If you were someone who might
prove useful to him, he'd dash you a substantial
amount. But if he liked you, useful or not, you were
almost sure to get something.
The expats working for TKE still talk about the time
Prince Eze came to the Port Harcourt guesthouse, where
the expats working for TKE in the south of the country
stayed. One of the expats kept a young baboon chained
to the front guardhouse as a pet.
As Prince Eze was leaving, he noticed the baboon.
"Whose monkey is that?" he asked the guard.
"That's Charlie's." the guard replied.
Prince Arthur Eze then reached into his pocket, took
out a 20 Naira note, handed it to the baboon, and off
Other hazards and annoyances of living in Nigeria are
the tropical diseases (Lassa fever is named after the
Nigerian village where it was first discovered, not
far from one of the television stations I
refurbished), the poverty (Nigeria has a lower
per-capita income than Haiti), but what grates on the
expat living there more than anything is the squalor.
its everywhere. its inescapable, and even living in a
nice home well guarded and kept, you're still affected
What really stands out is how that squalor has
cheapened the respect for human life. Abandoned
children crowd around cars at intersections, begging
for coins or trying to sell packs of gum, small bags
of peanuts, rolls of toilet paper, combs,
handkerchiefs, or just about anything else. The
standard joke among expats there is that in Nigeria,
you never have to go to the dime store, because it
comes to you. Which all too sadly is true. A headpan
of goods on the head of a child, one at a time.
The most disturbing aspect of this cheapness of life
in Nigeria is that dead human bodies are a common
sight along Nigerian roadways. Whether they were the
bodies of unfortunate passengers of "mammywagon" cargo
trucks (drivers make an extra income by illegally
selling passengers rides high atop the cargo, where
they occasionally fall to their deaths), or victims of
motor vehicle accidents (the largest cause of death in
Nigeria), or just plain murder or disease victims,
human bodies along side roadways often remain there,
uncollected for days, even weeks.
One day, on the morning bush radio schedule, the
managing director, "Boss Hogg," told me that he was
expecting a presidential visit to his work site that
day. He said that the president was in for an
unpleasant surprise. I knew what he was talking about.
"That wouldn't be a 'Delta Bravo,' would it?" I asked,
meaning dead body.
Steve knew exactly what I meant. "That's a big
I said, "Well if it isn't gone by the time the
president shows up, someone in the works department
will be looking for a new job tomorrow!"
"That's a big ten-four!" he said, with a chuckle in
That night, on the evening schedule, I asked if the
'delta bravo' was still in place there when the
"Ten-four!" he laughed.
Disease is a constant threat. Malaria is such a
problem in Nigeria that it is a common test site for
new pharmaceuticals intended to deal with the problem.
All six species of the malaria parasite are present,
and Plasmodium falciparum, the most deadly is also the
most common. Malaria and cholera are the most common
causes of childhood mortality. Cholera claimed the
lives of two of my driver's children while I was
there. I was stricken with malaria a total of seven
times during my residency there, the first with P.
falciparum, and it almost killed me.
Besides malaria, the first six months I was there I
was ill with diarrhea almost every week.
Typhoid fever is another big killer, mostly because
its symptoms often mimic malaria, and it is therefore
commonly misdiagnosed. A similar though less serious
illness, paratyphoid, is so common almost everyone in
the country contracts it at one time or another.
Typhoid and cholera are spread by poor sanitary
practices, which despite constant vigilance on the
part of the visitor, almost certainly will cause
illness at some time or another.
While I was in Nigeria, one of the expats I worked
with was stricken with cerebral malaria, and had it
not been properly treated, it would have certainly
killed him. Fortunately, he contracted it just after
the introduction of a new drug, and before that strain
had become immune to the drug he was treated with. He
was back on his feet in a few weeks.
Medical treatment is widely available, but generally
of poor quality. Nearly every town of any size has a
clinic. The bad news is that the clinic is probably
poorly supplied, drugs inadequate or nonexistent, and
training of the staff poor at best. Most expats don't
rely on the regular state-owned and supported medical
care system, but instead use the private clinics that
exist in the major cities.
