Nigeria, the Money Country

by Ron Singer

 

 

–Abuja, October 9th 2011

Even the taxis are green, both the small private ones and the taxi-vans, which are named after the brands of their Japanese manufacturers. To be accurate, however, Nigerian money, all of it paper, is not green.

Nigerians drive on the right, having switched in 1972. People still speculate about why: to join the right-driving majority, over 2/3 of the world’s nations; to underline their independence from their erstwhile colonial masters, the Brits; for safety’s sake, since they share most of their borders with francophones, all of whom drive on the right; or to copy the then-prosperous U.S. I support the final, materialist hypothesis: Nigerians wanted to drive on the same side of the road as rich Americans. Luckily, the Chinese, too, drive on the right, so they don’t have to switch back.

Of the two most common Nigerian bills, the 1,000 naira (about $6.50 U.S., as of Oct. 9th 2011,) is brownish-grayish-pink; the 500 bluish-pink (the 200 is a mixture).  Both the 500 and the 1,000 have, among other anti-counterfeiting devices, an embossed gold seal in one of the lower corners and the 1,000 also has a green triangle in the center. Those descriptions are of new money. Bills are kept in circulation for so long that the old ones either lose the seals, triangles, etc., or predate them. Old bills are faded, frayed, and sometimes Scotch-taped. The really old ones smell so strong that you can imagine a long chain of owners passing them from hand to hand.

 

Nigeria is the poster child for what is called “the oil curse”. Major petroleum discoveries around 1970 exponentially increased corruption and economic inequality. Now that much-poorer Ghana has discovered, and started to exploit, its own comparably large oil fields, that nation’s famous good governance will surely be put to the test.

In Nigeria, money means tranquility. I’ve eaten at the fancy hotels, played squash there, and snooped around (white people are almost never accosted by the large security staffs). Besides the obvious amenities–fitness centers, tennis and squash courts, multiple bars, pools and restaurants–the higher the grade of accommodation, the quieter the lobbies and corridors usually are (I stopped short of trying to sneak into a room).

My own budget guest house is backed by a noisy outdoor dancing and drinking club. I like some kinds of Nigerian music very much. Everyone knows “high life”, but the connoisseur may also recognize “juju” and “sakara”. What I don’t like is the ranting boom-boom; that Amerian-inflected stuff. Well, Friday nights, everyone here “relaxes.” Almost eight hours worth of relaxation, starting with soft drumming and singing at five, but shifting to the boom-boom from around eight or nine until about one in the a.m.

Since my (cheap) guest house is sponsored by an evangelical church, on Sunday morning I experienced the obverse of Friday night. Beginning at 8 sharp, I endured a big dose of church music and pastoral rant, piped into my brain via huge loudspeakers right below my window. An unbeliever, I bought my way out of the last two hours (of five) by means of an expensive (2,000 naira, plus 200 tip), but generous, tranquil, and very leisurely continental breakfast at a nearby posh hotel.

As it happens, while I ate and drank in the empty, blessedly silent restaurant, I was reading the excruciating ballroom scene (Chapters xxii and xxiii) from Anna Karenina. When I reached the pages where Kitty realizes that Vronsky has already jilted her for the gorgeous, glittering Anna, I could barely taste my oatmeal. I was also subliminally aware of the ostentation shared by czarist Russian ballrooms and oil-rich Nigerian hotels.

The evangelical torture session did have one silver lining: the out of tune, out of rhythm church music put paid to any racist stereotype of African musicality that might still have been lurking in my soul. A budget traveler in Nigeria (here to interview people for a book), I am the equivalent of one of those unfortunates in old movies who would sit through long Salvation Army sermons for the soup (on and off screen, they probably still do).

Not, however, to be a dog in a manger, for the most part I enjoy my lovely, simple, clean (and cheap) room. The staff are universally kind and friendly to me, their only non-Nigerian guest. To risk another stereotype, in Africa–at least in the five countries I have visited over the past 18 months–kindness, which you meet every day, seems to have a particular quality of joy and warmth that eludes description.

