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Nigeria: West Africa’s sleeping giant

Full disclosure: I am Nigerian.

Saluting my native country
Saluting my native country
The Federal Republic of Nigeria is a land blessed with a lot of natural and human resources alike. This geographical marvel of a country is situated on the western coast of the african continent – the birthplace of man. The climate is tropical with two major seasons: the wet season (from about June to September) and the dry season (from about October to May). Over 300 ethnic groups and 3 major traditional languages – Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa – exist in the 36 states of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Although each Nigerian has his or her own traditional language (I personally speak Igbo), the “lingua franca” in Nigeria is the english language because we were colonized by the British a few centuries ago. After years of struggle, we eventually gained our independence from British colonial rule on the 1st day of October 1960. Since then, we have grown to become the 8th most populous country in the world with 176 million citizens, while consistently placing amongst the top 20 crude oil producing countries in the world. In addition to the plentiful deposits of “black gold” (crude oil) that we have in our country, there is also a rich agricultural sector in Nigeria which produces tons of nutritious organic food for its populace and beyond. As a marker of our continued growth as a country, the Nigerian economy as of 2016 is the largest economy in the entire african continent.

In addition to its economic power, Nigeria is also a land with rich cultures and ancient traditional customs that are still devoutly observed till this very day. As an example of this, most weddings in Nigeria still have a traditional law and custom component to them as well as the church/court ceremonies that were infused into our culture by the British. Nigeria is also blessed with extremely talented individuals in a vast array of fields having produced the likes of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Wole Soyinka, Sade, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Chinua Achebe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Omalu, Austin J.J. Okocha, and Hakeem Olajuwon who are all high achievers in political, artistic, scientific, and athletic endeavors. With all of the potential Nigeria has been blessed with, its citizens have mostly all come to expect great things of it and each other on the world stage. After all, as the saying goes, to whom much is given, much is expected. However, in spite of the vast wealth of natural, mineral, and human resources that we as a country have been blessed with, Nigeria continues to underachieve in many key areas. The truth is that although we as Nigerians have a lot to be proud of as a people, we have no shortage of things to be embarrassed by. For example, how can a country so blessed with resources have such appallingly bad public transportation and electric power distribution systems? This embarrassing reality is especially glaring because other countries in western africa who reportedly have “less economic power” and natural resources than Nigeria have managed to build and maintain these basic infrastructural needs for their people. So the obvious question here is why the heck is this the case? Why is it that my sister who lives in Côte d’Ivoire enjoys steady uninterrupted electric power while my parents who live in the financial capital of Nigeria have to constantly deal with the opposite? Well, it’s a complicated long story that has its roots in something deep within our people. Much like all stubbornly persistent problems in the world at large, it starts in the mind.

Whenever those of us who live in the developed western world are opportuned to return home to Nigeria for a holiday or some family function, the difference in the way of thinking between our people who have remained in Nigeria and the people in the western world becomes very apparent. It always takes a few days to readjust to the environment back home and this readjustment isn’t limited to getting re-accustomed to mundane things like the weather conditions, the increased level of atmospheric pollution, or even the difference in time zones. This adjustment period also includes a re-setting of the mind to assume the same mental attitude as that of our people. Suffice it to say that the general way of thinking in the developed western world is pretty much diametrically opposed to the traditional way that the average Nigerian person thinks. From a sufficiently removed vantage point, it is clear to see that our very Nigerian way of thinking pervades every sector of life in Nigeria even down to the earliest stages of formal education … and herein lies the problem.

One of the major root causes of Nigeria’s problems is a lazy streak that is common to all humans, but that seems very pronounced in a fair number of Nigerians. You might have balked at the statement immediately above because you perhaps know a few Nigerians who have MS, MD, or PhD credentials by their name and can swear that they are anything but lazy. The thing is that this lazy streak that we speak of here isn’t of the usual form that manifests as an apathy for disciplined and consistent effort that most people know of; Nigerians tend to rate pretty high on the plane of sheer endurance and discipline. Rather, it is a more insidious form of laziness that most of us pick up as a habit during our formative years of schooling in Nigeria. Let’s dive a little deeper to better understand this train of thought.

