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The Open Sore of a Continent


A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis

By

 

Wole Soyinka

Nobel Laureate Literature 1986
 

 

 


OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS


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| (C) 1996 Wole Soyinka |
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| All rights reserved. |
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| ISBN: 0-19-510557-5 |
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CONTENTS



Introduction,........................................................3
A Flawed Origin--But No Worse than Others,..........................17
The Spoils of Power: The Buhari-Shagari Casebook,...................61
The National Question: Internal Imperatives,.......................109
Epilogue: Death of an Activist,....................................145
Appendix I: Swear in Abiola by Ibrahim Dasuki, Sultan of
Sokoto,............................................................155
Appendix II: Abacha's Ultimate Insult: An Eternal Transition
Program,...........................................................159
Index..............................................................163




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.


 

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