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When Boko Haram kidnapped the Nigerian girls, I was in the country to give a Keynote speech on the legacy of Chinua Achebe at the University of Lagos. I’ve been to the country many times, beginning in 1962. Before my recent trip, I was warned to be careful by everyone I told about my plans. Watch out. Street crime is terrible, the city is unsafe, and con artists abound everywhere. Are you certain you need to make the trip? It didn’t help that two recent novels published earlier this year by Nigerian-American writers supported the popular misconception that Nigeria is a place to avoid. The protagonists in both Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc. and Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief encounter repeated shakedowns for bribes as soon as they reach the airport in Lagos, and those in-your-face encounters with corruption continue throughout their visits. And they are Nigerians! Corruption is the central metaphor of Cole’s novel, so you’d better be on your guard. Better yet: don’t consider Nigeria as a place you want to visit. What’s going to happen to an old white guy like me?
Nigeria is not exactly a country where Westerners take their vacations, contrary to a popular novel such as Chris Cleave’s Little Bee. It never has been and I doubt if it ever will be such a destination. In many ways this is regrettable because Nigerians themselves (especially those in the southern regions of the country) are wonderful people, blessed with an almost infectious humor. And—as has been documented in numerous polls—they are some of the most optimistic people in the world. The explanation for that may be fairly obvious. If you have so little, if your country provides almost nothing for you (education, health, improved infrastructure, even safety), perhaps hope is the only thing that can sustain you. Things will have to get better because they certainly can’t get any worse, though Boko Haram could change all this.
Happily, I can report that my trip to Lagos was pure joy, without a glitch anywhere, and only as I was leaving the country after a week did an immigration official say, “What do you have for me?” I told her “nothing,” and since I was departing, I didn’t respond with the answer I had prepared before I entered the country: “First, let me take your photo.” That was not necessary. Nor did I fear for my safety at any time during the week—though much of the time I stayed on the University of Lagos campus, known to be a safe place, and mostly with a continuous source of electricity. Only once did the lights go out during the week, so I didn’t really need to use the three flashlights I’d brought along with me.
Steady electricity is not available in most of the country. One professor I spoke to at the university said that the electricity in his home had been off for the past nine days. Others related similar stories. All confessed to owning cheap Chinese generators. They are still expected to pay their electric bills, however, even when the service is not provided. Seemingly admitting to its failure to provide continuous electricity for its citizens, the Nigerian government recently asked wealthy businessmen to take over the crumbling electricity infrastructure. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, the country “produces less than half as much electricity as North Dakota for 249 times more people.” Blackouts—often for days on end—are routine. Electricity isn’t the only thing the country can’t provide for its people.
Safe water is another basic necessity where the government has failed, though on an earlier trip several years ago I was repeatedly told that if the government did supply it, then all the companies that sell bottled water (even small plastic bags of pure water for pennies) would be put out of business. That’s certainly an explanation when cronyism rules. You only get somewhere if you have contacts, connections. And the rich—well, they’re like the one percent in the United States, filthy rich (often at the expense of the poor), only much more ostentatious. One university graduate I spoke to for the better part of an afternoon said that politicians aren’t content with one house but have dozens of houses, fleets of cars, and money stashed away everywhere. To me, that problem is beginning to exist everywhere. (The Republicans who voted against the recent attempt to raise the minimum wage in the United States are millionaires. Why should they care about the people at the bottom?)
Average Nigerians have already learned to expect nothing from their government, so in that sense they are already ahead of many Americans. Recently, however, certain conditions have improved, such as streets and highways. The example I heard for improved highways is that in the past someone would contract to build a highway for, say, $10 million and nothing would happen. The road would not get made, the money was pocketed. More recently, the same road which should cost $10 million gets built because the contractor has been paid $30 million. That’s inflation, of course, a huge waste, but that’s the way things work. Lagos itself looks as if it needs a fresh coat of paint—every building, every structure. It’s not dirt, grime, but age. The streets are fine but sidewalks and staircases are likely to have gaps in them because nothing gets repaired. You’ve got to watch very carefully where you walk.
The buildings at the University of Lagos are in a similar state, showing no evidence of any maintenance, and this I was told was intentional, so that once a building collapses or is no longer functional, some fat cat can get a huge contract to build a new one. Again, that doesn’t seem too far removed from the United States, where bridges are poorly maintained and repairs are pushed off until it’s too late and the structures collapse. The fire alarm system in the guesthouse where I stayed was broken but a large bell was hanging at the bottom of the stairwell with a sign instructing people to ring it vigorously in case of a fire.
The safety of its citizens is another matter, especially as Boko Haram (“Western education is a sin”) has become increasingly active in many areas of the country. First, its activities were limited to the Muslim North, but more recently its forces have moved into the Christian/animistic South. Abuja, the country’s capitol, has had bombings. Thousands of Nigerians (mostly women and children) have been killed during the past several years. It wasn’t until the recent kidnapping of more than two hundred Nigerian girls that the West began to pay much attention to Nigeria’s home-grown terrorism. That response strikes me as typical for the West and, especially, for President Obama’s wait-and-see foreign policy. Southerners will tell you that Boko Haram is being funded by Northern military generals in an attempt to destabilize Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency. One of my colleagues, a Nigerian expert, says that’s just talk.
The roots of the country’s security and instability go back to its formation by the British during colonial times: the Muslims in the North, the Christians and animists in the South. The country’s Civil War/Biafran War, from 1967 to 1970, was the first rupture because of ethnicity. The country’s censuses have been repeatedly rigged in favor of the northern population. Even the county’s massive oil revenue has contributed to the North/South split because the oil is drilled in the South but refined (for gasoline) in the North, which obviously makes no sense from a logistical perspective. Moreover, the country’s military has always been dominated by Muslim northerners. Would they support Boko Haram and kill so many innocent Muslims in the North simply to regain control over the country? Of course. And Goodluck Jonathan—formerly the country’s vice president—came into power by accident when the country’s Northern President, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, died in office.
To add to the recent government ineptitude, Jonathan’s wife, the county’s First Lady, initially denied that any Nigerian girls had been kidnapped. Last week our Department of State issued a warning of potential terrorism by Boko Haram in Lagos. My own question concerns Atiku Abubakar, the northern politician who bankrolled American University of Nigeria, in Yola, eight years ago, and has always had his eyes on the presidency. (The initial management was by American University, in Washington, D.C., the institution where I taught for so many years.) Wouldn’t American University of Nigeria be a logical site for an attack by Boko Haram? Not if Abubakar’s friends have worked out a deal with the terrorists. I say all this as pure speculation, but it is curious that such a visibly pro-Western university in Nigeria’s North (in the midst of Boko Haram’s activities) has been passed over.
So Nigeria is not for tourists and perhaps never will be. The Civil War certainly dissuaded people from traveling there. The ruthless military dictators who controlled the country for years didn’t help either. The country’s notoriety for corruption (especially the advance-payment scam known as 419) and now the activities of Boko Haram continue to steer potential tourists away. The climate and the country’s cuisine don’t help either. It’s a pity because all of my experiences in Nigeria have been positive, beginning with my two years as a Peace Corps volunteer (1962-1964) in the South, when I observed incredible optimism within the country. During my more recent trips to the country, other than at the airport and at an occasional conference, I am aware that I see almost no white people, certainly not tourists.
Yet the country’s energy and vibrancy cannot be denied. When people are slapped down, they pull themselves back up. Nigerians have always been creative in their ways of skirting around obstacles thrown in front of them. Early in April, just before I traveled to Nigeria, the World Bank declared Nigeria’s economy as the continent’s largest, way out stripping South Africa’s which had previously controlled that position. That’s no surprise. The people are industrious, hard-working, and—as I said earlier—cheerful, and a joy to be around. I’m anxious to return to Nigeria again.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. In mid-April he delivered the Keynote speech on the 50th Anniversary of Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God at the University of Lagos. Email: email@example.com.