Of all the fantastic mythical places invented by colonisers in the late 1950s, The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the greatest and most iconic, Nigeria and The Chronicles of Narnia are tied for second place.
I grew up in Nigeria and have fond childhood memories of it. However, like most of your favourite childhood stories you grow up and realise it doesn’t take much effort to pick apart the glaring plot holes, wooden characters, piss-poor worldbuilding, lack of character development, and the fact that all the villains are clichéd archetypal caricatures.
Nigeria was built on the same basic formula that CW uses to make superhero series.
We got an incredible first three sessions full of espionage, drama and political intrigue, but, then every season after that is a repeat of the same storyline but with a different version of the same villain with a few cheap jokes sprinkled in.
Today I want to talk about why, decades after its independence, Nigeria still has the structural fortitude of a condemned building.
If you’ve ever spent much time listening to Nigerians talking about Nigeria, you will inevitably hear about NEPA – it’s a reference to what used to be known as the National Electric Power Authority – or as Nigerians like to say, Never Expect Power Always. And they’re not wrong.
This year I returned home to Nigeria after over ten years. The people that lived in the cities were still in the city, and those in the village were still in the village. But NEPA remained the great equaliser to remind everyone they were still mortal. In fact, the largest indicator of economic development over the last decade is that far more Nigerians can now afford to rely less on the Government to provide basic water and electricity because they can dig their own wells and use small gasoline generators to create their own power. However, if you think this means that anyone is entitled to pay any less in taxes to a government that is clearly tangibly inadequate, then you don’t understand Nigeria.
Dysfunction is Nigeria’s je ne sais quois.
It’s what makes Nigeria special. How else would it make sense that Africa’s largest economy averages 10 blackouts a day lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days. And that doesn’t include the 30% of Nigeria’s population who aren’t connected to the electricity grid in the first place.
Nigeria thrives on the edge of permanent disarray. How else would it be possible for the 7th most populous country on the planet to produce and consume roughly the same amount of electricity as Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland — for context, Edinburgh has less than half a million people, while Nigeria has about 200 million.
Where else in the world could a rumour spread that the best explanation for the President’s lack of visibility is not that he moonlights as a travel blogger, but is actually because he’s dead and has been replaced with a clone.
Where else in the world will you hear that $100,000 is missing from the state education budget because it has been eaten by a snake.
Corruption in Nigeria has become a live game show to see which of its government ministers can weasel away the most money.
Nigeria is one of the few, wonderful, magical places in the world where within a single 30 day period, the Government’s anti-corruption unit can find $43 million in cash in an empty apartment, then $800,000 dollars in a Lagos market, then $1.5 million at a shopping plaza, then $9.8 million in a property belonging to the head of the National oil company, then $137 million at a commercial bank and $153 million from its former petroleum minister. All of these amounts are in dollars. All of these amounts are the proceeds of Nigeria’s unfathomable issue with corruption.
Nigeria’s corruption problem is multi-faceted – I’ll grant you that. I won’t continue to bore you with a multiplicity of facts and figures, but suffice to say it is one of the most corrupt countries on earth.
However, I want to take this moment to warn against falling into a familiar trap. I think it’s very easy to see the problem at a surface level and complain about the fact that police officers can rob you in traffic, and everyone from school teachers to airport attendants will ask you what you’ve brought for them. While corruption is a deep and serious issue, I want to touch on something I believe goes much deeper – it’s the issue of governance.
Nigerians are some of the most innovative and resourceful people on the planet
…as long as there’s money involved. The simplest example of this was one I had a few weeks ago, driving on a dirt road in Nigeria somewhere, three hours from the nearest big city. It was getting dark fast, we had a feeling we’d overshot the turning to take us to the village.
So our driver wound down his window, called over a random kid, and asked him to show us the way. And that was it. The kid left his friends and family in the middle of the night without any hint of resistance or negotiation, got on his bike and rode ahead of us for another half hour until we reached the village.
