By Tunde Leye
It is important we tell ourselves some truths as a nation and remove our rose tinted glasses. And one of the first truths that a people must come to terms with as a nation is that powerful nations act in their own interest over and above any other stated flowery intentions communicated. Some nations are brusque and unabashed with the pursuit of these interests, while some prefer to couch these intents within more lofty sounding narratives, but the endgame is the same. Pragmatic nations that have risen from the doldrums to prominence have realized this, and begin to pursue courses of action that are for their own benefit first, irrespective of what these powerful nations attempt to dictate as their interests. What they do is to play in their areas of strength and then expand to the rest of the world. It is typically the first signs that a nation is rising, not a plethora of government growth statistics.
It is why I wonder what our foreign policy drive is. We invest heavily in bringing peace and stability to other African countries yet we do not position ourselves to benefit the most from the resources there when the peace is won. In fact, in many cases, Nigerians become despised and treated as a pariah in the countries where the peace was won by the shedding plenty of Nigerian blood. It is absurd as a nation to continue to make these investments without deriving much in terms of economic benefits. It is a myopia created by the over dependence on oil revenue, blinding us from the possibilities of economic growth by other means. Westerners and Asians have not exhibited such naiveté, as typified by French, British and Chinese involvement on the African continent and America’s almost negligible direct involvement. The economic gains dictate the foreign policy, and the degree of economic importance is what fuels the degree of involvement, not just altruistic goals to bolster egos as the giants of any realm like we do in Nigeria, pandering to our giant of Africa nonsense.
The interaction of most of the rest of the world with Africa, over history and into the present, starting from the Trans-Saharan Trade with the Arabs, to the Trans-Atlantic Trade with the Europeans has been one of exchanging low end consumable manufactured goods from these places with African natural and human resources that these people use to fuel their own growth.
This is always what the trade between powerful nations and less powerful nations mean. It is the reason why most nations that have clear intent to grow always do two things – first they adopt some protectionist policies towards trade domestically and then explicitly support their merchant class in foreign trade.
The Chinese do this today, the Americans do it, and the British and the Dutch did it in the heydays of their trade empires. The wars the then powerful British fought against the Chinese were called the Opium Wars for a reason.
When the Europeans came to Africa, most of the trade was for extractive primary resources that cannot be replaced, while giving the African elite the tools to subjugate others and extract these resources, and consumables the Africans could not produce themselves. Hence the Africans became totally dependent on the Europeans for means of maintaining their power and the supply of the various inferior finished goods they had become used to. One of the things this influx does is to kill any fledging production as everyone turned to the cheaper trade items for supply. In Samuel Johnson’s seminal book on Yoruba history, he comments that prior to the entrance of the Europeans, iron products were produced extensively in Yoruba land. However, when the Europeans came, they brought loads of finished iron products that were much cheaper but less durable. Another example was about umbrellas. In those days, top chiefs and kings had royal umbrellas which were made by highly skilled artisans using native materials. That was eventually replaced by more colorful but less durable European imported umbrellas, killing such domestic production. Sounds like what the Chinese all over the world are doing today.
Colonialism of Nigeria (and all other colonies for that matter) continued this trend, arranging the area primarily for extracting resources for production in Britain, with cheap finished goods returned as payment for the elite to consume.
Post independence, the situation has not changed much – the only difference is that the destinations of the resources extracted from Nigeria as well as the sources of the finished goods are much more diverse than our former colonial power.
Fortunately, we are not the only ones who have been in this situation in history. The greatest power of today, the USA was set up to be just what we are now, a source of resources for the British. The greatest emerging power of today, China, was also once seen as primarily a resource pool for great powers like the British, the Japanese and then the Russians. But these two have broken out, and we can study to see what they did, and then see how it can be applied to us.
The first thing that happened in both China and America was a break politically and ideologically from the power that dominated them, the British in the case of the Americans and the Russians in the case of the Chinese. In those days, such a break was either bloody or with catastrophic economic effects, but in today’s world, this can be achieved without such bloodshed and a healthy dose of political will from leadership. What such a break does is to ensure that the nation first begins to think of its own interests in its dealings, rather than what such a power would think. It is the culmination of the growth of a clear identity of what it meant to be American as against a British immigrant or what it meant to be a Chinese communist as distinct from a Russian communist. A clear narrative of national identity in a way that the common people can understand it, and which is not aping of a foreign power (their laws, their system of politics and government, etc) is the essential first step – it is what the Ghanaians have that has enabled them begin on a path of growth. It is what the people of Botswana have. You will find it amongst the South Africans. It is such a clear identity that will allow a man to find no contradictions in identifying as from any of the ethnic groups and yet have unflinching loyalty to Nigeria.
For this to happen, the emergence of a group of men, spearheaded by a visible leader who would not attempt to personalize power is essential. This was what Mandela was for the South Africans, what Deng Xiaoping was for the Chinese, what Seretse Khama was for Botswana and what George Washington was for the Americans.
Nkrumah was the man in the Ghanaian case, although he almost bungled it for Ghana when he tried to perpetuate his power, but that is another story. In Nigeria, we are yet to have a crystallization of what it is to be Nigerian, a sense of identity that is powerful and a narration of who we are that echoes from Lagos to Maiduguri, from Sokoto to the Delta. We need men who will rise to craft this narrative and sell it all over the country, led by a figure in the mold of Xiapong, of Khama, Nkrumah, Nyere, Washington and Mandela. This is the starting point, and we will only dillydally until this happens.
(The Second Part of this piece continues next week)
Tunde Leye @tundeleye is a fiction writer. He believes that the stories written form a priceless resource that is the basis of society, all the other arts (film, music, theatre, visual arts) and hence he is committed to telling stories out of Africa that show it as it was, is, and is going to be.