JOHANNESBURG Aging African presidents who try to cling to power by manipulating constitutions and judiciaries risk the same popular rebellions that toppled rulers in last year's Arab Spring, Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka said Wednesday.
Citing as examples Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who are both well in their eighties, Soyinka criticized "sit-tight rulers" who sought to hang on in office despite being "obviously beyond their prime."
"What is wrong with them? Why do they think that the world will not continue to turn after they've left office, I don't understand," the prolific playwright and author, who in 1986 became the first sub-Saharan African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, told Reuters in an interview in Pretoria.
Soyinka, 77, who sports a distinctive white Afro hairstyle, and is one of Africa's leading intellectuals, has been an outspoken critic of dictatorships and autocratic rulers in his native Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent and in the world.
While he saw differences between the Arab world and Africa, he predicted African rulers who abused their powers to stay on for years could face their own "African Spring."
"In the end, those who refuse to bow to popular will, who continue to treat, describe and regard their own peoples as inferior to themselves or their petty clans, I'm afraid will confront the same nature of violence as we witnessed in the Arab world," he added.
Soyinka said presidents in Africa who manipulated hand-picked constitutional courts and pliant judiciaries to extend their periods of rule often displayed the same arrogant, condescending paternalism as former colonial powers.
Mugabe, 87, has governed Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 and has defied critics at home and abroad who accuse him of using violence against rivals to stay in power.
Senegal's Wade, 85, faces violent protests after the West African country's Constitutional Council confirmed that he could stand for re-election for a third term, despite complaints that this breached rules setting a two-term limit.
"What is Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal wanting to do continuing with another term in office? By now he should be an elder statesman whom we could come and visit in retirement to discuss the future of Africa," said Soyinka.
BOKO HARAM: "MONSTER UNLEASHED"
Turning to Nigeria, where he was imprisoned in 1967 for attempting to broker peace in the civil war over secessionist Biafra, Soyinka said both religious and political forces were driving the insurgency by the Islamist sect Boko Haram that has killed hundreds of people in Africa's top oil producer.
He accused power-hungry politicians from Nigeria's Muslim north of using indoctrinated young militants, drawn from the ranks of the poor unemployed and educated in Islamic schools, as "foot soldiers" in a battle over who should control the country.
"Those who unleashed Boko Haram on the nation are politicians ... These are the ones behind Boko Haram ... unfortunately one has to point to what section they come from, and that is the north," Soyinka said.
"This minority is very focused, very powerful, very rich, they used to be in government, they've accumulated billions ... they are the ones who unleashed this monster on the nation."
"They have articulated their conviction that it is their turn to rule Nigeria," he added, speaking to Reuters after delivering a lecture at the University of South Africa (UNISA).
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, won elections last year after initially taking over the presidency in 2010 when he was vice president following the death of his northern predecessor Umaru Yar'Adua. Some northern critics see his presidency following Yar'Adua's death as going against an informal pact within the ruling PDP party that rule should rotate between the north and the south.
Jonathan has challenged Boko Haram to identify themselves and state their demands as a basis for talks.
Soyinka proposed the holding of a national conference, bringing together all sectors of Nigerian society and all national institutions, to discuss regional grievances and problems and thrash out a national consensus for the future.
"We've all got to sit down, the various sections of the country, to decide in what manner we want to rule. We've got to sit down with the constitution and decide if this is the best constitution for the nation," he said.
"Eventually we'll arrive at an even platform where we can begin to discuss the future or non-future of the nation," Soyinka added.
(Reporting By Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Rosalind Russell)