Nation, economy & governance
Nigeria recently overtook South Africa as the largest economy in Africa. With a population of 184+ mn and plentiful natural resources – particularly, oil and gas – that is no surprise. However, most Nigerians I have talked to express their frustration at the pace of development, and point to the endemic corruption as possibly the single biggest deterrent to Nigeria’s ambitions.
I suspect the true pulse of the nation can best be felt in Lagos. Abuja, being focused on public administration, my interactions have been mainly with civil servants. The organs of the nation’s government are an overwhelming presence here. Abuja is not one of the 36 states of Nigeria, but is a federally-administered area.
When I told people about my upcoming Nigeria trip, many wanted to know if I was concerned about the Boko Haram terror group. They appear to be active mainly in the North, though they have struck the capital and points south. The military presence and high levels of private security at workplaces and establishments that I encountered is probably in response to the Boko Haram presence.
As a fledgling democracy that transitioned from a long spell of military rule, Nigeria is a beacon of hope for democracy movements in Africa and the rest of the world. Prognosticators believe the country is poised to raise its stature within Africa and internationally, and lead the way for the next cohort (after BRICS) of emerging economies.
People & languages
Abuja is pretty much at the midpoint of the country. To the North, the majority of the population is ethnically of the Hausa tribe and Muslim. To the South, the two dominant tribes, Igbo and Yoruba, are predominantly Christian. These three tribes have distinct languages, clothing and customs, as have the many other smaller tribes. There are an estimated 500 languages spoken in Nigeria. Through a gentleman’s agreement, the Presidency of Nigeria alternates between a Muslim and a Christian. I see many similarities with the nation of my birth, India – multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, many religions. Religion runs deep in the fabric of Nigerian society – as evidenced by the number of churches and billboards for pastors, and the near-complete observation of fasting by the Muslim population during the month of Ramadan.
Everyone speaks English – so communication was no problem at all. I heard a few phrases that reminded me of Indian English – such as the use of “like that, like that” to mean “et cetera” and the query “you understand?” after someone had explained something to you. A few phrases stood out as distinctively Nigerian – such as asking someone in the morning “how was your night?” and saying “you are welcome” not as a response to “thank you”, but to mean “welcome to my home/office”.
I asked my Nigerian colleagues how they identified the ethnic backgrounds of other Nigerians – their answers included “from their clothing”, “from their English accent” and “from their names”. I guess the markers of identity are universal.
Women here dress colorfully! At our work meetings with the various FCTA departments, I saw a multitude of brightly colored dresses and matching hair wraps.
Rocking the agbada, at a wedding
Ugo, the receptionist at our hotel, confident in his multicolored dashiki
Mercy & Gbenga – hotel staff members
Fashion shoot at our hotel lobby. They begged me to pose – I declined. Maria’s photo-bombing
Men measure up quite well to the women in terms of color of their outfits and style. Traditional outfits (agbada) are very common in office settings. Riotously colorful dashiki-style tops are everywhere; I was inspired to try a few on, but came to the conclusion that I sorely lacked the panache to carry it off.
Nigerian cuisine has a variety of soups and stews with meat, fish or veggies in it. Jollof rice is a matter of national pride and of good-natured rivalry between Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria as to who makes the best version. Yam seems to be the other popular starch – pounded yam, which you roll up into small balls and dip into your soup, showed up on several restaurant menus.
Our experiences with food in Abuja has been a mixed bag – some great meals mixed in with some not-so-memorable ones. In a previous edition, I’d reported on the memorable grilled whole fish “joint” at the Mogadishu barracks. I had good pizza and pasta at Secret Garden, nice Nigerian / South Indian food at Masala Wahala, seafood stew at Argungu (Jabi Lake Mall) and a couple of good lunches at the newly-opened Cafeteria at the Grand Square Mall. The places I didn’t care about either had super slow service (I am looking at you, Hilton poolside!) and/or poorly cooked or mind-numbingly spicy food. Though I haven’t had an upset tummy to date, some of my teammates have, despite sticking to the precautions around drinking bottled water and avoiding dodgy street-food stalls.
Soups at a Nigerian restaurant
Quite a few Indian and Lebanese restaurants here, and many restaurants feature a few Lebanese or Indian items on the menu – which must be an indicator of the makeup of the immigrant population here. As a pescatarian / part-time vegetarian, I have had no lack of menu choices. I found it curious that among the “US mega-chain restaurants”, only KFC and Johnny Rockets seemed to have a presence here – no Subway or McD. Not that we went looking for them…
Writers & Music
I am ashamed to confess that before heading to Abuja, the sum total of my experience reading works by Nigerian authors was zero. On my flight in, I’d looked up prominent Nigerian writers, and Chinua Achebe figured pretty much at the head of the list. I am happy to report now that I have finished reading Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” – which also happens to be my reintroduction to fiction after many years. I found the work powerfully moving – the way he describes Igbo tribal life in the village and the portends of doom for a way of life that loom with the arrival of the British missionaries and colonial poobahs.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Right now, I am tackling “Half of a Yellow Sun”, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who’s been in the limelight of late as the voice of a new generation of Nigerians and at the vanguard of a new crop of talented African writers. Very promising start.
Realistically, I doubt whether I will have the time while I’m here to dip into the other greats of Nigerian literature like Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri or Buchi Emecheta –but they’ve been added to my reading list.
Music on the radio seems mostly hip-hop influenced. I don’t know where the Fela Kutis of today are hiding. An Uber driver played some modern Hausa music – heavily auto-tuned. From my sampling of music played by the drivers over about a dozen Uber rides, reggae seemed to have a widespread following here.
Fela Kuti, Afrobeat pioneer
Nigeria produces loads of movies – though they don’t seem to have much of an audience outside the country. Indian movies and music came up in a few discussions – our driver Nasiru told me he loved “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam” and “Kal Ho Na Ho” (!!!) and I saw employees at an FCTA office watching Hindi songs on a TV that apparently stayed permanently tuned into Zee TV, a Bollywood/Hindi channel.
Football (soccer) is king here – of the ten TV channels at the hotel, two are dedicated to EPL / La Liga / Bundesliga games. The newspaper sports pages cover the Nigerian National Team (Super Eagles) and the action in European leagues and the Nigerian league. Over the past two weeks, I read a bit of coverage on track and field, tennis and basketball – but I can safely say that 80% of the sports page column-inches are dedicated to football.
In a highly unscientific poll, I posed the question “who is the greatest sportsman produced by Nigeria” – and got nothing close to an unanimous answer. My assumption going in was Hakeem Olajuwon would be it, hands down. But the NBA is not popular here – so Hakeem doesn’t seem to be getting the recognition he deserves. Jay Jay Okocha figured in a couple of responses. But I sense there is no single sportsman/woman who occupies the national psyche, like I imagine Emil Zatopek does for the Czechs or Sir Viv Richards for the Antiguans.
Jay Jay Okocha