There are many things about my Nigerian heritage and upbringing that has contributed to my strengths in business transactions in every part of the world in which I have had the good fortune to operate. One of these things is the fact that we are rarely overawed and neither are we usually subservient in our interaction with Europeans or those of European descent. This is unlike many other formerly colonised or enslaved people or so I thought. Like many certainties of my upbringing it is with great concern I watch the fawning faces of Nigerians both elite and masses at the sight of expatriate European ‘competence’. I write this, as my fear is that this is becoming a systemic issue that will further entrench misguided notions of white supremacy in ways that will destroy the hunger and will for excellence amongst our people.
Let me state clearly this is not a racial argument but an economic one. I know there is only one Race of people, the Human Race. I also know that all humans that have lived, that are living and that will be born are descended from Africans. I am under no illusion therefore about what the differences that we observe in our skin and is projected in our behaviour is about. Simply we are different in cultural terms and our cultures are the resulting accumulation of the wisdom of our ancestors. With that out of the way, it has always been clear to me that most of what passes as education (across the continent) is thinly veiled inculcation into European culture.
As I grew up I remember that when people complemented my spoken English or the Oyinboness of my nose, my status rose accordingly. I also remember that in many absurd ways we show preference for European culture from calling our languages vernacular, wearing wool suits and ties in the boiling sun and ostracising those who commit grammatical errors in spoken English. I cannot help but note the way the former President of the US George .W. Bush mangled the English Language would have made him a pariah in Nigeria long before any misadventure abroad.
In fact there were many of life opportunities accorded including girlfriends and court motions on the basis of spoken English rather than any substance expressed. They seemed to be just peculiarities of our modernity even when I had to don a white wig and black gown over a boiling suit daily it just seemed another level of compliance rather than the buffoonery it is. We are however now exceeding even these seemingly petty examples of what can be termed colonial mentality. On some level these are results of borrowed systems and language, they eventually can be adapted or adulterated or end up dotting the landscape like cultural relics of a misguided past.
What we now face is open and abject white supremacy coated in the cloak of economic necessities and masquerading as the purchase of competence. We have somehow in the process of seeking economic survival become a compromised people. In negotiating for material progress it seems we have chosen to bargain away our self-esteem. This is disrespect writ large written in the manner of the many expatriate employees with swagger and adorning the ego and patronage of their Nigerian hosts. I know this is not completely new. In the 70s befo re the Nigerian Enterprise Promotions Act the country had an expatriate elite at exorbitant price until the military government took a protectionist stance. Even then the elite acted as agent and fronts for these businesses with obsession for short-term economic benefit than any self-respect or national interest.
What is new is the power in the swagger of these foreign ‘experts’, their disdain for their hosts and the lack of any accountability or even expectation of good manners. In my experience unlike the many Nigerian talent that ply their trades in distant shores who are amongst our most talented and succeeding against great opposition as well as adversity, many of these visiting ‘experts’ are those who are uncompetitive in their own land. They are not chosen in large part for competence but for the simple fact they are ‘white’. It is not unusual to watch humiliating treatment of Nigerian staff or direct exclusion of entrepreneurs from choice areas or even business opportunities when possible. They are sequestered out of interaction from the host population and inhabit exclusive clubs, facilities and luxuries. They treat the Nigerian populace like the great unwashed. This is a systemic and carefully constructed form of self as well as official segregation.
In recent times I have been asked to specifically headhunt white executives because it opens doors and get results. I am in this case not talking about their competence but their heritage. In all cases these have been educated Nigerians requesting these things. More disturbing is the credibility that comes when a white person says something. I have watched with a sickening feeling as my people ‘brown nose’ a lesser qualified, inferior opinion or presentation of a white speaker and totally ignore a better contextualised and superior effort of a local.
I had a recent experience in which a colleague visiting from the US and joining a conference I help to facilitate suddenly got the unheralded title of expert without uttering one word or contributing any paper. It was her first day in Nigeria, her first introduction to the subject and she was yet to write the first word. In fact after she was crowned and feted as lead expert she now proceeded to ask for guidance on what the subject was about. To be fair to her she tried to correct the impression of all the ‘big men’ we visited pointedly telling them that I wrote the concept paper and I was the subject matter expert but it was to no avail. She was white and she was all right.
What kind of self-loathing leads one to watch a Nigerian graduate become a labourer and recruit a European of dubious competence into the Executive suite?
In my many years outside Nigeria I built a name fighting for Equality of opportunities and parity of esteem for all human beings. I achieved this I thought because I lacked the chip on my shoulder that many of my colleagues from other African countries as well as the broader black Diaspora suffered from. I claimed to all that I am a success because I had the good fortune of being born to a nation that is not subservient to anyone on the basis of colour or creed. It is my sorry conclusion that this is hubris.
In seeking answers to my observations many say to me I have been blind. It has ever been thus. Others say we live in times of survival and anything goes. But as I read Nigerians exchange insults in the name of political combat and hear them denigrate their nation because of material and organisational shortcomings, I wonder if this is not a pathological self-hatred. Is this not the sign or a form of national psychosis?
The economics are simple we need many jobs for the over 50% of Nigerians under the age of 25 which at conservative estimate is over 60 million individuals. This is more than the population of most African countries and just about the population of the United Kingdom. Our economy at best of times grows at about 5% short of twice the rate population increase necessary to start to provide for and address poverty. We need at least 20 years of such uninterrupted growth accompanied with policies of equality of opportunity to have a transformative effect of the lives of the next generation.
For now we displace any original thinking Nigerian abroad or we whittle them down into conformity with mediocrity. I had the good fortune of being introduced to the work of a Nigerian computer specialist who in the US holds about 300 registered patents through his work on semi-conductors. My host another Nigerian feted abroad as a Genius confirmed my experience and his refusal to subject himself to the doubt of his country folk. No nation can view itself through the eyes of disdain; engage its own people with a practised and perfected discourtesy; kill the fatted cow for many visitors who see this as expected complement of their superiority and expect to reverse a decline or effect transformation.
We have a fight on our hands. This is for the soul of our country and the recognition of Nigerian excellence wherever it comes and whatever gender, ethnicity and qualities it embodies. This not a rallying call for exclusion of Foreigners but a clarion call for meritocracy as well as a concerted development of Nigerian capacity and productivity. Let us recruit the best using agreed standards, open process and job effectiveness. This is a battle everyone must join, for this generation, posterity and prosperity. If we can get this right maybe we can welcome talent from all over the world on the basis of mutual respect and added value. That day cannot come too soon then we can say oyinbo or adulawo, ice is ice.
Mr. Ajadi, lawyer and development worker, is author of Omoluabi 2.0 He contributed this piece from Port Harcourt.