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Limits of Nationhood at the Dawn of the 21st Century

The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis

By Wole Soyinka

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Oxford University Press

170 pp., $19.95

What makes a stain on a map a nation?

When you land on a dust-blown airstrip in Somalia or southern Sudan, you get out of the plane and walk straight into the country. No passport control. No customs. No state, you could argue.

This is not the norm of the continent. But it's a sad truth to say that anarchy reigns, to a greater or less extent, in many African nations. After the institutions of civil society - an independent judiciary, police, and free press - collapse, who is to say a nation still exists?

In "Open Sore of a Continent," Nobel laureate in literature Wole Soyinka explores the limits of nationhood at the dawn of the 21st century, in Africa and Nigeria in particular. The poet, playwright, author, and political activist sets out to explain: At what price are struggling African nations like Nigeria staying together? And is it always worth the cost?

"Open Sore" is a collection of three of Soyinka's public lectures. The tracts don't fit together tightly as one cohesive account. Still, the trio of essays is passionate, stirring, and chock-full of humor and insight. Its theme, whither the nation-state, is among the most compelling topics in sub-Saharan Africa and throughout the post-cold-war world.

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Soyinka asks why so many African nations exist in a state of limbo, what he calls "a halfway space of purgatory." He argues that in Nigeria, the world may be witnessing a nation on the verge of extinction. He traces the current debacle to June 23, 1993, when Nigeria's military rulers arbitrarily annulled the national presidential election. On that day, he concludes, the Army "committed the most treasonable act of larceny of all time: it violently robbed the Nigerian people of their nationhood."

Nigerian authorities have a long history of violence and deception. They arrested Soyinka, an ethnic Yoruba, in 1967 during the country's civil war. He was imprisoned for 22 months, mostly in solitary confinement, because of his sympathies for the Ibo people and their breakaway state of Biafra.

In "Open Sore," Soyinka lauds the struggle of another former prisoner, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the activist from Nigeria's oil-rich Ogoniland whom the country's generals hanged along with eight of his colleagues last November. The Western media usually depict Saro-Wiwa as first and foremost an environmental activist. But he was also a vocal minority-rights proponent. The theme of "Open Sore," the validity of Nigeria's "nationhood," was central to Saro-Wiwa's crusade. At times he seemed to support secession, a radical notion in a country of more than 250 separate ethnic groups.

Soyinka, in contrast to Saro-Wiwa, concludes that he must accept the notion of the nation of Nigeria "as a duty .... as a responsibility, without sentiment... as one that is best kept intact." He ends with a call for international action, including a series of global conferences on the national question, to head off "the debacle of Somalia, the horrors of Yugoslavia, or the reversion to a hitherto unthinkable, primitive bestiality of Rwanda."

Soyinka's tendency to wander backward and forward through African and Nigerian history, and his rapid-fire recitation of players and events in Nigeria's complex political scene, is likely to befuddle newcomers to the topic. The book fails to provide a broader context that would make it more meaningful to a reader who does not follow Nigeria closely.

Soyinka says he hasn't set out to write a requiem for his homeland. But his recounting of the country's woes illuminate why this stain on the map will remain a "Nigeria of many nations" for some time to come.

*Joyce Hackel, a staff correspondent for Monitor Radio, just completed a four-year assignment in Africa.

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