Books – recent titles reviewed

A love letter to Lagos

Lagos: A Cultural and Literary History
Kaye Whiteman, Signal Books, Oxford, 2012, 256pp, ISBN 978-1908493057

At the age of 77, the doyen of Britain’s Nigeria correspondents has published his first book – an extended love letter to the city which has lured him back again and again since he first set foot there, almost 50 years ago. Kaye Whiteman’s book is a contribution to Signal’s ‘Cities of the Imagination’ series, and it ticks all necessary boxes – it covers the city’s history, and its eccentric geography, built amid the shifting mud-banks and sandbars of the West African coast. There are excellent chapters on its art and culture, its literary life and famous characters.

But although the historical chapters are sound, the book really comes to life after 1964, when the young Whiteman first arrived in the city, just as a newly independent Nigeria was heading towards civil war. There he is, notebook in hand, in the background of a slightly grainy photograph; in the foreground a victorious General Gowon shakes hands with the Biafran General, Philip Effiong, who has just signed the document of surrender.

His account of that day catches the typically random nature of reporting from Lagos. Whiteman and his colleagues had no idea why they had been invited to Dodon Barracks. Indeed Whiteman wasn’t invited at all – an oversight he puts down to having been unwise enough to beat the Information Minister at Scrabble.

But, tipped off by a generous colleague (Bridget Bloom of the Financial Times), he got there in time to witness one of the defining moments of modern Nigerian history.

Whiteman is at his best when evoking the spirit of Lagos and Lagosians, the ‘cocky obstreperousness’, typified by Ken Saro-Wiwa, who originated from the Niger Delta, but lived most of his working life in the city. He celebrates what he calls the residents’ “spirit of cantankerous defiance”, and the “eye-catching, head-banging reality of the streets”.

He also captures the mutability of the physical city, even though its characteristic mixture of brutality and exhilaration doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years. My own early visits to Lagos often involved fruitless searches for places recommended by colleagues who had been there previously. All too often, the much-praised hotel, restaurant or music venue turned out to be dusty and almost deserted – and sometimes just an empty shell. Lagos had already moved on. I loved this book, its gusto and its idiosyncrasy, and I am sure all other enthusiasts for Lagos will feel the same. And for those readers who haven’t been there, perhaps it will open their eyes to why a city so often vilified can have so many devoted fans.

Elizabeth Blunt, former Africa correspondent for the BBC

The lost leaders of Pakistan

Pakistan: A New History
Ian Talbot, C Hurst, London, 2012, 224pp, ISBN 978-1849042031

The first page of Ian Talbot’s book includes the highly contestable claim that after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the US had a “growing awareness” that Pakistan’s army and ISI chiefs did not know about the al-Qaeda leader’s presence in Abbotta.

In fact, it’s increasingly hard to find senior figures in Washington who do not believe that Pakistan’s top brass knew exactly where the al Qaeda leader had been living.

It’s a disconcerting start, but one that Talbot rapidly puts behind him as he goes on to produce an otherwise dependable history of Pakistan. He runs through the country’s long list of missed opportunities leader by leader. His is the first full history of the country to include considered assessments of the two most recent Presidents: Musharraf and Zardari. His conclusions on Musharraf are clear. Pakistan’s latest military regime, he argues, proved itself to be incapable of implementing reform. It’s a point that will be worth remembering the next time there is a coup.

While few were ever that enthusiastic about General Zia’s seizure of power, the first days, months and even years of the Ayub Khan and Musharraf regimes were filled with high hopes, both in the West and in Pakistan, that the army’s institutional strength and relative efficiency would enable it to resolve Pakistan’s problems.

But, as Talbot points out, both regimes failed. While Ayub Khan and Musharraf could convincingly articulate their visions of reform, their authoritarian tendencies and lack of legitimacy rendered them incapable of delivering substantial change.

Professor Talbot has been diligently studying Pakistan longer than most. His footnotes and bibliography reveal that he has read virtually all the material that has been published on Pakistan in the last decade. In fact there is an undercurrent of complaint in this book. Talbot seems unhappy that others who have been writing about Pakistan lack his detailed grasp and knowledge of the country’s history.

And yet for all his industry and erudition, Talbot’s conclusions seem broadly in line with the general consensus about the country. The five areas he identifies as key – the historical inheritance, civil-military relations, unhelpful foreign influences, centre-province relations and role of Islam – are familiar enough.

Most recent books on Pakistan, whether they predict the county’s imminent collapse or try to explain its remarkable resilience, have discussed the very same factors. Many have also considered a couple of other areas – Talbot refers to demographics and climate change. Pakistan: A New History, in other words, is not an innovative contribution to the field but it is a solid and reliable one.

Owen Bennett Jones


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