This House has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria
by Karl Maier Public Affairs, 2000, 327 pp, $18.99, ISBN 1891620606
A feature that most commentators would not fail to discern about Nigeria is its legendary resilience. One always marvels at how the dysfunctional country manages to stumble from one crisis to another without experiencing a decisive debacle or irreversible slide towards genocidal conflict like other African nations such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Sudan and Somalia.
All the ingredients that could cause the final dismemberment of the nation are present in copious amount: virulent ethnicity, massive governmental corruption, an over-ambitious and undisciplined military establishment, religious intolerance, widespread crime leading to a breakdown of law and order, acute pauperisation of large segments of the population, collapsed social services and many more minuses.
Karl Maier’s This House has Fallen is certainly one of the most interesting accounts of what may be termed the Nigerian crisis in recent times. Maier’s journalistic expertise and lengthy sojourn in Nigeria, coupled with an easy and convincing familiarity with the country’s actual antecedents and intellectual history, have combined to produce, for the most part, an engaging if somewhat off-beat chronicle of contemporary Nigerian history.
Even more importantly, Maier’s effort offers new theoretical insights for reading the Nigerian situation. Nigeria’s geographical and demographic largeness, its cascading pluralisms and its multiple nexuses of undoubtedly problematic cohesion are perhaps some of the reasons that prevent it from going in the way of former Yugoslavia and Somalia. Where there is no literal centre, in a way that Benedict Anderson might have recognized, that centre would never be at great risk. Such is the nature of the theoretical dimension one is forced to acknowledge.
Being the fifth largest supplier of petroleum in the world and the most populous black nation on the global map, it is not in anyone’s interest to see Nigeria disintegrate. The civil war in Liberia had been a very costly affair in terms of human lives and U.S. taxpayer’s money and yet the country has less than half the population of Lagos. Maier lists some of Nigeria’s intractable problems:
Ethnic and religious prejudices have found fertile ground in Nigeria, where there is neither a national: consensus nor a binding ideology. Indeed, the virulent spread of virulent strains of chauvinism in Nigeria is part of the world wide phenomenon playing out in Indonesia, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union (xx).
Applying this broad explanatory blueprint, Maier goes on to supply an impressive array of detail and evidence on how these various problems hinder Nigeria from assuming what is regarded as its rightful place among the comity of nations. When talking among themselves, Nigerians usually cynically conclude that the country’s problems are so countless and endless there is no point dwelling on the issue.
Maier’s book presents a discursive model of the diverse elements that give Nigeria its present gnarled formation, and that model needless to say is deeply disturbing and in most cases unsavoury. In Nigeria’s current political dispensation, the dividends of democracy are not yet evident. What we see instead are its numerous pitfalls. Also, Nigerians have a depressing inability to look into their past and pronounce a fair verdict on the nation’s performance. The national centre is everywhere but nowhere in particular. This results in skewered perspectives on urgent moral dilemmas. In other words, the good that comes out of evil in the moral realm causes a paralysing loss of the collective sense of judgement. The French philosopher, Alain Badiou, has one or two things to teach us here on the nature of sociopolitical evil. For instance, how does one explain the fact that the regime of General Abdulsalami Abubakar, which did the uncommon good of ushering in democracy, also got away with at least 3 billion dollars in less than six months? What this means is that the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration dare not look into its antecedents. If indeed it musters the political will to do so, it would also see the fractured image of Ibrahim Babangida smiling with blood on its teeth. Babangida bears the singular responsibility of putting Obasanjo in the state house in Abuja through his enormous financial backing. These are just two of the many unpalatable truths that may elude analysis in a systematic manner. Size and the politics of difference have led to the mass production of “truths” in relation to the understanding of the Nigerian collective self.
In this case, the sermon of truth is always relative and the Nigerian national spirit flounders in a morass of criss-crossing self- descriptions and often counter-productive social heteroglossia.
There are genuinely grotesque moments in Maier’s book. For instance, his interview with Ibrahim Babangida is quite revealing and important for being able to draw out the ex-dictator from his carefully constructed smokescreen and the excessive and unreal mythologising of the avid Nigerian media. From his inordinately large Minna mansion, Babangida still commands a lot of power. Furthermore, he talks with Maier in a way he would not dare to do so with any other Nigerian journalist. Having missed the great opportunity to direct a popular version of Nigerian democracy in 1993, the exdictator is still very concerned about his notorious place in history and how he might regain favour, and he sees in Maier an avenue for doing this. Not quite successfully, for his present life and image only turns out to be as disorienting and as bizarre as the peoples, elements and features of Nigeria.
Even more disturbing is the portrait of Gani Adams, a leader of Odua Peoples Congress (OPC), an ethnic militia. Adams and his kith represent a significant segment of Nigeria’s “lost generation”. Economically disenfranchised by the massive failure of IMFdirected structural adjustment programmes and robbed blind by greedy politicians and public servants, this lost generation has emerged to be a potent force in Nigeria’s current ethnopolitical configuration.
Ethnic militias have more or less become an accepted Nigerian feature, since law enforcement agencies have proved to be abominably inept and socio-economic parity has also continued to elude the vast majority of Nigerians. For youths who have nowhere else to turn, the ethnic militias, just like the streets, have become the only welcoming haven.
Other strange narratives include Maier’s drive through Wukari, a zone in the middle belt torn by ethnic strife. What Maier describes is a veritable war zone akin to what one would find in Sierra Leone or Liberia when the crises raged. His description of the traditional ruler Wukari is even stranger as the little potentate emerges as a denizen of a lost kingdom completely out of touch with the times. In moments like this it becomes easy to see how Nigeria’s enormous size provides a protective shield against internal disintegration.
For more than one decade, Nigeria has constantly been plagued by crises that ought to lead to its demise. Religious wars and ethnic strife are two major threats to the nation, and up till now they still haven’t been permanently contained.
Maier provides an interesting catalogue of these various crises with a novelistic sense of construction, and the final picture that emerges makes the book an interesting effort. It also provides good material for professional social scientists who wish to glean new theoretical vistas. And for those who assume that the seemingly interminable discourse on the nature of the Nigerian national character has no beginning or end, This House has Fallen offers a fresh starting-point.
Africa Review Of Books / Revue Africaine Des Livres
Volume 1 N° 1, Octobre 2004