EVERY once in a while, I go back to read my past columns to get a sense of my appreciation of the past eras that Nigerians now glamorize in retrospect. I found an August 26, 2009, column titled“What Did You Miss About America While in Nigeria?” published in the Weekly Trust that reads like I could have written it today. I reproduce a slightly abridged version of the column below:
This was the question that the wife of my American friend asked me when she and her husband came to pick me up from the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on August 12. What did I miss about America while in Nigeria? Hmm.
Now, how do you answer that kind of question? Where do you begin? Should you tell the truth and expose your country—and probably yourself—to well-deserved derision? Or should you simply be mealy-mouthed, skirt around the truth, and say some nice but insincere and extravagant pleasantries like, “Oh, I missed my amiable friends and colleagues and, of course, my teaching and research activities”?
I don’t expect anyone who has never been deterritorialized from Nigeria for a sustained period to appreciate this false, self-imposed and, frankly, pointless dilemma that I grappled with. You see, one of the tragedies of exilic (or diasporan) condition is the irritating narcissism it breeds in people who experience it. I once characterized this phenomenon as the narcissism of transnational citizenship.
This is how it works: In the privacy of our Nigerian company (both at home and abroad, offline and online) we say the unkindest things (most of it, sadly, warranted) about our country but pretend that all is well when we are in the company of non-Nigerians. We shield our country from critical searchlight before non-Nigerians not necessarily because we are patriotic; we do so often for self-indulgent, self-serving, and egotistic reasons: if Nigeria is portrayed in a bad light in our countries of (temporary) residence, we fear that the bad light might also reflect badly on us and thereby injure our overblown but fragile egos.
On this day, I decided to liberate myself from this self-imposed mental prison. I told the truth about what I missed about America. And that truth wasn’t friendly to Nigeria. The first thing I told my friends was that I missed the order and relative predictability of life in America.
I told them I missed the steady, uninterrupted electricity in their country. During the three months that I stayed in Nigeria, I lived without electricity from the national grid for the most part. If we had electricity for six straight hours we would always chant, “NEPA don try today o!” (I can’t help calling it NEPA even though it has changed its name to PHCN).
But it was not just the exasperating inconstancy of electricity that gnawed at me; it was also its unpredictability. And this had an unbearably disruptive effect on life. I often rushed to iron my clothes each time it pleased PHCN to bring electricity because I couldn’t tell when they would take it. I always had to leave everything else I was doing. We have a generator at home, like most people in Nigeria, but there was only so much it could do.
Plus, given my environmental consciousness, I was often sensitive to the environmental pollution and danger to human health that generator fumes posed, and this sensitivity often dissuaded me from using our generator as often as other people did.
But the real tragedy, for me, is that smaller and poorer countries like Benin Republic enjoy steadier electricity than Nigeria. When I visited Benin Republic about a week before I returned to Atlanta, I noticed that there were no power cuts there. I asked one of my uncles when was the last time he experienced power cuts. It took him about a minute to remember. “Over a year ago, I think,” he said. “They seized the light for two hours to do some repairs.” And this was preceded, he said, by an announcement in the radio and in the local television.
So, I told my American friends that I missed the regularity of electricity in their country. “Is it really that bad in Nigeria?” my friend’s wife asked. It is actually worse than that, I said. She was puzzled. Even Aso Rock, the Nigerian equivalent of the White House, suffered an embarrassing power cut during a Federal Executive Council meeting while I was in Nigeria.
And this was in spite of the billions of naira that the president has budgeted this year to buy generators not only for Aso Rock but for Nigerian embassies in such countries as the US, the UK, Germany, etc. where electricity is as constant as the Northern Star! How more hopeless can our situation get?
Of course, nobody who hears this fails to question the mental and cognitive state of Nigerian leaders. A genuinely concerned and angry African American friend once asked me, in a fit of frustration, if congenital idiocy is the precondition for ascension to leadership in Nigeria. Perhaps it is. Or how else do you explain the quality of leadership we have had and continue to have in Nigeria at all levels? How do you explain the fact that Nigeria is one of the world’s top 10 largest oil producers yet imports refined fuel from the West and suffers periodic bouts of crippling fuel scarcity?
I also told my friends that I missed the high-speed Internet that many Americans take for granted. Although I had Internet access at home during my stay in Nigeria, which is at least better than nothing at all, it was painfully slow, gallingly unreliable, and scandalously incapable of supporting even basic video and graphics, all thanks to the low and overcrowded bandwidth in the country. I had hoped that by now broadband Internet would be widely available to ordinary folks like me. But we are still stuck with 1990s Internet technology which, sadly, is a lot costlier than high-speed Internet in the US.
I also missed the psychological comfort in the knowledge that the institutions of government work for citizens and residents. In America, when you are sick, in trouble, or just scared for your safety for any number of reasons, you can simply dial 911 on your cell phone and police vans will arrive at your location in a matter of minutes. We have no such comfort in Nigeria. And, for much of the time I was in Nigeria, I lived with disabling anxieties about kidnapping or robbery—which is actually a holdover from a previous experience two years ago.
Interestingly, many Americans, especially conservative Americans, chafe at what they call “too much government” in their lives. It would seem that most human beings don’t appreciate what they have until they lose it. I often advise my conservative American friends to live in Nigeria (or, for an extreme experience, Somalia, which has had no government since the early 1990s) for just a few months to experience what it means to have no government. They can then return and compare it with the “too much government” they resent in their country. Nigerians would gladly trade places with them.
“So, you basically missed the basic conveniences of life that we take for granted here?” my friend’s wife asked. Sadly, yes. “Well, but I also missed my friends, including your husband,” I joked.
The conversation was strangely cathartic for me. My friend, who is white, always told me he would relocate to Nigeria if American conservatives take over America. I don’t know what he thought of that idea after this conversation.
Of course, in spite of everything, I can’t quantify the joy I felt being with my family and friends and seeing the familiar sights and sounds of the country of my birth. For all its failings, Nigeria is still where my heart is. America can’t take that away even if it were paradise itself, which it is not.
I am unsparingly tough on my country because I am impatient with its unnaturally prolonged gestation in developmental infancy as a result of the incompetence, sordid avarice, and base venality of the leaders it has had the misfortune to be saddled with.