The Habit Of Underdevelopment

We were young. I was eighteen and my nineteen course mates were mostly in their mid-twenties. We were in 300 Level. We were lucky. We were going to Togo as the last set of French undergraduates in Nigeria to travel to that country for the year abroad programme. None of us had ever ventured beyond the shores of Nigeria. Our juniors in 200 Level were sulking. The following year, they would head out to the Nigerian French Language Village in Badagry as the pioneer set of that new institution. Those who studied French before our generation wouldn't consider us lucky. They went to France for the year abroad. As the locust years came upon Nigeria in the early 1980s, the Nigerian government quietly signed agreements with institutions in Togo and Niger Republic. Northern Universities went to Niger. The south went to Togo. Even that proved too expensive with time, hence the decision to cancel the year abroad after my set.http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9705/23/mobutu/togo.lome.jpg

We had swag. Don't mind me. I am trying to use the dialect of young Nigerians on Facebook. My friend, Ikhide Ikheloa, says we must constantly play catch-up with that generation in our essays. I guess swag means swagger. Our swag devolved from a certain sociology of superiority that defined Nigerian-ness in relation to the rest of Africa. It wasn't just that geographical size, resources, and population meshed in the imaginary of the rulers and the elite and gave them a conceited image of Nigeria as the giant and big brother of Africa, an image that trickled down from a mediocre rulership to a sheepish followership, it was also about optics, about what you saw in "the practice of everyday life" (apologies to Michel de Certeau) in Nigeria in the 1980s.

Africa was ubiquitous in the Nigeria of the 1980s. You did not go to Africa. Africa came to you. The rest of Africa came to your feet as a subaltern in your everyday interactions. Africa came to your feet, literally and metaphorically, in the form of that roving Ghanaian shoe maker (sobata) who sat at your feet and fortified your new shoes by threading the soles or polished your old shoes; Africa came to you in the form of the house boy or house girl from Cotonou; Africa came to you in the form of the family driver from Lomé; Africa came to you in the form of the Bozo maiguard from Niger Republic; Africa came to you in the form of the occasional washman from Mali, Senegal, Gambia or Sierra Leone. You evolved in a national atmospherics of menial jobs performed by nationals of other African countries.

That was not all. There were the students. Undergraduates from South Africa found refuge in Nigerian Universities. They enjoyed the much-vaunted African hospitality because the South African struggle was also ours. Olusegun Obasanjo had even assured them that Nigeria would invade South Africa with African juju and Yoruba ogun abenugongo to drive out Pieter Botha. Most of them were on Nigerian scholarships. We were still two decades away from a future that would have their xenophobic younger brothers and sisters look scornfully at Nigerians in the streets of Johannesburg or Pretoria and call them makwerekwere. There were students from Cameroon all over Nigerian Universities. You got a sense that they came because there weren't enough Universities in Paul Biya's fief and that kinda played into your sense of being the big brother.

These were the spectres of alterity that defined Africa in Nigeria's popular imagination. Nigeria was always going to be the superior mansion with uncountable rooms open to less privileged nationals of other African countries: "those small small countries", as we say in Nigeria. Those countries were prepared to go wherever Nigeria went. Thumbing their noses at Nigeria (Ghana dares to intimidate Nigerian businesses today) would come later after we missed the train to the 21st century. For instance, when we withdrew from the Commonwealth games to protest Margaret Thatcher's love nwantintin with Apartheid, the rest of the continent lined up respectfully behind Nigeria.

Given this background, it was easy to imagine our triumphalist arrival in Lomé in 1989. Our swag gave the impression of a bunch of Nigerian undergraduates who felt that they were doing Togo a favour by going to that small country. That's how Nigeria had socialised us to relate to the rest of Africa. There was a national mirror that constantly asked you to look not at your own reflection but at the rest of Africa genuflecting at your feet. Gnassingbé Eyadéma's Togo was going to show us the real mirror for the first time in our lives.

The trouble with underdevelopment is that it is always packaged in the hardware language of the social sciences, UN expats, NGOs, and actors in the Mercy Industrial Complex who reach out to hearts and pockets in the West via OXFAM, Bono, Madonna, Jeffrey Sachs, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, and Save the Children in order to deliver mosquito nets, dig wells, or supply UNICEF-assisted wooden slates to children going to school under trees, their distended bellies and fly-infested running noses always capable of winning the next Pulitzer Prize for Photography. No one pays attention to the software reality of underdevelopment as habit, culture, and psychology.

If old habits die hard, underdevelopment as habit does not even have death in its dictionary. It sticks to your skin like the beard of a Taliban Mullah and becomes an insidious practice of everyday life irrespective of your location. As psychology, underdevelopment farms a mental universe of perpetual self-actuation and puts a wedge between you and the sentient reality around you. Thus, it took almost three to four days after our arrival in Lomé before we realised for the first time that whatever their version of NEPA was hadn't "taken light" since we arrived. So conditioned were we by the habit of underdevelopment that we just settled in the villa d'accueil (university guest house) in downtown Lomé and lived the reality of Nigeria's constant power failures in our heads, totally oblivious to the reality on the ground.

I believe it was Tunde Ajibade, our class rep, who first noticed the alarming oddity of constant, uninterrupted electricity: "E gbo na, o ma dabi pe won ti muna lo lati jeta?" And the rest of us mocked him and commented on his endless capacity to come up with outlandish stories: "Tunde you don come again o. How dem no go dey take light? Where you see dat one before?" Some of us offered: "maybe dem dey take light for night when we dey sleep". Citizens of the giant of Africa were encountering development for the first time in their lives and their cognitive capacities just couldn't handle it – they were prisoners of the habit of underdevelopment.

