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My Nigerian dream and what happened next

In 2013, I made a decision.

After 6 years in the UK including two turbulent post-university years spent suffering undiagnosed clinical depression, heartbreak, occasional unemployment and even a 5-week stint of rough sleeping in Leeds, I decided it was time to get a fresh start away from my adopted country. What better place to do this than the country of my birth where I had a support system and was then going through an economic boom? Africa was rising and Nigeria was at the vanguard of this rise.

Even if Nigeria was not the greatest country on earth, it was better to be a lion in a third world country than a dog on the streets of Yorkshire – or something to that effect. So on Thursday March 28, 2013, I boarded a British Airways flight from Heathrow to Lagos wearing a black t-shirt and black jeans, with the grand total of £55 in cash and a further £600 on my Lloyds TSB Visa card.

Africa rising and Nigeria’s aborted takeoff

Upon landing in Lagos, I remember a lady sitting across the aisle from me started humming a song that I remembered from my childhood and I joined in. As the plane taxied slowly into the international terminal, people shot us weird glances as we carried out an impromptu nasal medley to the tune of ‘Naima’ by Angelique Kidjo. We never said a word to each other but in those few moments, we communicated more deeply and meaningfully than any words could have done. We were home. And that really meant something.

For my first few months back home, I moved around like a camera-wielding tourist, whipping out my phone to take photos of everything and anything. I was mesmerised by the spectacle of exploding physical infrastructure, which was in stark contrast to the bare, almost primitive country I remembered from my childhood. A trip to Abuja for my NYSC registration convinced me – dazzled by the concrete finery of Maitama, Garki and Wuse – that my country was “booming.”

On a personal level, I keyed into this energy wholeheartedly. I threw myself enthusiastically into my Project Nigeria, becoming something of an unpaid advocate for all things Nigeria, to the amusement and sometimes irritation of my foreign-based friends. I would go to the market and specifically request for clothes made in Onitsha or Ana, then loudly proclaim to everyone who cared to listen that I was wearing proof of Nigeria’s ongoing industrialisation.

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I started saving up money to replace the Kia Rio my folks bought for me with an Innoson IVM Fox. I started trying to convince some UK-based friends to move back to Nigeria. I fact I got so engrossed in being Mr. Nigeria that I didn’t notice when my passport expired in 2015. As far as I was concerned, nothing would take me out of Nigeria again bar maybe a short jaunt to a neighbouring African country, so it didn’t matter anyway.

I learned that my entire “Africa Rising” adventure, which was built on the basic assumption that these were “my people” was a miscalculation

Things are not as they seem

One thing I did notice however, was that pretty much every Nigerian I spoke to did not share my enthusiasm about Project Nigeria and Africa Rising. Initially I simply dismissed them as ‘unpatriotic’ and entitled. You know, “ask not what your country can do for you” and all that. I was here to make a difference! I would teach these sleeping Nigerians what it meant to be a Nigerian dammit! This period of cartoonish optimism started in 2013 and ended around 2016, which coincided with when my personal circumstances changed dramatically.

What happened next wasn’t one thing, but a series of events and epiphanies that made me understand more fully what Nigeria is. First my dad casually dropped dead one morning in June 2017 because apparently nobody in Lagos had an ambulance available. Then Nigeria overwhelmingly re-elected the man who delivered the first recession in 25 years. Then my best friend died again randomly and arbitrarily, like a cockroach because of a stupid medical error. The sequence of these events began to teach me some things I did not previously know or understand about Nigeria. I learned that first of all, I did not really come from Nigeria. The little gated life I had growing up could just as well have been in Cornwall for all that it truly had in common with the real Nigerian experience.

I learned that I knew little or nothing about who Nigerians are and the peculiar mix of ignorance, prejudices, chauvinism, fanaticism and toxic lack of intelligence that makes a lot of the country tick. I learned that my entire “Africa Rising” adventure, which was built on the basic assumption that these were “my people” was a miscalculation. I learned that Nigeria is not in fact, a global breakout story waiting to happen, but actually a simmering disaster bubbling under the surface. I learned that the “Nigeria” that existed in my head back in 2012 was nothing more than a fantasy and an elaborate construct.

Like so many others before me, I had to learn that in reality when it comes to Nigeria, I knew and know nothing.

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