What Kenya can learn from Nigeria’s mistakes

Thursday January 17 2013


In his book, Hellow Africa, veteran journalist Kofi Osei says that it is always painful to look at Nigeria, for it requires a tremendous effort not to knock it.

Osei paints a sad picture of Nigeria — the colossus with huge opportunity but also with feet of clay — a prototype of many African countries including Kenya.

He writes, “From the moment you land in Lagos — the hot, squat, throbbing, bruising, sweaty, rancid, festering, sleazy, noisy, merciless, human- and traffic-jammed commercial capital of the West African mega-nation — you’re drawn into a brooding sense of a place, where your life could be snuffed out with a single misstep... Lagos, or the embodiment of Nigeria, is a place where fiction, whatever its intensity and outlandishness, can’t keep pace with reality.

"Rare is the first-time visitor who leaves Nigeria without an encounter with a con artist sporting an angelic smile, a hijacker, a well-dressed crazed motorist wielding his posh car like a guided missile, or a drunken gun-toting agent of one of the many forces of law and order… This permanent state of threat to visitors and residents alike, known as the ‘Nigerian condition,’ has a fond acronym: Niwa. Nigeria won again.”

Things shouldn’t be this bad in Nigeria. How did Nigeria manage to do this badly?

In his newest book, tinged with nostalgia, There Was a Country, Chinua Achebe goes down memory lane as he recounts the long, treacherous road Nigeria has followed since Independence – and he is candid to the point of pain.


In 1960, when Nigeria gained its Independence from British rule, it was a giant on the runway — with a large population, many educated people and many natural resources including oil (Nigeria has some of the largest deposits of oil in the world, more than many oil-rich Middle Eastern countries that have zoomed past it).

However, the giant plane that is Nigeria never took off from the runway. Instead, it disintegrated into bits and pieces; now it doesn’t even look like anything that can fly.

As Chimamanda Adichie wrote recently, before Nigerian Independence, the small Western-educated group of people “would form the core of the nationalist movement in the 1950s, agitating for Independence.

They tried to establish the idea of ‘nation’ and ‘tribe’ as binary, in opposition to each other, a strategy they believed was important for the exercise of nation-building. But the politicisation of ethnicity had already gone too far… After Independence a vicious regional power struggle ensued. The ‘fear of domination’ of one region by another was everywhere.

That’s the major mistake that Nigeria committed, the over-politicisation of ethnicity, made worse by the estimated 250 ethnic groups and more than 500 languages. This created a factitious, turbulent country; sharply and violently divided along regional, religious and other lines.

This is a mistake that Kenya has also committed; sometimes our ethnic political interests swallow our national interests. This is a dangerous path that almost brought Nigeria to complete ruin.

In the book, There Was a Country, Achebe recalls the “war between brothers,” otherwise known as the Biafran War that almost destroyed Nigeria.

The war left a million people dead and many towns and much property completely destroyed. It claimed many intellectuals on the Biafran side and Achebe almost lost his life too.

One of the writers who died in the Biafran War was the revered poet, Christopher Okigbo. Achebe recalls the death of Okigbo in There Was a Country. He says he was driving at the time when he heard the announcement on his car radio and poignantly pulled up at the roadside.

His pen bleeds, “The open parkland around Nachi stretched away in all directions. Other cars came and passed. Had no one else heard the terrible news?”

Kenya should learn from Nigeria and avoid fanning ethnic flames and fear of domination by this or that tribe. After the contentious elections of 2007, Kenya almost went to hell. That should not happen again for we are all Kenyans — the winners and the losers alike.

There Was a Country is a book every Kenyan should read to learn from the mistakes that Nigeria committed in her attempt to have a unified country.

The book is partly memoirs and partly a story about Nigeria – it will delight us as we look into the life of one of Africa’s most prominent sons and one of Africa’s biggest countries — the colossus with the feet of clay.

We could glean a lesson or two on nationhood – what we deeply need as we take off the runway after 50 years of Independence.

The writer is the CEO of Phoenix Publishers.
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