Visiting Nigeria in mid-November, I became aware that the country was going through darkening times. The choice of adjective—darkening—is rather advised. For several decades, Nigeria has been mired in dark times. What I detected, then, was not a sudden shift from vibrancy to a dismal state, not a dramatic deviation from robustness to feebleness. It was, instead, a kind of worsening of a bad state, a noticeable escalation of woes, a compounded morass.
Nigeria’s darkness seemed, quite simply, to be darkening.
Before I describe that portent, a word or two about some glimmers of hope.
I had gone to Nigeria to participate in the Ake Book Festival in Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State. As cultural events go, this one was extraordinary in several respects. It drew numerous writers and “culturepreneurs,” from Nigeria, Africa, and the diasporic African world. Panelists explored some of the questions that are pertinent to cultural production in Africa and beyond. There were readings, and author visits to secondary schools.
But two things stood out for me. One was the sheer beauty of seeing a gathering of people who took intellectual matters seriously. Gathered in Abeokuta were men and women of all ages who, it was clear, were passionate about culture and hungry for the joys that literary arts yield. Two, I sensed the existence of a vital community of readers and writers determined to sustain and enrich Nigeria’s—and the continent’s—literary heirloom. It was impossible to be at the festival and yet fall for the dour prediction that the book is all but doomed, the days of reading numbered.
To behold such creative ferment in Nigeria and such energy among Nigerian writers and would-be writers was doubly gratifying. Here’s why. During years of military dictatorship and the years of philistinic civilian governance, Nigeria had cultivated a certain hostility to matters of the mind. As Nigeria took to venerating the crooks who excel at the harvesting of lucre, the country’s intellectuals—especially conscientious literary figures—became objects of mockery. The story of Nigeria’s public education is a tragic one. It is a story of mindless wrecking of the edifice of education by the powerful scared silly by the prospect of the enlightened citizen. Given the damage that’s been done to Nigerian education—and often deliberately—it sometimes strikes me as a miracle when I meet young men and women who wrested a measure of sound education from a messy system designed to keep them ignorant, ethically and cognitively.
I saw a different kind of hope during a three-day stop in my home state, Anambra. There, one felt a sense of safety and security that was altogether new—and deeply impressive. Wherever one went, one heard residents of the state testifying to their ability to sleep easy at night, free from the predations of kidnappers and armed robbers.
No question, Governor Willie Obiano must gird himself for a long menu of challenges. It falls to him to rescue Awka from being an eyesore and to remake it into a befitting state capital. He must redeem campaign promises to revitalize the state’s agricultural sector. He would need to invest massively in the provision of infrastructure in the state. Above all, as I told radio interviews in the state, he ought to lead the crusade to change the social values in the state, emphasizing the superiority of ideas and ethical conduct over vulgar displays of wealth. But Mr. Obiano has started well by addressing, first, the menace of insecurity that in the past rendered the state a no-go area for many.
In the end, the hopeful vistas of Abeokuta and Anambra could not dislodge one’s overpowering sense that an omen hung over Nigeria. There were the incessant attacks by Boko Haram, with the Islamist insurgents’ seizure of territory, but that was not at the heart of my fear. The crux of it, in fact, was economic.
I was in Nigeria when the naira began its free fall. Economic Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala pointed to the sharp drop in crude oil prices, and blamed state governors for gutting the country’s financial reserves. The ministerial alarm was too late and too tepid.
Nigeria’s dwindling petro-dollars represent a perfect storm. And the chronicle of this particular pass was long foretold. It was a matter of time before oil prices dropped. Did Ms. Okonjo-Iweala not know this? If she didn’t, then she failed Nigerians as the central steward of their economic affairs. If she did, then why did she not raise a voice of warning before now, to warn Nigerians—and especially the president, governors, and local government officials whose culture of squandermania has left Nigeria a bereft, dysfunctional address? When she and other government officials were toasting the Nigerian economy for surpassing South Africa’s as Africa’s largest by GDP, why did she—and her fellow choristers—fail to sound a note of caution?
The party’s over in Nigeria, but those who ought to take notice—the horde of embezzlers who mis-run the country—have hardly heard. They’re bracing to retain or seize power in order to do what they do best: serve themselves by sacrificing the collective, corporate interests of Nigerians.
To travel in Nigeria is to become aware of the scale of the tragedy. The roads, especially the so-called expressways, are ghastly. The environment seems an advertisement for blight—with the ubiquitous presence of “pure water” plastic and trash at every turn. There’s nothing like a healthcare system; hapless Nigerians must turn to miracle-hawking pastors and imams. With few public toilets in place, the whole country sometimes seems like a vast toilet, with people peeing and defecating wherever they are when nature’s urge arrives. Nigeria is terribly behind—by decades—where it should be in infrastructural development. And that’s compared to such African countries as Rwanda, Ghana, South Africa, Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire, Botswana, and Egypt.
In fact, Nigeria appears fated to stand as a sad emblem of a country blessed with stupendous natural resources, but which found ways to dissipate its endowment with mindless, contemptible prodigality. The country has little to show for all those decades in which petro cash gushed into our treasury. Or it has only the dubious distinction of being at the top, or near the top, of ownership of private jets, of mansions next to fetid, brackish gutters, the importation of power generators, and the roll of Africa’s billionaires. It is a country where so-called educated people applaud local government chairpersons, governors and presidents for paying salaries, for building so-called libraries bereft of books, for constructing a few kilometers of poorly paved roads. It is a country where mediocrities reign, where they thump their chests, and exhibit swagger, relishing the affection of hungry hirelings, or desperate-to-be-hired courtiers who flatter them as “icons” or “transformers.”
Nigeria is a country where big-time criminals are guaranteed national honors rather than time in jail, where certifiable fools are celebrated as “elders,” “statesmen,” or “stake/steakholders,” where those with creative ideas are disdained while shameless consumers of other peoples’ ideas and products are hailed, where those who insist on doing the right thing are dismissed, disparaged as mugus.
But as Gary K. Busch argued in a widely circulated piece he aptly titled “Night is Arriving in Nigeria,” the bill for our years of errant behavior is coming due. I must end by quoting from him: “What is new, and is the most disturbing for Nigerians, is that these vast sums looted from the Nigerian people are never going to be replaced as the engine of Nigerian prosperity, the oil and gas industry, is slowly fading away and losing its role as a key exporter of crude and LNG to the world market.
“One of the reasons for the difficulties facing Nigeria is the increase in the U.S. production of shale oil and gas. By 2020, the U.S. is expected to produce more gas than it needs…
“However it is clear that night is falling on Nigeria. It has failed to use its treasure to build an infrastructure (roads, schools, houses, electrical power, refining) so desperately needed when it had money; or diversified its economy to include agriculture, mining and processing of its many minerals. How it will do so when money is short is a big question. The rentiers of Nigeria’s wealth are buying up properties all over the world, especially in London. They know when it will be time to get out. The key to Nigeria’s lack of preparedness has been the impunity in which these rentiers operate. Until now there have been few consequences for bad behavior and corruption. Unfortunately as the economy contracts the innocent will suffer with the guilty.
“It is too late to change and no election in 2015 will address any of the real problems of the country…”
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