Vivid scenes from a potential meltdown, as veteran Africa reporter Maier (Into the House of the Ancestors, 1997) gives the history of Nigeria and suggests that regional tensions and pervasive corruption threaten its survival.
Like many journalists, Maier is at his best when reporting on events or interviewing newsmakers and ordinary citizens. He is less successful at making those incisive connections that transform reportage into history. Nigeria, which he describes as “perhaps the largest failed state in the Third World,” was only formed in 1914, when the British united the tribes of the Niger delta with those of the north and central region. These tribes had, and continue to have, little in common: the northerners are mostly Muslim and (because they dominate the military) have led most of the post-independence governments that seized power unconstitutionally. Delta tribes like the Ogoni were once enriched by trade—first in slaves and then in palm oil—but they have lately failed to benefit from the oil discovered in the region. The central tribes, mostly Christian, resent the role of the northerners in the coups that have roiled Nigeria, and their efforts to establish Muslim law—the Sharia. Maier visits each region and talks with its leaders and community activists. He meets General Babangida (whose decision to annul elections in 1993 provoked a national crisis) and the family of noted writer and Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (who was executed in 1995 despite an international outcry). He notes that although Nigeria has earned $280 billion from its oil, at least half the population is poor and lacks access to clean water. Literacy is below that of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a wealthy ten percent enrich themselves at the expense of the rest. The current ruler, former General Obasanjo, was democratically elected in 1999, and Maier believes (although he is unable to convey much conviction after this depressing litany) that he represents Nigeria’s last chance to avoid falling apart.
A quick and lively study that doesn’t dig too deep.