news analysis advocacy
tips on searching

Search AfricaFocus and 9 Partner Sites



Visit the AfricaFocus
Country Pages

Burkina Faso
Cape Verde
Central Afr. Rep.
Congo (Brazzaville)
Congo (Kinshasa)
Côte d'Ivoire
Equatorial Guinea
São Tomé
Sierra Leone
South Africa
South Sudan
Western Sahara

Get AfricaFocus Bulletin by e-mail!

Print this page

Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Nigeria: This House has Fallen

Nigeria: This House has Fallen
Date distributed (ymd): 000821
Document reposted by APIC

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: West Africa
Issue Areas: +economy/development+ +security/peace+
Summary Contents:
This posting contains excerpts from the introductory chapter of 'This House Has Fallen,' the new book on Nigeria by experienced journalist Karl Maier, Maier excels in first-person reporting, relying on the voices of the diverse Nigerians he interviewed over more than two years in the country, Though there are many excellent academic works by Nigerians and others, Maier's book is unique as a comprehensive and current journalistic account dedicated to Nigeria.

To purchase Maier's book through, and for links to a other recent books on Nigeria, visit APIC's Web Bookshop at

Related postings today and tomorrow contains statements on U.S. policy towards Nigeria, issued in the context of President Clinton's visit scheduled for August 25-28.

+++++++++++++++++end profile++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

From THIS HOUSE HAS FALLEN: MIDNIGHT IN NIGERIA by Karl Maier Published by PublicAffairs (August 2000) [posted by APIC with permission]

To most outsiders, the very name Nigeria conjures up images of chaos and confusion, military coups, repression, drug trafficking, and business fraud. It remains a mystery to all but a handful of academics and diplomats. The international media generally shun Nigeria because it is a difficult place to work, and it is not easy for journalists to sell the story to editors in New York, Atlanta, or London. Nigeria does not present a cut-and-dried moralistic tale of the South African type about an evil racial minority suppressing heroic resistance fighters. So from time to time Nigeria drifts across our television screens and into the world's public consciousness, only to fade back out again.

The level of ignorance and indifference about Nigeria among the world's most powerful governments can be startling. I attended a meeting of U.S. and Nigerian academics and human rights activists at the U.S. State Department in 1997. One of the Clinton administration's senior envoys to Africa strode in to make a brief appearance and said he had an important matter to address. This was at a time when senior politicians and dozens of journalists and human rights activists were in jail, and Nigeria appeared poised on the precipice of political and social catastrophe. What concerned the official, however, was Washington's fear that the military regime of the day, headed by a diminutive dictator named General Sani Abacha, might rename the street outside the U.S. embassy after Muammar Gadhafi or Fidel Castro as a way of thumbing its nose at the United States. A Nigerian human rights activist sitting next to me shook her head and said under her breath, "I don't believe what I just heard." A small incident perhaps, but it spoke volumes about the West's approach to Africa and Nigeria.

Two weeks before President Bill Clinton's historic visit to Africa in March 1998, his assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, Susan Rice, told the Senate that Washington would regard Abacha's plans to transform himself from military dictator into civilian president as "unacceptable." Then, while in South Africa, Clinton contradicted her, effectively saying that the United States would not object to the most brutal despot in Nigeria's history embarking on a course to "civilianize" his dictatorship. After all, other military leaders in Africa had done it.

These are not trivial examples. We, the outside world, ignore Nigeria at our peril, and we are ill served when our governments demonstrate such indifference. From almost any point of view, Nigeria truly matters. However deep it has sunk into a mire of corruption, repression, and economic dilapidation, Nigeria remains one of the world's strategic nations. It is the biggest trading partner the United States has in Africa. It is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the U.S. market, where its low-sulfur Bonny Light crude is especially prized because it is easily refined into gasoline. As the world's tenth most populous country, Nigeria represents an inherently sizable market that could provide trade opportunities for North American and European companies. It is a vast land, stretching from the dense mangrove swamps and tropical rain forests of the Atlantic coast to the spectacular rocky outcrops of the interior and the wide belt of savanna that finally melts into the arid rim of the Sahara desert. Its 110 million people are an extraordinary human potpourri of some three hundred ethnic groups that represent one out of six Africans. Nigeria is Africa's equivalent to Brazil, India, or Indonesia. It is the pivot point on which the continent turns.

Designed by alien occupiers and abused by army rule for three-quarters of its brief life span, the Nigerian state is like a battered and bruised elephant staggering toward an abyss with the ground crumbling under its feet. Should it fall, the impact will shake the rest of West Africa. ...

Nigerians from all walks of life are openly questioning whether their country should remain as one entity or discard the colonial borders and break apart into several separate states. Ethnic and religious prejudices have found fertile ground in Nigeria, where there is neither a national consensus nor a binding ideology. Indeed, the spread of virulent strains of chauvinism in Nigeria is part of a worldwide phenomenon playing out in Indonesia, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, and a host of other African nations. This sort of politicized tribalism, a constant companion to the modern version of globalization, is the biggest threat to international peace and stability. With ever growing frequency, wars are fought not between states but within them. The conflict is neighbor against neighbor, us against them, always the menacing Other, whether the differences are racial, religious, or linguistic.

