A lot of older Nigerians know that I began to write for the national media as a teenager. I was then offered my first job in the industry as a second-year university student, taking it up in 1979 after serving in the NYSC.
Within months of assuming that position, the Nigeria Union of Journalists called one of my reports its “Best of 1979,” its then-Secretary, Jola Ogunlusi, appearing at The Punch offices to congratulate me.
That period was also when Mr Sam Amuka, the pioneer Managing Editor of The Punch, offered me my first opinion column. I called it “These Times,” and it ran on Sundays. He would soon offer me another, “The Presidency,” which ran on Tuesdays.
I do not write this recall out of self-glorification but to preface a query about Nigerians as a people, the artificial ceilings we impose on opportunity for others, and why this is partly responsible for our society’s failure to advance.
This has arisen for me because of a specious write-up that is currently in circulation. It goes: “Do you realise that 99% of failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses? At any point in your life, you either have the things you want or the reasons why you don’t. Take responsibility for yourself; stop blaming your circumstances and environment! Excuses are useless; results are priceless! Leave your excuses and live your dreams…there are only two options; make progress or make excuses. Whatever you put up with, you end up with!”
This Machiavellian thinker provides specious justification for the “grab it-snatch it-run with it” philosophy that I dismissed here two weeks ago. If he is right, the kleptocrats and kidnappers and killers are way ahead of us, and the politicians who ruined us are to be celebrated.
Worse still, it provides cover for one obvious reason Nigeria is such an impossibly poor country, and for gifted Nigerians flourishing abroad while being systematically throttled at home. Every one of us knows somebody who became a generational success once outside our physical national boundaries.
But let me begin by acknowledging Nigerians I know who quietly assist even strangers as soon as they identify true need. I know people who pay rent and hospital bills and school fees for people they have never met. May their tribe increase!
However, when we talk about why Nigeria law enforcement boosts far more crime than it deters, for instance, or why governance is often such a farce that foreigners laugh at Nigerian leaders, or why elections are compromised far more by university professors than by jobless thugs, it is easy to forget that these abstract categories are made up of individuals.
They refer to somebody’s father or mother, a pious local imam or pastor, a teacher or driver—persons who, in the dark of night or when the money is right or when the camera is switched off—reveal themselves as hypocrites who do everything from engineering to suppressing injustice, only to pick up the microphone to preach again once daylight returns. Sometimes, they are highly “successful” Nigerians who repress other Nigerians just because they can. Human development is indexed on human capital, but in Nigeria, we often suppress or destroy it.
Here are two examples from my personal experience; you probably have yours. First, as editor of ThisWeek magazine in 1986, I met a remarkable young inventor who sought my help. I introduced him to the Lagos State government but for over eight months, all they gave that bubbly young man—who had no money—was the old “come today, come tomorrow.”
To encourage him, I went with him on some of those appointments. When I realized that the officials were trying to separate him from his product, I asked him to tell them that he had already obtained a patent for it. They threw him out of their office!
During that same period, I met a young doctor who was serving in the NYSC. He showed me his impressive dossier: So talented was he that he had never come second to anybody in his life. At his university graduation, he claimed all but one of the seven available system-wide prizes. He even learned to use my Amstrad computer system in just two weeks!
That young man wanted to do only one thing: cancer research. If he did not, he told me, he would consider his life to have been wasted. He was looking for some kind of sponsorship or introduction, and he asked me if I would help him. I was stunned that his university had not considered him to be sufficiently special to help him chart his path, but I was only just learning that institutions are built on individuals.
I agreed to introduce him to a few high-level Nigerians I had met, and we followed up on every lead, driving to every appointment together. I was then surprised at how deceptive those so-called ‘successful’ Nigerians were, each of them lying prodigiously about their pledges as though it was a competition. Mercifully, the answer my young friend wanted came from Rotary International, and he went on to fulfil his considerable potential and become an authoritative international figure. Thank you, Rotary!
When I arrived in the US a few years after those events, it was nothing like Nigeria, where I was routinely headhunted for jobs. I was about to learn the world about the Nigerian personality.
I stress my basics to young people who seek opportunity: Be better prepared than anyone else. Be organized. Brush your teeth. Wear deodorant, and clean underwear and socks. Be coherent. Arrive early. Sit in the back. If you get the opportunity, be irreplaceable. If your boss compliments your work repeatedly, request it in writing.
I also listen to myself and can therefore affirm that I have never received a job query or been suspended or fired, or even spent six months in a job without receiving additional responsibilities or advancement, or both.
Except among Nigerians abroad. As anyone would find who has ventured forth, there are Nigerians everywhere. In my experience of the United Nations in the 1990s and 2000s, it was only a matter of time before you met one.
Next week, I will conclude with why, should you be a Nigerian and unemployed—or thirsty, or starving, or ambitious—it is a bad idea to have such a person find out. Good luck to you should you ask for help.
One of the reasons that poverty thrives in Nigeria is that the elite appear to hate the thought of the emergence of someone of competence or genuine quality, particularly if it is evident that through such a person a million flowers might bloom.
In Nigeria, there are gifted people at every turn, but they are often throttled by older supervisors. Being identified as exceptional is almost a career death sentence.
And so, our society loses twice: not only does the debris fail to elevate us, but we also destroy—or export—the talent we trampled upon.
We don’t hate poverty, we simply resent the thought of another seeking to be like us!
This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials.
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