Nobel winner Wole Soyinka gives damning speech on world’s response to Boko Haram

The Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka will today warn moderate religious leaders that they could bear responsibility for religious extremism worldwide, as he makes a controversial speech to accept the International Humanist Award at the World Humanist Congress in Oxford. Soyinka – an award-winning author and poet who in 1986 became the first African ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature – will tell an audience of more than 1000 delegates from 67 countries that threats from religious extremists demand far stronger responses than they receive at present. The speech will mark the most controversial point of the Congress, which is hosted by the British Humanist Association (BHA).

Accepting his award in a video address, Soyinka will say: “The conflict between humanists and religionists has always been one between the torch of enlightenment and the chains of enslavement. Those chains are not merely visible, but cruelly palpable. All too often they lead directly to the gallows, beheadings, to death under a hail of stones. In parts of the world today the scroll of faith is indistinguishable from the roll call of death.”

Soyinka will tell delegates that even moderate faith leaders could bear responsibility for failing to tackle fundamentalism, which now poses a global threat. Referring to the Nigerian Islamist extremists Boko Haram he will say: “It’s considered virtuous by some to abduct 200 girl pupils from a sanctuary of learning in the name of a religion. We are reduced to pious incantations, such as: ‘These are not the true followers of the faith – our faith does not sanction killings, abductions or the designation of other human being as infidels’. We have to ask such leadership penitents: ‘Were there times when you kept silent while such states of mind, overt or disguised, were seeding fanaticism around you? Are you vicariously liable?’”

He will add: “The lesson of Boko Haram is not for any one nation. It is not for the African continent alone. The whole world should wake up to the fact that the menace is borderless, aggressive and unconscionable.”

Soyinka’s award recognises his many years of advocacy for freedom of thought and expression. The 80-year-old faced decades of abuse, occasional imprisonment and an in absentia death sentence during Nigeria’s periods of military dictatorship. He has received a series of international awards including the Nobel Prize for literature.

The British Humanist Association’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: “Wole’s brave advocacy for free expression, even under extreme threats to his life, is an inspiration to countless people worldwide. Freedom of expression is a right. But like women’s rights, the rights of gay people and the rights of non-religious people, it sometimes takes deep personal courage to stay true to its promises in the face of powerful religious ‘sensitivities’. We all have much to learn from Wole – it’s hard to imagine a more deserving recipient of the International Humanist Award.”

For more information contact Andy Wasley on or 07813 886189 or Pavan Dhaliwal on or 0773 843 5059.

Further information on the full line up of speakers can be found at

IHEU Freedom of Thought Report 

The Congress will highlight three main areas:

1.     Britain as a beacon for both Humanism and freedom of thought: The BHA was a founding member of the International Humanist Ethical Union (IHEU), established as the successor body to the World Union of Freethinkers, which held its last global conference in London in 1938 before effectively collapsing under the twin onslaught of fascism and communism. The BHA is one of the oldest organisations in IHEU, having formed in 1896, and humanists have been prominent in British public life for many generations.
2.     The importance of freedom of thought and expression and the increasingly hostile environment in which these vital freedoms must be upheld. As outlined in the IHEU Freedom of Thought Report, 13 countries still carry a death penalty for apostasy and the rights and the freedoms of the non-religious are increasingly under threat globally from religious violence and state persecution.
3.     How humanists and others can work together to protect these freedoms: IHEU provides support for humanist organisations internationally and advocates on their behalf at the United Nations Human Rights Council and in other forums, as well as providing financial assistance for those in developing countries. Humanists seek to work with others of different beliefs internationally in support of these shared values.

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The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.