Vol. 19 No. 12 · 19 June 1997

A Nation of Collaborators

Adewale Maja-Pearce writes about the venality of Nigeria

6330 words

No Nigerian Despot had ever flouted civilised standards with such impunity as Sani Abacha when he murdered Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow Ogoni activists on 10 November 1995. The rumours going the rounds over the following days only added to the widespread suspicion that we were about to enter a period of state-sanctioned brutality which would surpass the worst excesses of all previous military regimes. It was said that Saro-Wiwa was denied his last request to see his wife and his 91-year-old father; that the noose failed three times before his neck finally snapped; that the military governor of the state, the man who had declared Saro-Wiwa guilty even before the start of what passed for a trial, rushed down the steps of the scaffold in order to ensure that he was well and truly in possession of a corpse; that the corpses of the Ogoni Nine, as they came to be called, were thrown into a mass grave and then soaked in acid; and, finally, that the entire sordid event was videotaped and the result rushed to Abuja, the administrative capital.

It turned out, however, that the execution was just a wanton demonstration of power without any significance beyond the fact that Abacha, personally, wanted these men dead. There was going to be no dirty war, in other words, despite our initial fears that disaffected writers, journalists, lawyers and students were about to be rounded up and shot in batches in the nearest football stadium. How we flattered ourselves! Abacha was never worried about the repercussions within Nigeria itself, at least as far as the general population was concerned.

His overriding concern was international opinion, more accurately that of ‘the West’, which had the capacity to topple him within 48 hours if it so desired by the simple expedient of oil sanctions. The revenue from crude oil, currently estimated at $11 billion a year (90 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings), is entirely in the hands of the Western multinationals – Agip, BP, Chevron, Exxon, Shell, Texaco, Total – who between them operate the existing fields and prospect for new ones. Other resources – cashew nuts, coal, cocoa, cotton, livestock, palm oil, rubber, tin, wood – once the mainstay of the economy, have been allowed to decline year on year since the oil boom of the early Seventies. There are two reasons for this: first, Nigerians have no faith in their own ability to manage such a technologically sophisticated industry; and, second, Nigerian governments, which rule by patronage, know very well that foreign-owned multinationals are only interested in maximising their profits, and can be trusted to deal uncritically with ‘constituted’ authority, whatever its character. They pay their taxes promptly, in whatever way they are told to – and the revenue is administered solely by the Head of State.

The drawback for the oil companies is that it isn’t always possible to remain above the fray. Before his death, Saro-Wiwa had accused Shell not only of bringing about the environmental degradation of Ogoniland, which pauperised a predominantly fishing and farming community, but also of ‘paying protection money to the Nigerian security agencies to complete the genocide which it [Shell] began’. Shell, as we know, failed to use its influence with the Government to intervene on behalf of the Ogoni Nine, and has since admitted entering into discussions with the police to purchase weapons, including semi-automatic rifles, pump-action shotguns and tear gas. The company’s recent agreement to maintain a hospital and to renovate and re-equip three government health centres in Ogoniland – where, ironically, it had temporarily ceased operating in 1993 because of the disturbances – has been taken by some as a tacit admission of guilt. Yet why should a multinational assume what is not, strictly speaking, its responsibility? Hospitals and health centres ought surely to be built and maintained by the Government from the proceeds of the nation’s wealth. In fact, all the communities in the oil-rich Niger Delta, including the Ogoni, are worse off, in terms of money and public facilities, than they were before oil was discovered in the late Fifties.

