Tolu Ogunlesi: Is Nigeria great? (YNaija Frontpage)

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.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

Comments (14)

  1. Wow! The people of Nigeria are. Truly great, am hgopeful and positive!!!

    My best part ' a great country, has to be great to itself, its youth, ageing masses, thirsty job seats etc' May God help us.

  2. Thanks Tolu for the article. We need to hammer it home that Nigeria is not great and will not be in the near future if a systemic revolution and re-orientation of minds is not immediately launched. I wrote about Nigeria as a failed state in 2008 and failed woefully because my Lecturer did not see enough references to articles (or books for that matter) that depicts my beloved country as one…why? Because no one writes about it- we are all under the illusion that we still a great nation…shior!

  3. Isn't Chinua Achebe such a damn foresighted seer? Imagine how his comment of 30 years ago still resonates today like he just uttered them. But there were some "great" Nigerians back them who crucified him for being unpatriotic.This country still has a long way to travel to attain a modicum of greatness.

  4. The best part of this article to me is this: "In future instalments of this column we will discuss what true greatness might mean for Nigeria…we shall attempt to draw up a “Road Map” for Nigerian Greatness".

    I am so tired of hearing were we are now; we ALL know the truth of our current state (even those that pretend not to: the sycophants and/or optimists). What Tolu proposes in future articles is what I would love to see more of: ideas, proposals, dreams/visions, plans, to move us from our present situation. Again, THINGS ARE BAD IN NIGERIA, YEA WE GET IT. NOW WHAT? LET'S FOCUS ON THAT!!

  5. It's bn said all in the comments I av read here already dat Nigeria could b make great if and only if we could av our wasful spending and "don't give a damn" govt could b checked and realised d readiness 2 work 2words greatness of this Nation and not 4 their pockets.

  6. Is it coincedental that highlights of the opening ceremony for the London Games is being shown on TV while I leave comments on this catalysing article? If for anything, Great Britian recognised(s) its enablers of success, and celebrated(s)them- that's greatness! Like Tolu insinuates in the 7th paragraph, our greatest resource is our human resource. Please, "greatness committee", the most important thing to do when implementing or proffering a "roadmap" to greatness in Nigeria is to acknowledge and prioritize your human resource. Also, human resource, if you notice you being scammed by the greatness committee, take heed over their mediocrity like Gege says and strategise for a change of leaders.

  7. I believe the greatest opposition to change in Nigeria is indifference among many,others remain pessimistic or almost cynical.

    This is because they have progressively lost faith in Leadership,plus most people feel they have to part to play in bringing about the change they so much desire to see.

    I'd suggest that in addition to showing the road map to greatness,you go further to prescribe ways individuals could contribute. I strongly believe that National development shouldn't be reserved for a select few.

  8. Tolu this brought tears of anger to my eyes. Indeed only a blind fool would say we are a great nation. We are not great, we are a mediocre nation and somethings gotta give soon!

  9. The truth is, Nigeria can never be great until we kill tribalism and corruption. Tolu the infrastructures we need have been conceived but our leaders would rather use them as avenue to loot!when its done the man who did it is given chieftancy title. Why won't corruption multiply when we project the Anenihs as though they are Mandelas? @ogechikero

  10. Please don't waste your time telling us what greatness means. Our leaders know that we are not great. They also know how to make us achieve greatness. They have however chosen mediocrity.

  11. Thank you tolu for this article indeed we re nt great nd 2 thnk of d fact dat lagos does nt have a mass transit den u see buses dat re bad bringing out fumes dat wuld definitely cause harm to peple nd d roads foreigners re so suprised at d state of dis roads but it is d government evry tym yes dey hav proven to be incapable but the people as well re also at fault believe nigerianz re lawless frm d danfo driver dwn to d people tryn 2 get into d brt busses;people flee dere own states nd come to lagos to sleep on d road nd use dere children who re meant 2 be in skul as private enterprises tell me hw hav dey fulfild dere dreamz in lagos u c dat is whr d point is dere wuz no dream dey just ran blindfolded into hell Fashola can't provide education for evry single one of dem.I bet if dey were in deir own state am nt sayn chnces wuld hav been sure but said it wen u said we dnt learn frm our mistakes yes we conclusion cuz I can't keep writing ℓ☺ℓ we need molecular change let d lil fngs shape d big fngs.I wonder y government haz nt sent a team lyk d ones dat ask u on london train bout d service u re receiven see dat is improvement only if it culd be done for brt busses dey wul knw wat dey can do to improve dat area.yeah tolu I follow u on twitter and u re hilarious but ur nt folwn ℓ☺ℓ so pls folw bck fnks.pheew!

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