In recent times, we have been bombarded with news of insecurity, corruption, and secession agitations in Nigeria that we have become so used to them. News and images of kidnapping, ethnic killings, and mayhem, like horror movies, litter our media space, which have almost become an acceptable reality of life. The problems of Nigeria have become a common conversation topic amongst many people, and funny enough, the recurring decimal in these conversations is the sheer hopelessness of the Nigerian case – a country facing a cocktail of micro and macro – economic and social challenges: tumbling naira, rising inflation, declining educational standards, extreme poverty, hunger, insurgency, and the like.
Die-hard patriots are having a hard time defending Nigeria because it is seemingly indefensible. The nation itself lately has come to be an excellent example of a country plagued by insecurity, extreme poverty, bad economics, and a miserable standard of living. The activities of fraudsters and other criminals have not helped the country’s image. The average Nigerian is often associated with fraud, corruption and sharp practices.
Contrary to the picture painted above, so many Nigerians outside the country’s shores are making the black man proud. The world marvels at our creativity, ingenuity, resourcefulness, and optimism. These positives happen despite our stifling socio-economic and political environment. In the past few months, we have made the right headline news in the right places worldwide to the extent that the international community believes that experts should study the Nigerian spirit and our ability to thrive amid chaos. These success stories emanate from men and women of Nigerian descent. Three recent incidents bring to the fore our ability as Nigerians to succeed despite mountainous odds.
In its recent cover page, The Time magazine featured our own Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, the President of the World Trade Organisation, as one of the most influential leaders in the world. She is the first African and black woman to occupy this position. She is a superstar of the international institutions where she worked to make the world a better place over the years. Having occupied many high profile positions in the World Bank and cutting her teeth in the murky waters of Nigerian public service as two time economic czar, she developed the leadership skills needed to make a difference globally in her new role.
In his remark on this great Nigerian and the role she is playing in combating the global pandemic, Prince Harry posited, “Okonjo Iweala has shown us that to end the pandemic, we must work together to equip every nation with equitable vaccine access.”
Furthermore, he asked, what will it take to vaccinate the world? And his answer is illuminating and puts our own Okonjo Iweala at the centre, “unity, cooperation – and leaders like Ngozi Okonjo Iweala.”
This great woman is Nigerian through and through. Her name is quintessential Igbo – not anglicised, her dressing is purely Nigerian and is showcasing our traditional attire to the world, and her accent is typical Nigerian for a woman who studied in Ivy League universities and lived in the US for decades. Nigerians celebrate her success of being named one of the TIME 100 Most Influential People of 2021.
The second story that was a breath of fresh air to Nigerians is that of a 22-years-old Nigerian, Ignatius Labour. This ingenious boy makes special drones from locally sourced materials. He was an internet sensation and gained national and international recognition. Redal Limited, a Finland based robotics company, employed him. Ignatius represents the raw talents in Nigeria and shows what is possible even with Nigeria’s limitations. Although lost to the West, Nigerians are proud of a boy who overcame all the inherent challenges and obstacles in Nigeria and applied his God-given talent to develop drones, a technological marvel that most Nigerians do not use or know.
Our third story comes from the success of a Nigerian and the Nigerian culinary masterpiece. The American Express One to Watch Award recognised IKOYI, a Nigerian-inspired eatery in the West End- London, as a rising star on the global scene of best restaurants in the world. IKOYI, named after the popular Ikoyi of Lagos, is among the world’s 50 Best Restaurants. Co-founded by childhood friends, Ire Hassan- Odukale and Jeremy Chan, IKOYI is unique in its drive for culinary ingenuity, gastronomic excellence, and breath-taking food innovation. It uses a panoply of flavours, combining authentic African, European, and Asian ingredients to create marvellous food presented with indefinable style. This entrepreneurial spirit by Ire is akin to the Nigerian hustles seen in every big city in the country.
Most Nigerians are not afraid to take their fate in their hands and pursue an enterprise of their dreams no matter the odds stacked against them by a harsh and deadly economic and business ecosystem that often is the graveyard of many a fantastic idea. Here is an environment where you provide everything for yourself, and in the end, you are either over-regulated or overtaxed by institutions that add little or no value to the success of your business. Ire is another example of what is possible if our business environment is fit for purpose.