The first and most immediate problem is political representation. Nigeria has been ruled since independence in 1960 by three main ethnic groups – the Hausa-Fulani in the North, the Yoruba in the South-West, and the Igbo in the South-East – who between them account for around three-quarters of the estimated population of 120 million (there has never been an accurate census). But all the nation’s oil is found in the minority areas. There are fewer than half a million Ogoni, for instance – one reason their representatives could be murdered with impunity. Not a single prominent figure from any of the big three groups was prepared to speak out against the executions. This had less to do with ‘tribal’ sentiment – although that exists – than with the related but much more serious problem that Nigerians are a nation of collaborators, and are always and everywhere prepared to sell their consciences (we don’t even talk about principles) for the sake of money. Saro-Wiwa understood this well enough. As he wrote in a statement he was prevented from reading in court, ‘on trial also is the Nigerian nation. The military do not act alone. They are supported by a gaggle of politicians, lawyers, judges, academics and businessmen, all of them hiding under the claim that they are only doing their duty.’

Consider the events that paved the way for Abacha’s emergence. His predecessor, General Babangida, after eight reckless years in power, was prevailed upon to organise elections in June 1993, having postponed them on two previous occasions. But before the counting was over, he annulled the election and appointed a puppet government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, a lacklustre businessman of limited political experience, to take over from him when he stepped down in August, as previously agreed. Last but not least, he retired all the generals with the exception of Abacha, his second-in-command, whom he appointed Minister of Defence, before withdrawing to his fifty-bedroom mansion – imported Italian marble throughout. All that remained was for Abacha to strike when the time was right.

He was helped in great measure by Chief Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of the elections, and a flamboyant millionaire businessman. No sooner had Babangida annulled the elections than Abiola fled abroad, where he gave long-winded interviews to the Western media as though the presidency of Nigeria was in the gift of the BBC and CNN; and then, just as ostentatiously, returned to Nigeria and sat quietly at home, having apparently repudiated his mandate without so much as a word to the public. So the country drifted until November, when Abacha struck, whereupon Abiola was to be seen all over the front pages of Nigerian newspapers sharing a joke with the country’s new military ruler. It later transpired that Abiola had even encouraged his former running mate, Baba Gana Kingibe, to accept the post of Minister of External Affairs in the new government.

The joke was on us for having imagined that a man who had amassed his fabulous wealth from government contracts he rarely fulfilled could lead us into the promised land. The biggest of these contracts came in the Seventies, when ITT, the American-owned telecommunications giant, of whose Nigerian operation he was then the chairman, was awarded $1 billion to overhaul the country’s shambolic telephone system. It is now even more difficult to use the telephone than it was before ITT won the contract – Fela Kuti, the musician, had the measure of Abiola when he dubbed him ‘International Thief Thief’. Abiola’s nemesis came in June 1994, the first anniversary of the annulled election, when he foolishly rediscovered his mandate and declared himself President at a rally in Lagos. Why he did so remains a mystery. The most obvious explanation was that he had allowed himself to be goaded by those with a personal grudge against Abacha for denying them their share of the spoils – of which more presently. It was a very bad move: Abiola was promptly arrested on a four-count charge of treason and thrown into detention, where he remains. It’s easy enough, in retrospect, to see that he had been manipulated all along by the military, who allowed him to go abroad in the first place and then to return home when he got tired, as they knew he would, of prattling on about democracy and the rule of law.

The military, in other words, had the measure of their man, just as they had the measure of his compatriots, the Yorubas in particular. The only reason Chief Shonekan was chosen to head the puppet government was that he was from the same town as Abiola and, like him, a Yoruba. According to the ethnic lexicon, this was supposed to make them brothers, a sentimental pretence that rendered it difficult to argue that the Presidency was in the power of the duplicitous Northerners. Abacha, in his turn, appointed yet another Yoruba, Lt Gen. Oladipo Diya, also from the same town as the other two, as his second-in-command. The fact that Diya’s post is largely ceremonial, that even a child can see that the half-dozen military officers who run the country have nothing to do with him, only increases one’s sense of shame at the readiness of Nigerians to do anything for a buck.

