The mistakes of yesterday (the missed chances at greatness) are not doing anything to influence the decisions of today. Yet, when greatness shows up, it leaves none in doubt of what it is.
Watching bits of the Olympic opening ceremony last Friday it was impossible to not come to the conclusion that Britain is indeed a great country.
Now this is a country that hasn’t had it easy in recent times; lurching from parliamentary expenses scandal to phone-hacking scandal to a nationwide outbreak of looting to LIBOR-fixing scandal, all against a backdrop of recession. Not to mention that fifty years after the African colonies, Scotland seems primed for independence.
And yet few could see that burst of Olympic glory last Friday and not think of people who, against several odds, have demonstrated that the greatness they ascribe to themselves is no fluke. The message Mr. Boyle delivered to the world was simple: ‘Try imagining the course of world history without our rain-swept island.’
As expected, it made me think of Nigeria (everything makes one think of Nigeria!). In January 1977, at the opening ceremony of FESTAC (a sort of Arts and Culture ‘Olympics’ for the Black World) in Lagos, FESTAC president, Colonel O. P. Fingesi declared: “[Nigeria is] no longer the third world. We are the first world.”
Nigerian swagger at its most eloquent, of course. Caught up in the excitement of FESTAC – arguably the most ambitious, most colourful gathering of the black race in modern times – it was easy to buy into that most resolute of myths; the one of Nigerian greatness. Thirty years after FESTAC Dora Akunyili could still find the confidence to insist that Nigeria is a “Great Nation.”
So, is Nigeria truly great?
Chinua Achebe answers this in ‘The Trouble With Nigeria’ (1983):
“Listen to Nigeria’s leaders and you will frequently hear the phrase ‘this great country of ours.’ Nigeria is not a great country. It is one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun. It is one of the most expensive countries and one of those that give least value for money. It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar. In short, it is among the most unpleasant places on earth.”
Damn. 1983. Has anything changed?
Now Nigerians are capable of greatness – and this they have endlessly demonstrated across the face of the earth. But Nigeria as a country remains incapable of greatness. Why is this?
For a country to be deemed great it must first and foremost be great to itself; to the swarming masses of persons that fill its borders and call it home. Has Nigeria been great to its youth, its aging masses, its jobless, its sick, its disabled, its dreamers?
Every time I have to explain Lagos to a foreigner I say something like: “Imagine London without the Tube.” In fact that’s an understatement; it may be more accurate to say “Imagine two Londons bundled together, but without the Tube.”
The absurdity of it is self-evident. That a city like Lagos can exist without a mass transit scheme capable of moving thousands of persons across the city (without recourse to the roads) boggles the mind. That South Africa, with a third of our population, currently generates in excess of ten-fold the amount of electricity we celebrate in press conferences, is equally puzzling.
And here is where it gets worse. The mistakes of yesterday (the missed chances at greatness) are not doing anything to influence the decisions of today. I’m looking at other cities around the country and failing to see any evidence that its administrators are making plans to ensure that they prepare for the future. Shouldn’t state capitals like Ibadan and Abeokuta and Ado-Ekiti be falling over themselves to unveil city-wide train schemes so that the fate of Lagos does not befall them?
Back to the Olympics opening ceremony. I’m not saying hosting the Olympics is the only definition of greatness, of even an acceptable definition in the first place. Greatness, like beauty, may hard to define, no doubt. Nelson Mandela is great, but then so is (if his friend is to be believed) Udeme Guinness.
Yet, when greatness shows up, it leaves none in doubt of what it is. When those 204 copper petals rose in fiery unison at the Olympic Park I couldn’t help thinking that the biggest spectacles of fire in Nigeria currently come from oil pipelines, upturned tankers, and toppled planes.
Nigeria is not a great country. Any presumed greatness belongs to the “Exaggerations” section of the Guinness Book of World Records.
I repeat, Nigeria is not great. We may fail to agree on what constitutes greatness, what is not in doubt is that we could easily find unanimity in our notions of what DOES NOT constitute greatness.
But I won’t end it there. Nigeria has what it takes to be great. Nigerians have routinely demonstrated their capacity for greatness. What we need to do is find a way to turn individual flashes of greatness into a collective, habitual, national greatness.
In future instalments of this column we will discuss what true greatness might mean for Nigeria. To put it the way Aso Rock would: we shall attempt to draw up a “Road Map” for Nigerian Greatness. Sign up for the ‘Greatness Committee’ in the comments box.