Nigeria: a land corrupt beyond hope?

July 14, 1996|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

"The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis," by Wole Soyinka. Oxford University Press. 161 pages. $19.95.

Only an extraordinary event occasionally propels Nigeria to the front pages of American newspapers, even though it is Africa's most populous country.

Such an event occurred last November, when Nigeria's dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, shrugged off worldwide protests and ordered the execution of nine human-rights activists. Among them was Ken Saro-Wiwa, a mild-mannered playwright, whose last words were: "Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues."

In this polemical volume, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka uses the Saro-Wiwa execution as a peg to show how it reflects a pattern in Nigeria's turbulent history since the 1960 independence from Britain.

Nigeria is wealthy in natural resources, particularly oil. Yet it is today a beggar nation because of endemic political corruption and mismanagement.

Soyinka argues that since the first coup, in 1966, military usurpers and occasional civilian leaders have institutionalized a mutually advantageous system in which the spoils of power are "routinely handed down from villain to villain and extended retroactively to shield past villains."

While Soyinka is vocally scornful of General Abacha, the current dictator and executioner of Saro-Wiwa, he reserves his strongest venom for Shehu Shagari, a democratically elected president whose tenure saw an oil boom and bust, accompanied with a degree of corruption that was rare even in African context.

"I regret to say that I have been unable to unearth one simple achievement that can be credited to Shagari's tenure," Soyinka writes. "Shagari's greatest crime remains his attempt to subvert the very democratic processes that brought him into office and to turn the nation into a police (or poli-thug,) state."

Shagari was ultimately deposed by a group of envious military officers who "wrote themselves into Nigerian, African and possibly global history by staging a coup d'etat, not against an incumbent government but against the opposition to that government" so that they could secure the spoils for themselves.

Nigerians who protest this kind of plunder do so at their own peril. The persecution and execution of Saro-Wiwa is just one example.

Nigeria was born out of an 1880s colonial land grab deal between Britain and France that divided old kingdoms and artificially defined the two colonial powers' possessions. Soyinka does not go back to that old history but is consumed by problems of nationhood and national identity because "in Nigeria we may actually be witnessing a nation on the verge of extinction."

Soyinka is eloquent in identifying and describing Nigeria's problems. In the end, though, he has little to offer in the way of solutions. The best he can suggest is a "structured pattern of regional conferences on the national question in numerous sectors of the globe."

Antero Pietila, a Sun editorial writer, was the paper's correspondent in Africa from 1980 to 1983, after which he served as the Moscow bureau chief until 1988.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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