In This Review

The Running Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis
The Running Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis
By Wole Soyinka
Oxford University Press, 1996, 170 pp.

"We have lost the twentieth century," lamented Chinua Achebe, one of Nigeria's brilliant literary sons, in 1983, "are we bent on seeing our children also lose the twenty-first?" The three towering figures of Nigeria's early years of independence -- Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Sir Ahmadu Bello -- had all at some point in their careers expressed doubts about preserving Nigeria as one country. In 1947 Awolowo even commented that Nigeria was not a nation but "a mere geographic expression."

Now Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka rekindles the long-running debate about the possibility of Nigerian survival in his combative new political essay, The Running Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis. For three decades a tireless foe of a succession of predatory regimes, Soyinka's contempt for the most recent military custodians of Nigerian nationhood echoes the sentiments of many of his fellow Nigerians. Is Nigeria a nation, and should it be?

Soyinka's powerful prose brilliantly sketches the dilemmas plaguing Africa's demographic giant and reveals the stark choices facing Nigeria, a nation brought to the edge of ruin by the misappropriation of its oil wealth. His own ambivalence about "the national question" bears witness to the broader uncertainties among many Nigerians. Except for those who benefit directly from the status quo, most view the exercise of authority and political practice in Nigeria as morally bankrupt. Does a state shamelessly plundered by a succession of rulers have any legitimate claim on the loyalty of its citizenry? Can the nation be reborn, redeemed, and resurrected from below? In Soyinka's view, the results of the June 1993 elections held the promise of just such a redemption, but their annulment plunged the country into the direst straits it has yet encountered. He still prefers a single Nigeria to any other immediately available outcome, but concedes that he "frankly could not advance any invulnerable reason for my preference for a solution that did not involve disintegration."

Soyinka's intellectual odyssey reflects the trajectory of Nigerian nationalism. Like many of his generation, he began with a devout commitment to a strongly united Nigeria of socialist orientation and pan-African bent. The disappointments of the First Republic (1963-66) compelled Soyinka to reconsider his political moorings. He became an early adversary of military rule and took an active part in some progressive intellectuals' efforts to avert civil war. He later opposed both the Biafra secession and its violent suppression. Soyinka's criticism of the use of military force to end the secession cost him a two-year sojourn in squalid dungeons, cementing his implacable opposition to military dictatorship; his eloquent 1972 memoir, The Man Died, provides a gripping account of his incarceration. Maintained at the price of prolonged periods of enforced exile, his personal courage and integrity command broad respect.

Soyinka's authority also springs from his literary stature. A playwright, poet, novelist, and author of a vivid autobiography of a Yoruba childhood, he received a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. Soyinka's political writings have always combined polemical force with expository grace, and his stinging characterization of Nigeria as a failed state is no exception.

Nor could it be more timely. The brutal execution in November 1995 of Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his associates highlighted once again the uncertain bonds between a would-be Nigerian "nation" and its subject ethnic communities. Ogoni discontent germinated in the deepening conviction that Ogoniland's ecosystem had been ravaged in pursuit of oil production, the revenues from which accrued entirely to the Nigerian state, with little benefit returned to the Ogoni community.

But the struggle between the Ogoni and General Sani Abacha's military dictatorship is not relevant for Nigeria alone. The stakes of Nigeria's survival are high for all of Africa. A further downward spiral of institutional decay could spark an implosion that would flood neighboring states with an unmanageable wave of refugees. Beneath the relative calm of Nigeria's surface lies a far-reaching crisis of legitimacy.


Nigeria is an artifact of the colonial partition. Even its name and original national anthem, as Soyinka reminds us, were the creations of British women. But if Nigeria began as an imagined community, it became real enough through shared subjugation and resistance to coerced consolidation, a process eloquently described in James Coleman's 1958 classic, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism. Conventional wisdom holds that stable governance requires the legitimating embrace of nationhood, spawning the often forced state discourse of "nation-building." Both the Nigerian rulers who succeeded to power in 1960 and their erstwhile British tutors saw the need for just such nation-building.

As they conceived it, Nigerian nationhood rested on three pillars: the state, as competent manager of the public realm; a "federal character," with equilibrated roles for the three large ethnic communities and the many smaller ethnic minorities; and the democratic process. The growing fear in Nigeria today that a Nigerian nation may be what Soyinka has called a mere "farcical illusion" is the result of manifest dereliction on all three fronts.

Although corruption in Nigerian politics had colonial antecedents and became apparent soon after independence, in the early years the sums involved were modest and the practitioners less brazen. Both the triumphant aura that victory in the 1967-70 civil war conferred on the federal government and the magnanimous treatment of the vanquished helped legitimize the state and allowed it to maintain its authority throughout the 1970s. A phenomenal surge in oil revenues and highly visible public investment in roads and schools further sanctified the state's position, and the smooth transition to democratic rule in 1979 suggested that stability would prevail well into the 1980s. But in 1983 the sordid comportment of Shehu Shagari's civilian regime, which Soyinka excoriates as a "poli-thug state," again opened the door to military intervention.

Civilian rule was not the only casualty of the early 1980s. The end of the oil boom in 1982, the emergence of a serious debt problem by 1986, the ensuing decline in the well-being of the Nigerian salaried middle class, and the increasingly unrestrained use of political power for personal profit exposed the infirmities of the state.

