Go to Chapter One Section Go to Book World's Review

The Open Sore Of A Continent
A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis
By Wole Soyinka

Chapter One

It would be difficult today to think of a more appropriate introduction to the contents of this volume than the following article, which was first published in the Nigerian media as far back as June 1994.

The Last Despot and the End of Nigerian History?

There was once a thriving habitation of some half a million people in southeastern Nigeria, the land of the Ogoni. It is an oil-producing area that has suffered much ecological damage. That damage has received world publicity largely due to the efforts of a feisty and passionate writer named Ken Saro-Wiwa, himself an Ogoni. A leader of the Movement for the Salvation of the Ogoni People, MOSOP, he exposed the plight of Ogoni to the United Nations Minorities Council, calling for the recognition of the Ogoni people as one of the world's endangered minorities. He agitated for compensation for damaged crops, polluted fishing ponds, and the general destruction of what was once an organic economic existence of his people.

That at least was in the beginning, some two or three years ago. Now, Ken Saro-Wiwa is held in chains in a hidden prison, incommunicado. He is seriously ill--he suffers from a heart condition--and is totally at the mercy of a gloating sadist, Major Paul Okutimo, a self-avowed killer and torturer of the military species, specially selected for the task of total "pacification" of Ogoniland. Saro-Wiwa's people have taken to the surrounding forests and mangrove swamps to survive. Those who remain in townships and villages are subjected to arbitrary displacement, expropriation of their property, violence on their persons, and the rape of their womanhood. Ogoniland has been declared a "military zone" under the direct rule of a "Task Force on Internal Security." Within this enclave, reporters, foreign or local, are made unwelcome and, in some cases, brutalized. In any case, the stable of an effective Nigerian press is being constantly reduced through illegal closures by the police on orders from the military. Before long, even those who penetrate the iron curtain of Sani Abacha's militarized enclave will have no media through which to remind the Nigerian populace of the atrocities daily inflicted on their Ogoni compatriots.

One ongoing actuality of repression very easily obscures another; it is a familiar and understandable pattern, one that dictatorships, especially of the most cynical kind, exploit most effectively. For the majority of Nigerians, Ogoni is only some localized problem, remote from the immediate, overall mission of rooting out the military from Nigerian politics, rescuing the nation's wealth from its incontinent hands, and terminating, once and for all, its routine murders of innocent citizens on the streets of Lagos and other visible centers of opposition. The massacres in Ogoni are hidden, ill-reported.(*) Those that obtain the just publicity of horror, mostly in government-controlled media, are those that are attributed to the Ogoni leadership movements, such as MOSOP.

Yet the accounts of such incidents and careful investigations lead to more than mere suspicions of dirty tricks, of covert military operations designed to discredit the leadership, throw the movement in disarray, and incite ethnic animosity between the Ogoni and their neighbors, thus instigating an unceasing round of bloodletting. The ambush of a passenger boat whose occupants were machine-gunned to death bore all the professional sophistication of a military operation, while the massacre, in broad daylight, of four prominent Ogoni leaders by supposed Ogoni militant youths has raised serious questions about the real identity of the instigators and indeed perpetrators of these crimes.

In any case, months after that last-mentioned atrocity, one that was laid at the door of rivals within that leadership, Ken Saro-Wiwa and others are still held in detention, under inhuman conditions, without a charge and without any indication of the slightest intention of bringing them to trial. It is impossible to believe that the forces of law and order do not know just who committed this open crime before hundreds of witnesses. It serves the purposes of Abacha's government, however, to portray Ogoni leadership as a bloodthirsty lot with no further mission than to settle their internal strife in the most public and brutal manner. It justifies the continued saturation of Ogoniland with military killer squads, exempt from any control or accountability.

Ogoniland is the first Nigerian experimentation with "ethnic cleansing," authorized and sustained by the Nigerian despot, General Sani Abacha! His on-the-spot operatives, Lieutenant Colonel Dauda Komo and Major Paul Okutimo, are Nigeria's contribution to the world's shameful directory of obedience to orders over and above the call of duty. The so-called Task Force on Internal Security is doomed to be Abacha's sole legacy to the nation, Nigeria's yet-unheralded membership card for the club of the practitioners of "ethnic cleansing."

