There is an interesting adeptness at understanding paradoxes that comes with being a Nigerian. All of us have it. When someone says “it is well” as a response to anything, an average Nigerian immediately gets the point. We have seen too much ‘shege’ not to understand.
And so, when someone calls us the ‘Giant of Africa’, we understand that it is likely an attempt at humour or consolation, or both. But there are some exceptions; when we pick a convenient reality and make great noise about a situation we are proud of.
When we win a competitive football match against a country whose capital city many at home have never heard of, we are happy to scream ‘The Giant of Africa!; when our own is celebrated on a world stage, the joy and pride in those moments drown the sorrows and disappointments; when one of us earns recognition in the Guinness World Records, we are somehow reminded that the ‘Giant’ label may very well be true of us.
In many ways, that label has become an adopted coping mechanism for the inconvenient realities we cannot avoid and a hopeful mouthing of the greatness that could have been. The latter is more like it.
To the facts: being the largest economy on the continent is great. But it only says as much. Being the largest and having one of the youngest populations on the continent also signals some prospects: a viable market, potential labour capacity to drive productivity and innovation.
However, the realities are largely distressing, and the prospects are scarier. We are left with some choices; either go on with enduring the status-quo or change our bearing altogether. We really can be ‘the giant’ and perhaps much more when we purposefully direct the best of our productive energies at defining and projecting what is Nigerian as well as shaping the values that frame that narrative with indigenous innovation and distinction. So much of what is woven into our collective fabric has far too long been ‘un-Nigerian’.
I remember an experience that helps to make the point.
Some weeks after the Mobolaji Johnson Station, Ebute Metta, was commissioned, I visited with two friends. The idea was for us to tour the station and confirm if we were excited enough to try the train service from Lagos to Ibadan sometime. This was on Sunday, August 1, 2021.
The quality of the infrastructure was utterly impressive. None of us had seen anything like that anywhere in Nigeria. At the time, there was no station as impressive as that in the country. We took tons of pictures, some of which I shared on my LinkedIn page.
Naturally, there was a lot to talk about after more than two hours of touring the station. One of my friends gave a mini lecture about the significance of that project and similar ones across the country. To be fair, I agreed with most of his submissions.
I also echoed his commendation of the government’s efforts to revive the rail sector. However, I disagreed strongly when he somewhat suggested that this was the best Nigeria could be or have. I didn’t think so. And my position has not changed.
Interestingly, of the three of us, I was the only one who, at the time, had tried the train service in Nigeria. That was a month earlier, when I tried the train service from Kaduna to Abuja. I had visited Kaduna to deliver a paper on ‘Governance, Political Marginalisation and the Restructuring Debate in Nigeria’ at the Kaduna State University.
Travelling to Abuja by train was both the safest and most convenient option. Generally, I had good things to say about the experience and I have shared these views elsewhere.
As we concluded the tour, I made some comments. I thought the government ought to be commended for the efforts and the results recorded in providing that vital public infrastructure. In a country where interstate travel is too often blighted by poor road infrastructure and other sundry inadequacies, the ‘rail revolution’ was commendable.
However, the comment of greater import, to my mind, was a concern that has always characterised my disposition toward ‘wonders’ we often glorify in this country. My concern was that the most significant portion of what went into the project and similar ones across the country were not indigenous.
The technology was not ‘Nigerian’; the trains were not manufactured in Nigeria or by Nigerians; the experts recruited to manage the projects from conceptualisation to implementation were not Nigerians; the capital to finance the project were foreign loans.
The ‘rail revolution’ accounts for a significant portion of our external debt. The list goes on. These were concerns back then. And they still are.
I remember another situation early in 2020 when the National Assembly voted N5.5 billion to purchase vehicles for legislators. I thought that was rather insensitive and unpatriotic. The point was not that the lawmakers deserved it, but more about spending that much money ‘out of the country’.
My views on this matter were recorded in an article titled “National Assembly and the Farce of Representation.” It was disappointing that this happened in an administration that had spent huge sums on sensitisation campaigns designed to encourage Nigerians to buy ‘Made in Nigeria’ goods and to embrace the narrative that change begins with them.
To my mind, the substance of “Made-in-Nigeria” shouldn’t only be about eating rice or wearing clothes made in Nigeria. The world has moved past that. It should extend to driving mostly made-in-Nigeria cars, using made-in-Nigeria computers, deploying made-in-Nigeria military hardware, and even flying made-in-Nigeria planes.” Yes, that is the level of ambition we should aim for, at the very least. And why not?
My recommendation was that “if we truly consider the made-in-Nigeria mandate worth pursuing, it must be driven by a solid mesh of policy and political will to revamp our manufacturing sector. The goal must be to produce at least 65% of what we consume over the next 15 years. By “consume,” I mean that by 2036, 65% of our tangibles and technologies should be made in Nigeria.”
My views have not fundamentally changed. There are signs pointing to the fact that we don’t seem to appreciate how significant progress in these respects impacts our leadership on the continent and our place in the world. Perhaps that is the most shattering reality. Would anything change in the immediate future? I hope so. If we are to continue calling ourselves the ‘Giant of Africa’, we really should be it.
May God bless our republic.
Akinnuga, MNIIA, ARPA, is a consultant on communications and public affairs.