Wole Soyinka's A Shuttle in the Crypt contemplates a critical period in Nigerian history between 1966 and early 1971. Soyinka's efforts to curtail the Nigerian Civil War in 1967 resulted in his arrest and imprisonment without trial by the federal military government. Soyinka's work remains inseparable from his activities as a political dissident. His commitment to promoting human rights in Nigeria and other nations reflects his new approach to literature as a serious agent of social change. A Shuttle in the Crypt chronicles Soyinka's twenty-five month experience of solitary confinement with its accompanying horrors and dangers. His poems typify the renewed political concern of the African writer as a critic of societies which promote human degradation. Soyinka denigrates Africa's past while warning his people to redirect their energies in order to avoid the demoralization and purposeless cruelty which characterize contemporary Nigeria. A comprehension of the inner reality of Soyinka's experience as a political prisoner requires understanding historical events, including Nigeria's military convention and ensuing civil war.
Nigeria escaped British colonialism by declaring independence from Great Britain on October 1, 1960 and eventually became a republic in 1963. After World War II, weary Britain regarded Nigeria as a costly empire and thus, expressed amenity in granting the colonial governments more political and economic power. Britain devised a new constitution in 1950 which provided for a federal system with powers shared between central authorities and three regional legislatures. Such government reorganization spurred the formation of three major political parties. The National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, dominated the Eastern Region. The Action Group (AG), led by Yoruba Chief Obafemi Awolowo, comprised the political entity in the Western Region. The Nigerian Peoples Congress (NPC), controlled by the sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello, led the Muslim areas in the Northern Region. The deputy leader of the NPC, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, became prime minister while Azikiwe, after aligning his party with the NPC, assumed the larger role of governor-general. The AG emerged as the opposition party.
Political antagonisms and increasing corruption characterized the first government of independent Nigeria. The establishment of the Midwest Region irritated many Yoruba of the Western Region, including Soyinka. Disagreements between Awolowo of the AG and regional Premier Samuel Akintola paralyzed the Western Region where central authorities assumed control for ten months. Representatives of the federal government charged Awolowo and other Yoruba leaders with treason in 1962 and sentenced them to fifteen years in prison. On January 14, 1966, the federal government proclaimed martial law as a solution to Nigeria's problems. The overthrow of the federal government resulted in the mass violence which Soyinka sharply attacked, including the murders of Prime Minister Balewa, Akintola, and the sardauna of Sokoto.Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Ibo and new leader of the military government, gained control of the coup and established military governors in each of the regions while suspending the constitution. Northerners who feared Ibo dominance staged a military counter-coup in July of 1966 which resulted in Ironsi's murder. Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a Northerner, replaced Ironsi as chairman of the federal military government. Political dissension continued in many northern cities where mobs began killing easterners, particularly members of the Ibo ethic group. Lieutenant Colonel Odemugwu Ojukwu of the Eastern Region charged Gowon with insensitivity toward the Ibo crisis and restricted all non-easterners from his region. Gowon retaliated by replacing the four regions of Nigeria with twelve states. Like Ojukwu, Soyinka spoke out against human rights violations and the policies of such right wing Nigerian leaders as Colonel Gowon. Fearful that Gowon desired to divide the Ibo, Ojukwu announced his secession and on May 30, 1967, declared the Eastern region an independent state named the 'Republic of Biafra.' Troubled by the prospect of Nigeria's imminent war with Biafra, Soyinka traveled to the enemy camp with the intention of making a personal appeal for peace. The Gowon regime reacted by jailing Soyinka without charges in solitary confinement for nearly two years. Nigeria attempted to counter the secession by initiating a war with Biafran forces. Soyinka's poems pay tribute to the thousands of deaths which resulted after the three year battle, including members of the Ibo slaughtered in Biafra by his fellow Yoruba. Only three African nations recognized Biafra as a republic whereas Nigeria gained support from Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. On January 12, 1970, the Biafran forces surrendered in central Iboland, marking the end of the Nigerian Civil War. Gowon released Soyinka from prison after the defeat of the Biafrans. Within five years, special federal agencies devoted to relief and reconstruction rehabilitated the war torn areas of Nigeria, but the internal scars of its prisoners remained indelible.