The question begging for an answer is why are Nigerians so successful outside our shores and not so successful in our environment? The answer is our ecosystem – a combination of our structures, systems, and processes. It may
be a surprise that I did not lay the blame on Nigerians. The reason is two-fold: one, we are products of our environment, and as such, Nigerians are what the Nigerian ecosystem makes them; two, it is very simplistic to blame average Nigerians for the problems of Nigeria – youths are lazy, people are too religious, Nigerian workers are corrupt, people from certain ethnic groups are our problems – are some of blames people lay on Nigerians. But this blame is a symptom of the problem and not the problem itself. The significant issues are structural and systemic.
First, in Nigeria today, either there are no enabling institutions for growth, or where such exist, they are not fit- for-purpose or have collapsed completely. The lack of responsive institutions to drive development is the bane of Nigeria. Individuals are stronger than institutions, and if they have enough power, they subvert the institutions and cripple them to achieve whatever short-term goals they want. These influential individuals are not accountable to anything and anyone. They act with impunity and undermine the whole system. That is why corruption reigns
supreme. The psychological effect of the reign of powerful actors on Nigerians manifests in how many Nigerians value political power positions. Most political elite do whatever it takes to grab power. They know that in this clime, once you have political power, you can do just about anything. We live in a country where the body language of a president or governor is more critical than laid-down principles and rules that govern any activity. Institutions hardly matter. They only count when dealing with average Nigerians.
Second, weak or non-existent institutions have led to a stifling socio-economic environment. The Buhari-led government is doing its best to turn the tide of economic erosion. However, the decay is deep-rooted and proving very difficult to tackle. The economic indicators keep looking frightening – pervasive poverty is evident to all, inflation and unemployment are at an all-time high, education standards are at low ebbs, healthcare is on the brink of collapse with constant strike action by doctors, and trust in the system is eroding significantly. This situation fuels unprecedented insecurity in Nigeria as terrorism, banditry, kidnapping, and secessionist agitations have become the order of the day. The infrastructure deficit is enormous, and notwithstanding the considerable amount borrowed so far by this administration, it is still like a drop of water in the ocean compared to what is needed. This administration understands the need for adequate infrastructure for development, hence its commitment to rigorously upgrading and building infrastructure in the transport, power, water, and food sectors.
Thirdly, Nigeria has not been blessed with a critical mass of visionary and transformational leaders both in the political and corporate sectors to move the country to its rightful place in the comity of nations. This leadership deficit has created more harm in our ecosystem than any
other factor. Only a dedicated leadership will create the enabling environment that will bring about development. Examples abound in countries like Singapore, Asian Tigers, and UAE, where visionary leaders transformed their countries into first-world countries within a few decades. Nigeria has a morally bankrupt elite and political class that is only self-serving and rent seeking.
I must posit here that the future of Nigeria is in the hands of the leaders from this elite class and whatever Nigeria becomes is a result of their actions and inactions. As a matter of urgency, these leaders must institute the rule of law, equity and justice and allow all to enjoy the freedom and dividends inherent in democracy. The gap is in the dismal quality of persons who lead our public affairs. Amid the existential problems facing Nigerians, our political leaders are channeling their energies in positioning for the next elections. We should channel the energy dissipated on this political brinkmanship on solving Nigeria’s myriad of problems.
The Nigerians that succeed abroad are still Nigerians. Some have argued that “It’s in our gene because we have this inherent ability to make things happen where it may seem impossible to others, and we are extremely resourceful as a nation.” Others have argued that we have the resilience to survive and achieve anywhere we find ourselves because a “special case of lack of infrastructure in Nigeria engenders in us creativity, so where others might see chaos, Nigerians see opportunity.” A few others noticed our strong desire to “succeed in life, enabled by education and skill acquisition and this trait is a common theme in Nigerian homes.” All these factors are in most Nigerians, both home and abroad.
Nigerians are in top positions in various sectors in the West, and they are pulling their weight in gold. Nigeria benefits from them in the over $25bn they send back home every year. This amount is just a token compared to the value of their productivity in the West. The task is to make all Nigerians, especially those in Nigeria, very productive. The challenge of our national emergence is that at home we place compromise above merit. The world out there is a meritocratic space. It has no room for silly compromises and tokenism. We need to have the courage to insist on the highest standards from our citizens at home if we must compete with the rest of the world.
In conclusion, there is no gainsaying that the economic future of Nigeria and the success of Nigerians abroad are closely knit together. The lack of opportunities occasioned by a horrendous ecosystem drives many Nigerians away from home. Recently, the UK government employed over 383 medical doctors from Nigeria in just 100 days. We must control this flight of talent and skills; and take steps to close the gap between Nigerian’s success rate abroad and their success rate at home. Only by doing this will we create a Nigeria of our dreams – where echoes of succession, banditry and kidnapping will disappear.