Nigeria continues to baffle and bamboozle and yet remain fascinating. It has some of the richest people on earth as well as some of the poorest; it has some of the most talented people on the continent and also some of the least effective leaders. What makes Nigeria tick and why is it in the state it is today? Our Cover Story for the October print edition examines Africa’s largest economy from a variety of angles to try and get some sort of handle on this giant African enigma. This report by Anver Versi
Has there ever been a nation quite like Nigeria? Even in a world in which disparities are rapidly increasing, the contradictions and extremes packed into this vast nation of 186m are on a different scale altogether.
Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy but it also has more people living in extreme poverty than anywhere else in the world. As my long-time Nigerian friend Olu P. says: “Again, I am pleased to announce that in this field as well, we are number one – not just in Africa, but in the world!”
Indeed Nigeria has beaten the hitherto entrenched incumbent, India, into second place. According to new ranking published by The World Poverty Clock, Nigeria, with an estimated 86.9m people living in extreme poverty, has shown a clean pair of heels to India which has managed to stagger into the runners-up position with only 71.5m people living in extreme poverty.
The DRC comes in at a poor third with 60.7m people in extreme poverty but scores heavily in terms of percentages with the extremely poor forming 77% of the total population while Nigeria’s poorest form less than half of the total population at 46.7%.
What makes these figures more compelling is that fact that while Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy in terms of GDP, India cannot claim any such distinction and the DRC’s GDP cannot even get to the starting blocks.
But Nigeria also pulls its weight on the other end of the scale, with arguably more millionaires and billionaires than any other African country.
At this point, it will be simplistic to take the usual Western NGO line and see a correlation between the two sets of numbers and come to the erroneous conclusion that extreme poverty in Nigeria is partly caused by the extreme wealthy. We shall return to this discussion a little further on.
But leaving this serious topic of income disparity aside for the moment, Nigeria’s range of contradictions is bewildering. Over the years, I have been a frequent traveller to Nigeria and each time, I dread the thought of going there; but once there, always feel exhilarated and sorry to leave. I have no explanation for my own contradictory feelings.
There is a standing joke whenever there are pan-African gatherings. How can you tell who is the Nigerian when you see a group of Africans talking? The answer: “The loudest!”
Yes, Nigerians, like Americans, are by and large loud. Spend one day in Lagos and you will know why. The cacophony of noise from the crush of vehicles of all description, music blaring from seemingly a million sources, hawkers pitching their wares, mothers scolding children – or husbands – danfo (minibus) conductors screeching for customers, goats on the way to market bleating for all they are worth, preachers with megaphones, the angry whine from a zillion okadas (motorcycle taxis) and the incessant, urgent tooting of horns, all blend together to form one formidable wall of sound.
To be heard at all, you not only have to be loud but to have learnt how to pitch your voice to cut through the ‘sound barrier’. When you take a Nigerian out of his normal habitat and place him in a relatively quiet atmosphere, little wonder he or she sounds ear-shatteringly loud.
But Nigerians of all classes have a wonderful sense of humour and can find something witty to say over anything at all. They tend to have a booming laughter that can lighten up a monastery and I have yet to meet a Nigerian who cannot talk incessantly, intelligibly and intelligently on any subject you care to mention.
But I have also met Nigerians who rarely speak above a whisper that you have to strain to hear and many who weigh, judge and modulate their words with great care before uttering them. I can say without reservation that some of the deepest and most profound thoughts I have ever encountered have come from Nigerians.
Although literacy levels in Nigeria are well below the African median, the country has produced some of the greatest African literature. Writes like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri and the current star, Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie are just some of the globally best known authors among a galaxy of fine wordsmiths.
Nigeria has the most dynamic press in Africa with some of the best quality newspapers and magazines but also some of the worst. It probably invented fake news and has taken ‘brown envelop’ journalism, where people pay to have favourable stories about themselves printed in papers, to new heights. It is the only place I know where the PR departments of even major companies pay publications not to print stories that could damage the reputation of their firms.
Nigerians are also the fiercest critics as well as the staunchest supporters of their country. Ask a Nigerian what is wrong with the country and he will spend half the night with a blow by blow listing of everything that has gone wrong, who is responsible and how to put it right.
Criticise Nigeria, and the same person will spend the rest of the night putting you straight and listing everything that is great with the country and why it is better than anywhere else in the world.
Nigeria has more pastors, priests, maalaams, denominations, churches and mosques per head than anywhere else in Africa but it is also rife with superstition and the use and abuse of juju is endemic.
Nigerians are probably some of the most inventive people on earth but they are also the most imitative. No sooner does a new fad, fashion, buzzword, dance, music style, jargon, diet, exercise routine, headgear, hairstyle make it appearance in the US or Europe (and now increasingly in the East as well) and you will find its counterpart, often with whistles on, in Nigeria.
Pride in culture
Yet Nigerians are supremely proud of their cultures (in the plural). All-important occasions are an excuse to dust off cultural attire and arrive resplendent in agbada or robes, with matching caps, headscarves, jewellery and footwear.
And every occasion, births, name days, birthdays, engagements, weddings, launches, funerals, anniversaries, victories are the signal for parties. No one can party quite like the Nigerians. Often, whole streets are fenced off and everybody, no matter what poverty statistics say, gets into the mood. Dancers, musicians, MCs and praise singers are generously ‘sprayed’ with money.
Elite parties are never complete without the obligatory celebrities and foreign guests and a clutch of photographers snap everybody and everything in sight. Anyone who has not been photographed at least twice can take righteous umbrage. Coverage of the event, with scores of photographs, in glossy magazines and newspapers is just par for the course.
Yes, Nigeria is probably the most corrupt country in Africa but it also has some of the most honest people on the continent. Million dollar deals are still made and honoured on word of mouth and a handshake. One gentleman to whom I had lent a small amount when he was short, spent a year tracing me and finally repaid the amount through a friend in London.
Nigerian creativity knows no bounds. Whatever sells in one locality is replicated immediately everywhere. Nollywood is now the second largest, in terms of output, to Bollywood yet the country has only 25 or so multiplexes in the whole country. Nigerian pop music is now becoming a world-wide phenomenon.
The country has some of the most exquisite buildings on the continent check by jowl with some of the most miserable hovels. It has high class supermarkets and international designer outlets, and also forests of teeming, bustling markets where you can buy a week’s grocery for less than $2.00.
Nigeria may not yet be classified as an industrial country but it is industrious. There are state of the art manufacturing plants run with clockwork precision and Dickensian sweatshops that churn out astonishing articles in metal, wood, plastic and ceramics.
Not a fixed cake
To return to the income disparity of a few billionaires and very many in extreme poverty. The West is fond of juxtaposing the two and thereby suggesting that the rich are somehow stealing from the poor. This is not true. Most of the very rich have earned every penny and they employ hundreds of thousands while their enterprises provide incomes for millions.
Critics make the mistake of looking at the economy as a cake with fixed dimensions with different people taking different sized slices from it; ergo, if one set takes the lion’s share of the cake, others will suffer.
In fact, the economy does not have fixed boundaries. It is fluid and it grows or shrinks depending on all the economic activities, including consumption, that makes it work.
It is more like a pot into which different people contribute different ingredients – some capital, some material, some management skills, some vision, some labour. The more the contribution, the bigger the pot becomes.
The role of the government is to involve as many people as possible to participate in the national enterprise – the so-called ‘empowerment’ model so liked by international agencies. In a free market, entrepreneurs usually take the risks and if they are successful, they tend to garner considerable profits.
On a level playing field, the more millionaires an economy produces, the healthier the economy since businesses have to generate several more millions in goods and services to make their individual millions. This means work for hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
China has the largest number of billionaires in the world but it also has a very large segment of the poor. A rising tide lifts all boats.
As long as everybody gets out of it what they put in, it is fine and dandy. What one then needs is more of the same and of a better quality – which comes with education and skills.
The problem is when those who have contributed little or nothing then try to take more out it than those who have contributed.
This is where, I believe Nigeria has fallen down. A great deal of its political ethos has been to secure positions of authority and use these to help oneself privately.
These are those who use their positions and connections to steal from the state. It is estimated by Oxfam that between 1960 and 2005, about $20 trillion was stolen from the treasury by public office holders. This amount is larger than the GDP of US in 2012 (about $18 trillion).
These people go not create enterprises, provide work or grow the economy. They simply steal from the state, which means they steal from the people. China, in its no nonsense manner, deems them as traitors and their punishment when found out is the same that is reserved for traitors.
So what to make of Nigeria with all its contradictions? It is bursting with energy and the immense pressures of daily life, as it does to minerals underground, often produces diamonds and gems.
But the level of poverty for a country so endowed with dynamism and talent is obscene. That this country, so brim-full of innovative ideas, so blessed with talent, so replete with ambition has still not been able to lift the majority of is people out of poverty is still a wonder.
This, for me is the biggest contradiction of Nigeria.