The Shadow List by Todd Moss: Of China, Russia, Nigeria and the belly of the 419 beast

In the age of social media it is tough to read long form works. Fiction taunts you on your smartphone every second, it is delicious, this living, and the world of Donald Trump makes it doubly exciting if you are not concerned that our world is careening from a benign farce, to a burning hell in a handbasket. The brain and the eyes are getting used to a gentrification – an aversion to long essays and books and a preference for works that are trapped within the world of Twitter’s 140 characters and the communal narcissism of Facebook and her cousins. So the other day, fighting a losing battle with my addiction to social media, I picked up a copy of The Shadow List, Todd Moss’s new book, published by Penguin Random House. You will be proud of me, I fought my social media induced ADHD issues, hung tight with the book, and the book rewarded my staying power by letting me fall in love with it. You will love the book.

What is The Shadow List all about?  Who is Todd Moss? Great questions; there is a good profile of Moss here in the Washington Post. He has also written a piece here explaining the method behind his literary madness. A former US deputy assistant secretary of state with expertise in West Africa, Moss is currently a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC. He has parlayed his extensive experience as a diplomat into writing fiction that threatens to birth a genre – diplomatic thriller or diplo-thriller. With this book, Moss now has a running series of four books of fiction involving the fictional character Judd Ryker: The Golden Hour (starring Mali), Minute Zero (inspired by events in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe), Ghosts of Havana, and now, The Shadow List (showcasing Nigeria). It is a brilliant concept, attempting to break down the arcana of sprawling bureaucracies and global diplomatic intrigue into engaging fiction.

shadowlist_leadSo how did the serial protagonist Judd Ryker do in The Shadow List? I think he and his wife, Jessica Ryker acquitted themselves admirably. It is a busy little book, Judd Ryker, the main character sets out to confront Chinese expansionist ambitions in capturing the world’s energy (crude oil) market. He soon gets side-tracked into other plots that involve Nigeria’s crude oil market (and its corruption) the encroaching Chinese influence in Nigeria, kidnappings, Nigeria’s politics; drama, corruption,  the popular or notorious Nigerian “419” scam, Russian gangs, etc. It is a sprawling plot of subplots that somehow trap an army of colorful characters including his wife, CIA agent, Jessica Ryker.

If you want to wrap your head around American foreign policy interests, especially with respect to African nations like Nigeria and the spaghetti webs of America’s government agencies and her relationships with other superpowers, this is a great book to start with. Moss knows a lot about our worlds and it shows.  Life in the US state department can be quite shadowy and one quickly learns that corruption is not a word unique to just African and Latino nations; there is a sense in which America probably inspired that pejorative.

In The Shadow List, Moss’s fiction is loosely based on the truth, there is a character loosely patterned after the corrupt and disgraced congressman William Jefferson, and there is one that is a thinly veiled portrait of Nigeria’s once respected crime fighter, former chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Nuhu Ribadu.  Moss is obviously fond of Ribadu, indeed his famous quote “When you fight corruption, it fights back!” is in the book. It is a respectful look from the outside into Nigeria, there are even thinking Nigerians with the sophistication that you will hardly find in the works of African fiction. Nigeria comes across as gritty and corrupt, a place where relationships and individuals attempt to do what robust structures and systems do in thriving countries. Nigeria struts its stuff with attitude as Moss deploys his most colorful prose, dips his ink into pidgin English and re-introduces the world to Nigerian cuisine like jollof rice and egusi soup. More importantly, The Shadow List is a rigorous study of the 419 scam phenomenon, the research is quite impressive. The book’s tempo really picks up exactly half-way into the book and this reader begins to imagine it as an action-packed movie.

The book’s strength is in its attention to substance; it manages to inform and entertain the reader. It is interesting that the book, a commentary on corruption and America’s traditional anxieties around protecting oil reserves at home and abroad is coming out in September, in the age of Trump and all his shenanigans, at a time also when America is less interested in external reserves of oil since it is almost now self-sufficient in terms of energy resources. The book also makes the point to this Nigerian reader that the real restructuring of Nigeria would be one that devolves power and resources away from the powerful center to the satellites, and creates robust sustainable structures of governance and accountability, if she is to thrive – and be respected and relevant in the global community.

