I have said this before: one of the hardest tasks is to predict how Nigerians would react in any given situation. We are a perplexing bunch, able to defy the most skilled pontificator.
Imagine, then, my constant frustration. As one who has written for years on Nigerian affairs, I am often asked—both by audiences in Nigeria and abroad—to pronounce on the likely turn of events in my country of birth.
Often, in a mood of humility, I give the only response that makes sense. I confess that I don’t know. I tell the inquirer that Nigeria is a puzzle, a phenomenon whose behavior no human can anticipate or predict with high confidence. Sometimes, when I speak in this vein, I provoke laughter in the audience. Those listening to me appear to think I’m joking, and if not speaking in jest, that I am a man who has cultivated great modesty. They seem to believe that my plea constitutes evidence of an expert deliberately posturing as an ignoramus. At any rate, they regard me as one who is possessed of insights he would not—for whatever reason—share.
Of course, it’s not always that I hearken to the inner voice of wisdom. Sometimes pride kicks in, and I succumb to its temptation. I seek to leave the audience with the impression that I know what I don’t know. Fueled by a particular sense of vanity, I venture forth with a categorical statement on how a particular matter would play out in Nigeria. I go to town. I weigh in; I play prognosticator; I make declarations.
In effect, I put on the mask of an expert (a being who, according to a joke my father-in-law relished telling, is somebody who can mislead you with confidence). When seized by that urge to play an expert, I am wont to tell an audience that, given a set of circumstances, this or that was bound to happen in Nigeria.
Audiences like that version of me better. People don’t enthusiastically leave their homes to go and listen to a person who vacillates or hedges. Often, audiences relish the sense that they are in the presence of an all-knowing savant. They crave direct answers, not equivocation. They treasure certitude in a speaker, not a habit of waffling.
That’s why, even though I know better, I sometimes take the incautious step of predicting Nigeria. I’m tempted to do so because I reckon that the expert pose delights the audience, whether it be a lone interviewer or a gathering at a university or library. Tell us how the saga of the missing Chibok girls will end, they ask. How will Nigeria’s current economic crisis affect Nigerians’ response to political corruption? I hear the questions; I know that the honest answer is, I can’t tell. Yet, sometimes, I don’t feel strong enough to offer that honest, but disappointing, response. So: I go ahead and fudge an answer. The words come across as coherent, the answer compelling, even though I know it’s little more than perfumed nonsense.
I do it, that is, pronounce on the enigma called Nigeria, because a part of me wants to believe that Nigeria should be knowable and predictable to a certain degree. And whenever I declaim confidently on Nigeria, I delight my audience. I can read their approval in their facial expression, a sense of satisfaction. I can tell when an audience marvels at my brilliance, grateful for what they take—mistake—for my expertise. And because I can see it so clearly, I experience a shattering sensation of guilt after each occasion of playing the expert.
I might as well confess again: Nigeria confounds me. And one reason this is so is that, in numerous situations, Nigerians appear to act in ways best described (since I wish to avoid using the word illogical) as counter-intuitive. I’d offer two quick examples.
Despite all the petro dollars that have passed through Nigeria, most Nigerians live in excruciating poverty. The monthly minimum wage is N18, 000, a sum that is now less than $50. That’s the entirety of what some workers are paid—to cover rent, food, clothing, their children’s school supplies, transportation. Even worse, there are millions of workers who get paid much less than that paltry minimum. You’d think, then, that Nigerians would be outraged when their politicians loot millions (sometimes billions) of dollars. Instead, many of the destitute Nigerians rush to venerate thieving politicians, especially if the thieftains happen to be from the same ethnicity, local government area, or faith. They translate and inflate the politicians’ most pedestrian actions (e.g. the payment of salaries or the building of roads) into staggering accomplishment. “Governor So-so and So is doing well; he pays salaries,” you’d hear it said. Forget that the said governor may be hauling away hundreds of millions each month.
A few weeks ago, a major Nigerian pastor whose mega-church owns a university, warned critics of the university’s fee hike to hush up. In a statement, the pastor said God was involved in fixing the fees. “The school fees has God’s approval and is in accordance with the quality of facilities provided,” claimed the churchman. He then warned that those who persisted as critics risked divine ire, including being afflicted with halitosis.
You’d think that church members and other Christians would be ashamed by the pastor’s ludicrous claim. The portrait painted of God here is so farcical and absurd. Picture God asking Saint Peter to fetch the file for a university. Then, after hard thinking, God did not decree free education; did not decide on a reduction of fees in view of Nigeria’s harsh economic climate. Rather, God said, let’s do the most sensible and divine thing: a dramatic increase in school fees!
During my recent visit to Nigeria, I was catching up with a few friends when the subject of funerals came up. These friends took turns telling me that spending obscene sums on funerals had become the latest craze in parts of Nigeria, especially in Igboland. I heard that bereaved families now compete on pulling off the most expensive funerals—complete with live music performances, wild animal exhibits, and waltzing pallbearers.
How could this be happening in a time of such debilitating economic difficulty, I asked? “O kitaa ka eji ama onye bu onye,” one of my friends explained (a loose translation: “This is when you know who is who). It did not make sense to me. I asked numerous questions, but there was no answer. As VS Naipaul might have put it, the situation is what it is.
The situation is that men and women, ostensibly sane, have decided that throwing the most lavish parties for the dead should be the new mode of bragging. Regardless of the festering economic crisis in the country, regardless of the hordes of unemployed youngsters in the country, regardless of the thinning hope and burgeoning despair in the land—some people have figured that the most sensible thing to do is stage contests for the most gaudy, expensive and spectacular funeral.
How does one even begin to unpack this bizarre development? If there’s an expert somewhere who can make sense of this ghastly phenomenon, a sage who understands what this all means, I’m right here, waiting: do please give me a call.