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The best books on Nigeria

recommended by Michael Peel

A Swamp Full of Dollars by Michael Peel

A Swamp Full of Dollars
by Michael Peel


The FT's former West Africa correspondent talks us through five books that helped him to understand Nigeria.

A Swamp Full of Dollars by Michael Peel

A Swamp Full of Dollars
by Michael Peel

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Our topic today is Nigeria, but not all your choices are set in Nigeria. What’s the common thread linking these books?

They all, either directly or obliquely, are reflections of things I saw, experienced and felt in Nigeria, books which gave me useful insights into the place. The list isn’t chronological, but it does track the development of a thought process.

Your first choice is Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe. That’s a fairly classical choice for people reading up about Nigeria, isn’t it?

I read it pretty much immediately after arriving. It’s a great account of how a country can fall into a dictatorship, how dictators become dictators. If you’ve lived in a country which isn’t under a dictatorship and move to a country that has been for most of the last decade, you inevitably wonder how it is that these bloodthirsty pantomime figures came to be running the place. Anthills gives the human side of the story. A group of friends have all known each other in their youth. Over time they go off in their different directions. One of them becomes a key aide to the dictator, another becomes a journalist, and the book makes this gradual divergence believable. The dictator doesn’t become a dictator overnight, it’s a step-by-step thing, a bit like the story of the frog in the boiling water. The writing is very lively, the book gives you an understanding of how people who were genuinely admirable liberation-style heroes can turn into despots over time. It’s a much more sophisticated and human account of dictatorship than the one-line, comic-book dismissal you often get.

You were reading this in 2002, 15 years after it was first published, but it remains completely topical. When Achebe wrote it, which dictatorship was he reflecting upon?

He wrote it in 1987, so he would have been commenting on Ibrahim Babangida’s regime. Certainly, the dictator in the book has considerable charm and savvy, as Babangida did, whereas his predecessor Buhari was a very austere fellow who didn’t have the same bearing. There’s definitely more than a hint of Babangida.

You went in after the Sani Abacha dictatorship, which was a much grimmer affair, wasn’t it?

Yes. I also read Robert Graves’s I, Claudius at that time and there was a parallel there, in the concept of a descent through dictators. You start with Augustus, a relatively enlightened figure, move through Tiberius and end up with Caligula, where there are no holds barred. Abacha seems to me Nigeria’s Caligula, someone who didn’t care what anyone said about him and looted the Treasury. One of the reasons why Anthills is interesting, though, is that in a sense Abacha was easy to smoke out, because he was so obviously villainous, whereas Babangida had this charm – he was invited to lunch at Downing St and Mrs Thatcher was a great fan because he was open to the idea of IMF-style reform. But, as Achebe’s book shows, those are the most dangerous type of dictators, because they do fool some people, especially in the West, where people are willing to be fooled in order to get access to the oil they covet.

This is actually Achebe’s most recent novel about modern-day Nigeria, isn’t it?

Since his car accident he’s lived in the US and concentrated on other things. He’s become a trenchant critic from the outside and when I was there he certainly played a useful role in acting as a corrective to the movement there was in the West to say ‘Nigeria is reforming, everything is changing’ and to drum up this Live 8 sense of Nigeria as the great hope of Africa, which was very self-serving on both sides. Achebe was one of the few international figures who stood up and said: ‘Hang on, this isn’t really what I’m seeing.’

Your next choice is Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. I studied this at university, but I can’t remember that much about it. Is it the book in which we’re told that life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’?

That’s the one-liner. I read it not because it was one of the founding texts of Western philosophical thought but because a couple of Nigerians said it was a good book to read in Lagos. There were parallels between this book, written in the middle of England’s 17th-century civil war, and Nigeria, in particular the jockeying of various competing interests. There are some long digressions in it on the nature of man which look dated now, but at its heart it does still have an important, timeless message: it helps explain why in a society where all hope of law and order and stability have broken down, decent people end up doing awful things to each other. This idea of ‘the war of all against all’, when there’s no law, and what a man can win through his strength is what he gets, definitely has parallels in modern Nigeria. It also helps you understand another aspect of demagoguery: why dictators can be genuinely popular, if only for a while, and why, for example, fundamentalist religious movements have such appeal. You surrender your freedoms to Leviathan, the all-powerful sovereign, in exchange for being guaranteed a certain level of stability.

That’s the ‘social contract’, if I remember correctly.