By the end of the first week, we had to gba kamu and accept the fact that constant electricity was taken for granted in Togo. This affected our socialization into development. The authorities of the Université du Bénin (now Université de Lomé) had moved us into students' hostels on campus (I would find out years later that student accommodation in France was not too superior to the facilities in Lomé). We were beginning to make Togolese friends – exploring the whole range of undergraduate life with them in spaces of intellection and socialization on and off campus. That meant we had vocabularies of underdevelopment for which we had to find equivalents in French to carry the weight of our Nigerian world.

Consider the expression for the idea of power interruption in French – panne d'életricité. If you tried to explain the idea of the Nigerian power failure to your new Togolese friend and you said panne d'életricité, what came up in his mind was either a bulb suddenly snapping out of life and you replaced it or the extremely unusual situation of a mechanical fault in some central power station and you would have been warned weeks ahead of the scheduled maintenance shut down. That's what panne d'életricité covered in the semantic world of the Togolese. So we explained and explained and explained the Nigerian version of things, the frown on the faces of our Togolese friends a testament to their inability to grasp our Nigerian version of underdevelopment.

One other feature of the habit of underdevelopment is that your vocabulary is always superfluous because you need more words to carry the weight of experiences unknown to civilized humanity. For an entire year in Togo, we had a baggage of redundant Nigerian words and expressions: half current, power rationing, lantern, generators, etc. The move from underdevelopment to development also meant that we had to cope with translocations in meaning. Take something as simple as candles. Apart from the spiritual value of candles in aladura churches in Nigeria, they are first and foremost part of the instrumental world of power failure. In Togo, we had to transfer candles to the exclusive context of Catholic church rituals and candlelit dinners. You did not stock up on candles because you expected the electricity company to "take light".

It also took some time before we noticed the constant water supply. The day we moved to University residence, one of us, Michael Ogunlana, had immediately gone to the Grand Marché, Lomé's central market, to buy two plastic jerry cans for water storage. When he came back, the rest of us scolded him for not reminding us of that vital necessity and we all rushed to the market to buy plastic jerry cans and buckets. Well, we spent an entire year in Lomé and hot and cold water never stopped gushing out of the taps. Our Togolese friends on campus laughed heartily when we told them why we had bought those containers!

Such was the gap in basic public service delivery between Togo and Nigeria that we had had to shed the last shred of our illusion of being the giant of Africa by the end of the first month of our one-year sojourn. It was humiliating. The Yoruba would say "a fi itiju karun." At the end of our programme, we returned to Nigeria as humbled emissaries of the rest of Africa to our compatriots. We returned to a country where folks who had never stepped out of their underdevelopment were too far gone in the socialization that had them speak condescendingly about "those small small African countries" in beer parlour banter, never mind that they could be drinking beer chilled with ice block, the table littered with candles and kerosene lanterns because the beer parlour had not had light in three days.

And we would try to tell them that the people they were talking about in those "small small African countries" were beyond power and water failure. And they would dismiss us in that Nigerian spirit of never tolerating the idea of our being second to any country in Africa: "Ol'boy leave matter jare. Una own too much sef. Small time una go say Lomé na London." That is what makes Nigeria tick. Even the burukutu or paraga drinker in Lagos feels superior to the cabernet sauvignon drinker in Nairobi. Years later, as predestination would make me crisscross close to thirty African countries as a cultural scholar, I developed a private development index by trying to determine in my own unscientific way which of the following even the poorest citizens of any African country I was visiting could take for granted: (1) electricity, (2) pipe-borne water, (3) health services, (4) roads, (5) security.

Needless to say, in all my travels in Africa, the self-styled giant of Africa still presents the only situation where citizens, rich and poor, cannot take at least one of the five items above for granted. Our report card is a flat zero in all five. This colossal failure perhaps explains why our habit of underdevelopment has even begun to spin a subculture that is so peculiarly Nigerian: the nostalgia for disorder. I have an upper class Nigerian friend who has visited me once in the US and once in Canada. He is going to kill me when he reads this. He is one of those Nigerians who can afford frequent trips to Euro-America. I have never known him to spend more than two weeks outside of Nigeria. He is always itching to return home. The last time he visited me in Ottawa, I asked him why he was always in such a rush to go back to Nigeria.

His answer is how I first came by my tentative theory of nostalgia for disorder as an aspect of our habit of underdevelopment. Pius, he answered calmly over beer and peppersoup, when we wake up tomorrow, we can be sure that there will be light and water. We can be sure that the traffic lights will be working. If you have appointments, you can be sure that folks will be there on time. That is too much order and predictability for me. I'd die of boredom living in a place like this. I can never imagine life without the permanent drama of Nigeria's unpredictability. Your brain has to be on duty 24/7 in Nigeria. You go to sleep calculating the following day like a game of chess or even Russian roulette and the dynamics may have changed by the time you wake up. That's life. Nigeria is where the action is.

Since the habit of underdevelopment requires an endless rush of adrenaline into the system as you negotiate the quotidian in Nigeria, it may very well be life as my friend had stated enthusiastically but it also freezes Nigeria in time. Look at it this way: twenty-one years after twenty Nigerian undergraduates were humbled by their experience of infrastructure and public service delivery in Togo, it still took two Federal ministers, the Speaker of the Federal House of Representathieves, a state governor, and his commissioners to go and commission a third-rate flyover bridge in Ogun state recently. And those comical characters put up a national show of shame to boot.

Because they are all corrupt members of the rulership who travel wastefully all the time to developed countries – the corrupt governor is said to be in China as I write, the Speaker trained in Britain – why would they all waste the Nigerian tax payer's time by going to commission an ordinary flyover bridge in the 21st century despite all they see during their foreign trips that should convince them that the said bridge is a tragic sign of our backwardness? The answer is simple: it's the habit of underdevelopment. It's in the blood.