Ken Saro-Wiwa’s ‘Sozaboy’ What War Literature Teaches Us About the Political Economy of Violence

Through Sozaboy, Ken Saro-Wiwa explores how war on the African continent has come to function as a central aspect of political economy in the neoliberal world.

‘Work is war’, declares Manmuswak, a character in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, as he closes his blood-shot eyes to down his liquor. Saro-Wiwa’s novel draws us into the world of this incredibly interesting character, who links war on the African continent to the capitalist economy. A mysterious man with a penchant for cruelty and no cultural ties, Manmuswak invariably signifies the intersection between the neoliberal worker and the culture of violence that has come to dominate the global world order.

Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, akin to its counterparts like oil-rich Angola or the mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is characterized by resource wealth, a destitute local population and armed warfare. In recent years, it would seem that a wave of armed conflict has swept across the African continent: scholars, leaders, and citizens alike have watched with concern as violence continues to disrupt the lives of so many. War on the African continent has historically been framed as a moral failure of African governments and populations to foster ‘ethnic and religious tolerance’. Historian, Paul Zeleza, notes that, for years, Western popular and academic media have attributed wars on the continent to ‘primordial afflictions of “tribalism”, or the depredations of the continent’s proverbial poverty and inequalities, or authoritarianism and poor governance’. Without denying the truth in this statement—as many African governments have thus far functioned as gatekeeping states while ethno-religious tensions have enflamed violence on the continent—Zeleza notes that these claims fail to recognize the culpability of outside actors. Interrogating the ‘business of war’, however, allows us to observe the ways seemingly remote wars on the African continent are directly linked to the neoliberal militarist capitalist economy. Amidst academic and journalistic conversations about ‘resource curses’, the business of warfare is usually overlooked.

Through the character of Manmuswak, Sozaboy explores the ways capitalism and war can be bedfellows on the African continent. Many people in the regions most affected by armed conflict are acutely aware of the fact that there is nothing to glamorize about war; it is simply devastating, and it leaves many displaced and destitute. For Saro-Wiwa’s Manmuswak, his work is to go to war, and aside from the utter lack of humanity he displays in the novel, he is a window into the lives of many adolescent soldiers on the continent who have been forced to become active participants in this culture of violence.


Sozaboy tells the story of a young recruit called Mene during the Nigerian civil war from his naïve beginnings in the Biafran army to the ‘disillusionment, confusion and horror that follows’. Manmuswak is a mysterious, impoverished man who enlists in the Biafran army at the beginning of the novel and switches sides between Biafra and Nigeria numerous times during the war. The story is told from Mene’s curious and quirky point of view, and he encounters Manmuswak three times throughout the novel.

The first time they meet, Manmuswak has already switched sides once and now fights as Mene’s enemy. He tricks Mene and his fellow soldiers into stealing from their captain, which has disastrous results. The second time, Mene is captured by the enemy soldiers and Manmuswak nurses him to health and almost befriends Mene as they now work for the same side of the war. The third, and probably most chilling of their encounters, is towards the end of the novel when Mene is captured yet again by enemy soldiers, and he recognizes Manmuswak amongst his captors. By this point, Manmuswak has shifted his allegiance three times. In a chilling end to the chapter, when news of the war’s end reaches the soldiers, Manmuswak takes Mene and the other prisoners, lines them up and begins to shoot them, one by one. Mene, who is saved only because Manmuswak runs out of bullets, later remembers the scene saying that ‘their blood was running together like stream’. The harrowing image of a red-eyed soldier, executing both foe and friend during war is truly haunting.

We first meet Manmuswak at the African Upwine Bar where he and a short man discuss the looming war. ‘Well I don’t think it is good thing or bad thing. Even sef I don’t want to think. What they talk, we must do. Myself, if they say fight I must fight. If they say no fight, I cannot fight. Finish’, he says. Throughout the novel, Saro-Wiwa, through Mene’s own experiences, takes the reader through the political and socio-economic forces that produce men like Manmuswak. Manmuswak is not only a projection of Mene’s future as a displaced young African soldier, he is also a window into the dark political economy of war. He is a testament to the ways that war has come to function as a central aspect of political economy in the neoliberal world. As Perera-Rajasingham notes, Sozaboy shows how war can ‘refashion post-colonial subjectiveness to meet the needs of globalization’. Furthermore, this neoliberal order protects the interests of transnational elites and corporations and continuously disrupts the socio-economic lives of many civilians. With the onset of war, new predatory capitalistic opportunities present themselves, and the dire consequences of making a business out of war are experienced most intensely by Africa’s poorest.


The relationship between neoliberal economics and war in Africa is central to understanding the experiences of both Mene and Manmuswak in the novel. War and economic activity occasionally go hand-in-hand in some countries on the continent. The DRC, Angola and Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, for instance, are simultaneously areas of intense wealth and violent militant activity. Military capitalism enables the neoliberal economy to benefit from such war-torn areas. According to Geographer David Harvey, neoliberalism is a system of institutional frameworks characterized by private property rights, free markets/trade and entrepreneurial freedoms. Neoliberalism is a product of the modern world, and it has, alongside globalization, increased the interconnectedness between countries through sophisticated forms of communication, transport and trade.

But Zeleza notes that neoliberalism has also entrenched economic or regionalized blocs that fulfil ‘long-standing dreams of pan-territorial or racial solidarities’. By this, Zeleza means that the global world order as we know it is characterized by economic inequalities, with many countries in the global south lagging behind their northern counterparts. Through these complex trade networks, many African economies are either economically relegated or exploited for their natural resources. Cultural studies scholar, Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham, goes even further to state that the word ‘trade’ in this context is actually a metaphor for the collusion between military establishments, politicians, and transnational elites, both African and foreign, who ‘directly and indirectly betray/trade off the security, livelihood, and well-being of the people for narrow self-interests and the accumulation of wealth’.