Even if the following proves a further dent in Ogoni self-esteem, however, I am obliged to inform these victims that their agony is not an end in itself but a mere prelude, indeed a model exercise toward the far more thorough subjugation that is planned for other parts of Nigeria, also in the south, areas that do not even produce petroleum or indeed have any crucial industry that routinely feeds the rapacity of the Nigerian military class and its collaborators. Ogoniland is, alas, only the model space for the actualization of a long-dreamt totalitarian onslaught on the more liberated, more politically sophisticated sections of the Nigerian polity, which have dared expose and confront the power obsession of a minuscule but obdurate military-civilian hegemony. Ogoni people are, alas, only the guinea pigs for a morbid resolution of this smouldering inequity that was instituted by the British as they planned for their departure. The beneficiaries remain, till today, a minority made up of a carefully nurtured feudal oligarchy and their pampered, indolent, and unproductive scions.

The carefully propagated myth of an uncritical political solidarity within this section of the populace, the "north," was not just recently exploded, however. Its falsity was made manifest in earlier elections--1979 and 1983, especially. But these were so blatantly rigged by that same desperate minority and their mutual-interest partners of the south, that the positive (nationalist) signals were easily drowned in the hue and cry that followed. So, in a sense, it was not until the national elections of June 12, 1993, that the collapse of that fiction became irrefutable, thanks to the conduct of those elections, which was universally acclaimed a model of fairness, order, and restraint.

The pattern of voting also made it abundantly clear to the entire world that the so-called gulf between the north and the south was a deliberate invention of a minor, power-besotted leadership and its divisive gamesmanship. There is indeed a line of division in the north, but it is drawn between the workers, peasants, civil servants, petty traders, students, and the unemployed on the one hand and the parasitic elite and feudal scions on the other. These last, the beneficiaries of that ancient deception, are now traumatized. They cannot cope with this stark revelation of a nationalist political consciousness, so triumphantly manifested in the elections of June 12, 1993.

Their first reaction was astonishingly principled, and that should have served as an ominous warning. Their recognized leaders--including former presidential candidates--acknowledged defeat, gracelessly in some cases but courageously, even with a sense of relief in others. After the initial noises of realism and surrender to a popular, democratic will, the reprobates of the old order recovered their breath and recollected their endangered interests, regrouped, and ranged themselves behind a moldy concept of an eternal right to governance and control. The latest instrument of their feudal, despotic will is General Abacha, the last in the line of the reign of deception, of obfuscating rhetoric and cant in the service of a straightforward will to domination by an anachronistic bunch of social predators. Their notion of a historic mandate of power is not only warped and mindless; it may prove terminal to the existence of the nation if its most faithful facilitator to date, Abacha, succeeds in clinging to office for much longer. That is our reading of this crisis of nation being, and then Nigeria goes down as yet another forgotten smear in the geographical atlas of the world.

Of late, the Nigeria media have virtually waxed hysterical over the increasing arrogance and obduracy of this minority, thanks largely to the boastful performances of their most disreputable members. One notorious example is the lately returned fugitive Umaru Dikko, the task force specialist on rice importation, who barely escaped being crated back to Nigeria to face military justice under General Muhamadu Buhari. In denouncing the activities of this minority, described variously and often imprecisely as the Sokoto Caliphate, the Northern Elite, the Kaduna Mafia, the Hausa-Fulani oligarchy, the Sardauna Legacy, the Dan Fodio Jihadists, et cetera, what is largely lost in the passion and outrage is that they do constitute a minority--a dangerous, conspiratorial, and reactionary clique, but a minority just the same. Their tentacles reach deep, however, and their fanaticism is the secular face of religious fundamentalism.

