/ 14 January 2011

Don’t worry, be Nigerian

The humidity in the arrivals hall at Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos feels like a warm towel. But the minute you shake that off, you notice the massive board that proudly welcomes you to Nigeria.

Underneath it, in cheery, cursive script, is the declaration: “The happiest place in the world!”

Now a global survey confirms it: in a 53-country Gallup poll, Nigerians scored 70 points for optimism. By contrast, Britain scored a gloomy minus 44.

At first glance it’s hard to understand — Nigeria is a place where corruption thrives. The newspapers are filled with sensational allegations about crooked officials and mind-boggling hauls — the former chief executive of Oceanic Bank, Cecilia Ibru, allegedly being one of the worst.

Sectarian violence is steadily rising, most recently with Christmas Eve bombs in the northern city of Jos.

There is grinding poverty and, to cap it all, there is Nigeria’s most famous export — the advance-fee ‘419” scams (named after a clause in the Nigerian criminal code), all those “princes” seeking to offload their millions into your bank account.

In other ways the optimism is less misplaced. Nigeria has the third-largest economy in Africa and it is growing. It is also the world’s 12th-largest petroleum producer.

Twice the size of California
There is the oft-repeated statistic that one in every 20 Africans is Nigerian. The United Nations estimates the population at 154,7-million — astonishing for a nation about twice the size of California.

Nigeria has always punched above its weight artistically, too, from the music of Fela Kuti to the literary works of Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi and Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka. Nok and Yoruba art is celebrated worldwide for its intricacy and beauty.

The optimism here is almost tangible, the joie de vivre obvious. I have never lived in such a happy place — and I once lived in hippyville California.

The joy comes from seeing and living through the worst that life can offer; it is an optimism born of hope. Nigeria is a nation of chancers (“this time next year, we’ll be millionaires!”). While the rest of the people of the world believe they have a book in them, most Nigerians believe they have a million bucks in them, too.

There’s a spirit of entrepreneurship — people seem bewildered if you admit a lack of ambition. Nigerians want to go places and believe — rightly or wrongly — that they can. That drive and ambition fuels their optimism — they’re working towards happiness, so they’re happy.

In the years I lived and learned in Lagos, I saw awful stuff — the state-sanctioned execution of freedom fighter Ken Saro-Wiwa, the military rule of the General Ibrahim Babangida era, the annulment of the democratic June 12 elections, to name but a few — and came out the other side laughing.

There’s a Yoruba saying my father often cites: “Jimoh to ma l’oyin, Alamisi le yan ma ti mo.” Roughly translated, it means: “If a Friday is to be sweet, you’ll know by Thursday.”

It might not seem as though Nigerians have much to be happy about but perhaps they’ve already seen what Friday holds. And what they see makes them rejoice. —