Nigeria is an extraordinary country. On the one hand, it is a microcosm of Africa, but also an exemplification of the ills that historically have plagued the continent. Located strategically on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and harboring two of Africa’s major rivers, the Niger and the Benue, while also straddling the breadth of the Sahara desert, Nigeria is a “wealthy” country in the richest sense of the word. But as with every society, the people are their greatest wealth. Nigeria bursts at the seams, home to just under 200 million people in a land mass one and half times the size of the state of Texas. Among this population is an educated elite whose impact is felt internationally in the arts, medicine, science, sport and more. Yet about half its population lives in extreme poverty. In 2018 Nigeria overtook India, a country more than six times its population size, as the country with the highest number of people living on less than $1.90 a day. A country of enigmatic dualities: in its wealth, is writ great poverty; in its great promise, extreme despair. How then can one understand this riddle?
This question is at the heart of the anthology, Of This Our Country edited by Ore Agbaje-Williams and Nancy Adimora. Here is a gathering of some of the nation’s most celebrated contemporary writers – from Ayobami Adebayo to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I contribute a piece to the collection, and I think that collectively, we describe much of the country’s history and analyze its current situation through writing that is witty, intelligent, and even angry.
I recommend all the authors in the anthology, but there is of course much more to read – the following authors should enrich anyone’s understanding of Nigeria.
1. Because I Am Involved by Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu
Jim Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall, once postulated that every nation has a “soul history” that holds the people of a society accountable for the wrongs of its past. For Harrison, America’s soul history is slavery; for Nigeria, it is undoubtedly the Biafran war of 1967-70. The man who led the Biafran revolt, Colonel Ojukwu wrote this book after returning to Nigeria from exile. It is a witty, eloquent book which presents what was at the time a clear assessment of Nigeria from independence to 1989, and still feels far-sighted.
two. This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime by Stephen Ellis
No book has better identified the blighted ethics that shape and permeate our country than this. It is a thoroughly detailed study that exposes the rot in the country’s moral base, and an indictment of those who have perpetuated the rot.
3. Awo by Obafemi Awolowo
An insightful autobiography by the former leader of the Western Region in the first republic (1959-1960). The book transported me to the early struggles for independence and the Nigeria of that time, a country as utterly different as it was familiar. It is also shows Nigeria’s political and structural musculation were present even during the period of its becoming.
Four. Violence by Festus Iyayi
This is an almost forgotten novel by a writer who once won the Commonwealth prize for fiction. It is a novel whose depiction of the soul-crushing realities of extreme poverty in 1970s Nigeria will touch anyone who reads it. It is a gripping, fast-paced, and rewarding read.
5. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
It is perhaps a cliche to include Achebe on this list, but no book currently available has provided a stronger truth about precolonial Nigeria than his debut novel. Through the life of his troubled hero, Okonkwo, we come to an understanding of how the Igbo civilization fell and was replaced by a western one.
6. Collected Poems by Gabriel Okara
This is a gem of history and a trove of delights from one of Nigeria’s most celebrated poets. It ranges from his earliest work by him to the 2005 collection, The Dreamer, His Dream by him in what is a major lyrical exploration of the troubled history of Nigeria from the 50s to the early 2000s.
7. Be(com)ing Nigerian by Elnathan John
John has written fiction, but his satirical broadside about modern-day Nigeria is a biting and penetrative take, with deadpan jokes such as “Nigerians have the shortest memories amongst human beings worldwide” and, “A good Nigerian politician knows how to use God for protection.” The title itself suggests various interpretations of what it means to be Nigerian, and how we navigate this both within Nigeria and outside it. You will laugh while also shaking your head in dismay.
8. Ovoramwen Nogbaisi by Ola Rotimi
A play which chronicles the old Benin kingdom (within what is now southwestern Nigeria) through the story of one of its historical monarchs, Ovaranwen Nogbaisi. Rotimi was a writer whose artistic vision was largely shaped by classical western literature. This, in a sense, was meant to be his Nigerian version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and it lives up to its model of him.
9. Nigeria and the Nation-State by John Campbell
The former US ambassador to Nigeria, Campbell is an Africanist who has devoted his life to thinking, serving, and writing about the country. His first book, Nigeria: What Everyone Should Know, was a good outsider-insider look at the country’s many problems. But this more recent study takes a more theoretical approach, making an argument I have often dwelled on: simply that Nigeria is not a nation-state, and treating it as such is an international relations mistake.
10. Leaving the Tarmac by Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede
This is an unlikely inclusion as it can be classified under the much frowned-upon “celebrity memoir” category. But if we want to understand the economic problems of infrastructural decay that Nigeria has to address, then why not look at people who have overcome those hurdles? Aig-Imoukhuede is a successful banker who bought and revitalized a bank. His story of him – which includes powerfully written memories of being left off a flight he was booked to take – offers many insights into the workings and inner life of Nigeria’s financial institutions.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism