A powder keg of corruption and poverty

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 September, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 September, 2000, 12:00am

NOT TOO FAR into Karl Maier's harrowing tome on the 'sick man of Africa' he describes an incident that pretty much encapsulates Nigeria's myriad, seemingly intractable problems.

It is May 29, 1999, and President-elect Olusegun Obasanjo has taken the stage at a stadium in Abuja, the new capital, to herald the return to democracy after 16 years of brutal military repression. In booming tones, he laments the 'full-blown cancer' of corruption, pledging to whip Nigeria into shape and bring about a society where progress, justice, harmony and unity are paramount.

Meanwhile, just behind the VIP stand, a truck has pulled up, loaded with umbrellas, T-shirts and other inauguration paraphernalia. With a roar, civilians, policemen and soldiers swarm around the truck, and things quickly break down into a 'no-holds-barred looting spree'. Fistfights erupt, and police and soldiers vainly wade into the crowd with rawhide whips before deciding instead to join the looting. Not wanting to miss their chance, crowds outside the stadium push down the fence and flood in 'like a feeding frenzy of human piranhas'.

Blissfully unaware of the fracas just out of his line of vision, Obasanjo comes to the end of his speech. His face projected on a giant video screen, he turns his eyes heavenward and beseeches: 'May the Almighty help us'.

After reading Maier's excellent book - which takes its title from a quote by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe - you can't help feeling divine intervention is the only way Nigeria will ever emerge from the mire of graft, violence and apathy in which it wallows. Packed with resources, Nigeria was supposed to be the star of an African renaissance - a point US President Bill Clinton highlighted during his Sub-Saharan trip this week to emphasise the country's importance. That thesis seems increasingly far-fetched. 'To most outsiders,' the author writes, '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.'

In the world's 10th most populous - and 13th poorest - nation, oil, it seems, is the root of most evil. Despite being the sixth-biggest oil-producing country in the world, most Nigerians have to queue for days to get the lowest grade of petrol. Environmental disasters proliferate as multinationals, aided by greedy elites and a succession of bloodthirsty, hands-in-the-till dictators, grow rich on the black gold.

Thanks to rampant pay-offs, tribal feuds and acts of sabotage, such as a recent spate of gas pipeline explosions, efforts to keep a greater share of the oil riches in the country inevitably end in acrimony, failure and - in the case of outspoken playwright and author-cum-activist Ken Saro-wiwa in 1995 - execution.

Maier, who has spent years covering Nigeria for The Independent, believes corruption, the gulf between rich and poor, and the ancient animosities of more than 300 distinct ethnic groups bundled together within manifestly arbitrary boundaries decided by the British in 1960 have combined to produce a powder keg. The fuse is lit, he says, and when the explosion comes, it will shatter Africa's precarious political balance.

Amid the doom and gloom, however, Maier captures the lust for life and sense of humour that help Nigerians rise above their wretched circumstances. They are, he writes, masters of the apt nickname, such as the popular moniker for the national power company, NEPA - Never Ever Power Always. He has a clear affection for the country, and keeps the story from being a dry academic exercise with fascinating interviews and anecdotes from the likes of tribal chiefs, bent generals, taxi drivers, Biafran businessmen and Muslim clerics.

Nothing short of a nation-wide shift of consciousness, he concludes, can save Nigeria. As Achebe wrote nearly 20 years ago: 'There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else . . . I am saying that Nigeria can change today if she discovers leaders who have the will, the ability and the vision.'

This House Has Fallen:

Nigeria In Crisis

Karl Maier

Penguin $320