One of my co-workers suffered from a slipped disk
while I was working with him in Port Harcourt. He was
taken to a private clinic there, where he received
proper, adequate treatment, including about two weeks
of traction. While whiling away his time, without
benefit of radio or TV, someone visiting him noticed
that his bed was supported by some mahogany 2x6
boards. (Mahogany is so common there, it is frequently
used even for concrete forms.) Ron commented that "its
nice to know my back is being supported by a hundred
dollars worth of mahogany."
Nigeria is a country of tremendous potential wealth.
It is blessed with a surprisingly well-educated
workforce (literacy of a sort is almost universal),
there is surprisingly good infrastructure (paved
roads, railroads and airlines connect all the major
cities), and generally Nigerians are willing, hard
workers if they feel they are being treated fairly.
The natural resources are tremendous. Blessed with a
climate that is perfect for the growth of a wide
variety of crops, vast areas of unused land suitable
for farming, soils that in many areas are naturally
rich and two of the great rivers of Africa, Nigeria
should be quite capable of feeding not only its
hundred million, but most of the rest of Africa as
well. It is a country the size of Texas and Oklahoma
combined, with the climate of California's Imperial
Valley. The Niger river flows through a mountain pass
just north of Onitsha, which, if a dam were built
there, the power generated could not only supply
Nigeria, but most of West Africa too. The enormous
amount of water in the Niger river that flows to the
sea east of Port Harcourt is so vast, if even a small
part of it were diverted north, it could turn vast
areas of the Sahara desert into highly productive
cropland. It wouldn't have to be lifted that far to be
sent north, either.
In the south, rubber, coffee, oil palm and cocoa
plantations once flourished. Tropical hardwoods once
were the source of much of the hardwood used in the
British empire. In the Niger river delta, oil of such
high quality is found that Nigeria is today the fourth
largest oil exporter in the world, and its crude
commands premium prices on world markets. In the
savannas, cotton was once grown for export on a vast
scale. In the north, wheat and sorghum was grown for
feed grains and human consumption.
In Plateau state, tin mines and gemstone mines once
were the basis of a flourishing international minerals
trade. The first railroad to the interior was built to
bring those minerals to the coast. The names brought
to the region by imported Chinese labour still grace
some of the local place names.
Along the coast, tin and copper was the source of the
metal used for bronze casting by some of the greatest
indigenous artists of pre-colonial Africa. Many of the
Benin bronzes are among the most valuable indigenous
art pieces ever produced. Even today, many of the
woodcarvings are of exceptional quality.
The north of Nigeria around Sokoto (pronounced
SOE-koe-toe) was once the center of one of the most
successful of the Islamic sultanates Africa has
produced. The wisdom and fairness with which it was
ruled is legendary, and the heroism of its defenders
against the onslaught of the British colonialists in
the face of overwhelming odds would make a great
Hollywood epic. And before Islam, before even
Christianity, the Nok culture of northwestern Plateau
state had established a university whose scholarship
was the envy of the European states of the time.
Scholars once traveled from all over the world to
study in what is now one of the poorest and most
disadvantaged places on earth.
With all these rich cultural and economic resources,
why is Nigeria so poor today? The answer is a complex
one. But there are a few factors that stand out as the
main reasons that this situation not only exists, but
continues to grow worse with every passing year.
What every Nigerian will privately admit to you is
that corruption, both public and private, is the most
significant single problem that every African nation,
not just Nigeria faces. And with few exceptions,
nowhere in the world is it as bad as in Nigeria. The
CBS television programme "60 minutes" recently did a
piece on the corruption which flourishes on a scale
that is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't
There are other reasons, too, of course. Distance from
international markets, poor communications and energy
infrastructure, difficulty in attracting foreign
investment, meddling by foreign powers (especially the
United States), and an almost total disregard for the
fate of the nation by its people are all reasons. Not
to mention a harsh military dictatorship that in the
three decades since independence has never once
voluntarily submitted to an elected civilian
government. But when you examine the problems, and why
they continue to exist, the one overriding theme keeps
coming back like a serial horror movie: corruption.