All the same, Abacha had to move cautiously in his first few months in office. No previous military ruler had ever before attempted to pull off what he was proposing in so blatant a manner. Every other coup, up to and including Babangida’s in 1985, had been welcomed by all sections of the country, even those – in 1965 and 1983 – which overthrew corrupt civilian administrations on the grounds of a clean-up. Disillusionment with the military only set in with Babangida, who believed that every Nigerian had his price and proceeded to prove it. But Babangida’s period in office coincided with the global triumph of liberal democracy, which is Why Abacha saw fit to promise a short tenure: ‘I must stress the unflinching commitment of this Administration to an early return to civil democratic rule.’ To that end, a National Constitutional Conference was convened, which, he announced, would write a new constitution guaranteeing ‘an enduring democracy’ and determine the date of his exit from power.

The Conference was a ruse, of course, designed to buy time. For one thing, Babangida had already spent $52 million fashioning a perfectly adequate constitution for the proposed Third Republic which had never been promulgated. For another, democracy could have been more simply achieved by de-annulling the annulment and allowing Abiola to assume the Presidency. In true Nigerian fashion, would-be delegates to the Conference were besieging Abacha even before he finished stating the terms – in the hope of a juicy government contract that would make them millionaires.

This is to say nothing of those – like Kingibe, the Chief’s running mate – who didn’t need to be asked twice before agreeing to join the Conference, thus enabling Abacha to maintain the fiction that his regime wasn’t an entirely military affair. Alex Ibru, publisher of the Guardian, the country’s best independent daily newspaper, became Minister of Internal Affairs. Alhaji Lateef Jakande, a minister in the last civilian government and a self-proclaimed democrat, became Minister of Works and Housing. Dr Olu Onagoruwa, a constitutional lawyer of otherwise impeccable credentials, became Attorney-General and Minister of Justice. Onagoruwa’s participation was the most perplexing since he had made his name as a champion of human rights in the days before human rights became yet another racket, and had often spoken up against military rule.

The first to go was Ibru, when his newspaper group was closed down in August 1994 by 150 armed policemen, ostensibly for publishing an article which claimed that there was a division between the hawks and the doves in the Provisional Ruling Council. Ibru was out of office a few days later. He first heard about his dismissal when it was announced on state-owned radio. Onagoruwa, meanwhile, was tying himself into ever tighter knots attempting to explain why a government that had publicly declared itself in favour of press freedom was closing down newspapers. His come-uppance came a month after Ibru’s when, following a court ruling which ordered the Government to allow the Guardian and the other five titles in its stable to resume publication, Abacha proscribed Guardian Newspapers Ltd by decree without informing the Attorney-General. Still refusing to face the facts, Onagoruwa called a press conference and told the assembled journalists that the decree which he himself ought to have drafted was got up by ‘certain bureaucratic and political forces’ which were trying to discredit the Government. That was the end of his short political career.

Another former democrat and sometime university professor, Bolaji Akinyemi, who now parades as a prominent member of the exiled National Democratic Committee that is currently agitating in London and Washington for an end to military rule, was among the first to offer his services to Abacha in return for the same ministerial appointment he had previously enjoyed (and spectacularly squandered) under Babangida. To that end he announced to anyone who cared to listen that History had been on Abacha’s side when he ousted Shonekan’s puppet government. Abacha took the man’s advice readily enough but wasn’t interested in his job application, whereupon the professor asked for a large sum of money in order to write his memoirs, arguing that a precedent had been set some years before when a former Minister for External Affairs and now the country’s permanent representative at the United Nations had been so honoured. When this, too, was turned down, he fled abroad, where he rediscovered his democratic credentials. These days he tells anyone who will listen that Abacha is a moron.

The Only Sustained Opposition to Abacha’s rule came from the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association, both of which downed tools as soon as Abiola was arrested. Alas, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) prevaricated for six weeks before its president, Comrade Pascal Bafyau, called a nationwide strike, only to call it off the next day – in order, he said, to give the Government ‘one last chance’ to engage in ‘fruitful negotiations’. Not that anyone was surprised by the NLC’s feebleness. Bafyau was even then fighting a law-suit brought against him, Babangida and a few others, as a result of an allegedly dubious purchase of a parcel of land in the most exclusive residential area of Lagos. The inevitable consequence was the crushing of the oil unions and the incarceration of Frank Kokori, the abrasive Secretary-General of NUPENG, the more radical of the unions. Kokori remains in detention. According to his wife, he is shunted from one prison to another, is rarely allowed visitors and is in poor health. Some say he is going blind.

