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A Week in the Bowels of a Celtic Tiger

This travelogue was first published in the Daily Trust of December 26, 2004. It's being republished here for archival purposes. By Fa...

This travelogue was first published in the Daily Trust of December 26, 2004. It's being republished here for archival purposes.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

The Republic of Ireland, now fashionably dubbed the Celtic Tiger on account of its phenomenal economic progress in the last 10 years, is a land of breath-taking scenic beauty, of spell-binding marble splendour, and of legendary pubs. It is also a country that is steeped in history. 

But it's such a wonder that so little is known about this amazing country by a lot of Nigerians, except government officials and members of the upwardly mobile social classes who are now rushing to buy choice property in high-brow parts of the country. It is usual to mistake the country with its geographic and ethnic cousin, Northern Ireland, which has been annexed by the UK.

Ireland, a country of fewer than 5 million people, which is reputed to be the fastest growing economy in the whole of Europe, is not part of the UK. It is an independent country, and it is fiercely jealous of its hard-won freedom from Britain. 

Well, it is the unlikeliest place I thought I would visit this year. But a purely fortuitous interplay of circumstances conspired to take me to Dublin for a week. And the fond recollections I cherish of my sojourn in this remarkable country of kind-hearted and complaisant people will endure in my memory for ever. The oppressively cold winter of Ireland was such a huge contrast with the warm, obliging, and liberal disposition of most of the Irish people that I interacted with.

Why I was in Ireland

I was in Ireland to attend a week-long conference organised by the International Non-Governmental Organisation (INGO), an African NGO headquartered in London, to which I was a media and research consultant. The theme of the conference was, "The African Third Sector: collaborations, partnerships and overseas cooperation". 

The third sector, if you didn't know, is no more than a grand buzz word that people in the United Kingdom now fashionably use to refer to Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Community-Based Organisations, (CBOs), and Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs). In most parts of the Western world, NGOs have now been conferred the revered status of being seen as one of the three institutional props that sustain the modern state--the two other props being the public and the private sectors.  Government, or the public sector, is the first sector while the private sector is the second sector. Such a smart way to elevate NGOs!

What started as an awkward neologism in the late 1990s is now acquiring the status of a concept. NGOs the world over are assuming increasing significance. Now, it is no longer sufficient to call them mere NGOs; they are now labelled "third sector" organisations. In fact, most Western diplomatic missions in the developing countries now have "third sector attaches" to collaborate with civil society groups in their countries of residence. 

But what accounts for this unusual investment of confidence in a sector that only a while ago played no significant part in national and international politics? From the point of view of Western governments and donor agencies, channelling development aid through the governments of developing countries has proved to be disastrous. It has been a cheap source of enrichment for a few criminally privileged few in the orbit of governance while the majority of the people whom the aid is supposed to benefit are disaffiliated and disempowered. 

Given the notoriety of governments of developing countries for sloth, inefficiency, lethargy, inertia and downright thievery, and the entrepreneurial timidity and parasitic nature of the so-called organised private sector, Western governments and donor agencies are coming to a new realisation that development aid to Third World countries will be better utilised if it is channelled through third sector organisations. The logic is that these groups have the merit of not being encumbered by the red tape of government and the crass profit motive of the private sector and will therefore be in a good stead to become the standard bearers of genuine grassroots development.

But given what we know about the conduct of some civil society groups here, it is a moot point whether this new thinking has any basis in reality. It is customary in the civil society movement in Nigeria to derisively tag some civil society groups as Non-Governmental Individuals (NGIs). They are so called because such groups have been transformed into the personal, profit-driven business concerns of certain personalities. They lack transparency and accountability, are authoritarian, and do not use the donor aid they get for the benefit of communities on whose behalf they get it. But this fact does not detract from the fact that there are genuine civil society groups that live up to popular expectations.

The London-based International Non-Governmental Organisation (INGO), which I had the honour of being a consultant to, brings together what it considers genuine African third sector groups that are concerned with sustainable development issues to meet with Western donor agencies and governments,  in Western capitals, to fashion out ways of initiating mutually beneficial partnerships and collaborations. 
Early in the year, the group brought together development NGOs from representative parts of Africa to meet with UK NGOs and donor agencies in London and hopes to make this a periodic exercise. 

