Africa is not in fashion these days. Most Western governments pay it scant attention, and even though crises there periodically make it into world headlines, the continent invariably sinks back into oblivion. Although Western opinion has vacillated since the end of the Cold War between Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism -- neither of which reflect reality very well -- the region has received neither the sustained analysis nor the political and economic commitment that other developing regions, from Asia to eastern Europe to Latin America, have enjoyed. Marginalized as the eternally dark continent, Africa has languished under Western ignorance and prejudice and Africans' own deep sense of helplessness.

The Clinton administration has made an uneven effort to change that. Despite the president's extensive tour of the continent in 1998 and his belated success in getting a watered-down trade liberalization bill through Congress earlier this year, his pleas to pay attention to Africa have fallen mostly on deaf ears. When the administration went so far as to declare aids a national security issue, three former State Department chiefs of Africa policy publicly disagreed.

Africans have hardly helped matters. The "new breed" of leaders heralded by Washington just a few short years ago as the stewards of an "African Renaissance" (Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, and Paul Kagame of Rwanda) are today all embroiled in or have just emerged from senseless wars that stretched from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. This has given Westerners yet another excuse to throw up their hands and, as Clinton said on his recent tour, wonder, "What is to be done about Africa?"

The question is a vital one, for Africa does matter -- whether or not one believes that aids is a national security issue. Drugs and disease do not respect increasingly porous national borders and impoverished and alienated youths make willing converts to religious extremism or terrorism. Peace and stability in Africa is therefore very much in the West's own interest. Each new massacre in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, or elsewhere further weakens America's claim to lead the post-Cold War world. As numerous observers have recently argued, American power is at an all-time relative high, but its ability to lead is increasingly being questioned. Nowhere will the strength of its claim to moral leadership be more keenly judged than in its response to Africa.

Who better to detail American and European failings on the continent -- and the threats they pose to international stability -- than Karl Maier? A Yankee journalist long employed by British newspapers and the author of two respected books on Africa (Angola: Promises and Lies and Into the House of the Ancestors: Inside the New Africa, which details the rebirth of African civil society in the post-Cold War era), Maier has brought keen observation and a strong sense of narrative to the story of Nigeria's misery and resilience. In This House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria, he has written a book that, like Nigeria itself, is at turns terrifying and uplifting. He relates familiar statistics on the country's angry, impoverished masses and raises the specter of a future Nigerian civil war, a horror that would dwarf the barbarous upheaval in Sierra Leone. In so doing, Maier makes it clear that the stakes are great -- not just for Nigeria, but for the continent.

JUDGMENT DAYS

Nigerians called it "a coup from heaven" when, a year ago, Olusegun Obasanjo was installed as the country's democratically chosen president after almost 15 years of corrupt military rule. Nigeria and the world had breathed a collective sigh of relief that the despotic years of Sani Abacha, who died of a heart attack in June 1998, had ended in a peaceful transition.

Now Obasanjo, already famous for being Nigeria's only military dictator to ever hand over power to an elected civilian, has the chance to guide his country from the depths of underdevelopment to sound economic ground. But first he will have to tame the endemic corruption that extends from the statehouse at Aso Rock to every corner of Nigerian society. Simultaneously, he will have to navigate Nigeria's treacherous and often bloody ethnic, religious, and regional rivalries.

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has been buffeted by most of the ill winds known to humanity. Civil war, corruption, plague, starvation, natural disaster, greed, envy, sloth, ignorance, pestilence, and prejudice are all familiar visitors to the giant of Africa -- home to one of every six or seven of the continent's inhabitants (Nigeria's exact population is unknown).

It would hardly be surprising, then, if the release of Maier's new book were greeted with a resigned shrug from the public. But that would be unfortunate. The author does a laudable job of graphically illustrating the past and present divisions and missteps that have made Nigeria what it is today and threaten to unmake it tomorrow. Through interviews and brutally frank reportage, Maier shows that Nigeria could go either way under Obasanjo: down the path of real reform toward peace and prosperity, or in circles, maintaining the status quo and thereby risking civil war and violent disintegration.

This House Has Fallen catalogs with numbing repetition the scenes of poverty, violence, and ethnic unrest that its author observed throughout Nigeria during his two-year tour as the Independent's Lagos bureau chief and then in many subsequent returns. The book opens with a brutal anecdote that sets the tone: Maier tries to make his way through the streets of Port Harcourt, the business capital of the oil-rich Niger Delta region, only to have his driver harassed and roughed up by gun-toting police-thugs. Yet despite such vivid storytelling, the preface and much of the first 50 pages of the book read like another long cliche of African misery and despair. There is the arrival of the naive, greenhorn reporter at the riotous Third World airport. The violent and greedy police and soldiers. The smog-choked, cacophonous streets of Lagos. The "feeding frenzy of human piranha" looting a truck at the president's inauguration.

