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My Nigeria: Five Decades of Independence

My Nigeria: Five Decades of Independence

by Peter Cunliffe-Jones

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His nineteenth-century cousin, paddled ashore by slaves, twisted the arms of tribal chiefs to sign away their territorial rights in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Sixty years later, his grandfather helped craft Nigeria's constitution and negotiate its independence, the first of its kind in Africa. Four decades later, Peter Cunliffe-Jones arrived as a journalist in the


His nineteenth-century cousin, paddled ashore by slaves, twisted the arms of tribal chiefs to sign away their territorial rights in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Sixty years later, his grandfather helped craft Nigeria's constitution and negotiate its independence, the first of its kind in Africa. Four decades later, Peter Cunliffe-Jones arrived as a journalist in the capital, Lagos, just as military rule ended, to face the country his family had a hand in shaping.Part family memoir, part history, My Nigeria is a piercing look at the colonial legacy of an emerging power in Africa. Marshalling his deep knowledge of the nation's economic, political, and historic forces, Cunliffe-Jones surveys its colonial past and explains why British rule led to collapse at independence. He also takes an unflinching look at the complicated country today, from email hoaxes and political corruption to the vast natural resources that make it one of the most powerful African nations; from life in Lagos's virtually unknown and exclusive neighborhoods to the violent conflicts between the numerous tribes that make up this populous African nation. As Nigeria celebrates five decades of independence, this is a timely and personal look at a captivating country that has yet to achieve its great potential.

Editorial Reviews

author of The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Robert Calderisi

Nigeria is a big subject, but Cunliffe-Jones cuts it down to size. Enriched by his own experience and his family's own role in the country's past, this vivid book is more than a history. It is like stumbling upon a time capsule.
From the Publisher

“Mr. Cunliffe -Jones has produced a sweeping yet intimate portrait of his and his distinguished family's sojourn in Africa's most populous and complicated nation – Nigeria. It is a work that deserves widespread critical attention. A triumph!” —Chinua Achebe

“Peter Cunliffe-Jones paints a vivid portrait of Nigeria's hydra-headed travails in this passionate, intensely personal book…a vivid portrait [and the author has] a delightful knack for illustrating his points with anecdotes and stories that are at once wrenching and comic.” —The Washington Post

“Offers some challenging thinking about the nature of a country for which Cunliffe-Jones clearly feels great affection...Pleasingly he quotes Nigerians rather than foreign experts, and tackles religious tensions, oil wealth and woes, and the everyday problems of corruption...Cunliffe-Jones marshals his impressive knowledge of the country to seek out reasons for hope.” —Times Literary Supplement

“High hope and crushing disappointment runs through My Nigeria, a chronicle of Africa's most populous country from the moment of its independence from Britain in 1960 to its troubles today.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Many thought provoking scenes … an important book.” —The Guardian Nigeria

“Peter Cunliffe-Jones, a veteran journalist, follows in the footsteps of his forefathers--a colonizer and an administrator--and serves up a must read for anybody looking to understand Africa's most dynamic country. In this empathetic, keenly-observed, multigenerational memoir, Cunliffe-Jones expertly lays out the challenges facing Nigeria as it approaches 50 years of independence and finds itself once again on the brink.” —Stephan Faris, author of Forecast

“An amazing book, it captures the essence of Nigeria brilliantly. It is the best work I have read on Nigeria.” —Adunola Abiola, daughter of the late M.K.O. Abiola.

“Nigeria is a big subject, but Cunliffe-Jones cuts it down to size. Enriched by his own experience and his family's own role in the country's past, this vivid book is more than a history. It is like stumbling upon a time capsule.” —Robert Calderisi, author of The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn't Working

“A very readable history of Nigeria, a personal memoire and a family history all in one book. Peter Cunliffe-Jones has produced a warm and enlightening introduction to this huge, dynamic and fascinating country and its damaged past. Intriguing and sometimes shocking it explains why Nigeria today is the frustrated giant of Africa.” —Richard Dowden, author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

“This is an excellent, readable book both for those who think they know Nigeria and those who are just curious about the country.” —Father Matthew Kukah, Leading Nigerian commentator

“As Nigeria celebrates 50 years of independence this book aids the understanding of both the colonial legacy and the challenges facing the country. Written in a personal manner by a veteran journalist whose family have been deeply involved in Nigeria's history, this very readable account is a worthy addition to the corpus of post-colonial history books, and should be of interest to both historians and the general public.” —Dr. Maggie Canvin, Sociolingo.com

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My Nigeria

Five Decades of Independence

By Peter Cunliffe-Jones

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2010 Peter Cunliffe-Jones
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-62023-0


A Place of Great Potential

Lagos is black Africa's megacity. Located six degrees north of the equator on the country's south-facing Atlantic coast, it has a climate that is hot and humid the whole year round. Home today to more than 15 million people, the country's hustling, bustling, trading capital is noisy and violent and pulses with life. From the tall towers of its waterfront districts to the low-rise slums that are home to millions, it hums with activity, with people making deals, making money, taking a chance, and getting by.

In skyscraper offices on Lagos Island and around a groaning port, its bankers and oilmen—enjoying the wealth generated by a multibillion-dollar oil industry—make trades worth tens of millions of dollars every day. It is home to insurance and shipping firms that play the markets worldwide. And on its streets, thousands of high-stakes battles take place each night as the poor fight to survive. A combustible place, it can explode into violence at a moment's notice. A vast city, it is congested and grinds into gridlock twice a day.

Like Mumbai, the home of Bollywood romances, Lagos seems as much a product as a producer of its thriving film business. Every year, Nollywood, the Nigerian Bollywood, tells extraordinary tales of life and death, money, and sex in hundreds of full-length features released on DVD and video. But to residents of Lagos, its films are not pointless make-believe. In the city's rabbit-warren slums, such as Mushin and Oshodi, the streets are packed with people stepping between broken-down cars, open sewers, and run-down buildings. Those who live there have lost out, but cling on, like survivors in a storm, to their Lagos dreams. Slumdogs they may be. But like the slumdogs of Mumbai, they see hope around the corner and a reason to stay.

A few miles away live those who have made it—the foreigners, the oilmen, the politicians, and the bureaucrats. Their Lagos—the one I came to live in—is quite different, a place of fancy flats and spacious villas, broad streets, lush gardens with bougainvilleas and palm trees, a polo club, a yacht club, restaurants, and nightclubs, where beggars line the streets outside, dodging the expensive cars and trucks, while night-girls dance for free and offer sex at five dollars a time.

For those who have made it, life is good. They have to suffer the pollution and the traffic jams, the power cuts, and the threat of crime. But they are rich and they are free. And to the poor, they are tantalizingly close: The rich—the people most at fault for running Nigeria into the ground since independence—are not people to blame, but to envy, people to emulate if only one is able.

And Lagos, my Lagos, the city where I came to live in 1998, is this clash of these two worlds: a permanent collision of humbling wealth and staggering poverty, soaring hope and frustrated ambition, frightening chaos and unruly order; a city always on the edge of mayhem and always offering the hungry a last chance, a hope, a dream of success.

* * *

The original name for Lagos, the island that lies at the heart of the city, was Eko, an old Nigerian word for a battleground or war camp. The island was a settlement and this gave the place its name. But when Portuguese sailors sailed up the coast in the fifteenth century, they saw something else: not the island, but the lagoon behind it and the safe harbor it offered. They named it Lagos—from the Portuguese for lagoon or lake—and to the world over, Lagos has been its name ever since.

After its settlement, and after discovery by the Portuguese, came slave traders who made the island a home to the slave trade for centuries. For hundreds of years, they traded from camps on its marshy shores. And then, from the 1850s onward, it became home to the British, who came to stop the slave trade at its source. Today it is again a pure Nigerian city: vast, unruly, exhausting, and compelling.

