- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2010


By Peter Cunliffe-Jones
Palgrave/Macmillan, $26,238 pages, illustrated

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. If the British had not intervened as they did, we would not have advanced as we have.’ Once they were in power, the British eradicated slavery, ended the Yoruba wars, and introduced Western education and medicine, he said.”

Yet despite such encomiums from a variety of sources, including even thoughtful writings by Nigerians going back to the 1960s, this descendent of colonial servants is too blinded by guilt to be knocked off his hobbyhorse.

The gist of which is that Nigeria was doomed from the start by its colonial division into three semi-autonomous regions to create a federation after independence, and Mr. Cunliffe-Jones hammers away at this theme constantly. But many intelligent and insightful observers of British evolutionary policy in their colonies have blamed their subsequent problems on just the opposite phenomenon: the imposition of a strongly unitary state - the celebrated Westminster model of a strong national government - on a multiethnic society that would have been better served by a looser structure like that of Nigeria.

It is certainly true that colonial boundaries as a whole took little or no account who was living where, cutting across tribal and other groupings. Also that the British were generally guilty of favoring one group over another, often seeking to weaken what they saw as the dominant power in the colony.

Despite Mr. Cunliffe-Jones‘ indictment of what Britain did in Nigeria, it can be argued that what they were doing was trying to build a structure that by its very looseness took account of regional and religious differences there. And that the subsequent mayhem and other problems resulted from entrenched problems endemic to Nigerian society. Indeed, Mr. Cunliffe-Jones himself draws very interesting comparisons between the African nation and another sprawling, heavily populated, religiously mixed, oil-rich nation halfway across the world that he also knows well: Indonesia.

Commenting on Nigeria’s shocking lack of distribution of its enormous oil wealth to the wider population, the author comes up with one of his characteristic illustrative stories. Two similarly placed civil servants from each nation compare notes. The Indonesian lives in considerable comfort, even luxury, and pointing to a busy highway nearby, admits that his personal wealth comes from skimming 10 percent off its costs. His Nigerian counterpart laughs and points to empty bush where a highway should have been built and says 100 percent - to explain the plutocratic splendor of his palatial residence.

So the central question raised by “My Nigeria” is why all the evidence of its author’s own eyes and what people on the ground have told him has not been sufficient to override his post-colonial guilt trip. Unfortunately, this is a prime example of ingrained thinking being insufficiently mugged by reality.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.



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