The book does ultimately improve. Maier has probably covered more terrain in Nigeria than any other Western correspondent, and in This House Has Fallen, the reader meets the myriad characters the journalist encountered over the years and gets to hear their views on Nigeria in their own words. Maier's interviews are his strong suite, giving voice to the voiceless -- from street boys to market women -- and giving a forum to the mighty generals who are largely to blame for Nigeria's unending woes.

His interview with the former strongman Ibrahim Babangida, for instance, should go down in history as one of the finest interviews of an egomaniacal Third World autocrat ever conducted. Maier deftly gives the man just enough rope to hang himself, while allowing his human side to come through intact enough to elicit unexpected empathy from readers.

The Babangida interview showcases what good journalists do best: tell a larger story through the prism of one person's experience. Babangida is a perfect candidate for this project, being the personification of the evils visited on the country and the embodiment of the vices and avarice that have wrecked modern-day Nigeria. His life is intertwined with that of his hobbled nation. As a boy, Babangida was greatly impressed by a visit to his school from a smartly dressed soldier and an officer recruiting for the colonial Nigerian armed forces. After independence, drunk with patriotism and the certainty that Nigeria would become the world's black superpower, surpassing British development and influence within a decade, Babangida enlisted. It was in the army that he began the long descent into power-lust and arrogance that would lead him to take over the reigns of the country from another military strongman (and friend) and plunge Nigeria even deeper into crisis.

HATE THY NEIGHBOR

Today Obasanjo is learning that democracy alone will not solve Nigeria's problems. Even after the return of civilian rule, the oil-rich Niger Delta remains a cauldron of ethnic violence. Although the Delta's oil provides 90 percent of Nigeria's hard-currency revenue, its people live in abject poverty. There are minimal government services and few schools -- even the health clinics that some multinational oil companies have built in an effort to generate community support for their operations have no roofs. It is no wonder then that the small tribes who live in the Delta loathe Abuja (Nigeria's capital) for colluding with rich foreigners to steal their resources and deny them their due. They have good cause for such resentment, as Maier shows when he outlines how the Abacha regime plundered the country's crude oil and sold it on the domestic black market or across the border -- or re-imported it to get the higher prices that foreign oil commands -- and then stashed the profits in Swiss bank accounts.

That Nigeria suffers from wrenching ethnic clashes is already well known. Deep divisions were foreordained by the British decision to group more than 300 tribes into a single country and then exacerbated by corrupt centralized mismanagement. What Maier adds to the picture are the details of Nigeria's dysfunctional democracy today and the historical context for the fight between the center and the periphery. He surveys the debris of Delta villages torched by government security forces paid by Western oil companies. He travels through the remote Middle Belt to talk with elders and youths; the scarce resources and official neglect they are afforded has fueled hatred of the capital and of local ethnic rivals. And in a refreshing break with conventional wisdom, he demystifies the Ogoni activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose 1995 execution by Abacha persuaded the Commonwealth to suspend Nigeria's membership.

Maier explains in detail how Nigeria's local and national leaders, taking a lesson from their former British masters, have used ethnicity to divide and conquer their embattled country and to enrich themselves. And in one unforgettable example, the author shows how the northern elites have used Islam to similar ends. With religion for a cudgel, northern politicians have distilled the masses' general disillusionment with Nigeria's government into Islamic fervor. Traveling with the Joint Aid Monitoring Group (Muslim men and boys empowered by the northern authorities to ensure that their fellow citizens lead clean "Muslim" lives), Maier records and recounts their misguided principles and delusions.

THE SAME OLD STORY

There is one major shortcoming to Maier's book, however: those who know Nigeria well will learn little new from it. The author's strength -- the breadth and depth of his reportage -- is also his weakness. The chief reason for a foreign correspondent to write a book -- some might say the only reason -- is that the role of privileged observer gives him or her particular insight into a country or region. But Maier offers no new insight, and his privileged access often results in stories that are neither instructive nor illustrative of any larger point.

Moreover, many of his arguments are flimsy or obvious. Even his recommendations for saving Nigerian nationhood -- through decentralization, a national constitutional convention, and privatization -- are well worn. Although he nods to the venerable tradition of reporter-philosophers such as Basil Davidson and Blaine Harden, his writing often reads like an undigested notebook. A journalist's book should offer something new -- or at least inflammatory -- to contribute to the existing body of work on a given subject.

Maier clearly has a great deal of affection for his subject: "Nigeria has proved to be by far the most confounding, frustrating, and at the same time engaging place I have ever visited." But he fails to convey the import of all the information he provides, so buried is his chronicle under heaps of hopelessness.

This House Has Fallen is worth reading for its graphic depictions of the current ethnic and regional challenges that President Obasanjo faces, particularly the growing ethnically based corps of youths being marshaled by rival, power-hungry leaders throughout the country. Anyone fascinated or appalled by the Nigerian story will not want to miss this book. But it offers frustratingly few answers for a region that needs them so desperately.

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  • Marcus Mabry, a former Africa Bureau Chief for Newsweek, is World Affairs Editor of Newsweek's international edition.
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