But it is not just in the Nigerian free media that this minority's tyranny is discussed; and perhaps, before it is too late, our nettled general of the occupation forces of media houses will be made to realize this. Public debate--in such places as bars, bus stops, markets, garages, staff and student clubs, government offices (largely in the south, naturally)--has catapulted the activities of this minority to the heart of the national crisis, resulting in questioning the presumption (and June 12 affirmation) of the nation as a single entity. And the military, by its sectarian alliance with these claimants of divine attribution of power, has lost the last vestiges of any claims to neutrality in all areas of the contest for civic power. On June 23, 1993, the day of the arbitrary annulment of the national presidential election, the military committed the most treasonable act of larceny of all time: It violently robbed the Nigerian people of their nationhood! A profound trust was betrayed, and only a community of fools will entrust its most sacred possession--nationhood--yet again to a class that has proven so fickle, so treacherous and dishonorable.

Therefore, those who still advocate that Sani Abacha has inaugurated his own program of transition to civil rule from a "sincere interest of the (Nigerian) nation at heart" are bewildering victims of a carefully nurtured propaganda that began with the erstwhile dictator of Nigeria, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida. It was this propaganda, waged on an international scale and funded to the tune of millions of dollars, that enabled quite a few, normally intelligent analysts at the Africa desk of foreign powers to propose that the expensive, impossibly tortuous transition-to-democracy program of Abacha's predecessor was a well-considered, disinterested program that objectively recognized the peculiar nature of Nigerian politicians, to which abnormality the good general was merely responding.

These foreign powers thus became disposed to blame all the various setbacks of the transition program--in reality custom-built for failure--on the irredeemable nature of the politicians themselves. And it was only to counter this political incorrigibility that the peculiar genius of Babangida was sublimely suited--all in the interest, naturally, of the nation itself. Now Abacha adds insult to injury by inaugurating his own never-never transition program, posturing over an imagined nation of placid mules at whom he tosses threats and orders from the heights of Aso Rock, our Abuja version of Mount Olympus. Nigerians are not inclined to embark once again on the labors of Sisyphus.

But I.B.B. was at least original. What Nigeria is confronting today is a species of mimic succession that considers itself innovative. The imposition of a Constitutional Conference in 1994 by General Sani Abacha as a "solution" to the artificial crisis developed from a free and fair election is really a pitiable compliment to I.B. Babangida, who at least played that con game with panache, milking it eventually to death. In Abacha's hands, it is a squeezed-dry, humorless patent for any would-be dictator. It is a fair assessment of the IQ of Abacha that he actually imagines that this transparent ploy for self-perpetuation would fool the market woman, the roadside mechanic, the student, factory worker, or religious leader of whatever persuasion. Even the village idiot must marvel at such banal attempts to rival a disgraced predecessor.

Nigerians simply do not believe for one single moment in this conference, not even the propagandists who must churn out the government line, and even less the volunteers and conscripts he has gathered together in Abuja for this non-event. The participants are mostly economically exhausted politicians who cannot resist a six-month sabbatical without obligations, all expenses paid and then some; they are chronic wheelers and dealers looking for a quick financial handout from the inexhaustible (but drastically devalued) government purse, politicians seeking a free and painless venue for some horse trading in preparation for the resumption of civilian party politics. There are of course also the antidemocratic diehards, the aforesaid guardians of the very private precinct of power, for whom the very notion of an actualized June 12 election, that declaration of national unity, must be expunged from memory for all eternity. And we must not forget those who have joined the ride in the practical (and sometimes idealistic) belief that "if you cannot join them, beat them at their own game." These last have lately discovered that the majority of the delegates cannot be beaten because their rules of engagement are nonexistent and their purposes run on parallel rails. Several have since quit.

Not to be forgotten--however academic it may sound, given the nature of military rule--is the fact that Abacha's administration is patently illegal and has been thus proclaimed by the Nigerian law courts. What is of special interest in that court decision, however, is that the judgment was based on the military's own legislation. Abacha's "legitimacy," in his own pronouncement, derived from the rules of succession that governed the soap opera "interim government" of Ernest Sonekan. That interim government was declared illegal by the courts--again based on the provisions of the military government's own legislation. Abacha's so-called succession was therefore a claim in legal and constitutional void.