Why would he do that? Why would he undertake this random and arduous task for complete strangers? Well, because he knew he would be paid. He didn’t even need to ask in advance – there is just an implicit understanding among Nigerians that work will be rewarded with pay.
But this brings us to the deeper question. Unemployment is relatively high in Nigeria, but the real issue is that even amongst those who are employed, If you’re in the public sector it can often make little difference. Doctors at state hospitals can go weeks without pay and schoolteachers can go for months. How on earth are you supposed to feed your family if you are in full-time employment but you haven’t received a paycheque in six months?
Corruption in Nigeria is largely a top-down issue.
Those at the top are corrupt out of choice, and everyone else becomes corrupt by necessity.
In many ways, it’s very much like America’s problem with its tipping culture. When employers know that employees can supplement their income with tips, they are incentivised to pay less and less, until you have situations where some servers are paid as little as $2 in salary but are expected to turn that into $15 with tips. And so the workers are now trapped on a hamster wheel where any customer who doesn’t pay an additional tip to supplement their income is now an enemy. And customers are supposed to accept that it is their responsibility to pay their servers.
That is where we are at now with corruption in Nigeria – it’s become a third sector of the economy where it is simply expected that you slide additional money to police officers, airport, bank and government officials. Sometimes it’s because they’re greedy. Usually, it’s because they’re underpaid. But you pay the money because it’s easier than fighting in public.
So now we’re in a strange world where one of the largest producers of world-class doctors has no doctors left at home to treat its citizens.
Allow that last part to sink in because I’m not exaggerating.
The economy for overseas medical treatment in Nigeria has now passed the $1 billion mark. That means ordinary Nigerians are saving their money, leaving home, and spending $1 billion every single year overseas, usually in Europe or America in a phenomenon that’s become known as medical tourism.
It’s hardly a secret – even the countries President can disappear for weeks while he goes to the UK to be treated of any current ailments.
As mentioned, poor pay is a major factor for this exodus of doctors, particularly those with families to support. Another driver is the working conditions. This includes working overtime, not because you’re overwhelmed with sick patients, but simply due to inadequate staff, lack of diagnostic facilities or to supplement monthly income.
And once again the wellspring of this dysfunction comes from the top
Nigerian’s health budget this year was less than 4%. The next largest economy in Africa spends more than triple that.
In fact, the percentage of government spending that is allocated to healthcare has decreased every single year since 2014 – and that should surprise no one because that’s when Buhari came into power. The irony though, is you might think a sitting President would be more cognizant of the importance of adequate healthcare when he spends more time in foreign hospitals than he does actually running the country.
But there is another area that has been struggling for funding. You might guess it but you might not realise just how bad it is. Nigeria’s education record is abysmal. Nigeria currently allocates a square 7% of its annual budget to educating its population. This is despite the fact that UNESCO has repeatedly recommended that Nigeria spend no less than 26%. And it recommends all developing nations spend at least 15- 20%. In contrast, one of Nigeria’s closest neighbours, Ghana, has not spent less than 20% in any year for a decade. In fact, their average going back to the 1970s is around 30%. That’s 5x Nigeria’s. In fact, in 2011 Ghana spent almost 50% of its budget on education. Eventually, they will use all that extra brainpower to improve their jollof rice recipe and that’s when Nigerians will be shaking.
I want to go back to that 7% figure.
7%. It sounds nuts already but it’s very easy to let that slip past without understanding the magnitude of what that represents. I mentioned earlier that Nigeria has about 200 million people. What I neglected to add, was that the median age in Nigeria is 18. Meaning that 100 million Nigerians are supposed to be in school. And somehow it is the Government’s belief that with 7% of its budget it can educate 50% of its entire population.
This ladies and gentlemen, is the magic of Nigeria
Now I know I’ve made a lot of disparaging comments today. Do I believe Nigeria is completely hopeless? No. Not at all. Nigeria has the opportunity to make a greater comeback than Lebron James in the 2016 NBA Finals.