Corruption is a constant thread that has woven its way
through the warp and weave of all Nigerian life. From
the poorest rural village council chief or local
market trader, right to the occupant of the
presidential palace in Abuja, there is a pervasive
materialism that puts getting and having above all
else, no matter how ill gotten. Every Sunday, millions
of Nigerian Christians attend Sunday services wearing
gold jewelry obtained by dishonest and usually illegal
means, and they think not a thing of it. A
well-connected Nigerian once told me that there is no
such thing as an honest Nigerian. I asked him if that
included himself. "No, not me!" he said. "I'm honest.
But there aren't any others who are!" I since found
out that this man had embezzled about ten million
Naira (at the time worth about U.S. $ 1 million) from
The corruption has become so pervasive that the whole
economy has become organized around it. It begins at
the highest level, where President Ibrahim Babangida,
in power while I was there, was rumored to be worth
about U.S.$ 5 billion, nearly all of which he
accumulated while in office. And that on a general's
It trickles down like an acid, seeping through the
bureaucracy, eating its way into the state and local
governments, where the governors and local government
council chiefs nearly always take bribes from
contractors who get awarded contracts on the basis of
how generous they are with their "dashes" or local
people needing favors. Every bureaucrat with any
power, his secretary and even his driver have their
hands out. The desirability of jobs in the government
have nothing to do with salaries or prestige; all that
matters is the opportunities for dash. The most
desirable jobs are with Customs and Immigration, where
large bribes can be routinely extracted from
foreigners, or as managers in service businesses, such
as the Nigeria Electric Power Authority or the Nigeria
Telecommunications Company, where someone wanting
electrical service or telephone service will have to
pay big bribes, often in the thousands of dollars, to
get reasonably prompt service. Even the technicians
are on the take, expecting a bribe before they will do
the actual install, or to overlook an illegal
attachment to a power line or telephone extension.
The choking effect on the economy is overwhelming. The
company I was working for sold its television
facilities for three times what the equipment and
labour to install it cost, yet it still had a hard
time making a consistent profit. There is no way that
anything but the most wildly profitable business plans
can survive in such a business climate. The few large
enterprises that do succeed there often involve the
oil industry or are engaged in illegal or unethical
enterprises, such as the arms trade or the drug trade
The obvious question, then, is how such a pervasive
acceptance, and even encouragement of corruption came
to exist in a group of cultures most of which
unquestionably once valued honesty and civility above
My observations are that there were numerous factors
involved, some of which are continent-wide, some of
which are peculiar to Nigeria, but all of which have
conspired uniquely in Nigeria to create one of the
most corrupt societies on earth.
To begin with, there was the slave trade. Portuguese
navigators showed up on Nigerian shores nearly a
half-century before Columbus traveled to America. And
even before Columbus first arrived in the West Indies,
European traders were taking slaves from the African
What made this possible, of course, were the economic
realities of 15th century Europe, combined with the
Christian ethnocentrism that justified the enslavement
of "heathens." The bigotry of European ethnocentrism
encouraged by the newly introduced concept of
materialism (in payment for the slaves), caused
bigotry and the materialism it justified to sweep like
a wildfire through coastal Africa.
This new materialism had an enormous impact. It
quickly undermined the sense of egalitarianism,
charity, and neighborly support that were hallmarks of
many of the indigenous coastal cultures. Bigotry
justified the enslavement of your fellow man, and if
you could get rich in the process, that just proves
that God is on your side.
This is not to suggest that slavery did not exist in
Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans along the
coast. It certainly did. Indeed, many of Nigeria's
northern cities today were established in the slave
trade, Keffi, Bauchi and Sokoto among them. But there
were very strong cultural taboos regarding the
treatment of slaves that made their lives much more
tolerable than the lives of slaves taken by the
Europeans. The bigotry and materialism brought to
Africa by the Europeans undermined those taboos,
however. And it wasn't long before the treatment of
slaves, both by European and African traders, became
one of history's most shameful episodes.
