A History of Nigeria; Faith and Politics in Nigeria: Nigeria as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World

In This Review

A History of Nigeria

By Toyin Falola and Matthew M. Heaton
Cambridge University Press, 2008
376 pp. $90.00
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Faith and Politics in Nigeria: Nigeria as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World

By John N. Paden
U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2008
180 pp. $12.00
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With 140 million citizens and enough oil to make it the sixth-biggest producer in the world, Nigeria is the dominant economic and political power of Africa. Given the negative legacies of British colonialism, the presence of literally hundreds of distinct ethno-linguistic identities throughout the country's territory, and the religious divisions between a primarily Muslim North and a primarily Christian South, the process of state formation and the maintenance of political stability have been complicated and messy affairs. And on top of that, perhaps more than for any other country, oil wealth has proved to be a curse, as it has spurred state corruption, the creation of a remarkably greedy political class, and conflict over the distribution of oil revenues while bringing depressingly few benefits for the country's impoverished majority. The distinguished Nigerian historian Falola and his collaborator Heaton have produced a valuable one-volume history of Nigeria, from its prehistoric roots to last year's election, providing an excellent introduction to this complicated nation. Theirs is a fairly traditional history, with a sometimes inadequate attention to economic factors and structural dynamics. But its focus on political events and individuals describes complicated and charged dynamics in a straightforward and evenhanded way, and the authors manage to always situate these events in the context of broader cultural and social developments.

Paden's short monograph focuses on the role of Islam in the country's contemporary politics and provides a great complement to the Falola and Heaton book. Noting that Nigeria is the most populated country in the world with a rough balance between Muslims and Christians, Paden argues that how Nigeria manages religious differences in a peaceful way offers important lessons for the world. Moreover, Nigeria's size, as well as its significant role in transnational networks, including a very large expatriated population (several hundred thousand Nigerians live in the United States alone), makes the country a "pivotal state," with important implications for Africa, the United States, and the Muslim world. Paden argues that Nigeria has gained valuable experience managing religious differences peacefully and increasingly democratically, and his book's strongest chapters analyze the nature of various recent political compromises brokered in the name of national unity. This is an optimistic book, and some readers may object that these compromises have helped maintain national unity without preventing the growth of shocking income inequality and the persistence of absolute poverty in a country with tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues.