Nigeria: Swagger, Conceit and Reality Check



This piece was inspired by the transcript of a speech given by Princeton Nathan Lyman, former US Ambassador to Nigeria (1986–89) and South Africa (1992–95) at Chinua Achebe Colloquium at Brown University in December 2009. The speech was entitled, “The Nigerian State and U.S. Strategic Interests.” Though the speech was delivered more than seven years ago, it now trends on the Internet. In fact the Daily Trust published it on September 9 2016.

Why is Ambassador Lyman’s speech suddenly being discovered (or rediscovered) by some Nigerian media? In this piece, I will expatiate on the key points made by the Ambassador and interrogate some of them.

One remarkable thing about the speech by Ambassador Lyman is that it was devoid of political correctness, yet delivered in such a manner that it will not offend. In fact the mode of delivery reminds one of that aphorism by the American humourist and writer Caskie Stinnet who famously said that a diplomat is “a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip.” Ambassador Lyman proffered some home truths that will serve as reality checks to our sense of entitlement as Nigerians.  Are we really as important to the world as we believe? Are we really too big or too strategic to fail as a country as we like to think?  

Lyman’s thesis is that the bases for Nigerians’ arrogant conceit and sense of entitlement cannot stand empirical interrogation. He argued that our delusion of our strategic importance to the world prevents us from posing the right questions such as what we should do to make us more relevant to the world. The key points of Lyman’s arguments could be summarized and interrogated as follows:

One, Nigeria boasts of its big population, often reminding anyone who cares to listen that one in every five Black People in the world is a Nigerian. Lyman’s counter narrative is that China, with a population of about 1.36 billion (or 80 times the population of Nigeria) does not measure its importance to the world by emphasising that one in every four or so Asian is Chinese or that it indeed accounts for over 18 per cent of the world population. For Lyman, “Chinese power comes not just for the fact that it has a lot of people but [that] it has harnessed the entrepreneurial talent and economic capacity and all the other talents of China to make her a major economic force and political force.”

Was Ambassador Lyman arguing that size does not matter? I do not think so. Most of the countries that are significant players in world affairs have sizeable populations so population does matter. A huge population where the per capita income is high provides a big market – an incentive for investors.  The same however may not apply to populous poor countries with poor infrastructures. For instance tiny Denmark, with a population of 5.7 million people and GDP per capita of $58098.29 (as of December 2015) will be considered a bigger market than Nigeria which has an estimated population of 170 million people and a GDP per capita $2548.20 (as of December 2015). It will also be considered more important by several investors because of the purchasing power of its citizens, its advanced infrastructures, ease of doing business, legal regimes etc. than almost all African countries. Yet its population is only a fraction of the population of several of the ethnic groups that make up Nigeria.  In essence while population is important, it is on its own insufficient to give us that swagger and sense of entitlement we crave.

Two, another common cause of swagger among Nigerians pointed out by Lyman is that the country is a major oil producer – the largest producer in Africa (though it was briefly overtaken by Angola).  Nigerians often feel that they are so strategic to the world that they cannot be ignored or cannot be allowed to fail.  Lyman reminds  Nigerians that several African countries are now also oil producers and that with America discovering huge gas reserves (and recently shale oil), being an oil producer cannot be a sole basis for defining any country’s greatness or strategic importance.

Three, Nigerians often talk proudly about their contributions to global peacekeeping and in fact to the promotion of peace in Africa. Lyman acknowledges this, but then argues that a nation’s relevance and greatness is measured by the current leverages such a nation brings to the table, not on past glories and endeavours for, as the rude Nigerian ‘bus conductor’ would say, “I get am before no be property”.  Lyman counsels that rather than massaging our egos on what we did in the past, the relevant questions should be”: What kind of influence do we currently command in Africa and in the continental organisation, the African Union? What is our current relevance in Africa’s geopolitics and why? Why was Nigeria not visited by Obama during his Africa tours? Why was Nigeria not the dominant negotiator in trying to get Jammeh to step aside as the President of The Gambia after he lost an election?  The point of Ambassador Lyman’s argument here is that we should come to terms with the reality that while there are many Nigerians that have continued to excel in different endeavours in life, as a country, we are not doing that great.  

Four, Lyman also believes that Nigerians seem to be obsessed with fighting corruption or believing that what it requires to develop is simply to find a saint who will lead the country. He had a different take on the impact of corruption on a country.  As he put it:

“I served in South Korea in the middle of the 1960s and it was time when South Korea was poor and considered hopeless, but it was becoming to turn around, later to become to every person's amazement then the eleventh largest economy in the world.

“And I remember the economist in my mission saying, you know it did not bother him that the leading elites in the government of South Korea were taking 15 - 20 per cent off the top of every project, as long as every project was a good one, and that was the difference. The leadership at the time was determined to solve the fundamental economic issues of South Korea economy and turn its economy around.

“It has not happened in Nigeria today. You don't need saints. It needs leaders who say ‘You know we could be becoming irrelevant, and we got to do something about it.’” 

The point from the above is that while it is right to abhor corruption, we must move away from the simplistic notion that corruption is the bane of the society and pose more nuanced questions such as why corruption appears not to have facilitated –or at least not undermined - development as happened in countries like South Korea, India and Singapore.

Overall Ambassador Lyman’s speech was a wake-up call. But it must also be mentioned that the Ambassador forgot or failed to highlight that there have been periods in our history when the country demonstrated real evidence of greatness. For instance   in 2005, before Ambassador Lyman’s speech, Nigeria was included in the Next Eleven economies (also known as the N-11). The N-11 are  eleven countries – Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey, South Korea, and Vietnam – identified by Jim O’Neill in a research paper on December 12 2005 as having a high potential of becoming, along with the BRICs, the world’s largest economies in the 21st  century. Again in 2014, Nigeria was included in the MINT emerging economies. MINT is a neologism referring to the economies of Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey, which were expected to become breakout economies in this century. Though most Nigerians did not feel it, we were told during that period that the country’s annual GDP growth rate averaged over six per cent. We suddenly became an investment destination.  To add to the wave of ‘Naija-optimism’, Filipino billionaire, Enrique Razon, was quoted as declaring during the closing activities at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2014 that Nigeria was the best place to invest in the world that year.  The ‘Naija optimism’ was further fuelled by the ‘hurrah effect’ of being told that our economy had overtaken South Africa’s as the largest in the continent following a rebasing of the country’s GDP.

The point is that Ambassador Lyman has given us some useful reality checks – though he failed or forgot to acknowledge  that the country sometimes demonstrates evidence of real greatness, which it somehow has difficulty sustaining.