And although Nigeria shares this explosion of animosity with other states, it remains unique. It provides the story line for one of the great epics of the late twentieth century. The landscape for the unfolding human drama is a giant, heaving, multiethnic symbol of the archetypal Third World basket case. Since winning independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has witnessed at least one million deaths in Africa's biggest civil war, the assassination of two government leaders, six successful coups and four failed ones, and thirty years of army rule. Yet somehow the country has stayed together, despite decades of government by a clique of military and civilian elite who have behaved, to borrow a phrase from the eminent Africa historian Basil Davidson, like "pirates in power." They are modern equivalents of the African war-lords of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who built up wealthy kingdoms by selling millions of their people to the Europeans in the Atlantic slave trade. In their current incarnation, they sell their resources---oil in the case of Nigeria---instead of human beings.

Very little trickles down. In the official arenas of international discourse---the United Nations, the World Bank, the media---Nigeria is known as a "developing nation," a phrase that conjures up images of economic progress of the sort experienced by the West or among the Asian "tigers." Nigeria, like so many countries in Africa, is patently not a developing nation. It is underdeveloping. Its people are far worse off now than they were thirty years ago. The numbers speak for themselves. Despite some $280 billion in export revenues since the discovery of oil in the late 1950s, at least half of all Nigerians live in abject poverty without access to clean water. Literacy is below that of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gross domestic product per person is lower now than it was before the beginning of the oil boom of the 1970s. To even return to the living standards of that time, the economy would have to grow by an unlikely 5 percent per year until 2010. The value of the national currency, the naira, has fallen from $2 to a penny per naira. The foreign debt stands at $32 billion. The World Bank ranks Nigeria as the thirteenth poorest country in the world. The 1999 UN human development index gives it a slightly better though still disheartening score, 146th out of 174. The UN Center for Human Settlements (Habitat) predicts that Lagos will be the world's fifth most populous urban center by 2015, with a population of twenty-three million.

So far the West has done little to help and has often made matters worse. It is hypocritical of the West to blame Nigeria for corruption, fraud, and drug running and to demand that Nigerians own up to their foreign debt while at the same time allowing the funds garnered from such nefarious dealings to be deposited in Western banks. "A man who receives stolen goods is called a fence, but what do you call a country that is in the business of receiving stolen goods?" asked Dr. Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, a U.S.-educated dentist and businessman, while in his Lagos office one day. "They lend Nigeria money, somebody here steals the same amount of money and gives it back to them, and then they leave these poor Nigerians repaying what they never owed. The role of the Western powers has been totally disgraceful."

In May 1999, after a sixteen-year stretch of military rule, Nigeria appeared ready to turn a new page. A civilian government headed by a former head of state and war hero, retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, and his vice president, Atiku Abubakar, took office, but much damage had already been done. Obasanjo assumed the helm of an ailing ship of state almost totally lacking in morality or legitimacy. The government spends up to half of its annual budget on salaries of an estimated two million federal, state and local government workers, yet the civil service remains paralyzed, with connections and corruption still the fastest way to getting anything done. ... Colonial Nigeria was designed in 1914 to serve the British Empire, and the independent state serves as a tool of plunder by the country's modern rulers. Nigerians spend a good part of their lives trying to get the better of the government for their own benefit or that of their family, their village, or their region. Rare is the head of state who acts on be-half of the entire nation. The people are not so much governed as ruled. It is as if they live in a criminally mismanaged corporation where the bosses are armed and have barricaded themselves inside the company safe. Nigeria's leaders, like the colonialists before them, have sucked out billions of dollars and stashed them in Western banks.

Millions of Nigerians, including much of the cream of the educated and business elite, have fled their country to escape impoverishment and political repression. Most live in the United States and Europe, although almost every country has a Nigerian community. Nigerian drug syndicates, aided in part by the large diaspora, have carved out a dominant share of the world market. They rank among the top importers of heroin and cocaine into the United States, and they have penetrated major African markets, such as Kenya and the nations in southern Africa. Nigeria does not itself produce such drugs, but Nigerians, brilliant traders, have stepped in to fulfill the world demand.

At the turn of the century, Nigeria was home to approximately sixty million youths under the age of eighteen, seething with frustration over the lack of academic and job opportunities that just three decades before appeared to be within reach of their parents. They represent Nigeria's equivalent to what South Africa calls its "lost generation," that huge army of frustrated youth who lack the tools to face the demands of a modern economy. In South Africa they were the products of the apartheid system and of the weapons of the struggle school boycotts, strikes, guerrilla warfare---employed to overthrow it. In Nigeria the blame for its lost generation falls squarely on the shoulders of its people's leaders---corrupt military dictators and their civilian accomplices---who over the past quarter of a century have humbled a once proud nation through outright incompetence and greed.

