"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
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