The end of the oil strike was also the end of any pretence by Abacha that he was going anywhere in a hurry, but the full truth about his long-term plans for himself and the country (one and the same thing, after all) only dawned in January 1995, when the Constitutional Conference forgot itself to the extent of setting a date – 1 January 1996 – for Abacha’s exit. This was an unexpected development which embarrassed even the Government. In fact it was the feat of one man, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, a retired general with political ambitions of his own. Yar’Adua, who was second-in-command in the regime of General Obasanjo in the late Seventies, had already been thwarted by Babangida, who disqualified him from running for the Presidency on the grounds that he was a member of the ‘old breed’ and couldn’t therefore be trusted – but only after he had squandered a small fortune putting his political machine in place. One can only wonder at the amount of money Yar’Adua must have spent at the Conference. It was said that, towards the end of the deliberations, the Government was bringing dollar bills by the sackful to ensure the right result. When this proved insufficient, Abacha conveniently discovered that Yar’Adua was plotting a coup and dragged him before a Special Military Tribunal, after which the Conference, equally conveniently, discovered that the date which it had approved for Abacha’s departure was no longer ‘feasible’. Yar’Adua was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to death. That he wasn’t executed had less to do with the international appeals for clemency than with his pedigree as a prominent member of the Hausa-Fulani aristocracy. Having been persuaded to spare him, Abacha may have felt that clemency for the Ogoni Nine would be interpreted as a sign of weakness by the military, the only group capable of deposing him.

It was, in any case, a measure of Abacha’s growing confidence that he used the pretext of Yar’Adua’s ‘coup’ to send a warning to anyone who imagined they had something to say about the work of the disbanded Conference. Among those accused of complicity with Yar’Adua were General Obasanjo – the only military leader to have handed over power to civilians – Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, a human rights activist, and four journalists: Chris Anyanwu, Kunle Ajibade, George Mbah and Ben Charles Obi. Dr Ransome-Kuti, the brother of Fela Kuti and, like him, one of the few honest voices in the country, was charged with faxing ‘sensitive documents pertaining to the coup trials ... to his collaborators in the UK and the US in order to subvert and blackmail the Federal Military Government’, and thus with being an ‘accessory after the fact’ to treason. The journalists were charged with publishing articles on the coup trial ‘aimed at inciting the public’ against the Government. All were initially sentenced to life, later reduced to 15 years in Abacha’s Independence Day broadcast on 1 October that year, when he also announced a new transition timetable that would culminate on 1 October 1998, without question the date of the termination of military rule in Nigeria.

Nobody demurred. Even the international community, taking note of the absence of any coherent internal opposition, lacked the will to insist that he bring the date forward. And then Abacha went ahead with the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa and jeopardised all his hard work. The world was incensed; Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth. Within a few months of the executions, however, he would ascertain, in the course of local council ‘elections’, that his compatriots were more mercenary than even he suspected.

Abacha subsequently claimed, in a rare newspaper interview, that the international reaction to the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa taught him that the world treats writers differently from other people. Only a few months earlier, he had signed the death warrants of 46 convicted armed robbers, who were publicly executed by firing squad the day after Thabo Mbeki, the South African Deputy President, arrived in the country to plead on Yar’Adua’s behalf. Like Saro-Wiwa, the armed robbers had been tried by military tribunal, where the death sentence is mandatory; like Saro-Wiwa, their only recourse to appeal was before the same tribunal which had found them guilty. Their trials, in other words, violated every international standard, yet nobody objected, not even in Nigeria.

