Karl Maier: Quotes From the Frontline

These timeless quotes were gleaned from Karl Maier’s book, “This House Has Fallen – Nigeria in Crisis”. Maier is not only a keen observer but also a gifted practitioner of the immersion reporting popularised by Ted Conover, the author of Newjack. His relentless accumulation of details and close-to-the-skin reporting shows that the spirit of both John McPhee and Gay Talese lives in his reportorial ability. Most of the sentiments in the book are still relevant today as the time Maier focussed his reporter’s search light on Nigeria’s woes. Twelve years after his epic and ground breaking reportage on Nigeria, we are worse off even with a democratic government in place. Great nation, little minds! What a nation!

“Designed by alien occupiers and abused by army rule for three quarters of its brief life span, the Nigerian state is like a battered and bruised elephant staggering toward an abyss with the ground crumbling under its feet. Should it fall, the impact will shake the rest of West Africa. Nigerians from all walks of life are openly questioning whether their country should remain as one entity or discard the colonial borders and break apart into several separate states.”

“In the official arenas of international discourse – the United Nations, the World Bank, the media- Nigeria is known as a “developing nation,” a phrase that conjures up images of economic progress of the sort experienced by the West or among the Asian tigers. Nigeria, like so many countries in Africa, is patently not a developing nation. It is underdeveloping. Its people are far worse off now than they were thirty years ago. The numbers speak for themselves. Despite some $280 billion in export revenues since the discovery of oil in the late 1950s, at least half of all Nigerians live in abject poverty without access to clean water. Literacy is below that of Democratic Republic of Congo. Gross domestic product per person is lower now than it was before the beginning of the oil boom of the 1970s”

“Colonial Nigeria was designed in 1914 to serve the British Empire and the independent state serves as a tool of plunder by the country’s modern rulers. Nigerians spent a good part of their lives trying to get the better of the government for their own benefit or that of their family, their village or their region. Rare is the head of state who acts on behalf of the entire nation. The people are not so much governed as ruled. It is as if they live in a criminally mismanaged corporation where the bosses are armed and have barricaded themselves inside the company’s safe. Nigeria’s leaders, like the colonialists before them, have sucked out billions of dollars and stashed them in Western Banks.”

“Millions of Nigerians including much of the cream of the educated and business elite have fled their country to escape impoverishment and political repression. Most live in the United States and Europe, although almost every country has a Nigerian community. Nigerian drug syndicates, aided in part by the large diaspora, have carved out a dominant share of the world market. They rank among the top importers of heroin and cocaine into the United States, and they have penetrated major African markets, such as Kenya and he nations in southern Africa.”

“When Africa discarded the bonds of colonial rule, few could have imagined the depths to which Nigeria and the continent as a whole would sink a generation later. When the British lowered the Union Jack and freed a land they had ruled for less than a century, Nigeria was the focus of great optimism as a powerful emerging nation that would be a showcase for democratic government. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that such optimism was naive.”

“By 1998 Abacha was considering eliminating Babangida himself, an Abacha confidant told me, because “he knew that Babangida opposed his plan to become a civilian president. He asked me several times, `Should I hit him, should I hit him?`” There is even a school of thought that believes Babangida had a hand in Abacha’s death, both because he feared for his life and  because Abacha’s plan to remain in office as a civilian could lead Nigeria to a conflict that would engulf him”.

“When the Portuguese explorers first arrived in the delta, the Ijaws inhabited small, dispersed fishing villages. They traded among themselves or with their neighbours in the interior of the north, the Igbo. They exchanged fish and salt panned from the creeks for vegetables and iron implements. When the European came shopping for slaves, however, the Ijaws adapted quickly, moving from trading with the Igbo to selling them. The supply of Igbo slaves to the delta ports was controlled not by outsiders but by the cream of Igbo society, the Aro.”

“Southern leaders and the Lagos press view the north as a monolithic entity that enjoys all the benefits of Nigeria’s vast oil riches while leaving the rest of the country to rot. Whether in Lagos, Port Harcourt, or the Middle Belt, the north is generally blamed for squandering the nation’s wealth and leading the country to ruin. The common wisdom is that although most civil servants and middle ranking officials in state run companies are southerners, principally Yoruba or Igbo, the man at the top is always an alhaji, that is, one who has made the hajj to Mecca. Typical of this view is Bola Ige, a prominent Yoruba leader. When I asked him who actually controlled Nigeria, he said bluntly, “There are not more than two hundred Fulani families and they are connected with the conservative emirates and the military. They are the only group that has no territory because they are immigrants. They are all over the place. They have no home””.

“One of the most eloquent arguments for redrawing Nigeria’s map to collapse the currently unworkable federation of thirty six states into six powerful regions comes from an unlikely source: northern businessman. Their fundamental premise is that simplification would be more efficient; six regions would mean leaner, more efficient government. As long as you keep that structure going, you are going to have problems in Nigeria”.