From the port the white men built, the city erupts outward, an explosion of concrete, cars, and construction heading 30 miles north and inland from the sea. The packed mainland districts, a mix of towers and low-rise buildings, are cut through by trunk roads and highways that every day carry thousands of cars and buses taking people to and from the business districts located on the islands near the shore. Between the city and the sea lies a peninsula that shelters the lagoon, serves as a battered breakwater, and holds back the Atlantic tide.

The Atlantic is not the only tide that threatens Lagos. With a growing population, today more than 15 million, eating, defecating, buying, and throwing away, it is unsurprising its government has never yet mastered the awesome task of keeping it neat, ordered, and clean. Instead, tons of waste, human and industrial, lie every day by the roadside or seep into streams leading to the inland shore. Certainly, today, the authorities are making an effort, but when they do they are often overwhelmed.

The city is noisy and polluted. The power grid rarely works, so the fumes of tens of thousands of generators supplying power to homes and offices pollute the air, making it heavy and difficult to breathe. And it is dangerous. Mangled cars lie at the roadside and, on occasion, mangled bodies too, the victim of an accident or a murder, or just a hapless natural death. Sometimes, nobody knows. When a senior policeman went missing one month, the police searched the waters under a bridge for his corpse. When six hours had passed, they stopped looking after turning up 23 bodies, none of them the one they were seeking. A few weeks later, I went sailing, and my dinghy capsized. As I surfaced spluttering, a corpse floated past a few feet away. I shuddered in the water and climbed back aboard.

To skirt the city's most congested districts, the authorities in the 1970s built a looping, eight-mile-long highway on pillars known as the Third Mainland Bridge. It runs through the lagoon, north to south, and ends in the islands. Though the traffic is normally fender-to-fender, there are so many cars on the packed mainland roads that the bridge is still the fastest way in. From the shores of Ikeja, on the mainland, it runs south past shantytowns built on stilts, cuts through the smoke rising from saw mills at the water's edge, passes the tall towers of Lagos Island, owned by banks and shipping and oil companies, and drops down past the port—full of boats, buildings, containers, and cranes—to enter the sanctuary of the islands.

Like most who could—the foreigners, oilmen, bankers, and politicians—I made my home on one of the islands: Ikoyi. It sits opposite Victoria Island, the tip of the peninsula, and next to Lagos Island itself, the original heart of the city. Once, it was a smart district. On the walls of my house, a two-story place built in the 1970s and surrounded by palm trees and flowers, pictures taken when my grandfather lived and worked in Lagos in the 1950s show broad roads and elegant, shaded sidewalks. By the time I arrived, half a century later, Ikoyi's roads were potholed and lacked proper pavement or street lighting. Walking home late at night from one of its still-thriving bars and restaurants, dodging the police and the robbers, I had to step carefully to avoid tripping on garbage, slipping on human and animal waste, and landing in a fetid gutter.

But even for those living in luxury, paying rents and property prices among the highest in the world, Lagos is a dangerous place to live. I might go on the weekend to dance at nightclubs in Yaba or Ikeja on the mainland. But if I did, I would go in daylight and stay there till dawn. Every day the newspapers were full of crime stories. Armed robbers attack people in the streets and in their homes. Travel after dark is considered unsafe.

One night soon after I arrived, I was heading to the airport later than planned for a trip overseas. Coming off the Third Mainland Bridge into Ikeja, I asked Hassan, my driver, to take a shortcut through Oshodi, one of the roughest neighborhoods. This was a mistake. As we crossed the bridge over Oshodi market, we got stuck in a traffic jam. The cars in front soon cleared, and we set off again. But a few yards farther on the car stalled. Our lights went out, and the streetlights weren't working.

Hassan got out and raised the hood. I followed. This was my second mistake. A lookout saw me and, within moments, a gang had pounced. Four armed men surrounded us demanding money. I did not have much on me. "You can have everything but it is not much," I said. Their leader pushed me back against the car and put his gun to my head and a knife to my throat.

I got into the car to look for money. As I did, Hassan overheard the robbers arguing. They couldn't agree what to do. Two wanted to kill us and take whatever we had—the car, my bags, and my money. The others wanted to let us go. Killing a foreigner would bring too much trouble. The police knew their names and would come after them. It was not worth the risk, they said.