Moss is a good writer and the Judd Ryker series is a great concept. You will need to be patient, the book takes its time getting to a brisk pace as Moss methodically builds plots upon too many plots and subplots – often using clinical prose that belongs in a government memorandum. This is a problem in the age of social media. Nigerians will cringe at Moss’s version of Pidgin English, it is adorably atrocious, but the Western reader will appreciate it because it is adapted for their benefit. The Shadow List does sometimes come across as a giant nod to American exceptionalism, that notion that in the end America is good and she will triumph over the other’s evil. The book is ponderous at first, but hang in there long enough and you will be rewarded with a good thriller. Do you know the origin of the term “shadow list”? You will have to read the book, I don’t do spoilers. Yes, I recommend the book. Absolutely.

Olusegun Adeniyi: Power, politics, and the killing of a nation

I so badly wanted to read Olusegun Adeniyi’s book, Power, Politics and Death detailing his alleged reflections on his days as a spokesman to Nigeria’s late President Umar Musa Yar’Adua, a man whose wholly ineffective tenure has now being glorified and lionized by the chic incompetence and buffoonery of the present occupant of Aso Rock, “President” Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.  I was fascinated; here was a man who had front row seats in those days when Nigeria was listing and drifting in the morbid hands of a dying or dead man (depending on who you were listening to in those tragicomic times). I badly wanted Adeniyi’s book. He was Yar’Adua’s press aide and I could be forgiven for believing that he saw and knew a lot of stuff and that he recorded them down as all good journalists do who find themselves caught in the grip of history. So my excitement was understandable. Getting books from Nigeria is becoming easier by the day thanks to the tenacity of technology and the resourcefulness of some Nigerian writers and publishers. Some folks are using the Internet to the maximum and I applaud all that. Still, the book was hard to come by but I ended up buying a copy from Abuja for over N5,000 and also acquiring an electronic copy which is my preferred mode of reading these days, for practical reasons.

Well, I managed to finish reading the book, an irresponsible act I will regret to my dying day. It was easy to read the book; there is nothing there, nothing, zero, zilch. Adeniyi’s book is innocent of substance; that is the most generous thing I can say about that placebo of a book. There is an enigmatic preface in there somewhere by the equally enigmatic Dele Olojede who manages to write a non-preface that avoids what he says between the lines; “there is nothing here to talk about but Adeniyi is my friend and if I keep writing long obtuse oblique sentences he will go away.” But then, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Every Nigerian thinker should own a copy. It is an important book that says a whole lot about what it does not say. It communicates volumes about the lack of vision, perfidy and collusion of our intellectual elite in the ongoing looting and pillage of Nigeria for their own and their families’ profits. It is only the lust for money and prestige that will make formerly decent people like Adeniyi, Dr. Reuben Abati and Mallam Nuhu Ribadu to work for odium and the scum of the earth. Shame on our intellectuals.

What we surmise from reading Adeniyi’s book is that he is perhaps a lazy idle civilian who spent most of his time drinking peppersoup and wallowing in denial about the massive corruption and ineptitude that was and remains  the hallmark of democratic governance in today’s Nigeria. At the end of his tenure, he escapes Aso Rock with reams of poorly written dog-eared memos and he proceeds to punish us with them. Mimicry is going to be the end of us. In the West, press aides write memoirs, so Nigeria’s “press aides” must write theirs, even if it kills us. American presidents have libraries for their papers, so former “president” Olusegun Obasanjo, “Father of modern Nigeria” must have one for his “papers.” Tell me, what has Obasanjo contributed intellectually and morally to our nation that cannot fit between the pages of a ten naira exercise book? Someone is mistaking moin-moin wraps for papers. By the way, the carcass of the “library” is now being used by our ever resourceful dispossessed to dry aso ebi dresses and egusi seeds.

