Surviving poverty, corruption and state brutality, the nation-building project of Africa’s cultural superpower still inspires hope in its citizens
Nigeria, the largest black nation in the world, is celebrating 60 years of independence this month. The country has always been the key to transforming the negative perceptions of blackness that have pervaded global consciousness since the days of the Atlantic slave trade. Slavery made blackness something to either be pitied or looked down upon—colonialism entrenched this view. Much of the present-day racism towards black people stems from the continuation of such perceptions. By virtue of its 200 million-strong population and abundant natural resources, Nigeria is the only black country with the potential to emerge as a global power and so transform those views.
While African Americans may be the most focused-on black collective in Western media, they constitute just 3 per cent of the world’s 1.3 billion black population. There are five times more Nigerians than African Americans. And in coming decades, Nigeria’s role in shaping global views of blackness will only increase as its population is set to double to 400 million by 2050, overtaking the US as the world’s third-largest nation. By then, only the Indians and the Chinese will outnumber Nigerians. Black destiny will not be decided in America, Britain, or any other Western society; it will be decided in Nigeria and the wider African continent where nine in ten black people reside.
Those who led Nigeria’s independence struggle believed firmly in the country’s centrality to African, black and global destiny. “The challenge of Nigeria as a free country in 20th-century Africa is the need to revive the stature of man in Africa and restore the dignity of man in the world,” said Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president, in 1960, the year of independence. But how is this challenge faring now?
Nationwide protests against Nigerian police brutality, ongoing as I write, suggest the independence promise of dignity is far from realisation. In response to the protests, Nigeria’s police officers have reacted with customary force; protesters have been arrested and ten had been killed at the time of writing. Since independence, Nigeria’s security forces, including police and army, have regularly deployed violence against citizens and are notorious for their corruption.
The country’s socioeconomic statistics make for bleak reading. In 2018, Nigeria overtook India as the country with the highest number of extremely poor people in the world—87 million—nearly half its population. It has the highest number of out-of-school children—13 million. It is performing well below global average on virtually every indicator of human development, from standards of living and life expectancy (which stands at an appallingly low 54 years) to gender equality and citizen safety. In the midst of all this, its lawmakers have made themselves among the highest-paid in the world and the corruption of its wider political class is now legendary. A sense of national oneness remains more of an aspiration than reality.
The Western mind is unappreciative of the incredible complexity of the Nigerian project because while it is conditioned to expect significant cultural differences between racial groups, it struggles to comprehend how different people of the same skin colour can be from each other. Nigeria is home to well over 300 ethnic groups, each with their own language, traditions, and worldviews. For perspective, England and Wales combined host 18 ethnic groups. To further complicate matters, Nigeria is virtually evenly split between Christians and Muslims in what is one of the most religious societies in the world. The fault lines offering the potential for conflict are so plentiful, just keeping the peace is an exacting task. “The building of a nation out of these diversities is one of the boldest and noblest experiments in history,” said Obafemi Awolowo, one of Nigeria’s pro-independence leaders, in 1958.
Hence perhaps what is more surprising is that although Nigeria has had to fight a civil war to keep the country together, since it ended in 1970 most Nigerians have favoured staying the course despite the disappointments. One of the most improbable nation-building projects remains alive. The potential of Nigeria still inspires incredible hope in its citizens. Nigerian religiosity has played a crucial role in this. Both Christianity and Islam encourage hope for the future irrespective of present circumstances. Also, studies show that actively religious people, such as the nine in ten Nigerians who attend worship services at least weekly, tend to be happier than the non-religious, a factor obviously affecting reactions to everyday problems. The flames of faith have been instrumental in keeping the Nigerian heart beating.
But there is more to it than just religion. Post-colonial Nigeria has produced enough success stories to inspire a national belief in Nigerian exceptionalism which is a powerful glue holding an otherwise divided society together. Nigeria’s Nollywood movies dominate African cinema and are increasingly prominent on global platforms such as Netflix. Most of Africa’s biggest music stars are Nigerians. Ditto its globally successful writers and other artists. While much of this is attributable to the fact that one in six Africans is Nigerian, so statistically the country should produce the highest number of global success stories, Nigerians take great pride in being Africa’s cultural superpower and in the fact that they are usually among the most successful immigrant groups abroad.
Moreover, Nigeria is one of the most youthful nations in the world. A well-educated, social-media-empowered generation is emerging, convinced Nigeria’s long-trumpeted potential will be realised in their lifetime and that the 21st century will be Nigeria’s and Africa’s renaissance age. It is this young generation that has led the protests against police brutality, braving bullets to demand an end to the trampling of their fundamental human rights by an oppressive state. The ferocity of the demonstrations suggest the emergence of a major revolution in attitudes to power spearheaded by Nigeria’s young generation.
Popular attitudes to power have long been an ally of oppression in Nigeria. Those with power have believed it earns them the right to rule over society. Those without it have tended to agree, however tacitly. But Nigeria’s young generation seems to be breaking with this tradition, demanding more of power and acting less reverently towards it. If this attitude shift spreads across the country, it has the capacity to revolutionise societal dynamics in Nigeria which have hitherto been built on the tacit acceptance of might as right.
The fact that Nigeria’s young have turned out in large numbers to protest against state brutality is also testament to the fact they believe their country can be transformed. People don’t bother protesting when they think change is impossible.
So, while Nigerians do complain bitterly about the difficulties of their everyday lives, their belief in Nigeria’s capacity for greatness remains largely unshakeable. This belief is the greatest asset the country has. One that will be much needed in the coming years as the Promised Land remains far off and the path to it treacherous. The fate of hundreds of millions depends on that rocky road being negotiated successfully. As does the destiny of the wider black race. For better or worse, Nigeria remains the great black hope.