The phrase “This is Africa” is a a little too common. But is this really Africa?
October, 2012 Abuja, Nigeria
A month ago I was back in Nigeria for just over a week. It was my first time back there since moving to the U.S. almost 13 years ago. It was also the fifth and final country I had been over my summer months. So naturally it was the most anticipated trip.
My stay, in a word was bittersweet. It was sweet entering a country without needing to go through customs, or having your bag double and triple checked. It was sweet experiencing tastes and smells I’ve missed for so long, and walking the environment that in many ways shaped who I’ve come to be. But bitter, in the sense that in the same ways, this was the same Nigeria that I left 13 years ago.
I liken Nigeria to India, which I visited earlier in the summer. India was the closest I’d been back to Africa up to this point. Yet people from around the world, including myself travel to India, and are eager to go back. I could not understand why Nigeria wasn’t like this.
Unlike India where I was there as a tourist, I was in Nigeria doing some media projects for a school in Abuja. I left Abuja for Ibadan briefly to carry out another project. My stay there was entirely for work, and there was little room in my schedule to go site seeing, or anything of the sort. While there though I realized Nigeria really does not have a tourist culture. There were no museums, no heritage sites, no temples, nothing to showcase the beautiful and deep culture that is the heart of Africa. This was the capital city in a country that has one of the fastest growing population and economy in world. A country whose history predates many of those in the western world. A country whose history I was reading about in my textbook in high school, in the United States and whose economic policies I was discussing in China. This negligence was something that echoed throughout the rest of our culture. Grant it there were some impressive buildings such as the Central Bank, the National Mosque, Church, and Zuma rock, however the one day I had some time to go out into the city, I discovered these weren’t tourist zones at all.
Apparently Nigeria’s been under a terror alert for almost two years now due to recent bombings by known terrorist group, Boko Haram. So when I decided to take photos of the National Church across the road from the Central Bank of Nigeria — being guarded by the Nigerian Army — what followed would be the scariest hour(s) of my life.Yes, I was informed you weren’t supposed to take photos. But I was also informed in India you couldn’t take photos of temples, or inside the Taj Mahal, or inside museums, but that didn’t stop the locales, let alone tourists. In India I found myself being chauffeured by the police to a Taxi, after picking me up 6am on a bridge that people are not supposed to be on. This was India, which didn’t have half the photography culture that China did. Nigeria was not like this.
As I was snapping away at the church, the driver and my friend beckoned to me and quickly drove right at me with the back door open. To the other side was a black truck, sirens on top, gunning straight for us. He started driving while just my hands were on the door, both my feet were still trying to get into the vehicle. Just as I entered, the truck pulled in front of us, and we stopped. We were fleeing the scene of the crime, as the army saw it, and they reacted as such. Two men carrying AK47s stepped out started yelling for us to get out of the car, get into the back of the truck, and kneel down. The car was left on the side of the road locked. My camera was taken from me. They drove us to the front of the Central Bank, were they were stationed. In the same fashion, we were ushered out and made to sit in a circle waiting for the commander. Threats came out, stones were grabbed. At this point I brought out my U.S. driver’s license and UK student card, apologized, and claimed ignorance, which usually works in these scenarios. Nope.
The commander arrived with as much threats as his soldiers, asking me if I would like a visa to heaven, before making us take of our shirts and lie on the grass. He hated my English he’d said — they spoke pidgin — and under such conditions, my mother tongue, Yoruba, was proving incredibly difficult to find. At this point you can imagine what was going through my mind. The thing about authority is you do not have to carry out your threats, simply make one believe you had the power to do so. And with seven men walking around with AK47s, (in fact when one officer attempted to come to the scene without his gun, he was chastised, and sent back in to grab his gun) worked up by recent turn of events, I assumed the worst. My friend were more optimistic. The believed we would be beaten. We were told to do military squats, (something we would do back in school when we were late), and the commander drove away with the camera to consult headquarters.
By this point the heat died down quite a bit. Even the officers who perused us found the little hint of humor in our situation. We were told to relax and sit tight while we waited for the commander to return. Suddenly the fact that we were Nigerians and that the officers were from our various regions mattered. They joked a bit about my accent, and asked if people were allowed to take pictures wherever and whenever in China or in the U.S.
After a long wait, the commander returned with my camera; I was told to delete all the photos on the spot. We would be castrated were we to do that again, and so went the threats. We tried to run, out of fear, not guilt, as I repeatedly tried to explain, this seemed to be what got us in trouble. As they stated, if it were the police, they wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot. And with speed-bumps in every corner, we really wouldn’t have gotten very far. We were lucky as they repeatedly said, and I do not doubt this for a second.
This was not even the bitter point in my trip.
I was staying at the legislative quarters in Abuja, home to members of the house of parliament for the country, and electricity will cut out a few times times a day. I was working at a school that housed the children of members of the government and ambassadors, and water will still cut out. Towards the end of my trip, fuel became so difficult to find it nearly affected my travel plans. These were issues that plagued Nigeria 13 years ago.
As I arrived into Ibadan late in the evening, the driver was driving off road and had to circle back 5-6 times in other to escape the traffic or ‘go-slow’ as we called it. As we drove by some homes, women were selling goods with cellphone lights and a young girl was doing her homework with with LED lights. 13 years ago, we were using kerosene lamps. Yet you have security guards walking around with Bluetooth headsets, the governor rolling into our compound with the latest Jaguar and Range Rover, students at the school, rocking Rolexes and Lois Viton handbags, billboards for the latest Sony Vaio and Aquos 80 inch TVs. DVDs and probably blu-rays have replaced the VHS tapes I grew up with, flat screens have replaced the bulky TVs, iPads and laptops have replaced the computer systems I was cordially introduced to 13 years ago. Otherwise, everything remains the same. Back then, we could plead ignorance, but it’s very difficult to do so in nation that’s very much plugged in. The situation is now so bad that some Nigerian businesses are relocating their headquarters to Ghana, were the infrastructure is at the very least stable.
As we were driving to the airport to catch my flight to London, the spokes-lady on the radio announced that Arik, the airline I flew from Ibadan back to Abuja, just the day before, is now grounded, due to tax issues. The “conundrum” as she described it is that we Nigerians are now unable to fly, and due to fuel shortage, unable to go by road. It’s time for us to wake up she said. This is something we’ve being saying as far back as I can remember.
The issue is we are all aware that there is a problem just no apparent solution. Many blame the government, but I find it difficult to place the entire blame here. The government is after all composed of people, and I think here is the heart of the situation. Many of the same attributes that make us such go-gettas outside of the country is inhibiting us within our own. In the small scenarios I was in, I observed individuals within a business each trying to be their own boss, each with their own ambitions, each with their own views of right and wrong. In the U.S., China, UK, this is admirable. Here, we have an entire nation ran by such individuals. It’s no wonder why we can’t pick a direction, and just go. We must first form a committee, delegate duties, flaunt our degrees, medals and trophies, vote on a direction, only for it to be overruled by someone with more medals and trophies. Something China, I would say, has little issues with.
The issue is not even money. That would be all too simple. I’m happy to say Nigeria was not the poorest country I’ve been to. In fact as a whole, I believe commodities were more expensive there than in China, let alone India. Food, clothing, flights, were actually competitive with U.K. and U.S. prices unfortunately. Poverty level as I observed was also significantly lower than India especially.
Taking another page from China, the trouble I think, is we rely far too much on imports. Take fuel for instance. We export crude oil, yet we do not have enough to power our cars. Cars, which we also import. With that said, I believe strongly limiting imports will have a drastic change in our economy. Car for instance. There’s is far too much on the road. Placing quotas in imports, high road taxes, high fuel prices, and investing in public transportation much like the United Kingdom, and mainland Europe will greatly benefit the working class. Have our own plants, even if merely for taxis and buses. And remove the speedbumps! Makes for an extremely uncomfortable drive, let alone lack of emergency services.
This was a concept I took for granted growing up. My dad consistently stressed it, but I had no idea what it meant at the time. Simple things, like making us wash the cars at least once a week, mowing the lawn just as often, waxing the car, changing the oil (we ourselves didn’t do this of course). Or simpler things like changing a bulb on the Christmas lights when one out a hundred goes out. The point was we didn’t have to wait until everything is broken before we replace it. In Nigeria, we can build it, but we cannot maintain. It’s deeply rooted in our culture. Part of the reason we do not have museums and cultural landmarks. Whether we were driving past houses of government officials, or through street markets the lack of maintenance is still the same. Take the National Stadium in Abuja for instance. As I was informed, the day it was finished was a day of National pride all over Nigeria. Now you can’t even pay athlete to come play there. As I’m told, there’s currently a committee in progress tasked with its renovation. It was built 9 years ago. Once again coming back to China, a country where the average lifespan of a building is 30 years, they have a different concept of maintenance. Things aren’t built to last, but they are built, and during their life cycle, maintained. Skyscrapers around our campus went up within a year. New dormitories were built and furnished within a similar time frame. Several times I would go by a building and see cleaners wiping away sustained by cables 30 stories up. Several times a day cleaners with brooms and dust pickers will be sweeping the streets on the main road. At night clubs, the cleaners will be cleaning the floor at peak hours, something I found odd initially. Surely one could wait till closing time? But by then there would be too much of a mess.
This maintenance issue as I now realize also plays into the Broken Windows Theory. In 1990s crime in New York significantly decreased due to the implementation of this theory. The theory is that a single broken window is an invitation to crime. It shows negligence. So simply by fixing broken windows, cleaning graffiti, making petty crimes like hopping subway tickets boots a crime punishable by prison sentence went a long way into making New York one of the safer cities in the U.S. today. This is something we certainly still have an issue with in Nigeria.
There are still some things I won’t understand. For instance, the baggage carrier or the gentleman who helped me reserve a ticket expecting me to pay him a tip, though they works for the airline. And after I tipped him, he claims it was a small tip. Maybe I’m just stingy as my cousins were quick to point out to me? I like to think I have a different conception of money. The issues that plague Nigeria, it’s not government, it’s not economy, it’s deeply rooted cultural issues. And I’ve come to realize you can change people’s language, opinions, but culture is the most difficult thing to change.
First off, this post is overdue, I apologize. Second, I’m usually not one for articles. I prefer speaking in pictures, not words. However for the first time I found that pictures alone aren’t enough to tell a story here. Grant it, as I stated, I was there for work, not leisure. I was also there, not as a tourist, but as a citizen. Although I was visiting, my lenses were nonetheless a bit clouded. But I also think pictures alone aren’t enough to tell Nigeria’s story. The stories are there no doubt. Beautiful pictures. And I intend on finding and showcasing these. Until then though, I leave you with this.