Books: Eating into the Heart

The Open Sore of a Continent, Wole SoyinkaPublished by Oxford University Press, 1997. £7.99 pbk.

The World Today Published 1 February 1998 Updated 7 December 2018 3 minute READ

The Open Sore of A Continent is billed as ‘a personal narrative of the Nigerian crisis’. On that score it sells itself somewhat short. But this is the first and last letdown because, as the author himself acknowledges, the text is the product of ‘three public lectures’, sundry extracts and quotes from newspaper articles, as well as the professor’s prolific but always pertinent profanities against Nigeria’s military rulers.

To begin at the end. The epilogue deals with events leading up to and after my father’s murder at the hands of Abacha’s executioners in November 1995. I spent that harrowing period in Auckland in the warm glow of Professor Soyinka’s shadow hoping to persuade the Commonwealth Heads of Government to take a firm stance on Nigeria. The rest is history, as they say, and I lost my father.

This book is Soyinka’s attempt to record for posterity the reasons why the international community must grasp the nettle of Nigeria; he asserts that the annulled June 12 elections of 1993 – elections in which he did not partake but which he maintains are the freest and fairest recorded in our troubled nation’s history – will come to be seen as a watershed. My father’s murder was but a milestone on the way to a denouement.

There ought to be a health warning on the cover of this book: unwary perusers should be advised that what they are about to read is a post mortem. Not of a dead nation but a nation very much alive.

This critical examination is carried out with such eloquence and consuming intellect that you can only marvel at the authority. But Soyinka’s diagnosis that there is a cancer at the heart of the Nigeria nation should cause considerable concern. The health of Nigeria remains vital not just for Nigerians but for the whole continent and the knock on effects for international trade and commerce.

This is a small book that deals with a big subject. A subject which the community of nations in their various guises and disguises have been unwilling to tackle but a challenge which Soyinka has never ducked.

Pests and scavengers

Right from the title which jars appropriately – eliciting a curious revulsion in one’s mind – Soyinka slices open the rotting carcass of Nigeria with the rapier of his language, exposing a colony of maggots, bluebottles and other cantankerous pests and scavengers in the body politic of a country ill at ease with itself.

Soyinka the soothsayer unfolds his mat, squats on the rug before his audience and asks himself whether the revolting and fetid cadaver that passes as a nation really deserves such accreditation. After all is Nigeria’s crippling dysfunction not the sick and sickening manifestations of an aggregation of 300 or so ethnic groups, at varying stages of development, into a lumpen mass at independence in 1960?

In a sprawling but erudite examination of whether Nigeria, the nation, has any legitimacy, Soyinka poses the question ‘What is a Nation?’. He dangles the hypothesis that ‘we must not shy away from the possibility that a nation is a mere sentimental concept, unfounded in any practical advantages for its occupants’. Nor he attests ‘would mere geographical coherence, within any arbitrarily elected measure of contemporaneity’ offer any certitudes.

But the professor avers that ‘nation status has never been an absolute or a constant, that it has ever followed the politics of conflict, interest, alliances, power and even accident’. Thus to list just a few here, the Middle East oil states, the former Soviet Union, Spain, even the United Kingdom are, were, Soyinka argues, defined as Nations only when all the conditions above were in balance to satisfy a peace.

He admits Nigeria qualifies as a nation despite its colonial invention in the commercial minds of some far away civil servant. ‘A flawed origin – but no worse than others’ he concludes. But the balance in Nigeria has shifted. Nigeria the nation survives despite itself.

Spoils of power

And despite a ruling clique which he accuses of abusing the power of office. ‘To obtain a basic understanding of today’s reality of Nigerian politics,’ he writes’ ‘one had better learn about and come to grasp with the phenomenon of the spoils of power’.

In Nigeria the spoils of power demand ‘a brutal exaction from a populace, savaging their psyche and intimating to them a kind of essential worthlessness. Perhaps other nations exemplify this as blatantly as Nigeria; beyond acknowledged Mafia - controlled societies, I know of none.’

And that is the true nature of what passes for government in Nigeria today – organised crime. It is a clique that is now out of hand and out of step with rational and normal parabolas of human conduct. It is a message the leaders of the Commonwealth failed to grasp before and they failed to grasp again just last October when they granted Abacha a stay of execution giving the discredited General one more year to return Nigeria to civilian rule.

Those of us who have real hopes that Nigeria may one day exist as a functional nation know there are two further truisms of this farce to be played out yet. President Abacha will soon be with us. And secondly we have always known that this insecure man who rules by playing his enemies off against each other is merely hastening the day when Nigeria will again face its own contradictions by violent means.

Nigeria, the open sore of the African continent. An eyesore eating into the very heart of the region, threatening to develop into a boil that will surely soon burst spectacularly but not before it has brought serious internal and corrosive damage to its citizens.