Military tribunals have been killing Nigerian civilians for years. The decree establishing the Special Offences Tribunal that was used to try the Ogoni Nine was first promulgated in the late Seventies and survived even the 1979-83 civilian administration. Like all such tribunals, it has only worked because it has had the support of those who should have known better – among them, judges and lawyers. Worse still, the judges who sit on it are present only in an advisory capacity. It wasn’t until Saro-Wiwa’s execution, and the ensuing outcry, that the legal profession began to reconsider their position – the Nigerian Bar Association has yet to do the only thing which really matters and boycott the tribunals altogether. Military tribunals remain the order of the day, their composition and scope very slightly modified to satisfy interfering foreigners. Fela Kuti’s rhetorical question, ‘Do we have courts in Nigeria?’, is as valid now as when he first asked it over a decade ago.

By making so much noise and then imposing a few inconvenient but ultimately risible sanctions – no new arms sales, no visas for members of the Government – the international community helped Abacha to survive the worst; and he is now rather stronger than before. This became very clear last October, when Warren Christopher, the former US Secretary of State, categorically ruled out any possibility of oil sanctions. ‘There is no appetite for that,’ he said on the first leg of his five-nation African tour, even as he professed himself ‘troubled by the conduct of the Government, by its violation of human rights and its degree of corruption’. He promised to organise world opinion in favour of a sports boycott.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to know quite what the West could have done to help the democratisation process in Nigeria, given that Nigerians are so willing to go along with a tyranny which executes peaceful activists. Even the most optimistic must have despaired when, in March 1996, barely four months after the bodies of the Ogoni Nine were soaked in acid in order to deny their families the rites of burial, the great mass of the Nigerian electorate obediently trooped out to vote in local council elections – the first stage of Abacha’s transition programme spelt out the previous October. The elections were held on a ‘zero-party’ basis, ostensibly in recognition of Nigeria’s ‘historical and cultural peculiarities’, but in reality to enable the Government to ban suspect candidates at will. In one state alone, nearly a hundred would-be councillors were disqualified by the National Electoral Commission after ‘further screening carried out by the state security agents’ on the very morning that voting was to take place. Some had sold their houses to raise enough cash for bribes, confident that they would be able to build even bigger properties once they got their snouts in the trough. Serves them right. The Government denied bias in its conduct of the elections, but that was in any case an academic issue. Section 45 of the Local Government Decree Six of 1996 empowered the Head of State to remove any councillor ‘found to be compromising his non-partisan political standing’, a piece of gobbledygook that meant whatever Abacha wanted it to mean. Section 12 of the same decree removed all matters relating to the elections from the jurisdiction of the courts.

In the immediate aftermath of the elections, the garrulous Minister for Information, Dr Walter Ofonagoro, told the truth for once when he declared that ‘Abacha’s regime has been vindicated’ by the show of numbers. What he didn’t add was that this vindication had been bought cheap, in most cases for no more than a few dollars. On 19 March 1996, the Guardian quoted one voter, ‘gleefully showing his wad of banknotes’: ‘The amount is N200 ($2.50). During the last election I did not get any money, but this time I must get something. I am here with my wife, my sister-in-law and her two friends. Between the five of us we are getting N1000 today.’ He was fortunate to be living in Lagos: five naira appears to have been enough in some other parts of the country. The Nigerians have effectively given Abacha carte blanche to extend his tenure beyond 1998 – and recent developments suggest that he intends to remain at the helm well into the next century.

Abacha has only ever said that the military, and not he, personally, would leave come D-day, and the way is obviously open for him to follow in the footsteps of President Rawlings, his Ghanaian counterpart, a former flight-lieutenant who came to power in a military coup and then gradually civilianised himself. That Abacha might have the same idea in mind was partly borne out when, last October, he refused to register ten of the 15 political parties which applied to the National Electoral Commission in accordance with his own transition programme. To qualify for registration, a party had to show evidence that it was free of religious and ethnic bias, that it was represented in two-thirds of the country’s 36 states, and that its principal officers reflected what is known as ‘Federal character’ – that they were drawn from a wide cross section of ethnic groups. The parties which clearly qualified for registration, and also happened to be fronted by the most experienced politicians, were the very ones which didn’t make it. The banned politicians also included the so-called ‘progressives’ (such terms are infinitely elastic in Nigeria and apply mainly to wealthy traditionalists with a following), who issued this statement:

Since we remain peace-loving patriots, we have resolved to withdraw from politics during the current transition programme.