Thinking quickly, Hassan assured the men that I did have money. He would get in and hand it over. But first he would restart the car, though with the hood still up, so we could drive off once they let us. Stupidly, they agreed. The engine running, he lifted the hand brake and hit the gas. No money had changed hands, but off we went, bumping over one robber, hitting a second with my door, and knocking the others sideways. The hood flapping wildly against the windshield, we drove away blind. As bullets hit the sides of the car, I peered out of my window to see and scream directions to Hassan: "Go right! Go left! Don't hit that wall!" Eventually, the shooting stopped. We slowed the car, lowered the hood, and resumed our journey.

I felt shattered, but I breathed again. We had gotten away.

That was Lagos. Every night, before I slept, I always made a tour of my house, checking the windows, pulling down the metal shutters, locking myself in, and listening. Often the sounds I heard were of gunfire.

* * *

The city is chaos and mayhem. And yet, despite all its problems, there is more to Lagos than that, more to it than paupers and gangsters, bankers and politicians, Nollywood and Lagos rap. There are beautiful places, a richness of culture, a depth of color, and resilient people. It is a great place to live and to watch people work on their dreams.

One morning, I headed out on assignment, crossing the bridge to the mainland once more and turning onto a freeway. It was a grim spot I had passed many times. But as we drove, I saw a small strip of land just off the road, perhaps half an acre in size, one I hadn't noticed before. Fenced off from the freeway and a line of wrecked cars and buses was a garden. It was not just any garden, but, in a city known for its squalor, a garden with a mission. The ambitious title stenciled on its signboard read "Project for the Beautification of Lagos."

I stopped the car and drove back. "Good morning," I said, walking toward the gate and the man I had spotted emerging from a garden hut. I told him I was a journalist and asked about the project. Was this all his own work? He pointed to the name of the church sponsoring the initiative. They funded it, and he did the work. He was retired now, so he had the time.

"This is not my job. This is what I do for love. Lagos is not beautiful yet. But this is a place with great potential."

I asked about the flowers he was growing. Scribbling notes, I marveled at what he had achieved already in poor soil surrounded by roadside wreckage: great bursts of color; lilies and orchids; ferns and miniature palms; verdant grasses and fronds; brilliant red, yellow, and orange flowers; petals in subtle shades of lilac and purple. The beautification of Lagos is one hell of a project, I thought. But at least someone was trying.

* * *

The day I met that gardener, almost four decades had passed since the country became self-governing. The constitution crafted by my grandfather and others in the 1950s had failed the country. Of those four decades since independence, the army had been in power for nearly three. Ever since independence in 1960, Nigerian leaders had promised progress. What they had delivered was six coups, a bloody civil war, and a stuttering economy. When oil prices boomed in the 1970s, the army spent freely on big projects. But ordinary Nigerians had had little to show for it. In the 1980s, there was a brief return to a civilian regime, a four-year hiatus in army rule. It was followed by a consumer boom, a bust, the return of the soldiers, and a new series of economic plans. More coups took place. Each new leader promised progress that each failed to deliver. By the time I arrived in 1998, life for most was hard and precarious. Too few people had regular jobs. Real incomes had fallen by a third since independence. People struggled to work, live, and feed their families. Life expectancy, as measured at birth, was only 45 years.

But the month I flew in was a time of new hope. Just two weeks earlier, the dictator Sani Abacha had died. Abacha was the army chief who seized power in 1993 a few months after his predecessor quit office. For half a decade, Abacha had subjected opponents to jail or assassination while he stole billions from the public coffers and ran down the economy. When he died from a reported heart attack, there were celebrations. But there were still no rules for handing over power. The army had suspended the constitution when it last seized control.

With Abacha gone, the new man in charge was Abdulsalami Abubakar, a slow-talking man with a hangdog expression. Though almost unknown to the public, he had been Abacha's number two. Now he was in charge of Nigeria, and no one knew his plans. A month later, riots erupted when the country's leading opposition figure, Moshood Abiola, died in jail.

The next day, Abubakar moved. He announced a series of elections to end army rule and hand power to civilians. Unlike his predecessors, he kept his promises. Politicians who had been sent into hiding or prison hurriedly reemerged, and three political parties were formed. The first elections took place in December 1998. And by the time the main voting occurred two months later, the poll came down to a contest between two men, both flawed.

One was Olu Falae, a soon-to-be-forgotten former finance minister. He represented the Alliance for Democracy, a group of southern politicians who had opposed Abacha and had little support in the north. The other was a former general, Olusegun Obasanjo. His Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was more of a mixed bag. Some had bravely stood up against Abacha—Obasanjo himself had been jailed—but others had a less honorable record. But, mixed bag or no, Obasanjo's party had a stronger national network than its rivals and a clearer idea of Nigerian politics. "Elections first. Policies will come later," a PDP spokesman told me when I asked what the party stood for. "The first step is to take power."

* * *

With the departure of the soldiers expected, the elections of February 1999 were a time of new hope for Nigeria. They were the first elections in 20 years that would result in a change in power. What the voters wanted above all was clear. They wanted the soldiers to leave, and they wanted change. The problem was that neither voters nor candidates had spelled out what else they meant by change.

"Ah! This Nigeria," Remi Adeyinka, a market trader, harrumphed, shaking her head as she queued at a makeshift polling station near my home on polling day. ID papers in hand, she adjusted the wrapper she wore round her waist as both skirt and sign of her political allegiance. The face on the wrapper was that of Falae. What did she want from the election? I asked. She shifted on her feet. "It is time for these soldier boys to go. They have ruined this country for too long. Now it is time for change," she said.

Mama Bella Afolabe, Mrs. Adeyinka's neighbor in the line, nodded in agreement. "These men with their uniforms, their guns, they have done nothing for us. Our new president, he will change Nigeria. He must change Nigeria. I hope so." She supported Obasanjo.

But what change? The people had not decided who would run in the election. The military had. They had picked the parties and the candidates. And the people whom the military allowed to run had not said how they would govern once in power. So what change would Nigeria see? No one knew. With the backing of the PDP machine, Obasanjo walked the election, winning by 18 million votes to 11 million. He had clear national support, but he had never declared his policies.

* * *

In his inauguration speech in the capital, Abuja, three months later, the new president, who had led the country before in the 1970s, sounded pained by the state he found it in today. "Nigerians are hurting," he said. The country, so rich in talent and resources, home to great writers and artists, businessmen and entrepreneurs, and rich in land and minerals, had been crippled by years of misrule. It would be so no longer, he pledged. There would be neither sacred cows, nor no-go areas in the fight against corruption and abuse of power. He would bring change, the old soldier told the audience standing in the square, listening on radio, and watching on TV. And, for a while, a few believed him.

In his first hundred days, the new president reined in spending and promised money for health and education. He reshuffled the military, sacked those who had staged coups or held political posts in the past, and sent an anticorruption bill to parliament. I wrote an article for the Economist titled "Nigeria's New Broom," to highlight the sweeping changes.


Excerpted from My Nigeria by Peter Cunliffe-Jones. Copyright © 2010 Peter Cunliffe-Jones. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Peter Cunliffe-Jones has been a foreign correspondent for over 20 years for The Economist, The Independent and the Paris-based Agence France Presse news agency where he is now a senior editor. Since 1990 he has reported from western Europe, the Balkans, West Africa, and East Asia. He is today the agency's head of English-language multimedia news. From 1998 to 2003 he was AFP bureau chief in Lagos, Nigeria. He lives in London.

Peter Cunliffe-Jones has been a foreign correspondent for over 20 years for The Economist, The Independent and the Paris-based Agence France Presse news agency where he is now a senior editor. He is the author of My Nigeria. Since 1990 he has reported from western Europe, the Balkans, West Africa, and East Asia. He is today the agency’s head of English-language multimedia news. From 1998 to 2003 he was AFP bureau chief in Lagos, Nigeria. He lives in London.

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