I have had many responses to this blog from my middle class professional elite cohort of Nigerians . It would be great to hear from others outside this narrow category which insists on its position but largely refuses to post it on the blog for debate. What is perhaps most challenging about their position is they narrow the debate into the following;
- Africa is a failing place in deep dooh dooh
- The government and governance is to blame
- If we change the character and policy of government then we stand a chance
- Until then we are depressingly underdeveloped, underperforming and fit the stereotype of Africa that the west portrays.
I think these are all low hanging fruits that require very little intellectual effort and oversimplifies complex situations but has great currency in those of my background and identity. In my view it is also misguided as it provides the excuse for those who utter this position to at best pursue individual gratification without guilt or wallow in blissful mediocrity with impunity because surely they cannot change an entire society. If their characterization about Africa was entirely accurate one could start to move to solution such as proposed by the 'Great Bliarite' Africa commission. They seek refuge in Afro Pessimism the most virulent of which emerges out of the Nigerian cognoscenti or elite class as they pursue their western MBA and salute their Harvard case studies. They find justification for their position in much published statistics which are usually of dubious credibility and are made to say what pleases the those who set the standards.
Lets explore Nigeria and challenge how this most maligned of nations is stereotyped by all and sundry without any real effort at meaningful understanding of context. It reminds me of my recent trip to Cape Town which was delightful for many reasons however I had two meals that stand out one was at Theo's Grill at Seapoint and the other was barbecue Mfozi in the township of Gugulethu, there was over 100% price difference and although both were excellent meals one stood out as an exquisite culinary experience, more on this later.
Lets look at the statistics on Nigeria, few know that in 1975 there were more people in the United Kingdom i.e. 55.4 million than the 54.9 million Nigerians at that time. Today there are over 120 million Nigerians compared to just about 60 million in the UK. In 30 years the population of Nigeria has more than doubled in spite of that over 60% of the population is literate which in absolute numbers is more than the population of the entireUK. Most educated post independence in Nigerian schools through universal primary education and largely free primary schools. Whilst the Millenuim goals is based on statistical comparison it does not compare like for like imagine comparing Nigeria with Ghana whereas there are more people in Lagos State than the whole of that country.
It is also a well established that there is a substantial GDP under reporting because of the large informal Nigerian economy. With that in mind reconcile the fall in per capita GDP from close to $1000 at its high point in 1979 to currently less than $400 in 2004 with a recorded slump in Oil earnings (about 90% of export earnings) from $22.4bn in 1980 to $9.6bn in 1983. Nigerians consistently manufacture as less than 10% of there GDP per sector, it is arguable that whilst Nigerians were in the 10 importers of processed goods especially Lace material champagne et al, they did not export up to a recordeable percentage of processed or produced goods other than petroleum. In the period of doubling population and reducing income government was expanding the state into all sectors to compensate and develop society to meet the over growing ambition and expectation of the Nigerian elite. The government deficit and borrowing grew from 8% of GDP in 1988 to 40% in 1992 alone. Yes there was a lot of pilfering however remember this
' You are living witnesses to the grave economic predicament ... Which an inept and corrupt leadership has imposed on our beloved nation ... Our economy has been hopelessly mismanaged. We have become a debtor and beggar mation. There is an inadequacy of food at reasonable prices... Health services are in a shambles as our hospitals are reduced to mere consulting clinics without drugs , water and equipments. Our education system is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Unemployment figures including the graduates have reached an embarrassing and unacceptable proportion.'
Many Afro-pessimists will concur and celebrate such candor they in fact did jubilate, this was said by then Brigadier Sanni Abacha during the overthrow of the much maligned Shagari government without really educating his audience that their profilgate procreation could not be fully accommodated in a centrally planned economy. That their obsession with branded western products was not matched by their virtually non-existent productivity. No nation develops with domestic investment at 16% or so of GDP as it has stood in Nigeria. The Nigerian elite of my generation is a spoilt brat the male version is the master who expects respect without ever serving anyone, he is profligate and wicked in his use of power and his sexism bothers misogyny with his everyday celebration of his Madonna/whore dichotomy towards his unmarried middle age compatriots. Yet he laments leadership from others that he neither exercises in his work nor does he exemplify in his home. His female counterpart is only marginally better, ground to a caricature of the generation preceding, mouthing pretensions to equality in the pursuit of middle class respectability and acceptance. She emerges in power more terrifying than her male partner brutal, obsessive, petty and unforgiving. Like spoilt children they are demanding of 'arrival' and acknowledgement without the recognition they need to sacrifice for posterity. My point is that we get the government we deserve, no elite Nigerian especially the Lagos gliteratti has never given a bribe, nor abused power over subordinate, or even not cut corners on due process yet they stand in judgment as if scale of abuse is enough to mask hypocrisy. I ask why don't they become the leaders they seek in others.
