Nigeria's long, steep, bloody slide

September 01, 1994|By Wole Soyinka

London -- THERE WAS once a thriving population of half a million people in southeastern Nigeria, the land of the Ogoni. It is an oil-producing area that suffered much ecological damage.

That damage has received worldwide publicity largely due to the efforts of a passionate writer named Ken Saro-Wiwa, himself an Ogoni.

A leader of the Movement for the Salvation of the Ogoni People, he exposed the plight of the 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 was several years ago. Now Mr. 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, a self-avowed killer and torturer of the military species, specially selected for the "pacification" of Ogoniland.

Mr. Saro-Wiwa's people have taken to the forests and swamps to survive.

Those who remain in townships and villages are subjected to displacement, expropriation of their property, violence and rape. Ogoniland has been declared a "military zone."

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 its routine murders of innocent citizens on the streets of more visible centers of opposition.

The massacres in Ogoniland are hidden, ill-reported. Those that obtain the just publicity of horror are those that are attributed to the Ogoni leadership movements.

The accounts of such events and careful investigations lead to more than mere suspicion of dirty tricks, incite ethnic animosity and then bloodletting between the Ogoni and their neighbors.

The ambush of a passenger boat whose occupants were machine-gunned to death bore all the professional sophistication a military operation, while the massacre of four Ogoni leaders by supposed Ogoni militant youths has raised serious questions about the identity of the instigators.

It serves the purposes of Gen. Sani Abacha's government, however, to portray Ogoni leadership as a bloodthirsty lot. It justifies the saturation of Ogoniland with military killer squads.

The agony of the Ogoni is a mere prelude to the far more thorough subjugation that is planned for other parts of Nigeria, also in the South.

Ogoniland is, alas, only the model for a long dreamt-of totalitarian onslaught on Nigerians who have dared expose the deeds of the despots.

The Ogoni people are, alas, only the guinea pigs for a morbid resolution of this smoldering inequity that was instituted by the British.

The beneficiaries remain, a minority made up of a feudal %J oligarchy and their pampered, indolent and unproductive scions.

The myth of uncritical political solidarity in the north was only recently exploded.

Its falsity had been made manifest in earlier elections -- 1979 and 1983 especially. But these were so blatantly rigged that the positive signals were drowned in the hue and cry that followed.

So in a sense, it was not until the elections of June 12, 1993 -- universally acclaimed a model of fairness -- that the collapse of that fiction became irrefutable.

The pattern of voting also made it abundantly clear that the so-called gulf between the north and the south was an invention and that there was a line of division in the north -- 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.

After a few noises of realism and surrender to a popular, democratic will, the reprobates of the old order recovered their -- breath and recollected their interests.

The latest instrument of their feudal, despotic will is General Abacha.

Their notion of a historic mandate of power is not only warped and mindless, but it also may prove terminal to the existence of the nation if the general remains in office for another six months.

Six months -- that is our reading of this crisis -- and Nigeria goes down as another forgotten smear on the geographical atlas.

The media and public debate -- in bars, bus stops, the markets, the motor garages, staff and student clubs and government offices -- have resulted in much questioning of the assumption that the nation is a single entity.

On June 23, 1993, the day of the 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.

Those who still argue that Mr. Abacha has inaugurated his own program of transition to civil rule are victims of carefully nurtured propaganda that began with the erstwhile dictator, Gen. Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida.

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