Seventy per cent of Nigerians live below the poverty line. There are churches here, some of them huge, that preach, straight-faced, that they will bring believers into both heaven-heaven and money-heaven. As in many other countries with populations of predominantly destitute citizens, evangelical Protestantism in Nigeria bristles on the other side of the divide from evangelical Islam. As is becoming common knowledge around the world, Nigeria’s most militant Islamists call themselves “Boko Haram”, which roughly means, “Western education is bad.” If you consider the country’s money madness to represent either a product, or a failure, or liberal education, the militants may have a point. This is not to soft-pedal their horrific violence.

As a Peace-Corps teacher in Nigeria during the mid-1960s, I plead guilty to having been one of those who participated in the program of universal education. Even then, a common criticism of the program was that it produced so many drop-outs. I would run into many of them in my travels, often still wearing tattered, filthy school uniforms as they changed tires or touted for the converted trucks-to-buses called “mammy wagons”.

 

In Nigeria in 2011, I have been visited by three former students, all now retirees, who came “to greet” me (they made me feel my age). One, who had been a very upright, serious boy, subsequently became a surgeon and a high diocesan official in the Anglican Church, which back then was the sponsoring institution of our school. My second visitor had also worked as a doctor (an anesthesiologist); the third, as a mechanical engineer.

“But not all of your fellow students,” the intrepid interviewer probed, “could possibly have wound up like you three, could they?”

They told me about one particular boy/man whom I remembered as a wag. In school (as I had not known), he had gone from cigarettes to ganja. After school, he had graduated to full-fledged addiction, and ultimately, insanity. He is now a ragged beggar who still roams the streets of the town where the school (also much diminished) is still located. When he sees one of his ex-classmates, he prostrates himself in the dust or mud (depended on the season).

Several years ago, a different alum told me another story of woe. A classmate of his whom I remembered as a playful, delightful, brilliant boy had been in jail in England for drug-dealing. You might say that the difference between the two stories was that the brighter ex-student had worked on the supply side. Maybe not, however, since my informant blamed the dealer’s downfall on his wicked girlfriend.

From this small sample, is western education bad? My own slogan, or truism, would be “Western education is good and bad.”

 

“Everyone here runs after money,” lamented a taxi-driver. “It is terrible.” I asked him where he was from. “Ogun state,” he said, referring to a state in southwestern Nigeria contiguous to the one where I had lived and worked. He went on to contrast two governors: the righteous governor of his own state, who rules with a firm hand and has brought significant benefits to the citizenry (schools, social welfare programs); and the governor of a neighboring state, whom he described as a thief, glutton (“onijekuje” in Yoruba) and drunkard (“onimukumu“), whose entourage comprises gaudy women (“ashowo“) and a protective cordon of thugs (“t’ugs”).

“Is your own governor an honest man, then?” I asked.

He smiled weakly. “Honest? No! None of them is honest. Only some will also help the people. That is the difference.”

 

 

Ron Singer served with the Peace Corps in Nigeria from 1964 to 1967. His writings about Africa have appeared in publications including Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Georgia Review, opendemocracy.net, Poets & Writers (online), and The Wall Street Journal.  “A Visit to Westcliff Flats” will be included in his forthcoming book, Uhuru Revisited (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press). *During October-November 2011, Ron Singer (www. Ronsinger.net) was in Nigeria and Ghana interviewing pro-democracy activists for his book, Uhuru Revisited (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press). For a brief survey of current efforts to clean up the money country, see: “Nigeria: the Way Forward” (Pambazuka News, November 24, 2011: http://pambakuza.org/en/category/features/78198; and Friends of Nigeria Newsletter, December 2011.

For conflict zones between the world’s largest monotheistic religions, see Griswold, Eliza, The tenth parallel: dispatches from the fault line between Christianity and Islam (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).