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Rich in Oil and Rich in Corruption — Nigeria in the Early 1970s

Oil boomed. Revenue skyrocketed. So did political corruption, economic dependency, and environmental degradation. The dramatic spike in oil production in the Niger Delta in the early 1970s had social, political, economic and environmental consequences in Nigeria that few imagined at the time.  Many of these consequences were negative. The so-called “oil curse” had descended upon Nigeria.

The American ambassador at the time, John Reinhardt, saw the impact.  Oil production and revenue absorbed almost all the government’s attention.  Economic diversification was neglected, as was infrastructure, agriculture and multiple other key sectors.  This neglect, in turn, exacerbated Nigeria’s economic dependence on oil. While oil brought profits for the elite, little consideration was given to improving the standard of living or distributing wealth and benefits to the broader population. Mosts development partners cut off aid, and oil became a source of conflict among ethnic groups.  Most of all corruption mushroomed in Nigeria, on a scale rarely seen in Africa or the world.

John Reinhardt was the first African American ambassador to Nigeria.  Appointed in 1971, he served in Lagos until 1975. A World War II veteran, Reinhardt’s Foreign Service career began in the Philippines and later took him to Japan and Iran. President Jimmy Carter named Reinhardt director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1977. Reinhardt later taught at several universities.

John Reinhardt’s interview was conducted by James Dandridge on March 28, 2002.

Read John Reinhardt’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Mary Claire Simone.

“For better and for worse, they had a lot of money and they had a lot of corruption.”

Nigeria Turns Into a Different Kind of Nation: Then after the oil embargo in ‘73 as I recall, oil became precious.  And the quality of Nigerian oil is almost sulfur free . . . Much of it is offshore and it was in great demand. The prices shot up all over, of course — and not just in Nigeria. But it became a kind of different nation. For better and for worse, they had a lot of money and they had a lot of corruption.

. . . . Corruption is not unknown in other places including Chicago. But the scale of it is unknown when you are talking about Nigerian corruption. . . . Nigeria and corruption was not a secret. Everybody in town knew about it. The people you were talking to were talking about it. The people you went in to talk about long-range interests knew about it. “It’s not me,” they would say, “it’s the other guys. Of course you are right. What can we do?”

. . . . No government, not even the military government, is stable enough to crack down. That is one of the big problems. Nigerians have [had] a whole series of military governments, of course. You would think that a soldier could cut down on another soldier until you begin to think about it. Here is another soldier. If corruption or any violation goes unpunished you are inviting more. It becomes a vicious cycle. I as the head of state cannot afford to crack down. I don’t crack down, I wink at it. And nothing happens , . . . There is no question that this is a central deterrent to Nigerian growth.

“We were not loved by the Nigerian government.”

A Fractious Country, and a Testy Relationship:  Our basic interest in Nigeria at that time was to help hold the country together, which had been our interest throughout the Biafran War [1967-70]. We were not loved by the Nigerian government, which thought that we held back when we could have helped the central government. . . .

The Nigerians to their credit, had used whatever resources they had during that war to win it, and to maintain Nigeria. We and other nations, the British for example, who were the colonial power there, were also frightened at the possibility of a splintered country. It is made for splintering of course. Three major tribes and 250 minor tribes all more loyal to the tribal leader than to anybody in Lagos.

. . . . If anything Nigeria is . . . xenophobic. You can understand it culturally and historically. It is a highly tribalized society. Nothing is above the tribe, so other Africans are outsiders, much less other nations. Therefore the xenophobia causes external relations to be conducted gingerly and with delicate and sensitive processes.

We were not in the best of positions because they did not appreciate [our perceived lack of support for the central government] during the war. They were not hesitant to express this. . . . [But] a lot of Nigerians had studied here.  A lot of Nigerians had visited here. Earlier Nigerians leaders had gone to American colleges. So that base served us well in [a] time of governmental sensitivity.

“‘We Nigerians will not do anything simply because you are black.’”

Race Consciousness: All of my predecessors were white. There were no previous black ambassadors. I called shortly after arrival, you call upon all the ministries, the heads of the ministries — they call them commissioners instead of secretaries as we do. So I called on the head of communications. He says, “You are race conscious and I am race conscious and you will do alright in Nigeria.  But you are going to do alright in Nigeria not because of your race. We Nigerians will not do anything simply because you are black.” In those blunt words! I replied “don’t expect you to do so sir, and thank you for your admonition.” And that is all I heard of race, really, that amounted to anything.




     MA and PhD in English, University of Wisconsin                                                          1946-1950

     University of Chicago                                                                                                            1940-1941

     BA in English, Knoxville College                                                                                        1935-1939

Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                               1957

     Manila, Philippines—Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer                                                1956-1958

     Kyoto, Japan—Cultural Affairs Officer                                                                              1958-1963

     Tehran, Iran—Cultural Affairs Officer                                                                               1963-1966

    Washington, DC—USIA Assistant Director for Africa                                                     1966-1971

     Lagos, Nigeria—Ambassador                                                                                               1971-1975

     Washington, DC—Director, United States Information Agency                                   1977-1980