Most helpful critical review
4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Interesting but not really helpful
on June 4, 2007
Is it Hubris to review a book on a country you know absolutely nothing about? More like Chutzpa, I guess, that perennial curse of us Jews. Although I know little about Nigeria, I hope I can offer fellow clueless Amazonians a taste of what this book is like, and maybe even give people who know something about Nigeria a fresh perspective (well, I said maybe).
I occasionally read books about unfamiliar countries to slightly dispell my general ignorance, but I have to say the "The Trouble with Nigeria" did not do much to enrich my knowledge of this poor little African Country (not so little, actually - it is apparently bigger then France). I learned this little fact about Nigeria's size from Wikipedia. Achebe spares us such mandane details as the size, population, and per capita GDP of Nigeria. He's more interested in maladies such as corruption, immaturity, and tribalism. As a consequence, the vast majority of the book is useless as a source of information to outsiders. Only the last couple of chapters actually bring some useful information, and even then, it is clearly targeted to those in the know.
There are two things to praise about Achebe's book. Achebe avoids both extremes in search of answers to the questions of Nigeria's ills; too often in human history, people have attempted to blame the failure of non-Western societies on their genetic makeup. Achebe rightly rejects this answer forthwith: "There is nothing basically wrong with Nigerian character" (p.1). Another response, more understandable and reasonable, and yet equally unproductive, is to blame the West, Imperialism, and Colonialism. Knowing very little Nigerian History, no doubt a good case can be made that British Colonial rule has been a disaster. But Achebe does not seek to cast blame - he seeks avenues for reform, and for that he should be commanded.
But for Achebe the problems of Nigeria are two-fold: Corruption and Tribalism. That is an oversimplified analysis and won't do. Take corruption first; Achebe quotes shockingly forthright statements by major Nigerian politicians who claim their planning of promoting their own self interest. (pp. 59-60). That is very unromantic, but not terribly surprising. Powerful people are usually ambitious people; even the best politicians, such as the American Founding Fathers, have had their share of pettiness and greed. As we agree that Nigerians are no better nor worse then other people, why would they be singularly blessed with lousy leaders?
Or take tribalism; Achebe observes that tribalism is a serious problem in Nigeria, as tribal identity is often as strong or stronger then national identity. He fails to mention that Nigeria has 250 different ethnic groups speaking some five hundred languages! (Wikipedia again) Another admission of ignorance of all things Nigerian is due here, but I am generally skeptical about the viability of multi-ethnic states. The possibility that a divided Nigeria would be an improvement should be considered, as should the proper form of government to direct such a complex country.
Achebe makes only the scantest mention of comparable African states (p.20). African countries are severely disadvantaged because of their geographical position, historical development, and legacy of Western colonialism. Setting reasonable goals in comparison with other African states, and learning from the successes and failures of other African states is essential for improving the state of Nigeria.
Finally, I'd like to raise a point not mentioned by Mr. Achebe's book: Oil. Nigeria is, to its misfortune, an oil rich country. Oil is a great burden to underdeveloped countries, because it fosters the growth of a small and extremely powerful social stratum that can monopolize its profits. Like mines in Latin America, oil causes great wealth inequalities and hinders democracy. I would be very surprised if Oil wasn't one cause for Nigeria's trouble, and learning to cope with it would have to be a priority.
Chinua Achebe's book is impassioned and well written, but unfortunately it is analytically defective. It contains scarcely any insights from economics, social science, or historical perspective; Of course, it is not that kind of book, but that is the point - it is only that kind of book that can help a country such as Nigeria. So I am afraid I cannot recommend "The Trouble with Nigeria".