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What the world can learn from Nigeria

Last week, while visiting Accra for the first time, I was awestruck at just how amazing the city was; from its beautiful architecture, to the pristine streets...

PHOTO: Jumia Travel

Last week, while visiting Accra for the first time, I was awestruck at just how amazing the city was; from its beautiful architecture, to the pristine streets, orderly traffic and the uninterrupted power supply. I immediately swung into comparison mode as most human beings – but dare I say especially Nigerians, do. As I made these admittedly baseless associations, I remembered a conversation I had with a fellow Guardian Contributor, Minna Salami, who challenged me to write a piece on what the west can learn from Nigeria as an alternative to the daily complaints about what is wrong with Nigeria.

In that moment, I realized the importance of perspective. In our rightful quest to compete on the global scale, we are quick to criticize ourselves, abandon what makes us unique and what makes us great while ignoring the mitigating circumstances. We instead adopt what we accept as universal standards, beliefs, practices and norms in order to gain acceptance into mainstream society. But I’m here to tell you that, although the country appears to be coming apart at the seams, by comparison, we’re not in as terrible shape as we appear to be and there’s still a whole lot the world can learn from Nigeria.

The first and perhaps most important indicator of a society is family. Pearl S. Buck famously said “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” While Nigeria like most western societies struggle with building and securing the safety net for the poor and most vulnerable, it scores high marks for how it reveres its elders.

Across our cultures, when citizens become old, sick or retire, they are surrounded by family and helpers, as opposed to being hauled to nursing homes where they are cared for by strangers. They are respected and thought highly of and their opinions (or wisdom as its often referred to) are given special deference. This doesn’t only apply to elderly folks and retirees, but even in corporate structures. While youth is celebrated in the west, driving people to act and appear younger in fear of being discarded; experience and steady hands are preferred. While the young should be heard and given a prominent seat at the policy and decision-making table (especially given that they make up a disproportionate size of the population), it shouldn’t be to the detriment of the older, more experienced people. I believe the west can learn to value judgement and competence as much as it does energy and effervescence.

As the legend of the “Nigerian Prince” grew to epic proportions, and internet fraud became more rampant, international banks and online merchants alike cowered with archaic fraud resolution systems that left customers without access to their funds for long periods of time, limiting banking services. And even when customers travel overseas, cheques are delayed and interbank online money transfers would sometimes take up 5-10 business days to clear. Nigerian banks however, took on the challenge, creating effective checks like bank tokens to verify online transfers, providing versatile accounts to fit different customer needs, and many banks providing specialized services for small business owners, as well as my personal favourite – instant online transfers between banks. While there are serious challenges in the banking sector, with the recent currency crisis, and the uncertainty around regulations, the banking sector in Nigeria has shown tremendous ingenuity around financial services that the world can certainly learn from.

Of course no story of Nigerian exceptionalism would be complete without Nigerian storytelling. From its robust movie industry otherwise dubbed Nollywood – which is now the biggest movie industry in the world behind Bollywood and Hollywood, to its amazing fictional writers – the legendary Chinua Achebe whose most prominent work, ‘Things Fall Apart’ remains on literary curricular around the world; Nobel Laureate – Wole Soyinka and most recently, Chimamanda Adichie. With iconic musicians like the Late great Fela Anikulapo Kuti whose life and music was portrayed in the long running Broadway show FELA and the real Starboy – Wizkid, the Afrobeat sound is sought and sampled by recording artists around the world.

In the visual art world, the works of artists like JD Ojeikhere and Victor Ehikhamenor have lined the halls of museums from The Metropolitan Museum in New York to Venice. Nigeria has always told its story through its own medium, in its own voice. In the visual and performing art world that has often followed established convention, Nigeria has continued to set its own standards and forced the world to pay attention to it.

This in no way an attempt to gloss over the many challenges that Nigeria faces or the many things that we can and should learn from the world – and there are many, this is simply an attempt at reminding us of why we are exceptional to begin with. Our strength has never been in following international standards but in creating our own, it’s never been in copying and pasting, it’s our ingenuity in adapting convention to fit our culture and character.

The unique experiment that is Nigeria – a country with over 160million people from over 250 ethnic groups in a relatively small landmass, sharing ideas and resources, while negotiating diversity of thought, interests and beliefs in a free society is bound to be chaotic and progress likely slow to come. But our shared values of determination, leadership, eternal optimism, resourcefulness, sheer will, joie de vivre and our commitment to freedom and pursuit of happiness still makes us a model for the world to emulate. So next time you want to compare Nigeria to a foreign country, do that difficult task of exploring the social political make-up of the country and its history and you’ll find we aren’t so bad after all.