We have gone to court once again to obtain a separate declaration on Abacha himself. This move involves more than an academic exercise, however. The Nigerian populace is being primed for a campaign of comprehensive civil disobedience. They are being reinforced in their conviction that their cause and their acts are backed by law; that it is an outlaw who presently inhabits Aso Rock; that his closures of media houses and confiscation of passports are illegal--nothing but plain thuggery; that his seizure and operation of the nation's treasury and revenues are nothing but acts of banditry; that his imagined authority to try anyone for treason is the ultimate ridicule of a judiciary that his very presence in Abuja and contemptuous flouting of court orders subvert; that his detention of any Nigerian citizen is nothing but the hostage-taking tactics of two-a-penny terrorists ... that, in short, he may exercise power through the gun, but he lacks authority even in the most elastic sense of the word, and that this emptiness must be made increasingly manifest in public acts of rejection.

The self-styled Constitutional Conference is therefore nothing but another expensive charade that all subscribers, Abacha most of all, recognize as being instituted to serve every purpose but that for which it has been named. It is itself illegal. We called successfully for a boycott of its elections, and it was a mere 350,000 souls that came out to save it from a total farce. We need only compare this to the 14 million voters that voted in Bashorun Moshood Abiola as Nigeria's president. And of the membership of this Abacha assembly, close to a full third were his (and his cabal's) personal nominees. Nigerians, not surprisingly, treat the entire proceedings as yet another circus of political mutants and opportunists, promoted by a frantic bunch of aliens who only happen to hold Nigerian passports.

Abacha's March 1994 address to the nation, one that reemphasized his determination to decide our destiny through this stillborn conference, was of course not unexpected. This particular despot differs from his predecessor in his inability to cope with more than one line of thought or anticipate more than one course of action or response in any given month. His address, however, fell short, for now, of the scorched-earth policy that we had expected him to declare--the proscription of the striking trade unions, imposition of a state of emergency, the closure of more media houses, and, yes, even detention camps for dissidents.

The blueprint for these measures has been worked out, and military units--veterans of random slaughter of civilians--even deployed to opposition strongholds for a ruthless clampdown on the populace. The necessary decree was drafted--no, not from the attorney general's office (that misguided lawman has long been sidelined)--but from the presidency itself, where the secretary to the government, one Alhaji Aminu Saleh, an unabashed "capo" of the notorious minority, has taken over the functions of law drafting, recruiting private lawyers to do the dirty work that the AG had shown increasing reluctance to undertake. The government prosecutors of the president-elect, Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola were, for instance, lawyers recruited from private practice, contracted not by the attorney general's office but by Aminu Saleh. His bold, unchallengeable incursions into the zone of authority even of generals within the cabinet are already public knowledge.

It is necessary to alert the world now that this plan has merely been shelved, not abandoned. Abacha, let no one be in any doubt, has resolved to subjugate the strongholds of opposition in an even more ruthless manner than he did last year when, as Babangida's hatchet man, he succeeded in murdering over two hundred prodemocracy demonstrators. I was in the midst of these protesters on the second day, June 27. I witnessed the insensate shooting by Abacha's soldiers and mobile police and counted bodies in the Agege-Ipaja sector. But that was a bloody response to a specific situation. This time round, a far more systematic response has been outlined: Nigeria, especially the west and the oil-producing southeast, is to be "Ogonised" in a thoroughgoing blitz. The trade union leaders, the intellectual and professional opposition, are to be sequestered and subjected to absolute military control under the clones of the Dauda Komos and Paul Okutimos.

Abacha is resolved to spread the "Ogoni" solution throughout southern Nigeria. A minuscule being and matching mind, but with a gargantuan ego, he feels personally insulted by the resistance to his delusions and has sworn, if it came to the crunch, to "wipe out the very oil wells those labor unions are using to blackmail us." That statement is a very reliable quote. Abacha is out to out-Saddam Saddam Hussein's parting gift to Kuwait. Anyone who believes that Abacha will not kill the goose that lays the golden egg forgets that, in any case, the general's private barn is already bursting with a vast deposit from Nigeria's obliging goose.