  This principled withdrawal by the leadership is to ensure the survival and the protection of progressive ideals. We have firmly resolved to stand for and promote the ideals of human rights, human dignity, human security, social justice, democratic governance, the rule of law, co-operative solidarity, the building of a just society, the creation of a dynamic economy, and the restoration of a free and democratic society ...

  We believe that progressive ideals must be protected, sharpened and cultivated, while waiting for a more conducive political environment. By the grace of God, the progressives shall rise again.

With luck, they will do nothing of the kind.

The five parties that were registered are almost entirely composed of people nobody has ever heard of, and, between them, appear to have nothing approximating a manifesto – one of the requirements for registration. The only thing that is known about them is that they all supported the National Constitutional Conference, and that they all occupy what the press has termed ‘the middle ground’, which means that they don’t believe in very much. As one of their spokespersons put it, ‘we want to bring together the ideas of both the rightist and the leftist politicians to build this nation ... we are neither in favour nor against the military government.’ It was hardly surprising that a few days later the same spokesperson called on Abacha to lead them to victory in 1998. All the other parties quickly followed suit.

Further intriguing evidence that Abacha is determined to extend his tenure was supplied in a public lecture entitled ‘Black World Collective Security: Black Redemption Doctrines’, which was delivered in Lagos last October by Chinweizu, who is a leading member of the so-called bolekeja (‘come down, let’s fight’) school of discourse that preaches an aggressive Afrocentricism. (Chinweizu has been unrelenting in his hatred of Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate, whom he never tires of calling a Negrophobe – Soyinka, an English-language dramatist, admires the racist author of Othello and any writer who admires Shakespeare is also a racist, especially if that writer happens to be black and African.) In that characteristic lecture, Chinweizu asserted that American scientists invented the Aids virus, for the good reason that the global economy still needs Africa’s vast mineral resources, but no longer has a use for the continent’s surplus labour. He calls this the Triage Plan. Its purpose is ‘to fashion a world in which a small minority can squander the earth’s resources on themselves [while a minority of the remainder] are enslaved to serve them and the rest are declared surplus’. Even the United Nations is in on the act, since their pre-assigned role is ‘to keep black countries maldeveloped [sic], unindustrialised and economically strangulated’ the better to ‘erode their sovereignty and turn them into de facto UN trust territories’. The precedent that Chinweizu had in mind was the Berlin Conference. The lecture, which recycles old conspiracy theories put about by the Soviet Union and plays to the national persecution complex, received widespread coverage in the Nigerian media. The Post Express, for instance, one of the leading independent dailies, gave it front-page coverage on two successive days.

As a true Nigerian, Chinweizu has his eye firmly on the main chance, in his case the possibility of organising a Black Redemption Congress in Abuja later this year, to be followed by the inauguration of a Black World League of Nations in Nigeria, the world’s largest black state, in 1999, one year after Abacha hopes to have effected his transformation from military dictator to civilian president. Such an audacious plan would obviously require government approval as well as government money (or is it Ogoni money?), but neither is likely to be a problem. The guest of honour at Chinweizu’s lecture was Major-General Chris Garuba, head of the National War College and a prominent member of the Abacha regime, who thought the lecture ‘brilliant’. It seems that Chinweizu had already despatched invitations to ‘prospective members of the preparatory committee’ – which implies that some funds had already been released.

