing this form. All my life I've fought against discrimination. So why should I accept becoming a subhuman being simply because I want to go to Australia? I don't care if I'm dying tomorrow and Australia has the cure for whatever illness afflicts me - if I have to fill out this form, I'd rather die.' His sloganeering tone doesn't lift when discussing his family. Soyinka describes himself as an absentee father. His wife, referring to his posts as a visiting professor at various universities, calls him a visiting husband. Although he refuses to say how many children he's sired, he once jested that the fertility gods have been over-generous. Unlike Nelson Mandela, who regretted that politics stripped him of his capacity to be a father, Soyinka feels no remorse about pouring his energies into activism and art. 'I always tell my family, 'You have no choice. You didn't ask to be my relation. I didn't ask to be a member of your family.' They can't deny enjoying people saying, 'Oh, you're the child of Soyinka' or 'You're the brother of Soyinka'. So they have some compensations. 'Of course there are moments when I'd like to sit with my family, to talk, eat together, go to theatre or opera or take a holiday together. But just like a doctor who's on call, who can be called out in the most private moment - who's he to complain? He chose his profession. I don't see the life of the activist as different.' With his memoir complete, Soyinka is planning a return to the theatre, which he describes as the most revolutionary art form. 'Theatre speaks to audiences in a very visceral, immediate way,' he says. 'Not the cosy, regular theatre, where people order champagne at the interval, but the street theatre, market theatre - agitprop, if you like - when the audience isn't preached at but seduced. 'When you compare it to the cinema or music or literature, theatre can generate an impulse that can create change. The only instances where I've experienced those moments of transformation of one's audiences are in the theatre.' WRITER'S NOTES Born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka Age 71 Genres Poetry, plays, essays, fiction, memoir Latest book You Must Set Forth at Dawn (Random House, $210) Lives in Lagos, California, Las Vegas Education University College of Ibadan, Leeds University Other works Dance of the Forests (1960), The Interpreters (1965), The Man Died (1972), Death and the King's Horseman (1975), Mandela's Earth and Other Poems (1998) The Open Sore of a Continent (1996) What the papers say 'Soyinka interprets his personal experiences of protest, harassment, incarceration, and exile within a broad framework of historical and literary references, ultimately exposing the injustice and folly, cruelty and evilness of Nigeria as a tragedy of global proportions' - Booklist Author's bookshelf The Complete Works of William Shakespeare 'A field for endless mining - never ceases to amaze.' The Sacred Ifa Oracle translated by Afolabi A. Epega 'An exposition of the cosmos of the Yoruba through the adventures of deities, founding figures and archetypes.' Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg by Joshua Rubenstein 'A biography [of a Russian cold war-era journalist] from within a confused, failed, but ineradicable era.' The Norton Anthology: African American Literature edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr 'This volume in hand, one holds the soul of the black experience.' The works of Antoni Gaudi 'Of the handful of European architects I admire, Gaudi comes closest to the muse of African organic designs, in particular the Yoruba.'