Those who wish to understand the catastrophe toward which the Nigerian nation is being propelled will do well to study the personalities of the present and the immediate past Nigerian military despots. Babangida enjoyed power, enjoyed playing at and for power. The very politics of power was, for him, an intellectual challenge. Even the diabolism inherent in the phenomenon of power was something that he relished. Thus, bribery, manipulation, divisive tactics, cajolery, patronage, double-talk, the gloved fist, the attentive "listening" posture, consultation syndrome, the studying, nurturing, and exploitation of weaknesses, blackmail, back stabbing, the cultivation of seeming detachedness--that is, the ability to "referee" yet remain a contestant for political stakes, and so on--all these formed the armory of a wily politician nicknamed Maradona, whose fatal error was that he soon began to play against himself and scored his own goal.

Babangida's love of power was visualized in actual terms: power over Nigeria, over the nation's impressive size, its potential, over the nation's powerful status (despite serious image blemishes) within the community of nations. The potency of Nigeria, in short, was an augmentation of his own sense of personal power. It corrupted him thoroughly, and all the more disastrously because he had come to identify that Nigeria and her resources with his own person and personal wealth.

Not so Abacha. Abacha is prepared to reduce Nigeria to rubble as long as he survives to preside over a name--and Abacha is a survivor. He has proved that repeatedly, even in his internal contests with Babangida. Totally lacking in vision, in perspectives, he is a mole trapped in a warren of tunnels. At every potential exit he is blinded by the headlights of an oncoming vehicle and freezes. When the light has veered off, he charges to destroy every animate or inanimate object within the path of the vanished beam. Abacha is incapable of the faculty of defining that intrusive light, not even to consider if the light path could actually lead him out of the mindless maze.

Abacha has no idea of Nigeria. Beyond the reality of a fiefdom that has dutifully nursed his insatiable greed and transformed him into a creature of enormous wealth, and now of power, Abacha has no notion of Nigeria. He is thus incapable of grasping what is being said to him by some entity that speaks with the resolute voice of the Civil Liberties Organization, the Campaign for Democracy, the National Democratic Coalition, the market women, civil servants, student unions, labor unions, the press, and so forth. None of these could possibly be part of his Nigerian nation, and it is only by eliminating them in toto, by silencing such alien voices, that Nigeria can become the entity that he recognizes.

When Abacha took over from the interim government in November 1993, I warned that he would prove more ruthless than any dictator we have endured in the nation till now. At the beginning, it appeared that I was being proved an alarmist. Now, of course, we are seeing what matter he is made of, and the worst, I regret to say, is yet to come. Abacha will be satisfied only with the devastation of every aspect of Nigeria that he cannot mentally grasp, and that is virtually all of Nigeria. He will find peace and fulfillment only when the voices whose nation language he cannot interpret are finally silenced, only when, like the Hutus, he cuts off the legs of the Tutsis so that Nigeria is reduced to a height onto which he can clamber.

These voices, however, and the history that brought them into being, and with such resolve, have already ensured that Abacha is the last despot who will impose himself on the Nigerian nation. Of course, there will be others who will yield to temptation and attempt to tread the same path of illusion, but their careers will be so short-lived that they will hardly be noticed in passing. The strategy of the present struggle is such that the people are attaining an unprecedented level of self-worth within a national being that defines anti-democrats as treasonable conspirators--and precludes any future automatic submission to the sheerest suspicion of military despotism, even of a messianic hue.

The danger, the very real danger, however, is in the character of this last torchbearer for military demonology, the puny Samson whose arms are wrapped around the pillars, ready to pull down the edifice in his descent into hell. That hell that is Ogoniland today is the perception of nation compatibility of which Abacha's mind is capable. What does not readily yield to his obsessive self-aggrandizement both in power and possessions is alien and must be subjugated and "sanitized." In Sani Abacha's self-manifesting destiny as the last Nigerian despot, we may be witnessing, alas, the end of Nigerian history. (*) Nearly a year after this was first published in Nigeria, the officer in question. Paul Okutimo, has rendered all further comment superfluous through his performance at a televised press conference. This was broadcast on channel 4, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which has made recordings available.

© 1996 Wole Soyinka

Oxford University Press

Back to the top