Nigeria, in my mind, has two great untapped potentials. Its people and its resources.
I know what you’re thinking – how can I say that when Nigeria’s people are already working and its resources are already being mined. But the problem is that Nigeria isn’t currently the recipient of any of those benefits. Nigeria may sit on one of the largest oil reserves in the world, but it currently imports 90% of its petroleum. Somehow in the last 6 decades we haven’t become adept at processing oil, so we get this ridiculous situation where foreign companies come to Nigeria to extract the oil, Nigerians help them carry it overseas where it’s processed and then sold back to Nigerians for a profit. I will never understand how or why that works, but the point remains that if we can ever regain control over our own resources there are huge gains to be had.
But once we’re making those gains we have more reason to be careful of the spectre of corruption.$19 billion in oil revenue vanished in 2014 alone. $400 billion has disappeared in a similar fashion. Even today it’s estimated that 200,000 barrels a day are stolen by a network of warloards, businessmen and corrupt officials.
First of all, they need to protect this money better.
They need to speak to the Head of Compliance at Gringotts about what kind of spells they’re using to protect the vaults. In fairness to the Nigerian government, it must be very difficult to protect all that money when there are money-eating snakes walking around swallowing millions at a time. Asking who would win in a fight between corrupt federal officials and money-eating snakes is like asking who would win between 10,000 lions and the sun.
There’s a second reason I haven’t yet lost faith in Nigeria. Nigerians are talented. As an example – in the US, Nigerians are, by far, America’s most educated sub-group. 17% of Nigerians in America have AT LEAST a Master’s Degree. Nigeria is an immigrant group in the US but their median household income is far higher than the average American household.
Nigeria exports more world-class scientists, doctors, athletes and child geniuses than almost anywhere else on the planet. And by exports, I mean Nigerians living abroad whose talents are generally enjoyed by former colonial masters.
This is where the glaring dichotomy lies and its a bit of a chicken-egg situation.
How is it possible that Nigeria can produce so many child geniuses despite only spending 7% on educating its children. Some of the best doctors in the world are Nigerian even though Nigeria can not pay its doctors on time. The current world’s fastest man is Nigerian despite all the struggles he had to get adequate funding and training. Before being flogged by that small fat man, one of the best heavyweight boxers in the game was Nigerian, even though Nigerian Olympic boxers don’t even have a boxing ring to train in. We’ve had all-time great footballers who were Nigerian despite the fact Nigeria keeps putting 41-year-olds on its under-21 team and can’t provide adequate funding or training. Nigeria’s bobsled and equestrian Olympic athletes are entirely self-funded. We have some of the world’s greatest athletes on gofundme looking for money to buy indomie. The list goes on.
I honestly don’t know if Nigerians are naturally great or if they are forced to become great because their country is trying to kill them, but the point is, if there was room to incubate those talents at home, Nigeria would pack a punch on the world stage
The fact that Nigeria is both Africa’s largest economy and one of the most corrupt places on earth is at least an indicator of how much further we could go if we stopped doing stupid things.
Nigeria has one glaring silver lining that many seem to forget. Not only is the nation young, but so are its people.
In fact, if every child in Nigeria right now decided that they were tired of their government’s neverending shenanigans and all the children left to form their own country – a country only comprised of Nigerians under the age of 18 – that country would be the most populous country in Africa.
Nigeria’s biggest boon might be its potential to hit the reset button. The median age in Nigeria is only 18. Within the next decade, the youth of today will have the chance to choose the Nigeria they want to inherit. They alone will have the opportunity to completely reinvent the countries legacy from the top down. If they fail, Nigeria is doomed. If they succeed, Nigeria could well become one of the foremost economic titans of the 21st Century.
As it stands, 1 in 7 black people on the planet right now are Nigerian. If the country continues to grow at its current rate, by 2045 it’s population will have overtaken America’s. And as a nation that exports some of the world’s finest minds, it should have more than enough brainpower to devise a system for Nigeria that will actually serve its people.