In the context of war, the inequalities between the rich and poor are heightened and culminate in the situations we see in resource-rich Africa. Highly developed resource-extraction facilities exist right beside communities that have been devastated by some sort of organized violence. In instances such as the one in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s home, Niger Delta, locals in the area were destabilized through the Nigerian civil war. In a scramble for safety, as they faced dangers from both the Biafran and Nigerian army at the time, the Niger Delta people fled their homes and lost access to their farms and water supplies. In post-war Nigeria, their local environment became and still is an international battleground for the region’s oil. Invariably, cold war tensions were mirrored in Nigeria’s civil war as the West and East supported opposite sides in a bid to assert their ideological dominance, even as local communities struggled to achieve their own political aims. These destabilizing conditions were perfect opportunities for oil-extracting companies to accumulate wealth at a low cost. Author and activist, Naomi Klein, defines this as ‘shock doctrine’ or disaster capitalism. As economist, Paul Collier, notes, war has economic dimensions that stress the role of ‘resource abundance, self-financing rebel movements and the emergence of civil war economies that are parasitic, illicit, predatory and dependent on external criminal financial and commodity networks’. Disaster capitalism, therefore, tends to favour arms dealers, oil extractors and other economic beneficiaries at the expense of everyday Africans.

In Sozaboy, Manmuswak connects Dukana, Mene’s fictional home, to this dark world of wealth at all costs. Invariably, Manmuswak represents the ‘paramount neoliberal worker’ who has been formed by the destabilizations that war creates. Destabilized areas such as the Niger Delta become breeding grounds for extremism and exploitation: education levels are low, and economic prospects even lower. The local people of the region are generally forgotten as transnational companies build high-tech facilities with no regard for the local community or environment. Coupled with the global ideological war between West and East that has occurred on the African Continent since the 1970s, many global entities illicitly encourage fringe groups that flame ethno-religious tensions in the hope that they will eventually secure access to these prized natural resources.

A culture of survival at any cost becomes the norm and the local people are willing to do anything, even take up arms, to ensure that they do not starve. Young men forgo formal education for military camps where they are forced to commit atrocities to prove their solidarity, or they are misled into thinking that a small bout of juvenile warfare will lead to a life of prosperity once the initial killings are over. Like Manmuswak, they become mercenary soldiers whose job it is to kill or heal according to the orders given without asking questions. His name ‘Man-mus-wak’ translated as ‘man must eat’ in broken English signifies the break with reality and humanity that many of these men undergo all in the hope of bodily survival. The armed militias in today’s Niger Delta are mirrors of Manmuswak, hardened men and sometimes boys, who are both victims and victimizers, lacking identity and cultural rootedness.


Like many wars on the continent, the Nigerian civil war saw a breakdown of all social and political logic as noted by Brendon Nicholls and this is exemplified by Manmuswak’s contradictory behaviour: he is at one time Mene’s nurse, and at another, Mene’s executioner. Manmuswak’s lack of cultural or ethnic identity also contributes to his role as a neoliberal soldier. By the end of the novel, Mene, who is a window into Manmuswak’s past, is forced to flee his ancestral home when his people no longer accept him, thinking he is a ghost that has come to haunt them. After the horrific experience of a war he did not fully understand, he is forced into the real world with no community support, no education and no money.

Manmuswak and, by extension, Mene become symbols of the neoliberal underling who has experienced the destabilizing effect of war. In the same way that Mene’s sense of individual identity is stripped of him during the war, where he goes from being called Mene to simply Sozaboy, Manmuswak’s behaviour throughout the novel also creates confusion about who he really is. He is alone, almost allegorical, a character with no familial or community ties. Similarly, Mene is transformed into a ‘liminal figure who does not quite belong to any one place or community but must survive without social bonds’. The war has ruptured his sense of identity and subsequently subjected him to the neoliberal world order where he is simply a cog in a machine, bereft of any societal recognition.

Men like Mene and Manmuswak are forced to negotiate a ‘situational micropolitics’, as Jonathan Highfield calls it, where their identities are dictated by immediate circumstance rather than the ‘deep comradeship of ethnicity or nation’. What this does is that Mene, Manmuswak and men like them are morphed into violent machines, psychopaths even, who are solely bent on self-preservation. As Highfield notes, they become the ‘ultimate survivors’ who are now adapted for life during wartime and cannot seem to socially integrate themselves into society again. They become the collateral damage of transnational economic greed that seeks out cheap natural resources and economic wealth without any thought to the human or environmental cost.


At once a harrowing tale of human suffering, Sozaboy depicts the intricate networks that influence war. Through the novel, we see war reimagined as militarized capitalist labour. The novel powerfully captures the dire situations that many African subjects find themselves in, and as readers, researchers, and concerned citizens, we must keep the likes of Manmuswak in our minds as we consider ways to push the continent forward. As the novel shows, people like Manmuswak cannot and should not be forgotten even as African countries forge new paths to peace and development. Policy and development plans must carry them along, and we as a society must find ways to ensure that we do not let violence dictate our way of life. Most importantly, transnational companies that benefit from this culture of violence must be held accountable and must stop exploiting the destabilization of war-torn areas. War is terrible, and although Manmuswak is first and foremost an agent of his own actions, he is also subject to the forces of the capitalist military economy

A Novel in Rotten English
Ken Saro-Wiwa
186 pp. Saros International Publishers, 1985
Port Harcourt

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