Book Review: My Nigeria-Five Decades of Independence (by Peter Cunliffe-Jones)

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
First published: 2010

I have the rare privilege of knowing a few authors personally, and realizing that not everybody has a daily access to these patient hardworking minds that sit down for hours, thinking about words, and writing them down to tell beautiful unforgettable stories. One of those authors is Peter Cunliffe-Jones. We have sat down with him for lunch a few times. The first time we met, it was over drinks in some Nairobi hotel. We spoke about fact-checking. But that is another story, for another time.

I knew he wrote a book and when he speaks, in passing, about the experience, you get the impression that it was one of those works where he spent hours doing research, combing through his notes, talking to people, asking uncomfortable questions, making conclusions and then doing the brave thing: stringing a readable story and putting it out there.

His book My Nigeria: Five Decades of Independence is one of those books that I read and could not put down. I bought it off Amazon and it arrived just a week before I took my flight from London to Nairobi. I packed it in my hand luggage because I was meant to finish John Nixon’s Debriefing the President (about the interrogation of Saddam Hussein and the Bush White House) on the long flight.  When I landed in Nairobi I was done with Nixon’s book and I unpacked My Nigeria to read as I waited for my friend to pick me from the airport that night.

It is a fantastic read, well-written, relatable if you are a Kenyan or African for that matter, working and struggling to make ends meet. If you are a Kenyan journalist reading My Nigeria in 2018, you can’t help but notice the parallels between the two countries, both colonial constructs, steeped in tribalism, with a corrupt political elite that steals public funds and operates with jaw-dropping impunity. My Nigeria is a personal story, with extensive political history of a complex country, very optimistic people, and you know, a resigned helplessness about the power of the masses to change the state of the nation. He writes about things that even as a Kenyan, I shudder when I see similarities between what his Nigeria story and what is happening in my own country, today!

That he is a Brit, writing about Nigeria, with such deep passion and insight that you can note his personal hurt at the state of that country, was illuminating. Why would he care? I asked myself. 

But that was before I read his personal stories of his Nigerian friends who had to flee abroad because their businesses had been impoverished by bribe-taking officials. You see his narration of being caught in the middle of a deadly, bloody ethnic clash witnessing the slaughter of young men, because of their tribe. You read about him sitting in a clinic in the Delta watching a child die of cerebral malaria. You hear about his friend who when flagged down by soldiers unthinkingly gives away  some money, mourns and drives on. He doesn’t even speak to the soldiers. You read about how a thieving corrupt governor hinting forcefully that all that stolen wealth was his right because Nigerians don’t want a poor governor. You read about the multinationals; about superstition; and about how the people are so divided along ethnic and religious lines, even regional lines, that it is impossible for them to have a concerted effort to change things.


In some chapters, I got the sense that Peter was looking at the insane but practical decision for the colonial officers to merge the warring regions in Nigeria into one country as the original sin, the foundation for the corruption. But while he was inclined to blame the architect and the engineer for building a bad house with cracks in the foundation, his Nigerian friends are very clear in their thoughts that it is Nigerians to fix their country.  I got the sense that he blamed colonialism for the problems in Nigeria. His grandfather, a senior colonial figure who was part of the team that wrote the Constitution long before independence noted in his diaries that “the outlook (was) bad”. It is something he struggled with and you can see it in the choice of words in Peter’s narration.

But blaming colonialism after five decades of Africans being in power—even with the influence of multinationals and the foreign interference in the politics and the support of foreign banks to hide the loot—is to exonerate the legendary greed of the Nigerian elite. Or of the political elite of the African dictators and their kleptocracies. It is very helpful that Peter had to turn to Indonesia to illustrate this point, and to carefully point out the similarities between Nigeria and Indonesia, and the unique circumstances that show Nigeria the way it is, and Indonesia the way it is.  

In the book, the history of Nigeria, the coups and the counter-coups, the tribal animosity, the impunity, the corruption and the lack of leadership are vividly illustrated with journalistic candor, with bewildering anecdotes, complete with witnesses, it would surprise you that such things can happen in a country. But I have seen some of the things written in there happening right here in Kenya in 2018 and it scares me that the same “story of a people reluctantly, but inevitably, acquiescing to misrule…” is alive in my own country.

For example, you have stories of top politicians looting millions from public firms, and building palatial homes, buying loyalty and if push comes to shove, hiring hitmen to neutralize the inconvenient whistleblowers. You get the sense that money buys power in that country, and power makes money, lots of money. For any Kenyan, this sounds familiar. Remember the case where a suspect told a parliamentary committee how she carried millions of taxpayers’ money?

It didn’t help that while I was reading Peter’s book and his story about how a person going on holiday had to put up a ‘Beware of 419’ sign to warn people that their house is not for sale, I read this story about how a dead man’s land was just stolen in Kenya!

They keep on looting public money. Instead of changing the quality of life of the people, they let the people die, and only act when their hold on power is challenged. And that “action” is to either kill, buy opponents, jail them, or do whatever they can to keep the power, but not to go out and fix the lives of the people.  At some point, you can sense the trauma that all journalists who have counted the bodies, or watched people being slaughtered in the choice of words. It awakened some ghosts in me.

Kenya is a country where former fraudsters and looters of public money are elected to high office, fools and political buccaneers appointed ministers or are elected to high office. It kills me.

I have had to re-read Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria, and I had to mine Frédéric Bastiat’s  The Law, just calm down. Peter’s book makes me want to write about the theft in Kenya, the absence of “hygiene” in Kenya’s politics, as PLO Lumumba calls it.  
I was surprised that Peter wound up his book on an optimistic note, that the Internet and the power of communication would change Nigeria. Yes, nothing is impossible, because, when you hear that Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian came to invest in Kenya and abandoned the projects because of the greed in Kenya.

“I didn’t think Kenya would be more corrupt than Nigeria” he reportedly told Jeff Koinange, a Kenyan journalist who worked for CNN and was fired because of a story he did on the Niger Delta in Nigeria.


I wish I could go on and on and on, but I don’t want to be a spoiler. Buy the book and read for yourselves. What a read. My Nigeria: Five Decades of Independence


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