But what is the wisdom in interminably discussing African problems in Western capitals? Chief Uzor Owunne, the International Coordinator of INGO, provides an answer in his opening speech at the conference. He said, "In a world that is becoming increasingly interdependent and inextricably linked, we cannot continue to ignore the vast potentials available to us to improve our condition in partnership with the more developed parts of the world. And we cannot do this by sitting idly in Africa and imagining that the world knows our problems. We need to seek out and partner with governments and agencies that identify with our plight, that appreciate the virtue of channelling development to Africa through community-based organisations, faith-based organisations and other kinds of civil society groups."

Meeting with the "Niggers of Europe"
It is, of course, problematic, whether, indeed, it is only by going to Western capitals to partner with donor agencies that the nagging problems of Africa can be resolved. But the choice of Ireland for this conference strikes me as symbolic in many significant respects. There are many instructive historical parallels between Ireland and countries that make up Africa. Like most African countries, Ireland was a victim of decades of ruthless imperial oppression. It also went through severe deprivation and underdevelopment after freeing itself from the stranglehold of British colonialism.

Perhaps the most telling illustration of the emotional affinity that the Irish share with Africa as a result of their unique socio-historical experiences is found in a novel entitled, The Commitments by Roddy Doyle. The Commitments is the Irish equivalent of our own Things Fall Apart by the inimitable Chinua Achebe. It's a hugely influential novel that has been adapted into a successful film. The central character in the novel, Jimmy Rabbitte, seeks to inspire his pop group by telling them, "The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads. An' Dubliners are the niggers o' Ireland. An' the north sides Dubliners are the niggers o' Dublin. Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud".

When Mr Doyle was asked in an interview with pressmen to explain what he meant by that assertion, he said, "Ireland, and all its members, represents a country that was a colony. So Ireland never quite fits the European patterns: Ireland is darker. Overcoming the legacy of colonisation and becoming independent gives the idea that you are second wage, that you are a nigger."

And there is the uncanny coincidence that the Embassy of the Republic of Ireland in Nigeria is situated in a place called the Negro Crescent in Abuja!

The similarities that Doyle draws between Ireland's past and Africa's present are not a fiction writer's mere flight of fancy; they are real. Ireland's experience of cruelly long imperial oppression in the hands of the British and the economic underdevelopment that this engendered in much of its post-colonial existence undoubtedly gave it an unsurpassed empathy with the colonised countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America--unsurpassed certainly in comparison with the post-imperial powers of Western Europe. 

Such solidarity must have been reinforced by an enduring folk memory of the Famine in the mid 19th century when a million and a half Irish people died of hunger and fever, and a further million fled the country to the US. (The Irish were later to dominate the commanding heights of the politics and economy of the US, having produced at least 16 American presidents and transforming themselves into the financial Brahmins of the US).

 The Great Hunger, as it is later called, left profound emotional scars in the Irish national consciousness. This perhaps explains why the Irish have been exceptionally generous when confronted with contemporary famines, consistently donating more money than any European country to emergency-relief programmes. Similarly, the Irish government is remarkably committed to meeting the UN target of devoting 0.7% of its GNP for overseas development assistance.

However, during the conference, a representative of the Development Cooperation Ireland (DCI)--the government body invested with the task of coordinating development aid to developing countries--made a point which I found poignant and instructive. He said the younger generation of Irish people are increasingly calling into question the wisdom in investing stupendous amounts of tax payers' money as development aid to Third World countries. And the argument of the young people, according to him, is that there is no sense in robbing themselves to pay others. For instance, Ireland is a football-crazy country. During international and national soccer events, the whole country, he said, literally stands still.

Yet the country does not have a national stadium! And this is the fastest growing economy in Europe. The country does not have a national stadium because the people think it is cruel luxury to have a national stadium when more than half of the world's population lives below the breadline. Such nice people! But the young men are now saying that the people for whose sake they're being subjected to this self-denial are building magnificent national stadiums--sometimes with the aid of the aid money they receive from their country. I couldn't help thinking that the man was making a veiled reference to Nigeria.

In spite of this, an impressively large number of Irish NGOs have been in the vanguard of persuading both the people and the government of the country not to develop donor fatigue as a result of the corrupt tendencies of Third World rulers, and to rededicate themselves to committing huge sums of their taxpayers' money to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals for developing countries.

But instead of giving money directly to governments and NGOs in developing countries, Irish donor agencies are redefining their strategies. They are getting volunteers to go to Africa and get directly involved in development activities. The Niall Mell
on Township Challenge in South Africa is one brilliant example of this. The project is the brainchild of a billionaire Irish builder called Mr Niall Mellon. This amazing gentleman visited South Africa some time ago and wandered into a ghetto called Imizamo Yetho by chance. 

He was revolted by what he saw: 12,000 residents jam-packed into tiny ugly little huts. And he undertook to destroy those huts and build inexpensive but decent houses for all of the residents of that ghetto. He donated one million Euros from his personal funds and encouraged Irish volunteers to participate in the project. Each volunteer builder raised a minimum of 4,000 Euros in order to cover the cost of accommodation, flights and building materials. These volunteers built a minimum of 60 houses every day and have almost rebuilt all of the houses in Imizamo Yetho, a suburb of Cape Town.

Niall Mellon says this is only the beginning. He has plans to extend this noble gesture to other parts of Africa. As you would expect, he has now become a folk hero in South Africa. 

The Niall Mellon Township Challenge is just one of several individual Irish initiatives to touch the lives of the less fortunate people of the world. There is a plethora of NGOs there that are falling over each other to spend funds they raise through self-taxation to help poor people in the world--in much the same way that people here fall over each other to form NGOs only so that they can get money from donor agencies.

 There is this interesting Irish NGO I met in Dublin called Bothar. (In writing this name, I've lost all the Irish grave accents). Bothar's approach to redressing extreme poverty in the developing world is refreshingly creative. Instead of donating money to people, Bothar members travel to countries in Africa and Eastern Europe to give people the means to lift themselves and their communities to self-reliance by donating animals to them and giving them training on how to raise them. The organisation was formed in 1991 by a certain T.J. Maher who is now dead.

Bothar for instance gives Irish dairy cow to a poor family, say in Uganda, which produces more than 20 times as much milk per day as a local cow. The milk and cheese produced by the Irish cow can instantly improve the diet of impoverished children and often is enough for a family to sell the extra to earn a small income. It also engages in crossbreeding Irish bulls with local cows producing an animal that gives approximately 25 % of an Irish cow's milk yield--still much more productive than the local animal.

 Apart from Irish cows, Bothar also donates Irish goats, bees, chicks, rabbits, fish, camels, and economic trees. Through this project, this NGO has transformed the lives of many families in dramatic ways. There are several such NGOs in Ireland which evince an incredibly enormous enthusiasm to help less privileged people of the world.

However, it would seem that their activities in Africa are limited to southern and eastern parts of Africa. The International Coordinator of the INGO Ireland Conference, Chief Uzor Owunne, who is a Nigerian, echoed this sentiment when he said, in the course of his opening speech, "On a personal note, I dare to say that most Irish aid to Africa is skewed in favour of southern and eastern Africa. The western part of Africa, which is home to the largest concentration of sub-Saharan Africans, has not been as lucky."

Development Cooperation Ireland, which represented the Irish government at the conference, was touched by this observation, and immediately promised to review its relationship with West Africa, particularly with Nigeria. The representative of the British government from the Royal Treasury made a similar pledge.

 However, the conduct of some African, nay Nigerian, NGOs at the conference was enough to make the flesh of any self-respecting African crawl in shame. They were literally begging representatives of the Irish and British governments to give them euros and pounds to go back with to Nigeria! Other Africans at the conference were petrified by this shameless display of low self-worth.

The tragedy of being a Nigerian abroad
The above was not the only instance I was made to regret my Nigerian identity. It started right from the Amsterdam International Airport, from where we connected to Dublin. It appears that our green passports evoke a nauseous feeling among airport officers in international airports. In Amsterdam, all of us Nigerians were "detained". Our offence was that we were Nigerians. Being Nigerian, it seems, means that you're a criminal until you prove otherwise. Our passports were subjected to the severest crucible I have ever seen. They were put through all kinds of imaginable gadgets to confirm their authenticity.  But this was no racist condescension. Other Africans at the airport did not go through this.

I was one of the first people to be freed from the "detention" of the Dutch airport officers. Reason: they discovered that I had travelled to the US before. When one of the airport officers discovered that my passport contains a US visa, he beckoned one of his overzealous colleagues, spoke some Dutch (hopefully not double Dutch!) in the course of which he mentioned "Americana"--or something that sounded like that. The colleague repeated the "Americana" in an interrogative mood, and he answered in the affirmative. And I was let off their hook. I couldn't help thinking aloud that American supremacy in the world was total. Even the remotest association with America confers a special status on you. The other Nigerian delegates, particularly those who had so-called virgin passports or those whose passports contain visas of less "prestigious countries" were detained for almost an hour. One of the delegates, in fact, missed his flight to Dublin. Nobody had any idea what happened to him.