Just as the credibility of the state's management of the public realm was collapsing, so too was its federal character. The failure of the First Republic pointed out the flaws of a federal structure constructed around the three largest ethnic blocs. The 3 colonial-era regions were progressively divided into 4, then 12, 19, 21, and finally 30 states -- perhaps with more to come. Unsustainable as it may seem, this strategy has liberated the smaller ethnic minorities from an oppressive hegemony of the three largest ethnic groups by dispersing those three groups among several states. Carefully ensuring a proportionate distribution of power without creating an explicitly ethnic federation, the Second Republic's constitution and its successors have in many ways been ingenious formulas for national survival.

Political reality, however, especially during the military years, failed to follow the script of balanced diversity. The two civilian prime ministers (1960-66, 1979-83) were both Hausa-Fulani, the politically and demographically dominant ethnic category in the north. During most of Nigeria's 27 years of military rule, the senior autocrat has also been from the north. Even though Generals Yakubu Gowon (1966-1975), Ibrahim Babangida (1985-1993), and Sani Abacha (1993-) are not themselves Hausa-Fulani, Nigerians view them as integral parts of what Soyinka terms "a self-perpetuating clique from the yet feudally oriented part of the country."

In the public mind, the changing patterns of Nigeria's revenue flow further diluted the reality of the nation's federal character. By the 1980s, 80 to 90 percent of state revenue and foreign exchange came from the petroleum sector, and accrued first and foremost to the federal government. The individual states were left entirely dependent on federal handouts.


Through the decades of corruption and political turmoil, a public commitment to the democratic process as an indispensable source of legitimacy has remained a remarkable constant in Nigerian political life. Since World War II, the country's undemocratic regimes, whether colonial or military, have always justified their rule by claiming that they are interim superintendents preparing the way for democratic government.

Although Babangida's promises of a transition to democracy were far less credible than those issued by his predecessors, until 1993 the hope -- even expectation -- of military withdrawal persisted. Thus transition management retained some plausibility as a surrogate for democratic legitimation. The annulment of the 1993 elections, by common consent fairly conducted, shattered that illusion. For Soyinka, the annulment constituted "the most treasonable act of larceny of all time: It violently robbed the Nigerian people of their nationhood!"

Although Abacha engineered the creation of yet another constitution, and although the first steps have been taken toward a promised hand-over of authority to an elected government in 1998, public skepticism has only deepened. For perhaps the first time since independence, Nigerians suspect that the military intends a permanent transition in which new artifices will forever delay democratic rule.


Perhaps Soyinka overstates his case, but the three pillars of Nigerian nationhood have been badly shaken. Is there a choice, as Soyinka asks, other than "that mangy, flea-infested flag that the sanctimonious nationalist drapes around his torso to cover a repulsive nudity"? Four options have been suggested at various times: a pan-African construction, broader regional groupings, an entirely redrawn map based on cultural geography rather than the accidents of colonial partition, and allowing free rein to ethnic self-determination.

Closely inspected, none of these options provides much solace. Soyinka himself, though in his youth a fervent supporter of the first alternative, sees the elevation of ethnic communities as sanctuaries for retreat as the emergent choice of Nigerians in despair. It may not be his own preference, but it is one that may gain strength as the cynical disengagement from Nigeria as both a state and a nation continues apace.

Nigerians are by no means alone in their collective self-doubt. With a debilitating economic decline completing its second decade in many African lands, the remorseless pressures of globalization and world capital markets, and the frustrations that endless "structural adjustments" have engendered, even the indisputable headway in African political liberalization cannot dissipate the apprehensions.

Ethiopia represents the most audacious venture in territorial reconfiguration along ethnic lines, with a comprehensive redrawing of internal boundaries and a constitutional guarantee of ethnic self-determination, even including the right to secede (although the current power configuration will not permit anyone to exercise that right). Some have suggested that the only solution for the intractable ethnic polarization in Rwanda and Burundi is the creation of two new states, "Uhutu" and "Tutsiland." But the magnitude of the ethnic cleansing required for implementation of such formulas, the ambiguous boundaries of ethnic identity, and the huge costs involved make reconciliation a far more appealing option. However, if populations became territorially segregated on the ground, as in Bosnia and Cyprus, circumstances might eventually dictate a rearrangement of the regional state system. In short, the long-term survival of the 53 sovereign units issuing from Africa's colonial partition is far from certain.

Democratization, with its many limits and flaws, remains the only path extending beyond impasse, in Nigeria and elsewhere. Only through democracy can Nigeria begin to reclaim legitimacy. The 1993 balloting revealed a remarkably broad distribution of electoral support for the victor, Moshood Abiola; although he won overwhelming backing in his native Yoruba region, he also garnered impressive support in the east and the north. Annulling the elections was a tragic act of folly; history will surely vindicate the harsh verdict Soyinka passes on those who made the decision to do so.

Nigeria has little cultural logic; its peoples would never have chosen to live together. Over time, though, coexistence became a historical necessity, and citizens came to accept their common nationhood. In the euphoric days of newly won independence and the triumphant aftermath of the civil war, Nigerian unity resonated powerfully. Until recently, public faith in the ideal of nationhood required only that Nigeria's military rulers maintain a credible promise of democracy. But with the growing suspicion that the current regime may indefinitely prolong its transition to democratic rule, the ideal's power is shrinking. Its demise risks making Nigeria a political impossibility.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now