Over the last few months, I have been involved in a running conversation with a friend. About Nigeria, of course. Sometimes very intense, but occasionally light-hearted, the talk has turned on a charge that I find enthralling and bothersome in equal measure.
The nub of her argument is, essentially, this. Those Nigerians (at first the opinion and leader writers in the mainstream print media; but increasingly the leading lights on Twitter and Facebook) with an opinion on the state of the nation, invariably end up portraying it in less than pleasant light. Apparently, this group of compatriots (“we”, since I fall into one of these categories) never see, hear, or read anything about Nigeria, without looking to the dark side. We may be corrupt, but we are not the most corrupt country on earth. Besides, diverse examples of skulduggery have been unearthed in even the best-organised jurisdictions.
By focusing on the dark side, our talking heads apparently “damage the psyche of the people, destroy their sense of hope, and even worse, the gloom and doom talk is conducted within earshot of the next generation, so these are born feeling hopeless”. According to her, the “damage I and my friends do with this everything is dysfunctional rhetoric (on Nigeria) is probably more harmful to the country’s future than what a few stolen dollars here and there are doing”.
Persuaded that prodding those whose stewardship of the country’s resources may be doing so much harm, or trying to publicly censure them “is a waste of time”, she argues that the negative take on the country and its outlook is “systematically making sure that our people will always be in deficit on the right psychological make-up”. Contrasting the gung-ho nature of the “average” US national with the more subdued character of the Nigerian, she concludes that we may not be able successfully to “disengage this outcome from the rhetoric of Nigerians are bad people and Nigeria is a rotten patch of land”.
As I said earlier, the discussion has been as interesting as it has been disturbing. Interesting because this friend is one of the more detailed of the persons I currently talk to. She is also as interested in the fortunes of the country as I am. Disturbing, yes! Not just because we have reached a different conclusion on the back of the same data set, but because I still find it hard to come to terms with her conclusion. There is that argument that as between “means” and “ends”, the difference is largely one of technical methods and values.
According to this perspective, the ends we agree on are a function of the values we subscribe to. The more fundamental the differences in our value systems, the less the likelihood of an agreement between us on all but the most basic of ends. But once we have agreed ends, the means to their realisation are essentially a technical argument. We want basic health care. The challenge is to build and stock hospitals (as close to the points of need as possible) on a sustainable basis.
So on this disagreement with my friend, I concede that we may still be contesting the legitimacy of the ends we would prefer this country to be pursuing. However, the data set is a technical issue, empirical even. Take this country (as it is today) on the whole, are conditions more good than bad? I have heard boosters (outside government) insist it is better than we have ever had it. (I cannot disagree more vehemently). I have listened to the president argue that our focus on corruption is the result of the inability to tell the difference between “common stealing” and “corruption”. And I have been at investor conferences where speakers have argued that Nigeria is a great place for foreign fund managers to make money.
Yet, poverty stalks our streets, night and day. Transaction costs across sectors are too high. A venal bureaucracy. A thieving law enforcement system. An antediluvian judiciary (this is as much about the age of extant statutes, as it us about the practices of the bar and bench, and the sector’s infrastructure). Governments of different levels of incompetence. All these are facts of life here.
That they are facts of life elsewhere, don’t make them any more acceptable (to me). Nor will denial make them disappear.