Was Nigeria Born To Lose?


Midnight in Nigeria

By Karl Maier

Public Affairs -- 327pp -- $26

There is a moment in Karl Maier's excellent new book, This House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria, that says it all. It is May 29, 1999, and Africa's largest nation is trying democracy again after 16 years of military rule. President-elect Olusegun Obasanjo is delivering his inauguration speech at a stadium in Abuja, Nigeria's shining new capital. He speaks of progress, justice, harmony, and reclaimed greatness. Midway through this oration, a truck pulls up behind the grandstand to deliver umbrellas, mugs, and other trinkets to mark the event. A swarm of Nigerians descends on the truck, the police join in the mayhem, and foreign dignitaries start running for their limos. "Still ringing in my ears," Maier writes with handsomely restrained irony, "was the plea Obasanjo made to end the occasion: `May the Almighty help us."'

Do you laugh, safe and sound and a world away, or do you cry? Maier, a long-serving correspondent in Africa and the author of two previous books on the continent, tugs the reader many times between these two emotional poles. This House Has Fallen is the absorbing, heartbreaking story of Nigeria from its creation in 1960 through forty years of failure and disappointment to a time of renewal--apparent renewal, we had better say. But in it we find something larger, for this is also the story of modern, postcolonial Africa and, at least implicitly, our misplaced expectations of it.

Remember the "African renaissance"? It was only a few years ago that the world's poorest continent was showing new signs of vigor. Democratic rule was making a reappearance, and growth rates were climbing. Nations were reknitting themselves, relying on Africa's widely recognized strengths: family, community, a native determination against the odds. As Obasanjo's election suggests, some of this promise has been realized, and more may come. But by and large, talk of a renaissance has given way to speculation that Africa--Nigeria included--may sink beneath waves of war, ethnic division, disease, natural calamity, and corruption.

Large and resource-rich, Nigeria was supposed to be a star in the African renaissance. But as you follow Maier through this rich, mismanaged nation, that idea seems more and more shaky. Maier's firm grip on history and keen journalistic eye produce an analysis that is grimly realistic. He is confident that Nigeria can eventually build a better future for itself. But the problems run far too deep to be solved by one free election and a few years of improved growth. "The only long-term solution in Nigeria," he writes, "is for the various partiesto sit down and negotiate how they want to govern themselves and how they want to share their resources, and to decide whether they ultimately want to live together."

Is Maier suggesting that Nigerians may have to discard Nigeria--those red lines the British drew on a map in 1914? He raised that possibility two years ago in a survey of African history called Into the House of the Ancestors. And Nigeria supports his thesis that the nations that emerged from the colonial era will never make a very good fit. "The Nigerian state is like a battered and bruised elephant staggering toward an abyss," Maier writes. "Nigerians from all walks of life are openly questioning whether their country should remain as one entity orbreak apart into several separate states."

It has been a long descent. At independence, Nigeria was the most promising country in Africa. It had oil, an educated elite, and a parliamentary democracy. But the promise lasted only half a dozen years, as Nigeria proved ill-equipped for independence. Ethnic rivalries couldn't be quelled, and the first generation of leaders couldn't keep their hands off the wealth that the British had set up Nigeria to extract. By the mid-1960s, things were falling apart. The oil--which provided the riches--thus proved a curse as well as a blessing. Political and social institutions were collapsing, and the Biafran war was imminent. In all, independent Nigeria has now seen two heads of state assassinated, 10 coups (six successful), and 30 years of military rule.

Obasanjo, who led the country as a general in the late 1970s, promises to break this appalling cycle as an elected civilian. But as Maier points out, the man has made many commitments and kept only some. He now heads the world's 13th-poorest country by World Bank rankings. This is a nation with an air force of 10,000 men and fewer than 20 working planes. There are 60 million teenagers with few or no job prospects.

Maier tells this story with insight, immediacy, and an evident taste for the heat, dust, and sheer human variety of the country. We meet coup plotters, shopkeepers, faith healers, retired pols, tribal leaders, Biafran business execs, and Islamic intellectuals. This House Has Fallen reflects the tapestry of the society it chronicles. Maier captures the sorrows and laughter of a nation that is desperate and resilient all at once.

In the end, Maier concludes that a workable future should begin with a fundamental change of consciousness among Nigerians: They must decide that the idea called "Nigeria" is one worth saving. Only then will debt relief and other forms of financial aid from the West make a difference.

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