- Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink
John Campbell started his career as a seventeenth-century English historian, teaching for a while before leaving the classroom for the more-oiled career of foreign service in the United States government, with overseas postings in Europe, South Africa, and Nigeria. He was in Nigeria twice, from 1988 to 1990 as a political counselor and from 2004 to 2007 as an ambassador. While in Nigeria, he saw both military regimes and a civilian one and interacted with the broad spectrum of the population.
I was expecting a memoir of his experiences and travels in Nigeria; rather, what we have is a book that presents Nigeria to public- and policy-oriented readers. It should not be read as the usual academic monograph: Campbell is not invested in pushing the frontiers of knowledge with an extensive literature review, a long bibliography, or arguments. Thus, the book's primary merit is not in what is new (not much is actually new in his statements), but in the defining characteristics of a country that is not doing well, notably the usual talk regarding mismanagement, corruption, and the endless silly schemes by the country's shameless politicians.
The narratives are structured around the themes of promise and failure, fresh beginnings and hope. The desire by Campbell is clear: how to build a country that is politically stable, economically strong, and less corrupt. His evidence is drawn from speaking with Nigerians who "regard themselves as fundamentally free, and they have never been afraid to express their opinions, even during years of military dictatorship" (p. viii).
The narratives on misdeeds and mismanagement occupy most of the pages, with the ambassador expecting a fully modernized and well-managed state. He is disappointed with the desire of Olusegun Obasanjo, the president when he was there, to stage-manage the prolongation of his rule, as well as the 2007 elections, which were brazenly fraudulent. He highlights other problems too: the insurgency in the Niger Delta against the federal government and oil companies, religious and ethnic violence, and a generally pessimistic mood by Nigerians—that their country is not doing well.
Campbell identifies the signals of the problems. For six months, November 2009 to May 2010, the country's president, Umaru Yar' Adua, was seriously ill. Only his wife and a handful of close friends knew his condition. He was residing in a hidden hospital out of the country. There was a power vacuum until the National Assembly appointed the vice president, Jonathan Goodluck, as acting president. There are many things about the country that we may never know during the time when there was no active [End Page 92] or healthy president. Certainly, more money would have been stolen without any central power monitoring performance.
With all the cumulative problems, Campbell begins to see a failing state: "State failure," he writes, "is like obscenity: hard to define but you know it when you see it" (p. 137). What he sees is the confluence of three problems: a weak center, violence in the Niger Delta, and religious divisions and riots in the Middle Belt of the country. People are alienated from the government because of the "criminality of Nigerian politics and the rampant corruption of officials at all levels" (p. 138). Allegiance to the state is weak, and national institutions are weak: "The Nigerian people are not even tied to their government by taxes, which few pay" (p. 139). Political change has been hard because "Nigeria's top political personalities have largely remained the same since the end of the civil war—they have merely aged in place" (p. 141).
He sees many opportunities in the country, not least its population (a large potential market) and its resources in oil. It is a strategic partner to the United States, but one that, as he presents it, poses a risk. He ends the book with suggestions on how to prevent state failure and move Nigeria forward. He commends efforts to prevent a president from staying in power for more than two terms, to have clean and fair elections, to...