Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink

John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, explores the country's postcolonial history and examines the events and conditions that have carried this troubled giant to the edge.

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Read an excerpt of Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink.

"Governance, let alone democracy, faces grievous, structural challenges in Nigeria," says Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Senior Fellow and Former Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell in his new book Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink. "Popular alienation and a fragmented establishment have contributed to Nigeria becoming one of the most religious and, at the same time, one of the most violent countries in the world."

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The book offers a history of Nigeria from colonialism through independence to the flawed elections in 2007, which undermined the credibility of the current government and left Nigeria's conflicts unresolved. "Ubiquitous patronage and corrupt behavior fueled by oil money is a root cause of Nigeria's political and economic sclerosis," explains Campbell. "The federal government has failed to provide basic security for its citizens and has lost its monopoly on violence, two basic attributes of a sovereign state."

Nigeria Security Tracker

Despite the challenges, Campbell argues that Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is important to the United States and the international community. He points to a history of shared interests, including efforts to promote African regional stability and conflict resolution, economic cooperation in the region's petroleum resources, and tackling public health challenges, especially HIV/AIDS and malaria.

"Though the international community would pay a steep price for Nigerian state failure and the likely humanitarian calamity," Campbell acknowledges that "it can do little except at the margins to prevent it." He argues that state failure is not inevitable, but change must come from inside Nigeria. He encourages the Obama administration to "assist those in Nigeria working to establish a democratic culture," in hope that a complete collapse of the state can be forestalled.

He calls on the United States to employ a strategy of "soft diplomacy," which includes "facilitating more exchanges and providing more grants to those actively working to create a democratic culture." He encourages U.S. support of the National Assembly, the court system, and carefully vetted state governments that are practicing good governance through targeted assistance programs.

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Campbell urges the Obama administration to seek greater ties with Nigerian civil society, while warning of the possible negative political consequences if the United States is viewed as too supportive of the Abuja government. "The people of Nigeria distance themselves from government as much as they can. There is the risk that many of them will distance themselves from the United States if they perceive Washington to be an uncritical supporter of the Abuja status quo." He maintains that "the Obama administration should take into greater account what the Nigerian government is doing domestically before embracing Abuja too warmly."

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Educators: Access Teaching Notes for Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink.

Reviews and Endorsements

This book will, no doubt, provide a good reference point for political discourse about Nigeria for many years to come.

Professor Stan Chu Ilo, University of Toronto (Sahara Reporters)


Father Matthew Hassan Kukah in Leadership, via

This lucidly written book will appeal to scholars, policymakers, and general readers. John Campbell explores key political, economic, and social issues and frankly evaluates U.S. policies in helping or inhibiting the building of a stable, democratic, and less corrupt Nigeria. It is essential reading for all concerned about the unfulfilled potential, and uncertain future, of this complex nation.

Richard Joseph, Northwestern University

A fascinating work. With the detail Ambassador Campbell provides based on his Abuja assignment, the book is a lucid and valuable contribution to understanding contemporary Nigeria. Campbell writes with unusual candor, and with his initial academic training as a historian, he brings analytical discipline to his writing. This is much more than a mere memoir.

Crawford Young, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Nigeria, onetime giant of Africa, rich in both human and natural resources, has in the past decades or so descended into what Samuel P. Huntington calls praetorianism—control of society by force or fraud, especially by venal, corruptible, and often sycophantic people; into what Richard Joseph calls prebendalism—the disbursing of public offices and state rents to one's ethnic-based clients; and into what Larry Diamond calls uncivil society—lacking the horizontal relations of reciprocity and cooperation that breed the honesty, trust, and law abidingness that mark the civic community. The aforementioned descriptions of Nigeria raised the specter of a failed state. John Campbell (Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies, Council on Foreign Relations), former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, cites numerous factors responsible for this situation: endemic corruption, maladministration, election malpractices, and sectarian violence perpetrated by Boko Haram. Campbell condemns Washington's indifference in the past and cautions the Obama administration to be circumspect in helping Nigerian civil society in reversing this trend. A must-read for people interested in security of Nigeria and U.S.-Nigeria bilateral relations; recommended for other readers.

L. O. Imade, Shaw University

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