Exactly. In Nigeria, you see that in the administration of Muhammadu Buhari, the dictator who introduced all these extraordinary measures after coming to power. Compulsory street-cleaning days. People say those caught peeing in public were made to hop down the street like frogs. Public horsewhippings. In one sense, barbaric stuff, but some Nigerians do look back and say: ‘That was a time when we had a measure of public order.’ An author friend of mine said: ‘Nigerians respond well to the whip. We must like it.’ I think what he meant by that was the kind of message you see in Leviathan, that someone, however insincere or self-interested, can genuinely attract a lot of support if they come to power promising that stability. I remember going to an all-night service in a Pentecostal church in a hangar-like building on the outskirts of Lagos. Tens of thousands of people spent the night in fervour, the pastor delivered his message, and all around, there was order. Chairs were in neat rows, there were litter bins – where else in Lagos did I ever see a litter bin? It was intense and passionate, but in a very structured way. I could see how, if you lived in a crowded slum, coming for one night into that environment of control and order would have felt like a tremendous relief. Certainly, surrendering an element of power to the Leviathan in exchange for it would seem worthwhile.

I’m impressed by the classicism of your Nigerian friends.

I think a lot of Nigerians do look outside for explanations. It is a hard place to get to grips with, and we’re all searching for the analogies and parallels to help us.

Nigeria shares a certain quality with former Zaire, doesn’t it? When I lived there I used to feel that a certain model had been taken and pushed to its logical extreme, and that there was something intellectually interesting in the surreal situations and absurdities that resulted from that purity of experience. My attitude was: ‘If you are going to live in a society that isn’t functioning, it’s more interesting to live in a place that is completely screwed-up, rather than half screwed-up.’

It’s certainly more honest. The abuses of power, the exploitation is there for all to see; they sometimes aren’t in a place that is only half screwed-up. You had that great phrase in your Zaire book – ‘the quality of negative excellence’. I was very angry you used it, as it meant I couldn’t. It’s what frightens people about a place, but also what makes it so compelling.

Your third choice is Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

I read this before going to Nigeria but moving there made me think about it a lot. The idea that the system always wins. What you see time and again in a country like Nigeria is that the way to prosper is to get round the system, or play the system, but to try and change it is a mammoth and mostly futile task. You have structures which could crush the most well-intentioned person and there’s this dark absurdity about how it all works. I remember a chapter where ‘K’ hears about the various options open to him in the trial he is facing for an undisclosed offence. ‘K’ can be fully acquitted, but that never happens, so he may be ‘ostensibly acquitted’, but with the possibility the charges could be reinstated in future, or the trial can be ‘indefinitely postponed’, which means the case is never formally stopped. There’s a sense of a system which always looms above you. The analogy isn’t exact, because even under Abacha Nigeria was such a large and messy place that it was hard for anyone to impose absolute, formal power but there’s a bleakly comic side to it that appealed to me. For my book I went out on a bus for a day and saw how they started with a stack of money from the fares and how it was depleted and depleted by all the bribes they had to pay. This guy was explaining to me how the money was halved, then quartered, then went down to an eighth. A packet of 33,000 naira had been reduced to 4,000. Then he paused, and added: ‘And then the police take half of that.’ The comic timing was so perfect, I just couldn’t help laughing, I started apologising, but other people then started joining in, and a great, sardonic laugh rippled around the room.

Your next one is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Chimamanda Adichie broke the ice in writing about the Biafran war. There was a kind of whispering on the subject in public life but no one ever talked about it that much and I’d been wanting for a long time to read something about that conflict, because it underpins some of what is happening in modern-day Nigeria, in particular the way people in the east relate to the rest of the country. It also played into this much bigger idea of regionalism and the tensions between different parts. Here’s someone who was not alive when the Biafran war took place – maybe it had to be someone like that to draw out the effect and impact of that conflict. Biafra is one of those conflicts that was massive at the time but is pretty much forgotten today in the West.

She evokes well this notion of a nation that flared and died and the passion that went into that and why this was something which had this very deep appeal for a part of the nation which, depending on your point of view, was either marginalised or saw itself as special. Unless you travel in the east, you don’t realise how resonant that still is today. Biafra will be mentioned by the guy in the roadside Coke stall and the chap you chat to outside the church. The unanswered question, because the nation collapsed so quickly, is how homelands created in response to genuine suffering – in this case the pogroms against the Igbo people – can become over time states which are quite hostile to outsiders. The flip side of being a safe haven, a sanctuary, if you’re not from that group, is that it can seem a very hostile and forbidding place. You have people in the Niger Delta who are very glad Biafra didn’t come to pass because they would have been the minority group in this new state and their argument is: ‘From what we could see, the oppressed Igbos were going to turn into the next oppressors.’ The idea is only hinted at in Half of a Yellow Sun, but as a species we sometimes struggle to grasp the obvious point that oppressed people can become oppressors. Liberia is a classic example.