By the time of the final British conquest of Nigeria
by the British general Lugard and suppression of the
Sultanate of Sokoto in 1904, materialism and the trend
of undermining of local value systems that it caused,
was well established. The end of the slave trade a
half-century earlier did not end the trend towards
materialism; by then it was too well entrenched. Once
Africans had had a taste of European wealth, they
wanted more, and many no longer had reason to care
what they had to do to get it.
Add to this mix the influence of European
missionaries. With not always the best of motives,
missionaries came to Africa to convert the Africans,
and many got rich in the process, having seen and
seized the many obvious economic opportunities. This
only furthered the spread of materialism, because they
systematically undermined the African sense of
religious values, and replaced it with what
all-too-often was nothing more than a cynical
materialistic hypocrisy. Believe in the white man's
god, they were told, and he will make you rich, too.
Seeing that the white men were rich, many Africans
naively believed, having a magical worldview. This is
an approach that is still to this day being used by
many foreign religions, the Mormons and many Christian
evangelical denominations among them. The appeal still
works. Africans are still being converted in large
numbers. The spiritual rape of Africa continues.
The end of the colonial era in Nigeria in 1960 set the
stage for the conversion of materialism into
corruption. Not long after independence, one of the
first in what would become a long line of Nigerian
military dictators was asked by a journalist friend
why he was systematically looting the country's
treasury. He replied, "The elephant has been killed,
and now there's meat for the whole village!"
It was the attitude that the country was an elephant
carcass to be butchered that allowed the hatred of
colonial rulers to be transformed into a wholesale
greed. The Africans felt that they had been
deliberately kept poor by their European masters so
that their riches could be plundered (which all too
often was true), and now all they had to do was take
what was rightfully theirs. There was no real sense of
nationhood, because Africans had never experienced it,
and patriotism was a totally foreign concept. There
was no longer any religious proscriptions against
robbing the community in which you live, because there
was no real sense of community. So why not loot the
With independence came a horde of foreign businessmen
and bankers, and cynical foreign bureaucrats who saw
opportunity in the newly independent nations of Africa
and were determined to cash in. The newly independent
nations had no understanding at all as to how to go
about governing themselves, and banking and commercial
law was primitive or non-existent.
Corrupt businessmen and corrupt military dictators are
a bad combination. If they see opportunity in each
other, they will get together and set in motion a
truly evil process. And in Nigeria, the seeds of
corruption sown by that evil cartel fell on very
fertile ground indeed.
It was oil in Nigeria that fertilized those seeds.
It has been said that the closer you get to the Niger
river delta, the source of the oil, the more corrupt
the society becomes. There's a lot of truth in that
saying. Oil money and the opportunities for graft,
bribery and extortion that it has made possible have
caused the materialism to blossom into a form of
corruption that has become legendary, even by African
standards. The money has given the African materialism
a basis for optimism that it can succeed in making the
African rich, if he can bribe the right guy, organize
the right scam, or shake down the right victim. And
all too often, it succeeds.
Free enterprise runs rampant in Nigeria. There are few
if any restraints on the free exercise of the pursuit
of wealth. And where money rules, it makes the rules.
If the average Nigerian were to try to pursue wealth
through the creation of wealth, he'd find more
roadblocks in his way than faced by ambitious people
in tradition-bound societies such as China or Britain.
The reason is simple -- the money that corrupt
politicians and businessmen have accumulated bring
with it the power to keep that wealth and accumulate
more. And that means that the actual producers of
wealth in Nigeria live with what the owners of that
wealth decide to allow them to have.
In addition to the problems created by rampant,
unregulated free enterprise, add the problems created
by the economic imperialism of such organizations as
the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
These organizations, along with the various UN
charities and the Peace Corps, seek to impose upon
African nations an economic system that simply isn't
workable in the local conditions. This system has
taken the form of what throughout West Africa is
euphemistically called a "Structural Adjustment
Programme." The reality is that it is a collection of
idiotic economic theories imposed by often cynical and
nearly always hopelessly ignorant foreign bureaucrats,
who have no idea of why free enterprise can't and
doesn't work in Africa.
