(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 23)

On June 12, 1993, the people of Nigeria, showing great courage, discipline, and restraint, voted to reject the puppet candidate of the outgoing military dictator General Ibrahim Babangida and to elect as president the democratic Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, candidate of the Social Democratic Party. Although he did not vote in that election, Wole Soyinka calls it a national triumph, a triumph of the collective will to freedom against brutal repression by a succession of thuggish military despots. On June 23, Babangida annulled the election, and on June 27, the military, under the direction of General Sani Abacha, massacred more than two hundred peaceful protesters in Lagos. Soyinka was there and witnessed the slaughter. On July 30, he led a six-mile “Walk for Justice,” a protest march against the new and even more vicious dictatorship of Abacha. In consequence, Abacha confiscated Soyinka’s Nigerian passport; had Soyinka not been the only black African to win a Nobel Prize in Literature (awarded in 1986), he probably would have lost not only his passport but his life. Now living in exile, the sixty-two-year-old author is fighting back in print, trying to bring to the world’s attention atrocities that rival those that have occurred in Bosnia and Serbia.

Wole Soyinka is the complete man of letters—poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, and author of two of the finest African autobiographies—Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981) and Ìsarà: A Voyage Around “Essay”(1989). He also wrote The Man Died (1972), a memoir of more than two years he spent in prison under the military regime of Yakuba Gowon. InThe Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, he has written a politically engaged book that is at once philosophical, angry, tragic, and hopeful. Is Nigeria dying as a nation? What, he asks, constitutes a nation? A region as large as Texas and Oklahoma combined, Nigeria, the easternmost country under the hump of West Africa, is the most populous in sub-Saharan Africa, with a multiplicity of tribes (Yorubas in the west, Binis in the middle, Igbos, Igallas, Ogonis in the southeast, Hausas and Fulanis in the north, and lesser tribes), speaking some 250 languages or dialects. In religion, it is divided among Christians, Muslims, and animists. Its geography ranges from rain forest and jungle to savanna to desert. As a British colony, Nigeria had no internal logic; it was simply a collection of tribes, languages, and geography fabricated by imperial power. When it attained its independence, peacefully, in 1960, it at first seemed a showpiece of democracy and stability. Yet a military coup, a countercoup, and massacres led to the secession of the eastern region of Biafra, subdued by a ghastly civil war, followed by a succession of progressively worse military dictatorships. Can such a region, with such a history, become a nation and survive as a nation? Soyinka insists that nations must serve the well-being of humanity,...

(The entire section is 1221 words.)