The first few years of education for the average Nigerian is centered on memorizing and internalizing various important facts and principles such as the letters of the alphabet, the multiplication tables, the laws of arithmetic, and the rules of grammar. It is actually a great thing that such fundamental knowledge was imparted to each of us at an early age because these basic blocks of knowledge are fundamental to understanding the more advanced fields of study that we all almost certainly encountered later in life. The problem is that most of us Nigerians were taught to just accept things as they were fed to us without ever questioning the authority that it came from. This is in part because our culture expressly forbids younger people from questioning the knowledge or wisdom of older people. As a matter of fact, a young Nigerian who aggressively questions or challenges accepted conventional wisdom from an older Nigerian risks getting physically beaten to correct such “insolence”. As a result of this quirk in our culture, most indigenous Nigerians never really develop the habit of looking behind the proverbial curtain of accepted facts or laws in order to really understand whether the logic behind them is sound. We don’t seem to pause and contemplate if “conventional wisdom” is just a byproduct of dogma and years of rigid thinking. It should be emphasized that there is nothing wrong with memorizing important facts per se, but that the real issue lies in not verifying the correctness of the things we memorize or internalize. Let us consider a personal and practical example to illuminate further. For years, I never questioned the idea that one should brush their teeth every night right before bed. I just accepted it as law even though I never really understood why. It was only in my mid twenties that I finally understood the biological reason behind this seemingly unassailable law/ritual I had faithfully obeyed since I could remember (by the way, it is absolutely the correct thing to do if you don’t want to suffer through cavities). The truth is that if you do not abstain from eating anything between the time you brush your teeth at night and the time you actually fall asleep, the residual bacteria in your mouth will go after the remnants of food in your mouth and break it down as they use it for their own source of food. The byproducts of such biological reactions are acids that will wear away at your teeth and eventually lead to tooth decay. Discovering the reason behind any law or piece of conventional wisdom takes extra effort in the form of some sort of research which is not necessarily enjoyable for its own sake. It is a lot easier to just accept what you are told than it is to constantly think deeply for yourself in search of the truth in every meaningful situation. By discouraging healthy and respectful disagreement between teachers and students or parents and their children, we may have inadvertently caused the atrophy of our collective critical thinking and creative capabilities. Moreover, we may have also unwittingly encouraged an insidious lazy streak that has now spread throughout our beautiful country.

The insidious lazy streak that many Nigerians develop as a byproduct of our somewhat dysfunctional relationships with teachers and/or our parents follows each of us into adulthood unless conscious action is taken to correct it. Laziness of this sort can devolve into many forms if left unchecked… the most readily apparent form of which is selfishness. People often point to the greed and corruption of the people in Nigeria who wield political power as the ultimate source of our problems. On the surface this seems correct, but upon further inspection we find that greed and corruption are merely products of short sighted selfishness; and short sighted selfishness in turn is merely a form of laziness. One of the biggest forms of corruption that we experience in Nigeria is fundamentally caused by people looking to get something for nothing. More explicitly, a lot of people want to get huge paydays for little to no work. This is a big reason why most of the public roads in Nigeria are poorly maintained and eventually deteriorate over time. The “something for nothing” mentality is also a reason why many people in our country do not have a constant source of electrical power. The truth behind this ridiculousness is that there are relatively high powered individuals that have been given well funded contracts to do the applicable infrastructural work such as build new roads, maintain old ones, design water distribution systems, and so on. A lot of these folks simply pocket the large sums of money they have been given, and neglect doing the work properly if at all. The more our countrymen see this nefarious behaviour being rewarded, the more they wonder why they should struggle doing honest work when everyone around them seems to be successfully gaming the system. Slowly but ever so surely, more and more honest Nigerian men and women have crossed over to the dark side and become adept at gaming the system. In the case of our great country, this mindset of “something for nothing” has effectively spiraled out of control. To the extent that even police officers expect a bribe for doing what they are paid to do: to protect and serve. To be fair to the members of the Nigerian police force, they are also victims of the same mentality with some high powered official pocketing most of the salary due to them while paying them sparingly if at all. This mindset has so pervaded the minds of our people that we have started to see corruption as completely normal and even an expected part of everyday life… a worrying dynamic.

