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  • A Laureate’s Lament
  • Richard Joseph (bio)
The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis. By Wole Soyinka. Oxford University Press, 1996. 176 pp.

In 1986, Wole Soyinka was the pride of Nigeria: the first black African writer to receive the Nobel prize for literature. A decade later, he is a rebel in the eyes of his country’s government. This is not a new experience for him. His first act of “rebellion” was an attempt to forestall the looming civil war that engulfed his country in 1967. After traveling on a personal peace mission to what would become the secessionist state of Biafra, he was tossed into jail and kept there for more than two years despite worldwide protests. In 1983, he railed against massive corruption and abuses of power by the civilian government of President Shehu Shagari. After its reelection, he was a marked man. Yet the state agents sent to kill him instead put him on a plane out of the country.

This new book stitches together lectures given over the past three years. In it, Soyinka warns that what I would call a Nigerian Reich is consolidating itself under the pretext of rebuilding a failed republic. The term Reich can mean empire, kingdom, or realm. I use it here to convey the essence of Soyinka’s contention that Nigeria is held captive by more than just a highly brutal military junta. Particular military rulers have come and gone, but the building of a Reich has proceeded, in intermittent stages, since the first military coup in 1966. Civilians have been at the helm for less than one of the almost four decades since independence. Soyinka does not adhere to the civilian-military dichotomy [End Page 167] favored by political scientists, but traces the lineaments of this Reich as they have been woven together regardless of the formal designation of the political order. Nigeria is not a country in which the process of democratization has simply been derailed by a military regime that is reluctant to cede power. The crisis is much deeper and broader; Soyinka fears that it may be fatal.

Although more a pastiche than the narrative promised by its subtitle, the volume is well worth perusing for its political insights, robust critique of tyranny and corruption, and biting satire. A recurrent theme is the tragic loss of the sense of Nigerian nationhood. Many other Nigerians have called attention to this, especially since Moshood Abiola’s victory in the 1993 presidential election was nullified. Soyinka believes that a certain “political futility” haunts Nigeria. He traces this to the British, who “fabricated” an entity called “Nigeria” out of parts of their West African colonial domain. In the process, the British favored the northern, Islamic section of the colony, a region of emirates much given to hierarchy, ceremony, and a host of other aristocratic pretensions dear to the colonialists. Soyinka believes that the British connived with northern ruling elements to entrench this regional bias, which continues to hinder the unity and viability of the country by encouraging northern elites to believe that “power is divinely, preternaturally lodged within their enclave.”

Compounding this problem is the entrenchment of military rule and the resulting tendency of the ruled to seek refuge from repressive governance by retreating into particular cultural communities. Postcolonial African authoritarianism has resulted not in nation-building but in what Michel Cachin calls “nationless states.” What most galls Soyinka is that those responsible for undermining Nigeria’s fragile sense of nationhood now pose as ultranationalists in order to attack their critics.

Finally, there are the events of 12 June 1993. On that date, says Soyinka, the Nigerian people not only voted overwhelmingly for a particular candidate and his party, but in doing so affirmed “the nation as a single entity.” Other observers of these elections, which gave an unprecedented 58 percent majority to the Social Democratic Party ticket led by Moshood Abiola, join Soyinka in considering them an event of extraordinary significance. Soyinka goes further by claiming that the vote was “a declaration of national unity,” displaying “a nationalist political consciousness,” and that it was “most certainly a feat of historic dimensions” of...