Even worse is the evidence that it is part of a
deliberate policy by the rich nations of the north to
keep these nations poor and prevent them from becoming
competitors for limited world resources. The extreme
misery that such policies cause is apparently a
deliberate tactic to suppress population growth and
thereby stifle attempts by these nations to improve
their economic and political status. The authors of
these policies care not a whit about the moral crime
these policies represent.
My favorite example is the bottled natural gas
problem. Nigeria is awash in natural gas reserves. It
has so much it has often been called the "Saudi Arabia
of natural gas." Oil producers flare natural gas to
get rid of it, even though doing so is illegal - but
they can't avoid it, because there's just too much.
Yet the housewives of Nigeria don't use natural gas
for cooking anymore.
They used to, but not anymore.
Instead, they cut down increasingly scarce fuelwood,
much of which was planted by foreign charities in a
vain attempt to halt the southward spread of the
Sahara Desert. Use of fuelwood chokes their kitchens
with smoke, causes much respiratory illness and takes
hours each week to gather. But they don't use gas,
even though there is plentiful supplies in the
The reason is the International Monetary Fund. Loudly
proclaiming the doctrine that 'Subsidies Are Always
Evil,' the IMF came into Nigeria (and much of the rest
of West Africa as well), and told the Nigerian
government that in order to obtain financing for their
external debts, they would have to end internal
subsidies. So they did.
Women who once spent a few minutes and a few naira
each week getting natural gas bottles filled, found
they could no longer afford as much as 50 Naira for a
refill, when their husband may be bringing home only
300 Naira in a month. So the only option for getting
the food cooked and the water heated was to cut
firewood. A time consuming process that is rapidly and
relentlessly denuding the savanna woodlands that once
graced this beautiful country. The natural gas subsidy
didn't cost the Nigerian government anywhere near as
much as deforestation is costing it. But it was a
subsidy, so it had to go.
And this is but one of many, many examples that could
be cited. The Africans are very much aware of this
nonsense. The rhetoric used by the IMF and the World
Bank to defend such policies is so illogical that they
are forced to conclude that the West is colluding to
subvert and control their economies. In the face of
such idiocy, what other conclusion could they possibly
draw? Their education may be limited, but they are not
stupid. They see what is holding them back.
There are virtually no enforced labour laws in
Nigeria. Sure, there are good laws are on the books,
but they are unenforceable when a wealthy businessman
can bribe a judge or policeman to have the law
ignored. The result is that a tiny minority live in
fabulous luxury, and the vast majority (especially the
children) live in grinding poverty, well below what
the minimum wage laws in Nigeria require. This suits
the oligarchy and the foreign interests just fine;
they're able to have access to vast amounts of cheap,
docile labour and be accountable to no one for how it
This brings up the last reason why Nigeria is so
terribly poor. It is for a very simple, obvious
You can't sell something to someone who has no money.
If you can't sell it, you aren't going to make it. And
if you aren't going to make it, you're not going to
hire someone to make it, and so you're not going to
pay wages to someone to make it. You keep your money
or spend it on cheap imported goods, rather than
invest it in the local economy. Imported goods are
cheap because the "Structural Adjustment Programme"
has largely abolished All Those Terrible Tariffs so
local entrepreneurs can't compete and don't try.
This is why the unrestrained, libertarian ideal of
totally free enterprise simply doesn't work.
Ultimately the accumulation of power that accompanies
the accumulation of wealth causes the
disenfranchisement of those who actually create that
wealth. And with that disenfranchisement, invariably
comes poverty, child labour, oppression and political
corruption. That fact is painfully obvious to anyone
who has ever lived in a place like Nigeria.
I've written elsewhere of how I think these enormously
difficult problems can be solved. There are answers,
but they are complex and difficult, and it will
require enormous sacrifices and self discipline on the
part of all Africans, rich and poor, powerful and
disenfranchised alike, but I believe it can be done.
