Nigeria's Hydra-Headed Travails

Article excerpt


Large, strategically placed Nigeria should have been the jewel in Britain's African empire, but

somehow it ended up being its awkward orphan. British East Africa was both more glamorous - remember the scandalous White Highlands of Kenya - and more economically important with its profitable crops of coffee and sisal and groundnuts so important to the mother country's postwar economy. And even neighboring Gold Coast, so much smaller and with an economy heavily dependent on cocoa, managed to steal a march on Nigeria by becoming the first British West African colony to gain independence as Ghana in 1957. By the time Nigeria did win its freedom in 1960, oil had recently been discovered, but even so, the last half century there has not been a pretty picture economically, politically or socially.

Longtime British foreign correspondent Peter Cunliffe-Jones paints a vivid portrait of Nigeria's hydra-headed travails in this passionate, intensely personal book. Not only did he live there for several years at the cusp of the 20th and 21st centuries, but he has a long family history there, something that burdens him and has an enormous influence on his view of the place.

A distant cousin back in the 1880s worked for the infamous King Leopold of the Belgians, doing his dirty work - and was it filthy, as everyone knows - enlarging his domains in the Congo and was headed for work in the British colonial service in the Niger Delta (what would become Nigeria) when he died of fever. Mr. Cunliffe-Jones' own grandfather, Hugo Marshall, spent 30 years there, rising through the ranks till he ended up governing one of Nigeria's three provinces and playing a key role in its evolution toward independence. So you might indeed say that Mr. Cunliffe-Jones has a vested interest in the place.

Like most observers of Nigeria during its turbulent history as an independent nation, he is appalled by the chaos, corruption and endemic poverty that he saw there. He paints a vivid portrait of all this and has a delightful knack for illustrating his points with anecdotes and stories that are at once wrenching and comic. In this respect, My Nigeria cannot be bettered. Unfortunately, Mr. Cunliffe-Jones has only one place to lay blame. You guessed it, British colonialism - and even his poor old grandad:

Hugo Marshall was a good man and a well-intentioned one. He believed in what he was doing - Raised in 1970s England, I took the modern view. No nation, no people, no race has the right to rule another. The economic exploitation and misrule of countries such as the Congo and Nigeria by Europeans was clearly a great wrong.

But to the astonishment of this young man, viewing everything through the lens of typical British post-colonial guilt, many Nigerians he met had a very different attitude to "those they called 'our Colonial Masters' .. a phrase that always made me wince:

"'Colonialism was a positive thing,' the old Delta leader Harold Dappe-Biriye told me." 'It brought its enlightenment, civilization and greater freedom and democracy than we had ever had. The English language and education united us. …