One of the greatest obstacles to Abacha’s long-term ambitions is the absence of any coherent intellectual basis for his tenure. We can judge how much this irks the regime by its obsession with Soyinka’s constant criticism of their leader as a man ‘totally lacking in vision’ – notwithstanding the recent spectacle of the regime fighting for the democratic imperative in Sierra Leone. Soyinka has moral authority and easy access to the world’s media, while the Government is forced to spend millions on advertisements addressed to a disbelieving foreign audience, mostly American. At home, the Government encourages anyone who has ammunition to fire at its bête noire. Thus, Chinweizu persuaded his brother, Nkemjika, again in a recent edition of the Post Express, to argue that Soyinka’s personal example has contributed to the unsavoury habits of Nigerian society. He quotes Soyinka as saying that he was ‘happy’ when the soldiers struck for the first time in Nigerian history in 1965, and again, twenty years later, when he described Babangida’s regime as ‘a listening government’, before turning against the former general for practising ‘voodoo-type democracy’. If Soyinka sincerely believed the election was flawed, as he insisted at the time, why, Nkemjika asks, champion the cause of the presumed winner, and then vilify Abacha, whose only interest in assuming power was to prevent the country from sliding into anarchy?

The most striking thing in this editorial was not the puerile objection to Soyinka’s naive misjudgments, nor even the craven defence of Abacha as the saviour of the nation, but Soyinka’s own thoroughly apposite use of the word ‘voodoo’. And it is evidence of the steady, cynical brutalisation of Nigerian society over the last decade or so that the phenomenon of the cult, from which Soyinka draws much of his political imagery, appears to have gained ground in the student community. Here is an extract from a report in the Guardian in October 1996:

A suspected cult member of the University of Calabar was on Tuesday axed to death following a violent clash between members of two rival cults. The latest clash ... came barely a week after the university authorities instituted a cash award for any secret cult member who surrenders to the school authorities. The names of the students involved and the cult groups are not known yet but sources said that the victim was a final-year sociology student of the university. Although the immediate cause of the clash was not known, [it] was gathered that the act was a retaliatory measure by a rival cult group. The victim was said to have been pursued from the campus by four other members of a rival cult group and was severely axed on the back of the head and neck before he slumped and died in a pool of his own blood.

This is far from being an isolated incident: nobody knows how many students have been murdered by fellow students.

Soyinka’s civil war play, Madmen and Specialists (1972), uses human sacrifice as a metaphor for the wider sickness within society as a whole, but what once seemed like the product of an overheated imagination is now an everyday occurrence in Nigeria. The latest human sacrifice to cause a nationwide stir took place last October, when a 30-year-old man was apprehended at a police roadblock with a black polythene bag containing the freshly-severed head of a young boy wrapped in newspaper. The man confessed to the murder but claimed he had been acting on the orders of the proprietor of a hotel in the nearby city of Owerri, where he worked as a messenger. The police searched the grounds of the hotel and unearthed the boy’s corpse. The discovery was the signal for mass rioting. The hotel was razed along with between 26 and 100 other buildings, depending on who was telling the story. At the subsequent hearings, it transpired that the existence of ‘a deadly syndicate that trades in human heads and other body parts for ritual purposes’ operating out of the hotel had long been suspected. The syndicate, which also had a predilection for albinos, hunchbacks and virgins, was composed of ‘a new class of wealthy men’ who engaged in ‘lawlessness, intimidation of the citizenry and disrespect for culture and tradition’, according to the military administrator of the state, who took a personal interest in the matter following a directive from Abacha himself.

Evidence of police complicity emerged. Many other children in Owerri had disappeared over the years. One bereaved parent, a doctor, claimed that the file containing a statement he had made to the police after his nine-year-old son was kidnapped by an armed gang in April 1995 had mysteriously vanished. Confidence in the police was further undermined in this latest case when the suspect, an otherwise healthy man, died in custody within 48 hours. The police suggested a heart attack. A special panel was convened to investigate the death. It has yet to report its findings but nobody is holding their breath.

