For me, one of the extraordinary treasures of being a columnist are the emails—and the occasional phone call—I receive from readers who are moved to react to one piece or another. I find these reactions illuminating, even when their purpose is vehement disagreement with me.
My recent column, entitled “Bishop Kukah’s Grave Misreading,” generated a high volume of emails, many of them remarkable for their insight. I was so struck by one email, written by a UK-based Nigerian, that I wrote back to ask its writer for permission to share his thoughts with others. He gave his consent, only stipulating that I remove his name so that his remarks would not irk a friend or two back in Nigeria.
A disclaimer here: I don’t agree with every argument the writer makes, or the mode of his expression in every instance. Even so, I found myself nodding in agreement with the heart of his argument, which any careful reader can discern. I reproduce below a slightly edited version of that email.
“I always refuse to write concerning any article I read or to make a comment in the usual comment sections as it is usually a playground for mostly unruly people. I however feel compelled in this case because you really speak my mind in your article (“Bishop Kukah’s Grave Misreading”) especially as it concern the attitude of some of our brothers and sisters living in Nigeria towards the opinion of those of us living in the Diaspora.
“I live in the UK and I spent the first 30 years of my life in Nigeria. I am now in my early 40s. This is just to let you know that I was educated and also worked in Nigeria before leaving. I have a number of friends who are doing well in the Nigerian context, well traveled and highly placed in their various careers.
“What I found the most painful is the fact that many [of them] do not seem to think anything is wrong with Nigeria whenever we have the opportunity to discuss our country. They often get offended, or I should say defensive, when you point out to them that Nigeria could be like the other countries of the world they have the penchant of traveling to with their spouses and children. I always get the ‘you live abroad, you don’t know what is going on in Nigeria’ attitude or ‘we are the ones on ground’ or the refrain that ‘some things cannot work in Nigeria.’
“I always make the point that living and working in the UK has shown me that all the advanced countries are made great by everyday people doing everyday things. These advanced countries are not doing any magic. Their citizens have only developed a simple way of making things work; they have together created a system that makes their societies function day in, day out. They have added a system of governance that ensures that the system is balanced for the sake of everyone.
“Whenever you ask anyone from Nigeria how is life in the country and they answer that things are getting better, you should know that it has only one meaning. It is usually, my personal situation has improved: I have a car, a house, a half decent job and can send my children to one of the many private schools from nursery to university level. It has nothing to do with the exact or relative situation of the people of the country collectively.
“What we refuse to confront as a people is the fact that something is wrong. Why is it that we can’t do something as simple as queuing? Meanwhile, you need to come and see our big men when they arrive at Heathrow or Gatwick. Why is it that we would rather bribe officials like the police, the sanitation inspector, the road safety inspector than do the right thing of obeying the law, keeping our house clean and driving properly on the right side of the road? Why do we rather pay exorbitantly to educate our children at home and abroad when we can insist on high-standard schools in our communities overseen by us in the community? Why is it that many Nigerian employers see the payment of salaries and entitlements to workers as a privilege and not a right?
“In fact, I had an argument recently with a friend of mine who is a Managing Director of a micro finance institution in Nigeria when I told him that the bus drivers in London are some of the better paid jobs in the city and that the train drivers earn at par or more than professors. I also told him that one of the reasons Britain is a sane place to live is that whatever job you do, you will be able to rent a place, feed, transport and cloth yourself plus even a small family. You might not have anything else left after paying your bills, but at the minimum you will function as a human being. There is simply dignity in labour.
“He could not see why he should pay his driver more than N30,000 in a month even though he takes home millions of Naira a month. When I asked him to honestly tell me whether N30,000 is enough for a single person to live in Lagos or anywhere for that matter in current day Nigeria, he admitted that it’s not realistic, but quickly pointed out that it is the driver’s choice if he wanted the job or not. Now imagine that the driver in question would probably have a wife and children as well as other dependent relatives as is usually the case in our Nigerian society.
“The driver in question here is a microscopic representation of the situation in Nigeria. This driver is burdened by the expectations of immediate and extended family members in a country where there are no jobs or good economic opportunities for about 80—90% of the populace. So the driver is forced to take any form of job in a country where there is no dignity in labour, and expected to live on a wage that is not even enough to transport him to the work he is supposed to be doing, not to talk of feeding him while at work. And that is not to mention whether the wage will provide him a decent place to rest his head.
“My [Managing Director] friend still could not see the irony of entrusting his life and those of his family to a person like that poorly paid driver on a daily basis.
“My journey from leaving Nigeria and becoming a British citizen has not required me to ‘see’ anyone face to face or to ‘grease anyone’s palm,’ as they say. No one in Britain has ever requested anything from me either as a bribe or illegal gratuity for doing his or her everyday job in the first place. I play by the rule, obey the laws, and I feel safe living with my family. In fact, the greatest difficulty I ever encountered since living [in Britain] involved me trying to get Nigerian passports for my children.
“Try living in Nigeria for a week without anyone asking you to bribe them or making you feel guilty for not being grateful towards them (monetarily of course) for doing what they are paid to do in the first place. No one sees anything wrong with hospitals that might as well be morgues or the education system that doesn’t educate anyone anymore in the same country where the generations of Awolowo, Azikiwe and Ahmadu Bello and those from that era could become super civil servants based on their secondary school education. Some of these people were editing newspapers with the same [secondary school] level of education. Meanwhile you need to see the quality of thinking and writing on many news websites to know how bad things the situation has become in terms of education.
“The only question that has been plaguing my mind recently is—How did we as people descend to this level? When did we become a people who see nothing wrong with what others would consider tragedies in sane societies? The elite that we have in Nigeria recognize that things are not right, but they don’t like anyone they consider an outsider to point it out.
“But the emperor is naked and someone needs to say so.”