"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Reflections on my visit to Nigeria (I)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Reflections on my visit to Nigeria (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi
I was in Nigeria from May to August this year to take a well-deserved escape from the ever-present stress and strain of American academic life and to see my folks and friends back home.

The last time I embarked on a similar visit was two years earlier. I have found that every back-and-forth visit between America and Nigeria inspires a heightened awareness in me about things I had taken for granted, or that I had never even paid any heed to. And this ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous.

One of the first things that struck me about Nigeria during my last visit is the emergence of a numerically significant middle class that seems elaborately flamboyant in its indulgence and consumption habits. (It is now customary to call this class of people the “consumer class.”)

For instance, in the streets of Abuja, Lagos, Zaria and Ilorin, I saw posh and exotic cars that I had only seen in America— cars like Cadillac Escalade, Porsche Gemballa, Nissan Armada, Lincoln Navigator, Infiniti Q45, etc. And they are not only sparkling new; they are late models.

Models of cars that used to be the exclusive preserve of a privileged few now seem to be available and affordable to wider strata of a burgeoning consumer class. Similarly, the number of people buying expensive and exquisite homes in cities like Abuja and Lagos appears to me to be unparalleled.

Of course, this reality uncannily cohabits with the realness of severe poverty and deprivation for a vast majority of the people. But I thought the conspicuous consumption and pretentiously elegant taste of Nigeria’s emergent consumer class was remarkable.

Again, the number of Nigerians who dine in swish and dainty restaurants that charge between $10 and $25 dollars per meal (which is quite pricey even by Americans standards) seems to have increased, at least in the metropolitan cities that I visited.

It seems to me that eating in chic fast-food restaurants is now becoming a status conferrer in Nigeria. And Nigerians love status—or feelings of status! That must explain why there are now many expensive American-style fast-food restaurants dotted around many Nigerian cities. I was surprised to also see drive-through restaurants that I only saw in the West.

Consumerism is truly being globalized. But does that represent development? Or is it mere rough-cut Americanization? It would indeed be tragic if our elaborate Nigerian culinary culture were to give way to the bandwagon of American-style fast-food gastronomic vulgarity.

I also noticed that the culture of Internet access from homes is growing exponentially, even though Nigeria is still plagued with the problem of abysmally low bandwidth, which makes Internet speed exasperatingly slow and watching videos on the Internet nearly impossible. But it’s better than nothing.

For the greater part of the duration of my three-month stay in Nigeria, I had Internet access from my home, something that was inconceivable when I visited two years earlier. Now, even as I am back to the United States, I constantly have web-camera-supported video chats with my family. I realized that a lot of my friends in Abuja, Lagos and Zaria had access to the Internet from their homes too.

It must be pointed out, though, that the cost of home Internet access in Nigeria is prohibitively high, even by American standards. While I was in Nigeria, I paid 10,000naira for monthly access to the Internet from my laptop, which is equivalent to about $85. Compare that to the $37 (4,366 naira) I pay here monthly for the highest grade of high-speed wireless Internet access in a country with the highest bandwidth in the world. If I wanted the lowest grade (which, by the way, is light-years faster than the connection I had in Nigeria) I would pay only about $14 (1,652 naira) per month.

However, I think it’s significant that this service is not only available in Nigeria but that it is affordable to a lot of people, including university teachers and journalists who used to be poster boys for impoverished middle-class elements. I think it’s not misplaced optimism to expect that in the next couple of years bandwidth will increase, the cost of Internet access will decrease significantly, and many more people will have Internet access from their homes. This would, of course, signal the death of Internet cafes as we know them now.

One other thing that had a profound cognitive and emotional impact upon me while in Nigeria was my observation that police officers no longer brazenly collected bribes on the high ways. Throughout my travels in Lagos, Kaduna, Kwara, Niger and Kogi states, I was struck by the fact that no police officer asked for or received bribes from commercial drivers.

This does not, of course, suggest that police officers have stopped taking bribes completely, but it does suggest, nonetheless, that the incidence of quotidian bribe taking has reduced dramatically. This is a function, I think, of the modest increase in the salaries and allowances of police officers. The salary of the lowest-ranking police officer increased from 8,000 naira a month to about 25,000 naira a month. And they were paid about one-year arrears of the new salary. I know this because I have a brother and a sister who serve in the Nigerian Police.

The improvement in the ethical professional practices of the Nigerian Police, for me, demonstrates the link between material comforts and morality. Other things being equal, a contented person is unlikely to go out of his way and seek bribes. There is something inherently humiliating, even dehumanizing, about beggary of any kind.

In sum, many more Nigerians than I had noticed before seemed to have more disposable income now, giving rise to the emergence of consumerist excesses of the kind that was exclusive to America and Western Europe until now.

But while I was observing this phenomenal expansion in middle-class consumption and indulgence in Nigeria, I couldn’t help equally taking note of the regressive infrastructural development of the country. It appears that the restoration of democratic rule has only succeeded in democratizing the distribution of the national swag but has failed (at least so far) in improving the national infrastructure.

I was lucky that in the last two months of my stay in Abuja electricity was reasonably constant. That is why I had a really great time during my visit. But I have been told that a few days after I returned, the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) has recidivated to what it knows how to do best: holding on to power when people need it.

However, I should mention that a few state governments have recorded modest improvements in urban and rural infrastructural renewal. For instance, for the first time since the beginning of time, the road to my hometown of Okuta in the westernmost fringe of Kwara State has been tarred. This made traveling home a lot of delight. Ilorin, the state capital, also wore a new look.

Of course, these developments are worth talking about only because we have lowered the bar of expectations. Of what use is government if it cannot provide basic conveniences for its people?

Well, I also noticed extraordinary improvements in banking. Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) have now become a part of the Nigerian banking culture, and this has eliminated needlessly long queues in the banking halls. When I visited two years ago, I had cause to wait in line for hours on end just to withdraw as little as 5,000naira.

Interestingly, too, most banks now provide Internet banking for their customers. In 2006, I lost huge sums of money to a fraudster who, in cahoots with a teller at UBA, intercepted and inflated the value of a check I mailed to my sister in Lagos from here. Now, Internet banking obviates the need to send paper checks.
To be continued
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