Opinion: Disorder at home, excellence abroad?

Friday Musings with    Ayo Olukotun

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“Look at what has happened to us in England. In one fell swoop, seven of our sons were elected into the British Parliament, an unprecedented feat in the history of democracy anywhere in the world. The following week, England won the Under -21 World Cup with the assistance of five young men of Nigerian descent”

–Rev. Father Hassan Matthew Kukah, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, June 24, 2017

Introducing another dimension to the rave of the moment, namely, how to save Nigeria from disintegration, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Rev. Father Matthew Kukah, quoted above, contrasts the bedlam at home with the excellence of Nigerians abroad. The priest argued that while some young Nigerians are heating up the polity and beating war drums, many Nigerians are making waves around the globe, citing the inspiring example of the seven Nigerians who won elections into parliament in Britain, three weeks ago.

To be sure, the brilliance of some Nigerians in the Diaspora is of growing interest to a nation where good news is in short supply. The puzzle is often raised concerning a country which obviously underperforms, but whose sons and daughters are not only acclaimed abroad, but play critical roles in the economy and service sectors of the United States and Europe. For example, on Monday, July 3, scholars across the globe will convene for the Annual Toyin Falola International Conference at the Adeyemi College of Education, Ondo, in celebration of a scholar who has changed the face of the humanities, by his publications.

That is not all. Mention any great centre of learning around the world, and you will find several Nigerian academics teaching and researching there, and many Nigerian students as star academic apprentices. The country is familiar with notable football players of Nigerian ancestry in European leagues, musicians creating innovative rythms in several countries, and writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Biyi Bandele Thomas, among others.

Time will come to assess the distinctive contribution of Nigerian immigrants to the various cultures of the countries in which they reside, for now, however, the impact of educated Nigerians in the Diaspora consitutes a healthy reversal of the image of Nigeria as culprits and criminals. As readers of this column will remember, it was my pleasurable duty to counter-pose to the description of Nigeria as a fantastically corrupt country, by a former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, the graduation, the same week, of 43 Nigerians out of 96 doctoral students from Howard University in the United States. ( Contrasting narratives of Nigeria’s image, The PUNCH, Friday, May 13, 2016.)

Another aspect of the riddle of dysfunction at home and glory abroad, was broached recently by the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources,  Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, when he revealed that he was often embarrassed to learn that Nigeria is the only oil producing country that is still struggling with the importation of refined petroleum products. Kachikwu may have added that Nigeria’s search for refined petroleum has included small African countries with populations less than that of Oyo State.

It should be pointed out that the dichotomies between a Nigeria steeped in anomie, becoming the graveyard of talents, and that of excellence of gifted Nigerians abroad, is a somewhat shallow one. Could it be that our narratives, including Kukah’s, have ignored the several notable strides, albeit in distressing circumstances, of Nigerians at home? Could it also be, that in a process, where as Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe, saw it, colonised peoples adopt the thinking and lifestyles of the colonist to an excessive degree, Nigerians have come to define excellence as that which emanates from the US and Britain? Could it be that in what the eminent philosopher, Herbert Macurse, described as a one dimensional world, we have come to judge ourselves by the so-called world class standards, defined by the West?

Let me illustrate these posers. It took the visit of founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, to Nigeria two years ago, and his commendation of technological startups by our youths, for us to realise how much innovativeness young Nigerians are displaying. Zuckerberg went on record as saying that from what he saw of the entrepreneurial energy of Nigerians, there was no way Nigeria would not become an influential actor on the world stage. That apart, there is a long list of Nigerians who are defying the hard times to redefine creativity in their various professions. Consider for example, young Nigerians under 40, such as Obinna Ononkwo and Laide Agboola, who have made remarkable contributions on the property scene, and are closely associated with the impressive Maryland Mall in Lagos. How about technological entrepreneurs such as Chinedu Echeruo, young, brilliant and innovative? On the academic scene, factor scholars such as Sola Omotola, Prof. of Political Science at the Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, who has made exciting contributions to the discipline of political science, having published in every conceivable top rate journal. How about young Nigerian writers crossing literary barriers and moulds, projecting Nigerian culture through inventive artistry? I can go on and on, but the point has been made, I hope, that we have too often focused on Nigerians abroad, riding the waves of eminence, than those at home, recording impressive achievements but far less celebrated.

Many years ago, the late Africanist of renown, Prof. Alli Mazrui, remarked that a student who made a first class in a Nigerian university was probably more gifted than one who made a first class from Oxford University in England, given the plenitude of educational resources available at Oxford. Of course, that was before the glut in first class graduates in Nigerian universities, about which Prof. Niyi Akinnaso complained in a recent comment in The PUNCH. The point remains, however, that those Nigerians excelling at home are doing far more work and possibly more gifted than those working under more enabling conditions abroad.

The real issue, however, is how to turn Nigeria into a more functional state, where achievement will not be heroic, stressful, and for those who can brave the odds, but for a larger stratum of the population. For this to happen, the Nigerian state itself must be reconfigured in such ways that the current centralised mode of governance will be unbundled for greater efficiency and equity. Considering that many states in Nigeria have roughly the same population as countries in Europe, why do we encumber them with an outmoded governance structure which represses the energy of federating units? Furthermore, Nigeria will become a more rational, more effectively governed, rather than merely administered state, if politics and leadership succession are not abandoned to full-time crooks, who can pay or buldoze their way to high office. A situation where the noble and worthy holders of office arrive there accidentally, or on terms dictated by godfathers does not make for excellence.

Kukah made this point in his lecture by recalling Chinua Achebe’s warning that high office and politics should not be left to the intellectually challenged.

In sum, we must learn to recognise excellence at home and abroad, as well as build a country where Nigerian citizens can self-actualise and fulfil their dreams, without labouring to extinction. Punch

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