A STRANGE BUT PLEASANT ENCOUNTER
I must confess that initially I thought he was from one of the African countries - preferably West Africa. Though nothing in his facial looks suggested this, I was simply following my instincts. Midway into our discussions, I asked him where he came from. He was a bit hesitant to proffer an answer. He rather chose to concentrate more on the story he was telling me about his sabbatical in one of the universities in Beirut – where he taught Modern European Languages.
By the time he finally told me about his early childhood in Harlem, Manhattan, New York, United States, I had lost already lost interest in that aspect of his life. I was otherwise attracted by the incisive revelations he made about the future of Africa in global politics and economics. He said pointedly, if my memory can carry me well, that Africa would grow bigger in wealth and fame globally in the next decade. According to him, the signs are all over the place – considering the strategic role the continent plays in the world. As if to drive home his point more convincingly, he reeled out a number of statistics and data, which I wonder if we Africans are conversant with. I can state confidently that he was at home with every development about Africa and expressed this mastery of it with some fanfare and self-adulation.
What kept baffling me throughout the discussions was his deep knowledge about Africa. My bafflement assumed some embarrassment when the man began discussing life in Nigeria and the many missed opportunities for it to attain global prominence. In summary, he said that Nigeria would have been miles ahead of many African countries if it had harnessed its potentialities appropriately. He referred me to a recent story in the media where it was reported that Nigerian politicians looted the country blind over the years. He wondered what would have happened if the money had been invested in infrastructure, especially electricity, housing, health and education.
His became sober at a point during our heart to heart discussion when he started naming the prominent Nigerian academics making waves in America and other countries of the world - wondering why Nigeria does not occupy any position in the first 1, 000 best universities in the world. Again, he taxed my intellect when he asked me to tell him why many Nigerians are seeking refuge in other countries, including strangely some African countries, when they can afford to stay back and make Nigeria great. It was at this point that I was pushed to try to defend our national pride. I challenged him to tell me why he thought that Nigeria was not better than some of the African countries he made a reference point during our discussions. For instance, he made reference to Seychelles as a budding African Eldorado and spoke so highly about South Africa as the industrial giant of our continent.
Honestly, I do not contest the figures he rolled out, but I take exception to anybody pouring invectives on my fatherland - a country that once prided itself as the giant of Africa. Forget that we vehemently detest the massive corruption and inept leadership that had been our lot since independence. I still cannot sit and watch somebody from another continent pummel my country as if we are outcasts. Agreed, we must have made mistakes, as a nation, which I am sure we will soon overcome Nigeria is not as bad as many critics will make us believe.
I refused to watch the man batter my country and our leaders as if we were some rags. Who told the man that Seychelles is better than Nigeria? From where did he get his information? Imagine that small country, not up to the size of Borno State, being compared to Nigeria! What is their population, by the way? Is the population of the whole of Seychelles up to the population of Lagos, the commercial nerve-centre of Nigeria?
Let nobody tell me any nonsense about my beloved country. I know that thieves in the guise of leaders have dragged its name into the mud, but that is not sufficient for anybody to insult us. Yes, we might not have been lucky with leaders over the years, but that does not mean we are not better than many countries in Africa – even in Europe and Asia. See me see trouble oh! Seychelles of all places better than Nigeria! Wonders shall never end. I have been to almost every country in Africa I am yet to see anyone better than Nigeria. Is it Somalia enmeshed in internecine war, or Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) fighting internal insurrection for over 20 years now? You name it.
Tell me about South Africa. What makes it better than Nigeria? A country that had been under the gridlock of apartheid for several decades! What on earth would make any rational person compare the two countries? Nigeria is miles ahead of South Africa in whatever guise. Think of the insecurity in that country and the level of poverty in the rural areas and you will understand what I mean. Nigeria's population is almost four times that of South Africa. The same thing can be said about its landmass and inherent potentialities.
What probably gave the country an edge over Nigeria is that it is populated also by whites who brought sophisticated technology from Europe. Think about Nigeria. It was colonized by Britain - also a European country. But I wonder why we didn't seize the opportunities provided by Britain to attain the same status for which South Africa is famed today.
Nigeria may be plagued by corruption, maladministration, self-aggrandizement, and ethnicity, yet it can boast of many positive attributes. It has rich arable land, temperate and clement weather, friendly peoples, fluid economy, and wealthy and creative citizens. These impressive attributes are totally the opposite of what is obtainable in even in some of the 'fantastic' nations in Europe and America. Nigeria has never suffered any catastrophic natural disasters in the same magnitude we see them happen in the other parts of the world. Here I refer to disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, mudslides, volcanoes, etc. Look at what is happening in Iceland, where there was a volcanic eruption in April this year. The volcano, which has continued to spew ashes since it erupted, led to the total closure of the world airspace two weeks ago, making airlines lose over $3.3billion. In December 2004, the world woke up to the shocking news of the Tsunami that hit Asia, with ravaging impact on Pakistan, Indonesia, and bordering countries. The human and material losses incurred in the disaster were quite mind-boggling. China and Japan have been hit at several times by devastating earthquakes and other natural disasters.
It is not the subject of this essay to discuss global natural disasters, but I was forced to embark on this digression to disprove my co-traveller's erroneous and unfair assessment of Nigeria - A nation God has blessed with milk and honey. There is no country in the entire Africa that has the large reservoir of human and natural resources as much as Nigeria. Some of the world's best brains in Medicine, Information Technology, Nuclear Physics, and Literature come from Nigeria. Has my critic-friend forgotten that Professor Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, while another Professor, Chinua Achebe is adjudged as one of the best writers to pass through this earth planet? Phillip Emeagwali - the computer wizard - is a Nigerian. There are also many Nigerians making waves in Europe and America in music, soccer and other aspects of life. The music giant Seal is a Nigerian. What of the soul-singer and music dude based in United Kingdom Sade Adu? Is she not a Nigerian?
There is hardly any prominent university in the United States that does not have a Nigerian in its academic team. The same is applicable to soccer where Nigerians hold sway in big clubs in Europe.
Before our plane landed in London, I had reminded my friend of Nigeria's enviable position as the world's 6th largest producer of oil. This did not make any impact on him as he swiftly dismissed my assertion with a wave of the hand. He asked me rather, sarcastically, what the oil money we earned between 1958 when oil was first discovered in Oloibiri and now was used for. He was angry that I was there defending my country when trillions of naira of public fund had gone into private pockets. He told me point-blank that Nigerian leaders were among the most corrupt in the world.
Even though I had heard this refrain several time in the past, the way he drummed it into my ears aroused a new consciousness in me about the dangers of corruption. That was why I hit very hard at those who pay lip service to the fight against corruption at a recent appearance on a TV programme.
Corruption has eaten up the soul of the nation. It has, in fact, assumed some form of religiosity among Nigerians, particularly the politicians. There is no aspect of our national life that is immune to the scourge. This is why the first step to extricate our country from the web of retrogression should be to launch a vicious battle against corruption. Nigeria is the way it is because money meant for its physical development has been embezzled by some highly placed persons who have no iota of love for the progress and growth of Nigeria.
Today, it has been proved beyond any reasonable doubt that Nigeria is governable and can be made a model for other African nations. I gave copious treatment to this issue in last week's edition of this column where I attempted to list the impressive progress made within a short time by the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, from the time he started acting in that capacity. Has fuel supply across the country not been restored to normalcy? This was something unthinkable some six months ago. Even electricity supply has also improved tremendously. All it took to achieve these near-impossible feats was the courage by the actors in the corridors of power at the moment to take bold steps that have dramatically reversed the misfortunes of the country.
It is gratifying to observe that Nigeria is experiencing a new dawn in our life, when all hope of recuperation had been lost. I remember writing about the awesomeness of God in this column last month. I was moved by celestial forces to do that piece, having followed very critically and closely unfolding events in our dear country. Far-reaching decisions that have direct bearing on the life of the nation are being made with swiftness and courage.
Those who think that Nigeria will remain the way it is, including my passenger-friend, are daydreaming. Nigeria will surely get over its predicaments soon. It is just a matter of time. After all, every problem has an expiry date.
Thirty years ago, we were not like this. Life then was worth living, safe and pleasurable. Suddenly, things started deteriorating; and by mid 2002 things have gone haywire. Life is now brutish, pensive and callous. Nobody is sure about living till the next day. People are killed with reckless abandon. Journalists - the defenders of the defenceless - have suddenly become targets of organized assassinations. They are mauled in the confines of their homes to make it look like robbery. If journalists are boxed to a corner, such that they are not able to uncover the evils of the wicked in our society, then all of us are doomed. That corrupt leaders and others of their ilk have applied the brakes at times is because of the vibrancy of the media. No wonder all efforts to pass the freedom of Information bill have hit brick-walls.
Very soon we will be 50 as an independent nation. What are we going to showcase to the outside world as our attainments? Already a presidential committee has been set up to plan events to celebrate the day. The committee should first of all ask what we are celebrating. Agreed, we have every cause to celebrate. But the scope of the celebrations will be determined by the success of Jonathan's administration between now and October 1, 2010. The way he is going is quite impressive, and it underscores the need for leaders to be bold, altruistic and pragmatic.
I do not want to ever believe that things are not looking up in Nigeria. Things are definitely moving forward. What we need is the cooperation of ever Nigerian in the search for social equality, freedom and order. God is an orderly being. It was with order that he ordered everything he had made - causing them not to disobey his command. Look at the heavenly bodies - they comprise the moon, the sun and other celestial entities: They are where they are and none can disobey. I wonder why those he made out of his own image and likeness cannot obey. They rather infringe his commandments, including the laws of the land, with impunity and insensibility.
As I disembarked from the plane that brought us to Heathrow Airport, London, my mind was racing very fast - thinking about all that my friend said, but not excluding the monumental lessons he had taught me.
How I wish our leaders were there as we discussed the issues that shape the present and future of our fatherland. Nevertheless, I was glad I collected his contact. At least, I will have the privilege of communicating him from time-to-time to hear from him an unbiased, objective and thorough opinion about events in Nigeria.