Article by Peter Maass

Death and Taxis

The Washington Post  |  December 24, 2000
This House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria. By Karl Maier

By Karl Maier
Public Affairs. 327 pp. $26

Reviewed by Peter Maass

A book that begins with a taxi story usually begins colorfully. Karl Maier opens This House Has Fallen with a wild brawl that broke out when his taxi got caught in traffic in Port Harcourt, a hub of the oil industry in Nigeria. It was the sort of African gridlock in which exhaust fumes are more plentiful than oxygen, beggars wander from one car to another displaying withered limbs, and young boys hawk soft drinks. In such situations, the street becomes a mixture of suffocating market and freak show.

Maier’s driver was ordered by a policeman to move his taxi, but this was impossible because nothing was moving. So the policeman punched the driver, who then grabbed the cop by the throat, prompting the cop to swing back and reach for his revolver. The driver was not cowed. “I will kill you!” he screamed. “I will never forget your face!” The hostile parties were separated by soldiers standing nearby, the gridlock became ungridlocked, and everyone carried on with their tumultuous lives; it was just another day in Nigeria, another boiling point come and gone.

This House Has Fallen contains an exotic feast of vignettes of this sort about life in Nigeria, which is Africa’s most populous country. These lively scenes are the book’s strength but also its weakness. Maier recounts, for instance, a visit to the violent town of Wukari, where the notorious Mobile Police squads had come to be known as “Kill and Go” because of their utter brutality. He points out the curious fact that Nigeria’s air force has 10,000 men but fewer than 20 aircraft that can actually fly. And Nigeria, he notes, has earned at least $280 billion from oil exports since the discovery of oil in the 1950s, but much of this has been siphoned away by endlessly greedy officials; Nigeria has the unfortunate distinction of being known as the most corrupt country on the planet, and one of the poorest. “Almost the only time [Niger] delta people saw any impact of the oil was when it was spilled into the water in which they fished and bathed,” Maier writes after describing a journey down a polluted delta stream.

From 1986 to 1996, Maier covered Africa for the Independent, a British newspaper, and he has contributed to other publications, including The Washington Post. This is his third book on Africa, and he knows his subject well. He could not have chosen a better topic or a better time to write about it. Nigeria, like the rest of the continent, is at a crossroads. After suffering under a series of corrupt dictators, most of them generals, the country has, at last, a democratically elected leader, Olusegun Obasanjo, who can count on the support of Western governments—for whatever that’s worth these days. But as Maier notes, a collapse beckons. “The Nigerian state is like a battered and bruised elephant staggering toward an abyss with the ground crumbling under its feet,” he writes.

Nigeria is the sort of African country that Americans should care about—not only because of its enormous suffering and poverty but because of the enormous potential it possesses and the prospect, if the ground holds under its feet, that it could give a boost to the entire continent. It would be fortunate, then, if This House Has Fallen were the sort of book that could engage and educate a broad public, as for example David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb, about the fall of communism in Russia, did so well. In a sense, Nigeria, with its large population, vast natural resources and stunning corruption, is the Russia of Africa, but This House Has Fallen is hobbled by too many taxi-style tales to do it full justice. Foreign correspondents spend a lot of time in taxis, going to interviews or press conferences or lunches or whatever. Taxi drivers are colorful personalities—is there such a thing as a taxi driver without an opinion on everything?—so it can be quite easy to spice up an article or a book with them. But such stories are often a hint that the writer has been spending too much time on the move and not enough time in living rooms or in kitchens or in villages, getting to the essence of what life is like for people who don’t earn their living by the quarter-mile.

This House Has Fallen roams at top speed from one troubled town to another, from one pessimistic politician to another. This is useful in many ways, because Maier provides readers with a taste of what Nigeria offers in the way of tribalism, politics, religion and history. And he describes, quite well, the system of cronyism that has beggared the nation. Some of his profiles are scintillating; for example, he takes readers to the slums of Lagos, where a popular Pentecostal preacher, Temitope Balogun Joshua, heals writhing parishioners with shouts of “Fire all over de body!”

But what does it all mean? What keeps these people going in such miserable circumstances? Where is Nigeria heading? One wishes that Maier, who has written a good book, had spent more time sitting under a tree, thinking about what he saw or talking to Nigerians about it, rather than rushing off to the next appointment by taxi.