In brief, the answers have to come from the people,
working at the local level to solve their own
problems, and not relying on government to do it for
them. A remarkable example of how this can be done,
both from a technological and social point of view, is
the experience of Gaviotas, Columbia. Taking the
vision of a wealthy member of the oligarchy, a
disparate group of farmers, campesinos, engineers,
local Indians, college students and social dreamers
have constructed a working community that is
ecologically, socially and economically sustainable in
any tropical environment, including Nigeria.
Experiments such as Gaviotas are beginning to spring
up in Africa, and if encouraged, offer real hope for
places such as Nigeria.
There are some very serious lessons in all this for
the developed nations to consider.
Much has been written by various authors about
sub-Saharan Africa's plight, and one of the best is a
controversial article that appeared in the February,
1994 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Entitled The
Coming Anarchy, it discusses the results of this decay
of civility, not just in Nigeria, but in all of West
Africa. Robert D. Kaplan, the author, claims that what
is happening in West Africa today is a portent of what
will happen everywhere that overpopulation,
increasingly scarce and squandered resources,
tribalism, corruption and economic injustice are
allowed to flourish.
He claims, with considerable experience to back him
up, that conservatism in politics and a growing trend
towards unregulated capitalism in America is planting
the seeds that will cause the same disease which has
led to such misery in sub-Saharan Africa, to spread in
North America, particularly in the United States.
I'm not entirely convinced by his analysis that we
will see the same extent of the destruction of society
here within the next two or three decades he
envisions. But I certainly believe, and have even
before I read his article, that it will happen sooner
or later. The end of our relatively egalitarian
society, I believe, is inevitable unless we take some
drastic steps, including some serious "social
Social engineering, in spite of the conservative
aversion to it, is not only necessary, but vital.
Canada, Australia, and Europe have all shown that it
can and does work if applied properly; we need to get
over our nervousness about it in the United States.
Whether one agrees with Kaplan or not, there are
certain lessons that are nevertheless quite clear.
The first lesson, particularly for the United States,
is that the model of the western, developed nation
state doesn't necessarily translate across cultures.
What works for America doesn't necessarily work for
other cultures, where other value systems are
operating. If western nations wish to help Africans
help themselves, they had best get input from those
Africans who know their situation far better than
ignorant foreign theorists, many of whom have never
really experienced the problems firsthand. America
must get over its obsession with exporting its value
system, which simply won't work in many other places.
Second is the vital importance of maintaining a strong
cultural bias against corruption. Corruption feeds on
itself, and, in the absence of cultural taboos,
undermines economic development and technical
progress, and encourages social decay that seems to
have no end. It is absolutely imperative that we do
this. Nothing less than the survival of our
civilization is at stake.
Third, unrestrained free enterprise not only feeds
corruption, it is counter-productive to economic
progress. It encourages cultural decay and promotes
social inequities. Would that every 'libertarian'
could see what unrestrained free enterprise has done
in Nigeria; then no-one would continue to harbour the
illusion that unrestrained free enterprise is the best
of economic models.
The fourth lesson is of the importance of civic
education. Not blind nationalism or patriotism; that
has caused much death and misery in this century,
including a terrible civil war in Nigeria, but an
understanding of what it means to be a responsible
citizen of a functioning liberal democracy. Such
teaching should begin in the earliest grades and
continue throughout the period of education. It is
obvious to everyone who has ever lived in a
third-world country that democratic institutions
simply cannot survive in an atmosphere of ignorance.
Finally, the fifth lesson is that the citizens of a
democracy should not naively trust what their
government says it is doing on their behalf in other
parts of the world. If Americans understood what is
being done by their government in Nigeria and
elsewhere, they would be shocked. And if their
government deceives them regarding foreign affairs,
are they to be trusted when it comes to domestic
I'm gravely concerned that we are losing a sense of
the importance of teaching civics in our public
schools, not just in America, but in the developed
world in general.
Combined with an aversion to social engineering and an
increasing disregard for the problems of the poor and
dispossessed, ignorance of the principles of
democratic government do not auger well for the future
of western society.
I've lived in that future.
It isn't very pretty.