Nigeria: Too Big to Fail

In 2000, at the start of new century, a respected observer of African affairs, Karl Maier, published a exhaustive account of Nigeria, "This House Has Fallen: Nigeria at Midnight." At the time, Nigeria had emerged from a long period of dictatorship. Civilian rule had brought fresh optimism and the return home of many talented Nigerians. Maier's grim portrait of nation teetering on collapse, however accurate, drew a resentful response from Nigerians, who among themselves display a super-natural optimism and mythical capacity for coping with adversity. The BBC heightened the controversy by reporting that Maier saw Nigeria as a "land of no tomorrow."

And yet tomorrow still comes for Africa's most populous nation. Since 2000, seemingly against reason, Nigeria has clocked more than 3,000 thousand tomorrows, and even celebrated its 50th anniversary as a nation in 2010. Yet what my wife, a Nigerian herself, calls "Nigerian time" remains firmly stuck at midnight. To be sure, the country can thank petro-dollars for providing prosperity to an elite and the illusion of future prosperity to its masses. Because of oil money, and the sheer size and dynamism of its population, this "giant of Africa" seems like a place of limitless opportunities, no matter how many are squandered. It is in this sense that Chinua Achebe's most recent assessment of Nigeria, provided in his 2009 collection of essays, "The Education of a British-protected child," should be understood. "Nigeria is neither my mother nor my father," Achebe wrote. "Nigeria is a child. Gifted, enormously talented, prodigiously endowed, and incredibly wayward."

Friday's bombing of a United Nations building in Nigeria's capital of Abuja will neither shatter the country's sense of complacency nor catapult it into adulthood. Kidnappings of the wealthy -- and their children and their parents -- have not done so. Daily electricity outages have not either. Nor have steadily rising food prices or noisy elections that return to office the same tired crowd of corrupt politicians. Nor has what Hillary Clinton has called the "unbelievable" corruption of Nigerian bureaucrats and politicians.

These dismal indicators prompted Clinton two years ago to blame Nigeria's government for rising social distress. In January 2010, after a Nigerian tried to blow up an airline with a shoe bomb, Clinton again decried the lack of good governance in the country. The situation is no better today, and probably worse. On Friday, Clinton made a cautious statement about the need to aid Nigeria in this difficult time, reflecting the recognition that international observers such as the U.S. Secretary of State would be wise to refrain from making apocalyptic predictions about a country which even now records, in opinion surveys, some of the highest levels optimism among any people on the planet.

With so many urgent problems in the world, from the wars in Libya and Afghanistan to the persistent economic and fiscal problems in the U.S., the case for bringing Nigeria to center stage seems poor. And yet giving Nigeria sustained attention might be worth the effort, especially if Nigerian problems of tomorrow are viewed in the light of the costs of Somalia today. The U.S. is spending dearly to stamp out violent Islamic fundamentalism in Somalia, relying on costly mercenaries and expensive arrangements with the governments of Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya. And yet this policy, which began with the Bush administration and continued under President Obama, has led the U.S. and its proxy African forces to become ensnared in a confusing quagmire in Somalia, with the latest outcome being an embarrassing, and totally preventable, famine among Somali refugees.

A cascade of wrong decisions could send Nigeria spiraling into a Somali-style implosion. For the world community, the opportunity to prevent widening conflict in Nigeria would thus seem wise. The question is how to help. In all things Nigerian, we know for certain only this: there will be no rush to judgment, no quick fix.

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G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism, and the Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes, at Arizona State University. He is the author of Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape and Married to Africa: A Love Story.

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