The chaotic streets of Lagos the financial capital of Nigeria
The chaotic streets of Lagos the financial capital of Nigeria
This worrying dynamic can only be solved at its root by eliminating our deeply embedded mental lazy streak. The brutally naive way to do this would be to just line all of us Nigerians up, shoot us all dead, and start the entire race again with “designer” Nigerian babies manufactured in test tubes. These “designer” Nigerian babies would presumably have a clean mind uncluttered by our corrupt culture from which they can develop a way of thinking that promotes prosperity for all. This might seem like a relatively straightforward solution, but it is terribly impractical and unnecessarily apocalyptic. There is no need to kill anyone, but there is a pressing need to murder the way our people currently think. Before we go on, I’d like to emphasize that it is pointless to put the blame on any of our brothers or sisters for selfishly putting our individual needs above all else. After all, It is not like any of us can rely on the government to consistently provide for or protect us. In Nigeria, everyone is constantly on guard to protect themselves from nefarious influences that can do serious bodily harm at any moment. There are armed robbers and assassins for hire throughout the southern part of the country where I was raised, and violent religious conflicts in the north. The key here is for all of us Nigerians to realize that by giving up our excessive greed and selfishness in the short run, we all stand to benefit a lot more in the long term. Take for instance a greedy hypothetical federal government minister that lands a huge contract to fix and maintain the network of commercial roads in his hometown. Let’s assume that instead of doing the job outright, he pockets the money and leaves the roads in disrepair. As a result of his negligence to his duty, giant potholes emerge everywhere on these roads. Let us also assume that the same hypothetical minister has a very beautiful and very pregnant wife that goes into labor and that the route to the hospital includes a few of those roads he selfishly left in disrepair. God forbid it, but it isn’t out of the realm of reality that the roads he neglected to repair could lead to an accident that turns fatal for his pregnant wife and unborn child… a tragic disruption of one of nature’s most astounding miracles: childbirth. This is an extreme example, but the general point should be clear. When you cheat others, you just end up cheating yourself; when you make the lives of other people better, your life will eventually become better as a result.

It is much easier to value and protect the self rather than consider how one’s actions will not only affect them, but also the people around them and the world at large. However, this is an extremely shortsighted view of the world that will in most cases cause more harm than good in the long run. Many Nigerians who reach the heights of excellence do so out of a need to stroke a pretty big ego… merely accomplishing for the sake of accomplishment in order to validate feelings of self importance. The other rarer fraction of Nigerian high achievers that do so because of the desire to contribute something meaningful to their immediate environment and to the world at large represent a very small fraction of all the citizens of our great country. Further, these rare gems are either suppressed by the tyranny and corruption in Nigeria, or have gotten fed up with the political mess at home and have moved to Europe or America. Although I am one of the few who left the country in search of knowledge and education, I still retain faith in my people because I know we have some of the brightest and best people in the entire world. I know it is within our power to correct our current flaws and put Nigeria on a new trajectory towards more prosperity and happiness for all who bleed green white green without resorting to violence. The government has no interest in helping us because the chaos back home actually redounds to their favor as they line their coffers with stolen money while others suffer in poverty. It is up to us my brothers and sisters to strive to continue to raise the Nigerian flag high with our accomplishments and with the way we conduct ourselves regardless of the external circumstances or where we physically find ourselves located on this planet. Till next time my friends… take care of yourselves, and each other.

Without Wax
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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4 thoughts on “Nigeria: West Africa’s sleeping giant

  1. ….and it’s not even October 1st. Interesting take on the Nigerian situation.

    1. Hey Ngo. I hope all is well. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I’ve heard from people that I know who have traveled there and from books that I’ve read that bribery is very prevalent in Nigeria. I think that the positives of visiting would outweigh the negatives greatly though. As an American of European descent, I’ve always been interested in Africa bc the cultures are so different than those that I am familiar with and I would one day love to see it. Nigeria seems like a good place to start.
    It’s clear to me from my experience with Nigerians here that there is much beauty there. Is it accurate to say that most Nigerians are fluent in English?

    1. Hi Will. Yep… there is a lot of bribery and corruption in Nigeria for sure. I would modify your stance on the prevalence of the english language in Nigeria a bit though. It is true that a lot of Nigerians from the south western part of the country are fluent in English. Not necessarily true for our brothers and sisters in the North or South East. And yes… you are more than welcome to join me on my next trip to Nigeria… whenever that ends up being in the future. Hope you are well, and thanks for stopping by.

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