This was the question that the wife of my American friend asked me when she and her husband came to pick me up from the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on August 12. What did I miss about America while in Nigeria? Hmm.
Now, how do you answer that kind of question? Where do you begin? Should you tell the truth and expose your country—and probably yourself—to well-deserved derision? Or should you simply be mealy-mouthed, skirt around the truth, and say some nice but insincere and extravagant pleasantries like “Oh, I missed my amiable friends and colleagues and, of course, my teaching and research activities”?
I don’t expect anyone who has never been deterritorialized from Nigeria for a sustained period to appreciate this false, self-imposed and, frankly, pointless dilemma that I grappled with. You see, one of the tragedies of exilic (or diasporan) condition is the irritating narcissism it breeds in people who experience it. I once characterized this phenomenon as the narcissism of transnational citizenship.
This is how it works: In the privacy of our Nigerian company (both at home and abroad, offline and online) we say the unkindest things (most of it, sadly, warranted) about our country but pretend that all is well when we are in the company of non-Nigerians. We shield our country from critical searchlight before non-Nigerians not necessarily because we are patriotic; we do so often for self-indulgent, self-serving and egotistic reasons: if Nigeria is portrayed in a bad light in our countries of (temporary) residence, we fear that the bad light might also reflect badly on us and thereby injure our overblown but fragile egos.
On this day, I decided to liberate myself from this self-imposed mental prison. I told the truth about what I missed about America. And that truth wasn’t friendly to Nigeria. The first thing I told my friends was that I missed the order and relative predictability of life in America.
I told them I missed the steady, uninterrupted electricity in their country. During the three months that I stayed in Nigeria, I lived without electricity from the national grid for the most part. If we had electricity for six straight ours we would always chant, “NEPA don try today o!” (I can’t help calling it NEPA even though it has changed its name to PHCN).
But it was not just the exasperating inconstancy of electricity that gnawed at me; it was also its unpredictability. And this had an unbearably disruptive effect on life. I often rushed to iron my clothes each time it pleased PHCN to bring electricity because I couldn’t tell when they would take it. I always had to leave everything else I was doing. We have a generator at home, like most people in Nigeria, but there is only so much it can do. Plus, given my environmental consciousness, I was often sensitive to the environmental pollution and danger to human health that generator fumes pose, and this sensitivity often dissuaded me from using our generator as often as other people did.
The real tragedy, for me, is that smaller and poorer countries like Benin Republic enjoy steadier electricity than Nigeria. When I visited Benin Republic about a week before I returned to Atlanta, I noticed that there were no power cuts there. I asked one of my uncles when was the last time he experienced power cuts. It took him about a minute to remember. “Over a year ago, I think,” he said. “They seized the light for two hours to do some repairs.” And this was preceded, he said, by an announcement in the radio and in the local television.
There can’t be any doubt that Nigeria has the worst electricity problem in the whole wide world. Now, how do you “rebrand” that fact, Mrs. Akunyili?
So I told my American friends that I missed the regularity of power supply in their country. “Is it really that bad in Nigeria?” my friend’s wife asked. It is actually worse than that, I said. She was puzzled. Even Aso Rock, the Nigerian equivalent of the White House, suffered an embarrassing power cut during a Federal Executive Council meeting while I was in Nigeria. And this was in spite of the billions of naira that the president has budgeted this year to buy generators not only for Aso Rock but for Nigerian embassies in such countries as America, the UK, Germany, etc where electricity is as constant as the Northern Star! How more hopeless can our situation get?
Of course, nobody who hears this fails to question the mental and cognitive state of Nigerian leaders. A genuinely concerned and angry African American friend once asked me, in a fit of frustration, if congenital idiocy is the precondition for ascension to leadership in Nigeria. Perhaps it is. Or how else do you explain the quality of leadership we have had and continue to have in Nigeria at all levels? How do you explain the fact that Nigeria is one of the world’s top 10 largest oil producers yet imports refined fuel from the West and suffers periodic bouts of crippling fuel scarcity?