The treatment meted to Nigerians abroad, dehumanising as it is, has basis in the notoriety of a few Nigerians in sensational, high-profile international crimes. Added to this is the fact that in airports, Nigerians can be some of the brashest, loudest, and most uncouth people, which can inspire scorn, and sometimes hatred, from other nationalities.

And in Ireland, with its extraordinarily large heart and cosmopolitan disposition, Nigerians don't have a particularly flattering image. Quite a number of them live there illegally and engage in businesses that only reinforce the new global stereotype of Nigeria as a country of merciless fraudsters. Their isolated acts of fraudulent conducts eclipse the praiseworthy endeavours of many law-abiding and hardworking Nigerians living in Ireland. Most Nigerians I visited there were very concerned about this. 

However, in their concerns, they couldn't rise above the crude ethnic stereotyping that has become our national pastime in Nigeria. An Igbo host told me that most of the people who perpetrate acts that expose Nigerians to suspicion and hatred are of the Yoruba ethnic extraction. Interestingly, the Yorubas that I met with said the activities of Igbos constituted the single greatest embarrassment to Nigerians in Ireland. I was not impressed by this puerile buck-passing. The Irish can't tell a Yoruba from an Igbo; all Nigerians are tarred with the same brush.

However, a lot of Nigerians are doing well in Ireland. They are making tremendous inroads into Irish business and economic life, and don't seem to be in a hurry to return to Nigeria.

Understanding the Irish personality
The Irish are indeed an interesting people. Here are people who are very passionate in asserting their Irish and Catholic identity but don't demonstrate this in deed. This is an illustration: English is not the original language of the Irish people. It was imposed on them, like the rest of us in Africa, by British colonialists. After independence, which was won at the cost of great sacrifice, the Irish strained very hard to instil loyalty to Irish Gaelic, the original language of the Irish, among its citizens by insisting that the language be taught to students from an impressionable age so that they will grow up to speak the language and have pride in it. All documents originating from the Irish government, and even billboards in the major cities, are first written in Gaelic and then subtitled in English.  With this attitude you would expect that the Irish people speak their language proficiently. Wrong. A whole host of them understand only a smattering of their language and have no loyalty to it.

All of them are more comfortable conversing in English even amongst themselves than in their native language. All their newspapers are published in English. Only one radio station, situated somewhere in the margins of the country, broadcasts in Gaelic; the rest broadcast in English. This is also true of the television stations. And, of course, English is the language of instruction in their schools. The Irish people, in fact, pride themselves on being able to speak the English language better than the English.

 But not every non-Irish citizen shares this. The Irish tend to speak like Americans and spell like the English. They, for instance, roll their "r" like Americans but their spelling is as aphonetic as British English. However, their speech is not exactly American; it only approximates it. I initially had difficulty understanding Irish speech. I had thought that the first people I spoke with either had speech defects or that I was not sufficiently exposed to European speech patterns to understand the people, until a UK citizen told me that he too had problems understanding Irish spoken English. There is security in number, I said to myself.

Again, Ireland asserts its uniqueness by flaunting its Catholic faith. But this is only in theory. Like most countries in Western Europe, Ireland is in reality a post-Christian society. Most people in Ireland no longer go to church, and Sundays are no different from all other days. Businesses open on Sundays like all other days, and instead of going to church the young go to pubs--an organic part of Irish social life. Only the elderly go to church there. 

Yet the Irish are passionate about their Catholic faith. Their attachment to Catholicism seems to me to be more political, or sociological if you will, than spiritual. But this is hardly surprising. Ireland's affluence and the admirable social and economic liberties it has instituted for all its citizens can instigate a kind of self-satisfaction that will dispose anybody to dispense with spiritual verities. Ireland has the best social security provisions for its citizens in Europe, if not the whole world. Both the unemployed and the unemployable enjoy reasonably high allowances.

Ireland should be a tremendous source of inspiration for all African leaders who are genuinely desirous of transforming Africa. Here was a country that was mired in grubby poverty but dramatically rose to spotless prosperity. It does not have the natural resources that most African countries have. It does not have the huge expanse of land that Africa has. It does not even have the kind of numerical strength that most African countries have. And, what's more, it went through colonialism in much the same way as most African countries did. But through the vision of its leaders and the hard work of its citizens it created wealth from investment in knowledge.

 The secret of Irish prosperity is their investment in Information and Communication Technology. If our governments can break from the embarrassing attitude of self-pitying lamentation and invest in the future of our youth, we will not need to be begging Western governments and donor agencies for aid and debt forgiveness. But do our leaders care?

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