Nigeria’s Benin and Ife bronzes (12th-17th centuries) are among the world’s greatest works of art. The estimated 150 million Nigerians are smart, brave, enduring, talented and hard working. They live under one of the most corrupt governments in the world. Some also are still deep into witchcraft despite being either Christian or Muslim. All those elements are noted below.
Nigeria’s poor, the vast majority, show wonderful courage and ingenuity every day. Its elite are talented in business and the arts. However, the $20-$30 billion annual income from oil has gone largely to the pockets of corrupt military and civilian officials for decades.
Their corruption even hits the U.S. Embassy. I was met at Lagos airport by a U.S. Embassy car with the Political Officer. She whisked me through immigration and customs with the help of two Nigerian Embassy employees. I was stopped on the sidewalk just before I reached the Embassy car. A Nigerian Immigration Captain in uniform asked me for my passport. I called to the Political Officer who was already in the car. She got out and asked what the officer wanted. He smiled and said he had to check my passport. She replied that we had been through customs and immigration already, that I was an American official with a diplomatic passport and that she was the Political Officer of the U.S. Embassy.
He replied that he still needed me to accompany him back inside the airport to have my passport properly checked. She gave him an angry look and told the Embassy driver to use his car phone to call the Foreign Ministry and to ask for the Foreign Minister’s office. At that, the immigration officer smiled politely, saluted, said he thought everything was in order and walked away. We jumped into the car and drove to the Embassy.
She told me guys like him shook down new arrivals inside the airport, even ordering them held in jail if they did not pay up. Welcome to Nigeria.
Later that week at the Ambassador’s senior staff meeting the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), the number two guy in the U.S. Embassy, reported that we had been denied a building permit. The Embassy wanted to add a small radio shack on our property. The DCM had taken up the matter because the Nigerians refused the request by the General Services Officer. The DCM reported that he had called the Deputy Prime Minister who wanted $10,000 for the permit. The Ambassador called the Prime Minister. Only then did we receive the permit without a bribe. All to build a small radio shack next to the Embassy on Embassy grounds. The U.S. at the time was annually giving Nigeria tens of millions in aid.
In the private sector, an Italian businessman told me the solution to bribery was simple. He just added one third for bribes to the bids he made for contracts. He could pay the bribes and still show a good profit.
An American businessman told me there was no point in complaining about Lagos’ brand new, but problem plagued, telephone system. The Minister in charge had received the American’s plans for the new telephone wiring to be installed under Lagos. The Minister told the American that the copper cables should not be ¾” but just ½” in diameter. Told that would not meet the required specifications, the Minister insisted the reduction be made. The businessman diverted to the Minister the value of the copper saved (an expensive metal). The inadequate cables were duly approved and buried under the streets of the capital. Bribery hidden six feet under.
The excellent British Royal Commission report on independence for Nigeria (achieved in1960) recommended a federal parliamentary government for the then colony. It was hoped Nigeria would fulfill its great potential. The constitution suggested by the Commission and vetted by all the Nigerian parties, balanced the Muslim north, the Christian south, the Yoruba West and the Ibo East and gave representation to the minor tribes.
At independence, a free election monitored by the Brits elected a government which built on the extensive civil service of Nigerians and Brits and the fairly good educational system. That included good university training.
Nigerians of all tribes were bright, hard working, friendly, outgoing, good citizens and made up Africa’s largest national population. The country was rich in agriculture and minerals, was peaceful and had a serviceable, if incomplete infrastructure.
The future looked bright until corruption and tribalism took hold in government not long after independence, followed by violent civil war, bloody military coups and more corruption.
The big chauffeur-driven Mercedes of Nigerian businessmen and politicians crowded Lagos’ main streets, while cholera killed poor people nearby in the dirty, neglected back streets. Public works had decayed as the British-initiated sinking funds for public works were stolen. Leaky water and waste pipes spread disease.
Big projects were sometimes completed, but the brutality of the political class spread. The, new, German-built ring road around Lagos was splendid, beautifully laid out with broad double concrete lanes in both directions. However, population growth, modern economics and technology had run over and badly damaged the family, clan and tribal emotional ties which used to keep people alive and cared for in pre-industrial times.
Still, I was impressed by the smooth circular road as the Embassy driver sped north toward Ibadan and Kano where I had to inspect our cultural posts. Then we passed in the next lane over (thank God) a figure on the road, literally on the road. It was almost black and flat in the hot tropical sun. It looked like one of those cartoon figures run over by a steam roller, except it was a man with no head. The man had evidently been hit by a car while trying to cross the double lane road, perhaps at night. The traffic thereafter, big Mercedes, giant trucks, etc. had evidently run over the man again and again until his body became spread out on the German-built concrete roadway. Nobody bothered to remove him.
The idea that anyone in any tribe could die and not be given a deeply felt funeral service in the old days was unthinkable. Oil money and the German road it made possible. Those influences also set out in bold the fact that even in the past, outside your own tribe, people were often seen as barely human. The following grim tale shows how even some traditional beliefs and cruelty to outsiders ran together.
We arrived in Kano, a considerable town up in the Muslim but in some ways pagan-traditional North of Nigeria, I stayed at an official guest house along with a woman anthropologist from the University of Chicago. We became friendly. By chance, I was there just before the complicated ritual induction of a new Emir, the highest religious and political figure in the town.
The anthropologist had written her Ph D thesis thirty years earlier, about the installation of the Emir of Kano. The Emir’s installation had elaborate public, political and Muslim religious trappings. It also had secret ceremonies.
She told me that when she wrote her thesis, there had been a special clan that helped to make the Emir’s installation ceremony powerful and complete. Their task was to provide human heads to be buried in a protective circle at a specified magical distance from each other, around the town. When she wrote her thesis, about a hundred heads were taken, mostly those of children, the easiest victims.
Kano had grown enormously in the generation that passed until the old Emir finally died and a new one was to be installed. She could not even guess how many heads were needed to protect the now much bigger city and the new Emir, but she was sure they would be found.
An Emir in another Northern town created by his actions a small report in a Nigerian newspaper in 2000. He had denounced publicly the practice of taking heads and was shunned by many traditional believers for his stand. But tradition also included bribes to judges, and to the Emirs or in the Christian and pagan parts of Nigeria to chiefs. Oil money brought all that bribery into the much more bribe expensive present. So when an Emir is next to be installed, all kids “Heads Up!”
Back in Lagos, one Nigerian businessman, cheerful, smart, with operations around Africa and Europe, widely traveled, lived in a mansion in the best part of town. Like others, he kept his favorite dead relatives buried in the cellar. When he had a major business or personal decision to make, he went downstairs to the grave and talked it over with the spirit of his favorite uncle. He prospered mightily, wearing three expensive, gold Swiss watches on each wrist, almost like charms.
Modern Nigerian poetry and novels are among the best in the world, and its bucket-kicking newspaper journalism is wildly popular and often even true. When elections are held they are lively and hotly contested. The makings of a great country are there. Once corruption and tribalism are licked, Nigeria will have a great future. Europe took centuries to outgrow (much of ) its witchcraft, tribalism and corruption after the Middle Ages. The U.S. is still working on its own democracy.