“The problem with Nigeria is corruption. You see that Civic Centre we drove past? You saw all those boats floating next to it? They belong to so-and-so and he works for the government. Can you believe he built that building with his “salary”? The last sentence was virtually spat out in disgust by Adebayo, the driver who was acquainting me with the sights and sounds of Lagos last week. Adebayo had been driving in Lagos for several years and had no illusions as to what destiny held in store for him. In his view, Nigeria was a giant that had been ruined to a large extent by the multi headed hydra of corruption. “You see now most Nigerians want to work for the government. Why?” He started answering the question even before I had opened my mouth. “Because it pays to work in the government. They make money those people. They buy boats and houses. How many houses can you eat? Eh?” I started to respond, but thought twice as it was clearly a rhetorical question. “Eh? Madame Caro these government officials are not good people.” He shrugged his shoulders in despair and resolute acceptance. And he never uttered another word until we reached our destination.
I had landed in Nigeria three days before, excited at the prospect of visiting Africa’s largest economy for the first time ever. Multitudes of swinging palm trees and plantain laden banana trees dotted the landscape below the airplane as we came in to land at Murtala Mohamed International Airport in Lagos. They say that first impressions are hard to change and nowhere more so than taxiing to the terminal from the runway. A skeletal frame of an old airplane lay forlornly on a grassy knoll by the side of the runway, its rusted nose, missing cockpit and weather worn fuselage reminding me of a half eaten tilapia. The terminal building looked exactly like its 1978 vintage, with terrazzo flooring and peeling wooden cubicles for the immigration officials. My bags sputtered out of one of the only two luggage carousels in the arrivals hall, the conveyor belt creaking like it was about to come to a shuddering halt at any minute. It was hard to believe that the same belts would carry washing machines and all manner of electrical appliances purchased by well-heeled Nigerians in London which is only a 5-hour flight away from Lagos and the shopping destination of choice. But that would be the beginning of many paradoxes that exist in the beautiful country.
Speeding through the mainland towards Ikoyi Island, we passed hundreds of yellow Volkswagen Kombis or “danfos” ferrying millions of passengers across a city that has close to sixteen million bus trips made daily in the city. The Kombis were all unified in looks by their peeling paint and rusting bodies caked with dust and grime. They were driven with surprising respect and a semblance of order, at least that is what it seemed like to this matatu-jaded eye. The odd red Tata buses would ply across the mainland as well, in a bus transit system run by the City government. The first paradox was the sight of a slum built in one of the lagoons that traversed the vast city. Mabati walled structures that appeared to be floating in the water congregated into a water-based community on stilts that were not too far off from the massive 10,000 feet plus edifices that the Nigerian elite have built in the name of residences. The steady hum of a generator would become consistent background noise at the residential building I was staying at, as regular electricity supply is negligible. An estimated 60 million Nigerians own power generators – compared to an estimated 6 million connected to the national grid – and spend approximately $13.3 billion (Kshs 1.1 trillion) to fuel them annually. The paradox here is that there are more Nigerians using self-generated power than those using the official source, which in and of itself is hardly reliable in the first place. Yet in all of this is a city and country bubbling with a latent energy, highly entrepreneurial spirit and warm friendly people that have propelled the country to become the leading economy in the continent. It is not difficult to see why. Despite the obvious anger and frustration at the seemingly endless corruption within rank and file government luminaries, the Nigerians appear to forge ahead and drive their own growth regardless of the insurmountable challenges thrown in their paths and the minimal infrastructural support provided to various sectors of the economy by the federal government. The almost doubling of the Nigerian GDP last month, catapulted the country to the top of the African heap on the back of updated information on the telecoms, SMEs, banking and film making industries as key contributors to the Nigerian economy.
As we drove through the Lagos streets, I wanted to console Adebayo that Nigerians did not walk alone, but he seemed inconsolable. Kenya has also created a generation of citizens who aspire to work for the (central and county) government for no other reason than it is a sure-fire way to get rich. This counterintuitive aspiration has been fuelled by years of corruption that has become institutionalized and is almost a bragging right of every administration since 1978. But we can and we must ignore the civil service elite as a source of inspiration for economic empowerment. We can and we must grow our own productive units whether in small and medium retail trade, in film, in music, in transport, agriculture and livestock production amongst others. The Nigerian economy has demonstrated that you can drive your own growth outside of oil revenues and in spite of lackluster government intervention: African solutions to African problems, some say. Nigeria provides a beacon of hope that economies can be fuelled by nothing but the sheer force of a self-driven population.