In his editorial Nkemjika raises the subject of student cults for the sole purpose of point-scoring: Soyinka is to be held personally responsible for the current excesses, on the grounds that when he was a student at Ibadan in the Fifties he formed a club known as the Pyrates Confraternity: ‘Over the years, the seed Wole Soyinka sowed has germinated with the proliferation of murderous, bloodthirsty cults in universities across the country.’ It should be accounted a mercy that not even Nkemjika can bring himself to say that Soyinka’s high-spirited club was concerned with much more than opposing convention and constituted authority. The ‘seed’ of the present ‘murderous’ cults is to be found in the conduct of a military which has demonstrated contempt for the ‘bloody civilians’ it regularly hauls before kangaroo courts, and which has been permitted its excesses by a despairing populace that acquiesces in its own enslavement. It may even be that the corruption has bitten too deep; that all that is left is to get what you can before the whole thing collapses. Even Soyinka has entertained this fear: ‘In Sani Abacha’s self-manifesting destiny as the last Nigerian despot, we may be witnessing, at last, the end of Nigerian history.’

If Nigeria is about to go the way of Liberia or Somalia, it will do so in the grip of a dictator who sees the nation rising from the ashes and achieving greatness in all spheres of endeavour by the year 2010, the 50th anniversary of Independence. The details of Vision 2010, as it is called, are to be realised by 170 ‘eminent intellectuals of proven calibre from all walks of life, who are totally non-political and are free thinkers’. They have already convened under the chairmanship of Chief Ernest Shonekan and are expected to finish their deliberations in September so that Abacha can incorporate their recommendations into a grand blueprint for ‘true independence and sovereignty’, to be announced in his Independence Day address the following month.

The list of these visionaries is interesting. Here they all are, the government minister who called Mandela a racist when he objected to the execution of the Ogoni Nine; the self-appointed, morally bankrupt ethnic leaders whose collective silence condoned the hangings; the retired diplomat who talked himself hoarse trying to explain to the British Government why a free and fair election was annulled; the assorted contractors who have been busy salting away the nation’s wealth in overseas bank accounts and who are now supposed to advise Nigerians on how to achieve an annual growth rate of 6-10 per cent and an inflation rate of under 3 per cent; Professor Grace Alele Williams, the former university vice-chancellor who brought armed soldiers onto her campus because she didn’t tolerate any nonsense from ‘free thinkers’, and who is now going to tell Nigerians how to redeem the nation’s image abroad and create a conducive atmosphere for government and the private sector to co-exist; Brian Anderson, the managing director of Shell, who is to make plans for protecting the environment; Professor Tam David-West, a disgraced former petroleum minister, who is to ponder the best means of integrating science and technology into the nation’s development; Major-General Chris Garuba, Chinweizu’s fan, who is to recommend ways of achieving ‘a society that is caring, and subservient to no one’; Justice Mohammed Bello, a retired Chief Justice (’Do we have courts in Nigeria?’), who will advise on the best way to achieve ‘an enduring democracy’.

Whether Abacha will realise his ambition to stay in power I very much doubt, partly because of problems of his own making, partly because there are too many ambitious men waiting in the wings and partly because he murdered Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists. As for ‘democracy’ – even the travesty dreamed up by a committee at the service of a dictator – this is not an imminent possibility for a society that has always endorsed the worst habits of its leaders.

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Vol. 19 No. 15 · 31 July 1997

Adewale Maja-Pearce’s gloomy overview of recent Nigerian history is hard to dispute (LRB, 19 June), and he doesn’t even mention the brutal public murder of Mushood Abiola’s senior wife in the streets of Lagos, which showed just how far this regime will go to silence its critics. But he should have his dates right. The first of Nigeria’s many coups took place in January 1966, not in 1965, as twice stated in the article. Since then, Nigerians have learned the hard way that the military is much readier to seize power than to relinquish it, especially while the oil money lasts.

Gerald Moore
Udine, Italy

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