What do you think of the commonly voiced argument that Biafra offers a miraculous example of reconciliation after an incredibly vicious conflict? That this is perhaps something people don’t celebrate enough, the fact that Africa, along with all its violence and trauma, offers very unusual examples of reconciliation. Biafra collapsed and then just went back to being part of Nigeria again. In Eritrea, the rebels went into the mountains and spent 30 years fighting Ethiopian rule.

I haven’t studied this closely but I think a mix of nobility and realpolitik probably brought this about. The journalist Kaye Whiteman, who was around at the time, told me: ‘There was a chemistry arising from the evolution of the war that somehow seemed to diminish the lust for revenge.’ I think that had an international dimension in that, rightly or wrongly, the Biafrans succeeded in creating a sense that they were the victims, involved in an honourable attempt to create a safe homeland, up against an evil dictatorship that would stop at nothing. I suspect the sensible people in the Nigerian government realised they would become world-wide pariahs if they went on a pogrom against Biafra. On the Biafran side, they were losing the war and if they continued to resist, they would have been destroyed. I think there was a certain element of pragmatism under duress. There is something called MASSOB, The Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, and its members get arrested from time to time, but you’re right, there’s nothing like the EPLF.

Maybe the oil helped?

Maybe. The oil was just being tapped, things were on the up and everyone thought, ‘Rather than destroy this through fighting, maybe we can all get a piece of the pie.’

Tell me about your last book, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance.

He’s an Indian-born Canadian writer. I left this till last because I don’t think I’ve read a better book when it comes to capturing life in a big, messy place which can be very hard and yet has some redeeming qualities. It’s set in India at the time of Mrs Gandhi’s quasi-dictatorship and state of emergency. The ‘fine balance’ of the title is the fine balance between hope and despair, which is explored by all the individuals in the story. They are all trying to make their fortune in a huge, unruly city which reminded me of Lagos. What’s striking about this book is that it is unsparingly and brutally honest. All sorts of terrible things happen to the main characters, from evictions to forced sterilisation. The book is full of these terrible moments and yet at the end of it you feel strangely uplifted. It’s the oddest thing.

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It’s a great corrective to the notion of the nobility of poverty. That’s not what the book is saying at all. It’s just telling the human story and pointing out that there’s nothing more sophisticated for any of us, in the end, than the fact that life goes on, every situation has some possibility of redemption, even if it’s far into the future. I remember being extremely moved by it.

Essentially, you are an optimist on Nigeria, aren’t you? I get the impression you have huge hopes.

It’s not for an outsider to pronounce a situation hopeless, but I wouldn’t want to do that anyway, I don’t feel like that. My glib one-liner is that it’s almost impossible to be anything other than pessimistic about Nigeria in the short term, but in the long term there is that greater hope that does burn on. There’s just something about the place. I would contrast it with somewhere like Equatorial Guinea, where there’s a truly nasty dictatorship which has been in power for 30 years, people are nervous of talking on the street, and you have a real sense of a society cowed. Nigeria may be many things, but it’s not cowed. The fact that within two minutes of buying a pen in ‘God’s Time is the Best Ventures Ltd’ shop the proprietor will be berating the government and telling you how awful everything is, tells you something. A place that has that spirit can’t be kept down.

April 12, 2010

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Michael Peel

Michael Peel

In 2002 Michael Peel moved to Lagos, Nigeria, to become the Financial Times’s West Africa correspondent. His book, A Swamp Full of Dollars, published in 2009, is the story of how Nigeria was shaped by the oil that pumps through western cities. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and has been nominated for the Orwell Prize. Peel returned to London in 2005 to become the FT's legal correspondent and is now the paper's Bangkok regional correspondent.

Michael Peel

Michael Peel

In 2002 Michael Peel moved to Lagos, Nigeria, to become the Financial Times’s West Africa correspondent. His book, A Swamp Full of Dollars, published in 2009, is the story of how Nigeria was shaped by the oil that pumps through western cities. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and has been nominated for the Orwell Prize. Peel returned to London in 2005 to become the FT's legal correspondent and is now the paper's Bangkok regional correspondent.