Books interview: Noo Saro-Wiwa

Why did you decide to return to Nigeria more than a decade after the execution of your father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, by the government of General Sani Abacha?

I think enough time had passed since my father's death in 1995 for me to start reassessing my views about Nigeria. I started to think that it was time to take a look at Nigeria in a different way.

I'd always associated Nigeria with our home town of Port Harcourt. It occurred to me as I got older that I could see the country with fresh eyes.

Your father studied at the University of Ibadan. Voodoo-style student cults now proliferate there. Is their influence a sign
of changes for the worse in Nigeria?

The decline in Ibadan reflects the overall decline in the economy. Cultism is partly a function of the poverty of the country.

If you could change that, then you would undermine the influence of the cults. But the decline of Ibadan definitely symbolises Nigeria's decline.

Yet the country appears to be in a privileged position, thanks to its natural resources.

I'm not sure if Nigeria is in a privileged position. I envy other countries that don't have our oil resources and our massive population; you can turn their ships around relatively easily.

In terms of our political evolution, I think the rest of Africa would be looking in our direction. There will come a time when oil supplies dwindle and Nigeria will be a test case of how a country that is so ethnically diverse and populous manages to live without these natural resources.

Do you feel you know Nigeria better since you went back?

To some extent. I didn't think a four-month trip would change that, but I was hoping that I would at least familiarise myself with the country. By the time I'd finished the trip, I'd picked up on certain bits of the vernacular that I didn't know before.

But you describe feeling like an outsider when you visit the capital, Abuja.

It's an artificially created capital, much like Canberra or Brasilia. Culturally, it's more attached to the north, but it's meant to be symbolic of Nigeria's federation of 300-odd ethnic groups.

One of the most significant fault lines in the country separates the Muslim north from the Christian south. How do you see it?

It's pretty fraught. Both sides need each other, but the north has always managed to dominate politics. They've always ensured they have a slight majority of seats in the federal legislature. The south has a more vibrant economy and oil, and so neither side can afford to ruffle too many feathers.
There is a lot of tension because there's so much poverty in the north. You've got terrorist groups such as Boko Haram coming on to the scene, and that is destabilising [life]. The US has pointed to Nigeria as a potential area of conflict in the next 15 years.

To what extent have events in the wider Muslim world since the 9/11 attacks been felt in Nigeria?

No one knows exactly where Boko Haram gets its inspiration and funding. There have been rumours that it's linked to al-Qaeda.

You write that the journey you undertook cured you of your "emotional fear" of Nigeria. But you remain ambivalent about the country, don't you?

It's not an easy place to live. Anyone who comes from Nigeria is torn. You want Nigeria to do well; you would like in some ways to participate in its reconstruction - but it's difficult.

It's changed a lot from when I was younger, in many ways for the better. But there is this religiosity which I'm not particularly comfortable with. Also, with all the Boko Haram activity, though it's confined to the north-east and perhaps Abuja, you do fear for the stability of the country. I'm still very ambivalent.

I think, ultimately, I have to have a relationship with Nigeria, but it needs to be seasoned over many years.

Do you have another book in the pipeline?

I'm considering writing about African communities in London, but that's just a plan at the moment.

Noo Saro-Wiwa's "Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria" is published by Granta Books (£14.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...