The working Nigerian outside the elite is beginning to aspire for the same crass entitlement. Even though they have never made the best employees , their entrepreneurial zeal is world class. Many are still examples that the elites can learn from but deride because they lack the Queens English, diction or grammar erquired to be celebrated, the market women, Okada riders, Nollywood producers, mechanics and skilled artisans whose energies are not part of official statistics nor are they part of the financial system. They are the real engine room for transformation not the government or the rent seeking elites. In fact to become a value generating part of the transformation agenda the elites would have to make a fundamental shift in mind models from looking for others to blame towards accepting responsibility for their own contribution. With all the investment that has been made by Nigerian society in our indoctrination into western ways we are a poor return or very limited value for money. Contrast that with China and you can take one view of an authoritarian non-western society in which the driver is the productive energy and the use of Guanxi network that has delivered the growth and economic expansion of the past two decades. The government has acted by getting out of the way of economic expansion but maintaining a grip on socio-political development. It is most certainly not a liberal democracy but it is consistent with thousands of years of Chinese civilization and the role the Imperial courts and each dynasty ruled. One cannot underestimate the role of the cultural revolution and the brutal treatment of counter revolutionary elements in the confidence with which China ploughs its own unique path towards prosperity and eminence.
In Nigeria our history has shown consistently that the workaday Nigerian has been the genius in all our civilizations rather than the roaming elite who migrated from place to place in pursuit Obaship, Emirate et al. There is ample evidence that prior manufacturing capacity in areas such as Iron, bronze technologies (e.g NOK) Ivory works, glass and beads; pottery/terra cotta; salt , soap and leatherwork, weaving, boat making and wood carving came out of the genius of the everyday Nigerian. The elite in pursuit of quick wealth and in concert with their western allies exported them in large numbers as slaves in the triangular trade. In less than 20 years after abolition of slavery the same people had become the main source of palm oil for the British industrial revolution and leaders like Jaja of Opobo who did not come from the elite but rose from hard work out of slavery emerged but were taken out because they posed a threat to the elite and their European partners. In fact most of the crops that sustained colonial administration and pre crude oil Nigeria especially Cocoa, even cassava, were not indigenous to Nigeria and even where they were like rubber and Palm oil they were not plantation farmed as was the case in other parts of the world. . There was little or no help for the Nigerian subsistence farmer neither was his or her technique changed but for a long time they produced and was number one in the world on most if not all of these products. In fact the supply of these products played significant role in the British efforts and eventual success in the Ist and 2nd World wars.
Back to my meal in Gugulethu I ate on a tray with 5 others, sweet sausage with chicken barbecued to perfection. It was less than 50 Rand and my lobster et al at Theo's was over 1000 Rand. The meal in 'Gugs' was more to my palate, the atmosphere much more in tune with my africaness but I will never find it in any guide book. In fact I would be warned of the danger to my life and consequences of going to a township, with crime statistics and data, news stereotypes and testimony. So I will continue to buy the brand packaged for me and in my ignorance and blind westernisation feed myself with that which even though nice is not spicy nor funky enough to put a spring in my step.
Africa is not in dooh dooh, it underdelivers in relation to some indicators but excels in others. The suicide rate of the West is phenomenally higher than those of Africans, so is depression and other mental ailments, divorce rates, per capita crime and even though people are skeptical happiness and optimism is higher in Africa than in the west. Statistics depends on what defines success and whose standards are applied. At least the Afro pessimist should stop looking for simplistic criticism and identify what works and build on those whilst being unrelenting about failings. I fear that this will never be the case since like their European partners they see things in only simple black and white. Like China, Africa has seen great days and similarly through a realization of her own intrinsic worth will develop and renew its many civilizations based on a love for itself and a commitment to continuously improving. I however fear it will not be in time for its current callous elites but at least there is hope for posterity.