Whether we know it or not, almost everyone is touched by the Nigerian crisis. The violent rebellion in the mangrove swamps of the oil-rich Niger delta region means that the gasoline sold at filling stations in the United States and Europe is almost literally stained with Nigerian blood. Nigeria reaches the most unlikely of places. The modest knitting shop where my mother works in a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky, received a form letter from a Dr. Jubril Akeh offering to share $45.5 million garnered from a corrupt business deal in Nigeria. All the knitting shop had to do was to provide the details of its bank account---but the whole deal was a con in which the swindler, once in possession of those details, would drain the account. It was the classic Nigerian confidence trick, commonly known as "419" after the statute that deals with business fraud. The extraordinary part is that someone always takes the bait. Nigerian con artists send millions of such letters to businesses and individuals around the world every year. They cost Britain up to $1 billion a year, and they probably take a similar amount from the United States.

Nigeria could, however, follow another path. Its potential is huge. Its tremendous wealth, if properly channeled, holds out the hope that a stable government could unleash the unquestioned energy and talent that pulsates through the rich ethnic mosaic. The human capital is there. Thousands of Nigerian professionals are well educated and skilled enough to drive the country forward. Anyone who has visited Nigeria's markets and witnessed its people endure the constraints of bad government and the sinking economy can testify to the country's resilience.

Nigeria was once the premier African voice, taking principled stands in the face of fierce Western opposition over important issues such as the immorality of white minority rule in Rhodesia, now independent Zimbabwe, and South Africa. ...

Among its writers it boasts a Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka; the Booker Prize winner Ben Okri; Chinua Achebe, whose Things Fall Apart is arguably Africa's best piece of postcolonial literature; and rising young talents such as the playwright Biyi Bandele Thomas. Nigerian professors grace university campuses across the United States and the world. Internationally renowned singers such as Sade and Seal hail from Nigeria, as do African music superstars as the late Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade. And artistic excellence is not new to Nigeria. Terra-cotta figures discovered at a tin mine in the northern village of Nok are believed to have been produced around 450 B.C. Now they are on regular tours of museums in the United States and Europe.

In sports Nigerians regularly compete for the world's top honors. There are Nigerians playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA); the best-known of them, Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon, led the Houston Rockets to two championships. ... For me, a young soccer player named Nwankwo Kanu sums up the potential of Nigeria to turn adversity into achievement. I remember watching the tall thin Kanu bounding gracefully as he led Nigeria to victory in the under-seventeen World Cup in 1993. ... During the 1996 Olympic games in United States, Kanu inspired Nigeria to capture the gold medal, scoring twice in the amazing 4 to 3 semifinal comeback win against Brazil. Then he joined the great Italian team, Internazionale of Milan. During a routine medical checkup, doctors detected a heart defect. Kanu would never play again, they said. Undeterred, he traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, where doctors inserted a plastic valve in his heart. Two years later he was playing for Nigeria in the World Cup in France, and he now stars for the powerful English team Arsenal. In December 1999 Kanu was named African Footballer of the Year.

Kanu is not the only Nigerian whose courage and conduct inspires others. The world first cast its attention on Nigeria with the outbreak of the 1967-1970 Biafran civil war, in which the eastern part of the country attempted to secede. Up to one million people died. The images of starving, sticklike children brought, for the first time, the stark reality of a humanitarian disaster in Africa to living rooms around the world. Yet despite expressions of international concern about genocide, including one from the pope, the end of the war actually witnessed few massacres. Indeed, after the Biafrans' surrender, Nigeria proved that it could set new standards in compassion. The government's policy of "No victors, no vanquished" was a remarkable achievement and has played a critical role ever since in keeping the country from splitting apart. ...

Chinua Achebe, in his book The Trouble with Nigeria, wrote,

It is totally false to suggest, as we are apt to do, that Nigerians are fundamentally different from any other people in the world. Nigerians are corrupt because the system under which they live today makes corruption easy and profitable; they will cease to be corrupt when corruption is made difficult and inconvenient....The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership....I am saying that Nigeria can change today if she discovers leaders who have the will, the ability and the vision.

Sadly, this was written almost twenty years ago. Things have continued to fall apart. ...

I lived in Nigeria as a foreign correspondent for two years, from 1991-1993, and returned often on reporting assignments. In mid-1998 I began a series of visits to gather material for this book. Nigeria has proved to be by far the most confounding, frustrating, and at the same time engaging place I have ever visited. ...

This book is by no means a comprehensive account of Nigerian history. That would involve decades and many volumes. Rather, its purpose is to portray the most intractable crisis points and the ethnic and regional tensions threatening the survival of what is perhaps the largest failed state in the Third World. Nigeria provides a stark lesson. As late as the 1980s, a long spell of good government and modest economic growth might have provided the breathing space and the common interest for Nigerians to feel it was worth continuing as one country, however artificial its origins. Now things have declined too far for that. Nigeria is on an altogether more dangerous trajectory. The only long-term solution in Nigeria to the crises that arise in a multiethnic state is for the various parties, however many they may be, to 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. Until they begin that process of internal reconciliation, at best Nigeria will lurch from crisis to crisis. At worst it will fall apart. ...

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC). APIC provides accessible information and analysis in order to promote U.S. and international policies toward Africa that advance economic, political and social justice and the full spectrum of human rights.

URL for this file: