In the 1960s, a colonial officer leaving a particular country in Africa described it as a “useless piece of territory.” (1, Page 26). And for good reason. At the time of independence, this territory was one of the poorest in the world. As much as 80% of its land is covered by desert curtailing economic activities. It was said that the remaining few patches of ground that are not desert were grazed upon by cows. The activities of cattle herdsmen were thus the sum total of economic activity in this land. Add to it that the country is landlocked. For those in the know, lack of territorial access to the sea, remoteness and isolation from world markets impose serious constraints on the overall socio-economic development of landlocked countries. (2)
But 50 years later and the country has become a beacon of hope to the black world. While many Africans like to cite South Africa and Rwanda as top destinations on the continent, this country is the real MVP. In terms of living standards and economic wellbeing measured by GDP per capita, Rwanda and South Africa are nowhere close to it. (3) Instead, citizens of this country compare favourably with their counterparts in Brazil, Thailand and Costa Rica. These days, the country is routinely called the most attractive investment destination in Africa. (4)
From a per capita GDP of about US$70 (5) when it gained independence from Britain in 1966, it now has a per capita GDP of US$8,259 according to the World Bank (6) making it arguably the richest country in Africa.
This country is called Botswana.
Disabusing your minds…
I often tell the story of Botswana so I can contribute my quota to disabusing the minds of young blacks who have become accustomed to sayings that no black nation is capable of ruling itself. If I reverse this Yoruba proverb,
“Iku ti’n pa oju’gba eni, owe nla lo’n pa fun ni”
…then it means that if Botswana can do it so can any black country.
A quick lesson from history…
Not long ago, it was widely believed that blacks were inferior and unintelligent. It was so much a given that this claim was supported by ‘scientific’ theories. In 1951, a noted physician, Samuel Cartwright, reported to the Medical Association of Louisiana that he had identified the malady which made Negroes indolent and barbaric. He invoked the divine saying nature had made Negroes with smaller brains and blood vessels. (7) This and similar thinking thrived in the 18th and especially the 19th centuries.
And since all the best jobs during these periods were held by whites, it became easier to believe that blacks really are inferior. ‘Look,’ said the average white, ‘blacks have been free for generations, yet there are almost no black professors, lawyers, doctors or even bank tellers. Isn’t that proof that blacks are simply less intelligent and hard-working?’
In 1958, Clennon King, a black student who applied to the University of Mississippi, was forcefully committed to a mental asylum. The presiding judge ruled that a black person must surely be insane to think that he could be admitted to such a University. (8)
Now, this is no longer the prevailing thought. In science, there is Charles Drew who invented the blood bank. (9) In engineering, there is Katherine Johnson whose calculations helped NASA send the first American to space. (10) In international politics, there is Condoleezza Rice who served as United States’ national security adviser and U.S. Secretary of State. (11) In military, everyone knows Colin Powell. (12) In law, there is Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. (13) In business, of course there is the philanthropist Mo Ibrahim. (14) In global peace, there is Kofi Annan. (15) We have to include Barack Obama somewhere, right?
The loud statement is that blacks, who once upon a time were considered unable to compete on a level playing ground with others, have over time been able to stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone from everywhere.
This is instructive to Nigerians. I am particularly big on Nigerians reading history so they can understand that there is no such thing as the Nigerian exceptionalism. There is absolutely nothing happening in Nigeria today which has not occurred on a much grander scale elsewhere.
Synonymous with corruption…
Personally, I don’t begrudge anyone who says another name for Nigeria is corruption. Nigeria is a corrupt nation. Nigeria, according to Oby Ezekwesili has allegedly lost $400bn oil revenue to corruption since Independence. (16) She didn’t reveal how she got that figure, which I personally consider bogus. However, we can be somewhat sure about what the greatest looter in Nigeria’s history, Sani Abacha plundered. The former leader is estimated to have stolen the equivalent of 2–3 per cent of the country’s GDP for every year that he was President. (17) Experts estimate his loot to be around $4.3billion (18), and they agree it can’t be more than $7 billion. (19) He was a man whose looting prowess knew no bounds so much so that he’s been listed as the fourth most corrupt (20) leader in history.
Yet when Nigerians tell me that the country is destined to always be corrupt, I always wonder if they have ever heard of a country called Indonesia.
For years, Indonesians felt corruption was in their DNA. A local politician once had people giving out cash to villagers to buy their votes. When asked about it the villagers said they were not corrupt, saying the politician is. The men giving out the money also said they weren’t corrupt, the politician is. (21) Everyone took corruption for granted.
Like Abacha, they had a dictator in his own league, looting as much as $35billion during his reign. He earned the title of the most corrupt leader in history. (22) His example filtered down from ministers doling out project funds in gilded offices to traffic cops hustling payoffs on dusty street corners. Police seldom investigated even the clearest cases of graft, and prosecutors rarely took even the most winnable cases to court. In fact, Transparency International’s first ranking gave the title of the world’s most corrupt country in 1995 to Indonesia. (23)
All that has changed. In the latest ranking by Transparency International (2018), the country was ranked 89 out of 180; breaking into the top half of the chart. (24) Major improvements from just 23 years.
Battling with insecurity…
Over time, Nigerians have decried the insecurity in the country. The Boko Haram problem has refused to go away, the herdsmen insurgence has not abated, and kidnapping and robbery have not ceased. On Boxing day, the Islamic State released a video of the killing of 11 Christian hostages in Northern Nigeria. (25) On Tuesday, the Nigerian Army itself confirmed numerous deaths after Boko Haram terrorists ambushed troop commanders. (26) This same week, four armed Nigerian Navy ratings were killed, two others injured, while 3 others were kidnapped. (27) While these cases are not particularly new, what has become a concern is how these brutal episodes have lost their shock values. Nigerians are no longer surprised. It’s not uncommon to hear people hear the story of a kidnapped person by suspected Fulani herdsmen and shrug it off imploring the family of the kidnapped to pay the ransom as soon as possible. It’s almost become a way of life.
Yet Chile can teach us some lessons on fighting crime and insecurity. Chile has fought several wars in its history. In fact, from 1973 to 1990, and later extending till 2010, an armed resistance movement against Augusto Pinochet rendered the country a crime zone. With arms proliferation the norm, Chile became a place known for assassinations, bombings, kidnapping and robberies. Militia groups from other Latin American countries went to Chile for boot camps. (28)
Today, while other Latin American countries continue to compete for the violence capital of the world, with the homicide rate as high as 116 per 100,000 inhabitants (29), Chile has one of the low homicide rates in the world, at 4 per 100,000, more than two times less than Nigeria. (30) Vastly unrecognizable from its conflict days.
The poverty problem…
Nothing encompasses the pain I have for Nigeria than the policies of shared poverty it has embraced as an ideology. Except for a few hardcore loyalists to the present regime, everyone else knows that poverty is increasing at an alarming rate. Few things bring this to the fore than the realization that India, a country of 1.3 billion people, now has less people in poverty than Nigeria, a country of 200 million people. (31) Bloomberg records that six people fall into extreme poverty in this country every minute. (32)
Again, a lesson from history is that while poverty is the default setting of every country, countries who have emerged from its shackles are ubiquitous. A nation which exemplifies this is the Republic of Korea. In 1953, the GNI per capita of South Korea was $67. (33) The country was seen as one of the poorest, perhaps the poorest, country in the world with almost no scope of economic revival. (34)
In just a few generations, South Korea has displayed such spectacular rise that it’s been likened to a miracle. Today, with about 50 million people, it has the 12th largest GDP in the world and the 4th largest in Asia. (35) It has the 5th largest export economy in the world and the 6th most complex economy. (36) Every single year since 2005, one of its airports is rated the best airport worldwide. (37)
It is a people without a sense of history who resign to fate. As elucidated above, worse things have happened to other countries who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and forged ahead.
This admonition is particularly important because based on current happenings those who will turn the fortunes of this country around are not in positions of power. It’s obvious that those in power are irredeemable. It is those watching and at the receiving ends of these bad policies who will eventually summon courage to change the nation’s directions.
Unfortunately, these are the people I see despondent at every turn I take. I see them take the approach of, this country is a waste…no hope of a turnaround…nothing we can do about its inescapable collapse…let’s just go along with this inevitable sinking ship.
It is for these people that I write this. It is never too late for progress. The black man has the capacity to govern himself. There is no ceiling to the progress of any place considering the “crowd of witnesses” surrounding us. There are already blueprint templates ready to be customized for local environments.
I can write on the strategies the countries above used to overcome their challenges (and I plan to do so in the future), but no strategy will work if the people have a firm belief that things cannot change. Without hope we become rudderless. Yet the mind is too much a powerful thing to leave to gloom.
One generation is enough to turn the fortunes of Nigeria around. I know countries who have done it in less.
Black countries can’t govern themselves? That’s a bloody lie. Worse things were said about the intellectual ability of the black man for hundreds of years.
But while naysayers continue to reinforce what they know best to do, you — the young Nigerian — must come to the unshakeable belief that other people’s words do not have to be your reality.
I end this write-up with a remarkable statement by Gandalf in the Lord Of The Ring. Poor old Frodo is carrying this heavy burden, a ring of immense power, and it’s weighing him down. Evil follows him and threatens to bring him down. He has already been dealt a blow that almost killed him — a horrible injury to his shoulder. So he says to Gandalf, “I wish I had never lived in such times.”. To which Gandalf replied, “So do all people who live to see such times. But that is not for you to decide. All that’s for you to decide is what to do with the time you’re given.”
This is very instructive to the Nigerian youth!
1. Robert Guest, The Shackled Continent, Pan Publishing. 2005. p.26.
19. https://www.transparency.org/news/feature/returning_nigerians_stolen_millions; https://www.legit.ng/608504-world-bank-says-abachas-7-billion-loot-huge-handle.html