My Nigeria: Five Decades of Independence – a review

I often wonder what foreigners, especially visitors from the West make of Nigeria and its contemporary history. In October, Nigeria celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence and the longest period of civilian government since independence. In 2000, Karl Maier, an American journalist published the controversial This House has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria inspired by his years as an Africa correspondent for the UK newspaper, the Independent.

Days before Nigeria’s 50th Independence anniversary, another journalist, Peter Cunliffe-Jones, who from 1998 to 2003 was based in Lagos as the correspondent for Agence France Presse, published his more hopeful book: My Nigeria: Five Decades of Independence. While some may bristle at the proprietorial tone of the title, it’s a fitting one, for the book is rooted in the experiences of the author and his family. His maternal grandfather had a long career in the colonial government in Nigeria, and as the last colonial Deputy Governor of Western Nigeria, played a key role in the constitutional negotiations for independence. In the 19th century, another cousin visited the Niger Delta as a trader and later worked for the infamous colonial government in the Congo.

The book opens with an account of the very different arrivals that these three members of the same family made. So while his cousin arrives off a ship moored in the Niger Delta, carried on the back of slaves, his grandfather arrives on a skiff into the new Lagos harbour in 1928. Seven decades later, Cunliffe- Jones’ arrives to an initially surly reception from the immigration officer at Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos; who extends a more generous welcome when she realizes that he has visited before as a tourist many years before.

Cunliffe-Jones uses the stories of these three members of his family, interspersed with vignettes, presumably gathered from work and interviews done as a journalist to paint a picture of Nigeria’s history over the last hundred odd years. In the second half of the book, he draws on his experiences in Indonesia, his next posting after Nigeria, to put forward a hypothesis for why Nigeria, similar in so many ways to Indonesia (populous, oil-producing, multiethnic , multi-religious, with history of military intervention in government) has failed to achieve the same level of development and progress post-independence.

There are many thought provoking scenes in the book. There is his visit to the 100 million dollar Mai Deribe mansion in Maiduguri with its Italian marble floors, Gold Room and mechanized doormats and his encounter with Ahmed Sani, the Sharia law proponent Governor of Zamfara State who admits that his wealth was acquired improperly as a central bank official under Abacha but refuses to return the public funds he received because ” things were different then”. Then there is his visit to the Niger Delta where he lays bare the selfish short-sightedness of some of the “freedom fighters” he meets, and his encounter with former Biafran leader, Ojukwu who is careful not to have his bare feet photographed. These scenes all set against a backdrop of poverty, failing systems and insecurity, prompt Cunliffe-Jones to ask why a country blessed with abundant natural resources, enterprising and hard-working people and huge potential has failed its people so spectacularly.

To seek answers, he goes back to the stories of his family and acknowledges the role that the slave trade and colonialism have had on Nigeria’s history. Detailing the combination of deceit, diplomacy and the threat of military power that the British colonialists used to gain control of large swathes of the country, he argues that the inability of the pre-colonial states to effectively unite to resist the British meant that unlike in southern and Eastern Africa, Nigeria was ceded almost without any gunshots being fired. He suggests that “years of despotic rule, slave raiding and punitive taxes” by local rulers had left them without popular support, and thus they were unable to rally their people to repulse the colonial invaders.

Moving on to the mid -20th century, he indicts his grandfather and his colleagues for producing a constitution in 1947 that placed power firmly in the regions, providing little incentive for political parties to develop national agendas. Painting broad-brush portraits of the three main politicians (Azikiwe, Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello) that emerged, based on his grandfather’s notes, he outlines the tussles over when Nigeria should become independent and again notes that there was arguably, a distinct lack of a strong popular movement for independence. The first section of the book ends with a succinct summary of Nigeria’s post independence history, with the blame for the civil war and post-independence upheaval placed squarely on the colonial administration. As Cunliffe-Jones argues, “when a house collapses months after it is handed over, it is the builder and architect who are blamed not the tenant.”

The second half of the book introduces Indonesia, and the similarities to Nigeria that Cunliffe-Jones finds there. What strikes him is the difference- at independence, life expectancy at birth was at about 45 years in both countries. Five decades on, Indonesia has a life expectancy of 70, while Nigeria’s remains at 45 years. It is a similar story with per capita income, health care, education and nutrition. In the second half of the book, he suggests reasons for these differences.

He begins by identifying differences in how oil is produced and used in both countries, from the pipes laid aboveground in Nigeria, but buried in Indonesia; to the corruption in politics in Nigeria, contrasted with the strong popular pressure on Suharto in Indonesia to produce results. He explores the dire situation in the Niger Delta contrasting his visit to a poor child who dies from malaria in front of him with an interview with Governor Alamieyeseigha, the thieving former governor of Bayelsa State who tells him ” In Nigeria, people do not want their governor to be a pauper”

The next section illustrates the extent of corruption- from the large-scale plundering under Babangida and Abacha to the unexplained fall of 3.6 billion dollars in Nigeria’s foreign reserves under Abdulsalami Abubakar; and the feeble attempts under Obasanjo to tackle the problem. He contrasts this with the Suharto family who, while corrupt largely invested their wealth in Indonesia, creating jobs and a vibrant economy in the process.

Exploring the history of popular protest in both countries, he suggests that the failure of Nigerians to unite and demand change has been the key difference between the two countries.

Cunliffe-Jones ends on a hopeful note, with conversations with social activists such as Dele Olojede of NEXT, the lawyer Clement Nwankwo and a review of some of the achievements of Governor Fashola in Lagos. He points to the potential of information and the new social media to drive popular protest and hopes that the 2011 elections will reflect this.

There are flaws in the book- errors of fact- such as Harold Dappa-Biriye being described as an Itsekiri leader-and the interpretations and arguments are clearly open to challenge. Cunliffe-Jones sometimes comes across as over-apologetic, and he appears for instance to give Babangida a fairly easy ride, which will outrage many Nigerians. Nevertheless, this is an important book and one that should be read by Nigerians, especially young Nigerians, and friends of Nigeria, hopefully inspiring them to action, and perhaps to tell the story of their Nigeria.

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