Anthropological Quarterly 78.3 (2005) 725-740
[Access article in PDF]
Oil, Blood and Money:
Culture and Power in Nigeria
Daniel Jordan Smith
Images of crisis dominate the circulation of representations regarding contemporary sub-Saharan Africa. Stories and photographs of grinding poverty, brutal wars, unfathomable famine and the devastation of HIV/AIDS permeate global collective consciousness about the continent, too often producing a mix of resignation and despair. Few people realize or remember that just 30 years ago, only a decade after much of Africa achieved independence from colonial rule, the situation in Africa's most populous country, Nigeria, was one of heady optimism and apparent economic boom, fueled by unprecedented oil wealth.
Andrew Apter's splendid historical ethnography examines how Nigeria's oil-rich state utilized its petroleum revenues in an extravaganza of cultural production that attempted to transform oil money into national identity. The Pan-African Nation offers an engaging and intellectually provocative account of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, which Nigeria hosted in 1977, an event better known as FESTAC '77. Nigeria spent hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps even several billion dollars, of its oil wealth to organize FESTAC, a spectacle that displayed Nigeria's newfound riches and repackaged its many diverse cultural traditions so as to try to create a [End Page 725] Nigerian national culture that would at once bind the nation and establish Nigeria as the center of the black world.
Apter's brilliance, and the enduring contribution of the book, is in showing not only the complex history and ethnography that situate and explain the Nigerian state's invention of tradition and culture, but also the ways in which the manipulation of signs and symbols in FESTAC both obscured and reflected the contradictions inherent in Nigeria's oil economy. FESTAC foreshadowed and contributed to the politics of illusion and the extreme corruption that have plagued the country in recent years. Apter traces this legacy by following the shifting connections and disconnections between money and meaning and truth and value as they unfolded during the military dictatorships that ruled Nigeria following the economic bust of the 1980s.
The Pan-African Nation chronicles a fascinating phenomenon whereby the signs of wealth and development became unattached from their real material bases in a process that paralleled the ways in which FESTAC invented cultural traditions that were privileged as more "authentic" than the people they supposedly represented. In the ultimate irony, Nigeria's notorious industry of scams and fraud, which has become the country's second largest source of foreign exchange after oil, relies on the dissociation of signs from their referents for its success. During the oil boom, the wealth from petroleum revenues masked and exacerbated a dwindling agricultural productive base. In the years since the bust, much of the real money to be made in Nigeria is generated in confidence schemes, political deceptions and fraudulent deals wherein trickery produces more value than truth.
The Pan-Africa Nation offers a compelling account of the relationship between culture and power. The book weaves together in an artful tapestry of the material and cultural transformations wrought by the influence of oil wealth. It demonstrates the centrality of cultural production in statecraft, providing what Apter describes as "a political economy of the sign in postcolonial Nigeria" (17).
FESTAC: A Festival for the Study of Culture and Power
Several different audiences will find The Pan-African Nation a valuable book. Readers interested in the history of African and black identity and the relationship between the continent and its wider diaspora as it is mediated through notions of authenticity and the invention of cultural traditions will find an important contribution and a fascinating case in The Pan-Africa Nation. As [End Page 726] Nigeria achieved great wealth with the oil boom in the 1970s, its government utilized FESTAC to maneuver itself toward the center of Africa and the black diaspora. The...