Article written

  • on 01.09.2015
  • at 01:42 PM
  • by Naomi Cohen

The aches and pains of explaining Nigeria 0

One of the burdens of being a longtime commentator on issues Nigerian is that people frequently search me out, via email, text messages, and phone calls to ask questions about Nigeria. These questions come from Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike. For me, what’s fascinating is not that so many people feel tempted to put questions to me; it is that, as a rule, they expect me ALWAYS to offer a coherent response, if not the answer.

Yet, the most insightful of my fellow laborers in the vocation of analyzing Nigeria would tell you that the country is one of the most impossible to have a grip on. As a friend of mine once said, with less malice than admiration, Nigeria is a place where absurdity makes sense.

I mean, how do you explain this confounding entity whose people, all too often, defy predictions? It’s a country where a famished pickpocket who steals N50 to eat is garlanded with a tyre, doused with fuel, and set on fire. If you extrapolate from this that Nigerians must be outraged by their politicians’ billion naira heists, think again. No, lots of Nigerians venerate those who steal hundreds of millions from them. They’d festoon the paunchy robber with church knighthood and flamboyant sounding chieftaincy titles.

When you hear the phrase “s/he is a major stakeholder” applied to a Nigerian, look out. Chances are that the object of such adulation has scraped all the way to the bottom of public funds entrusted in their care. If any “disgruntled element” as much as casts an angry eye at the embezzling politician, he is thoroughly dressed down. He’s accused of not being a “constructive critic.” He’s dismissed as an ethnic jingoist. Those who would not demand that public officials live up to their oath as custodians of public trust will be quick to lecture the critic on the imperative of according respect to a thief-in-chief.

In the odd event that anti-corruption agents arrest a billionaire thief, you can count on all manner of people rallying to the beleaguered thief’s cause. His pastor, imam or chief dibia would declare him a God-fearing philanthropist. A delegation of traditional rulers would plead his case, proclaiming him “a proud son of the soil.” A gang of hired writers from his ethnic group, church, state or hometown would ask whether he’s the first corrupt person, or the most. And they would point to all the drivers he’s hired to drive his fleet as proof that the man was not greedy but a creator of jobs, not parochial and self-centered but a generous apostle of trickle down economics, a deliverer of the dividends of democracy.

On a recent vacation in St. Petersburg, Florida, I had a funny exchange with an African American.

Once he discovered I was Nigerian, he asked, “Didn’t you guys win the happiest people on earth survey or something?”

I confirmed that, some years ago, a European pollster had indeed named Nigerians as the happiest people on planet Earth.

“But I hear there are lots of poor people in the country,” he remarked.

“Yes. And they’re some of the happiest,” I responded, inciting him to roaring laughter.

Seriously, though: How does one explain a country that has one of the world’s vastest reserves of crude oil, but whose citizens continue to wallow in levels of squalor and privation impossible to believe unless encountered? Yet, these same people, crushed to the ground by the actions and inactions of their rulers, continue to intone, “No wahala,” “God is in control,” I full ground,” “Nothing spoil”? How, in other words, do you analyze a people who (appear to) take such ludicrous delight in their impoverishment?

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by Okey Ndibe

Photo Credit: Yann Arthus Bertrand

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