You must read this book because I am telling you, misery loves company, let it not be that I am the only one who lost money buying this money waster of a book. Add the opportunity cost of the time it took me off my busy schedule, I should sue his sorry behind. There is absolutely zilch, zero, nothing that I read in this wretched book that I had not gleaned from reams of stuff freely available on the Internet, nothing, I repeat nothing. It was like reading typed minutes of the mind of Sahara Republic’s Omoyele Sowore. I did not need to go to Adeniyi to read Sowore’s mind, I have his cell phone number on Amebo my Blackberry. How is it possible that you are the press secretary of a nation’s president and at the end of your tenure you have nothing new to say that improves upon the silence? How is that possible? It is very possible because these characters are accountable to no one but themselves.

This book makes you really angry; you come to the sad realization that the past decade of “democracy” was wasted. This democracy has been worse in my honest opinion than even the dark days of that deadly buffoon, “General” Sani Abacha. I honestly do not wish the military back, a pox on their houses. But for the avoidance of doubt, just to be clear, I am 100 percent against what passes for “democracy” in Nigeria today. It is a plague on us. And yes, If I had to choose between the late “General” Sani Abacha and “President” Goodluck Jonathan, it would be a no contest; I would kiss Abacha on both evil striped cheeks and welcome him back to Aso Rock. I repeat: This democracy is the worst thing that ever happened to Nigeria – after the new Christianity of course. I said it. Sue me.

The prodemocracy war was between Abacha and the fools now ruining us, more specifically the leaders of the prodemocracy movement and their NADECO thugs in agbada. The ordinary people had no dog in the fight. Abacha never bothered my parents in the village. He only went after those who wanted what he had. Under Abacha, my father never saw the hell that he is enduring under “democracy.” My mother danced under starry skies and did not worry about safety and security. Today, my dad’s pension is unpaid, he is afraid of his shadow and some times when I send him money, it is like I am sending it to armed robbers. His grand children are trapped in bad schools and endure life without a communal municipality. We are in denial, folks. I will never ever fight for democracy again, never. This democracy is a plague on our country.

Yes, some very powerful and good people were murdered by Abacha and his goons. But then for every one of those murdered, hundreds have died in the hands of the incompetence and mimicry we now call democracy. If we are going to be miserable, we better have a good excuse. These thieving civilians in Aso Rock and NASS are worse than Abacha in every way. And of course, Adeniyi, Abati, Ribadu and Mallam el-Rufai make it abundantly clear that our intellectual elite are deeply unprincipled and irresponsible. Let us be honest with ourselves; these vagabonds in power are stealing Nigeria to the ground. At this rate nothing will be left. And they are incompetent to boot.

It is easy for us to say that things were dark in the Abacha days. But we were duped into this Animal Farm that they call democracy. Our political and intellectual elite are taking care of themselves and their families in Europe and America and telling Nigerians to go eat eba without meat. Where is the outrage? An entire generation of youths has been miseducated because the funds have been looted. It is summer time here in America, our political leaders and their thieving civil servants are all here celebrating the graduation of their children from choice Western schools and thanking “God” for his mercies, whatever. After ten years of this, education in Nigeria’s public schools is not fit for human consumption. I know because I pay the fees and I read the “sentences” of my grateful wards.  We are all sitting around pretending that all is well, watching other people’s children being mistreated by semi-illiterate teachers in pigsties and we say this is better than the military. Not by much, I say. I have nothing but contempt for what is going on in Nigeria today. That we have learnt to live without a government does not make it right.

The Nigerian military raised my generation and gave us a world class education. Left to these bloody civilians I’d be on an okada motorcycle to nowhere. What frightens and saddens me the most is the abuse of this generation of children in the name of education. We have teachers that cannot teach, lawyers that cannot write simple sentences, doctors that are glorified butchers and “poets” that write incomprehensible books and sell them to “universities” as required text. The cycle is vicious and unsustainable.

For Nigeria, the first order of business on the road to empowerment is to reject this pyramid scheme or “democracy.” Nigeria is Animal Farm. Oh yes, the book, Adeniyi’s book, buy the book, it is a good book! KMT.