NIGERIA: Think Outside the Oil
Dependence on oil wealth has led to violence, corruption, and widespread poverty in Nigeria. Simi Lawoyin hopes to shift investment to another of Nigeria's natural resources: its youth.
Waiting in line at the store, I spot an Italian globetrotter who works for an oil company in the southeastern region of Nigeria. I ask him what he thinks about the extreme poverty in the oil-rich towns he works in.
“Oh, it’s bad. It’s bad,” he says, shaking his head. He says something about poor infrastructure, pollution, and lack of education.
“Who do you think is responsible?” I ask him.
“The people,” he responds, without missing a beat. “Nothing will ever change, the money will never reach you unless you people get up and elect a good government.”
'What do you think we've been trying to do,' I want to scream. 'Do you not see we’ve been straining against restraints for years? Do you not see us fighting, struggling?'
I don’t scream. Instead I tell him that we need to stop waiting for the government to give us what we think we deserve, for the “oil money” to find its way to our waiting purses. I see us making economic progress already in Nigeria, and it’s not because of oil money. It’s enterprise.
My new Italian friend peers curiously at me, as if I have grown two heads. Then he gives me a patronizing nod, “Sure.”
The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty is a common motif in Nigeria’s landscape. Modern high-rise buildings are nestled in overpopulated, pollution-infested communities. A group of children fetch buckets of water from a stream as, on the bridge over their heads, other children in pressed school uniforms are chauffeured in Lexus jeeps to private schools. Three or four well-lit homes stand out starkly against the blanket of darkness that envelops an entire community at nightfall.
The unfair distribution of wealth in Nigeria has long been a hot topic of discourse in our marketplaces, campuses, and local beer parlors. The nation’s laments are chronicled in the literary works of authors and activists like Wole Soyinka and the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, and iterated less peaceably by insurgent groups across Nigeria who have taken recourse to violence.
Nigeria is one of Africa’s wealthiest nations, ranked 32 in the world according to its GDP (adjusted for purchasing power). Yet, an estimated 70% of the country’s population live below the poverty line. The bulk of Nigeria’s revenue comes from the country’s oil sector, but there are high prospects for its agricultural and technology sectors if they were to receive adequate funding and research.
Since Nigeria’s independence from Great Britain in 1960 and its subsequent emergence into the oil market, political instability has rocked our country. A succession of power-hungry regimes fought over the reins of government. Candidates in Nigeria’s recent elections claimed political and economic reforms in eloquent monologues, but there continues to be a sense of distrust and anger against an institution that has historically misappropriated the country’s resources. Cries of outrage were set off across the country after a disclosure by the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) that financing for the country’s National Assembly constituted 25% of the federal budget.
I have taken to calling my parents’ generation the “oil-boomer generation.” Complete with degrees or certificates facilitated by missionaries or the imperial government, they stepped out into post-colonial, oil-rich Nigeria with a great outlook for the future. They heard President Gowon announce, “Money is not our problem, but how to spend it,” and they dreamed they would never lack for anything. Their choices—their decisions to stay and work in Nigeria rather than take up lucrative offers abroad, to have four children instead of two, and to abandon the farms left them by their fathers in the villages—are tell-tale indicators of their dreams. Nigeria was positioned to benefit greatly from the oil boom that peaked in the 1970s and no one could have foretold anything but greatness for the nation.
As a series of corrupt government leaders swooped in to control the national treasure, a new reality began to emerge. Suddenly coups, civil war, and uncertainty became the order of the day. And what became of the oil-boomers? Some of them hunkered down and set aside their dreams for the pursuit of survival; some, at their own risk, spoke out or wrote against the many ills perpetuated by the nation’s leaders; many threw themselves into the pursuit of the dreams they once held, determined to partake of the country’s oil money—at whatever cost, by whatever means.
Over the years, a “get-your-own-share-of-the-national-pie” mentality has been inbred into succeeding generations. There is a disconcerting sense of entitlement in the attitudes and actions of young people in Nigeria today. Whether they saw their parents wilt and give up, or they saw them acquire wealth through illegal means, or they never saw their parents at all, many young Nigerians feel they have been cheated out of what is rightfully theirs. . . .