Nigeria: Fulfilling our lost promise

The exhibition of sculptures from Ife at the British Museum is a tribute to Nigeria's past glory, when the country led the world in artistic achievement. The appetite for this glory has been strong, and the show has been extended for a month. But back home, things do not seem so positive. I have just returned from Lagos, where I saw an old friend who had been a brilliant artist in the 90s, eager to unleash his ambitious projects on the world. He is still ambitious, still brilliant, but he has become practical. These days he is chasing contracts in Abuja, too exhausted to even think of himself as an artist, much less practise his art.

Not long after this encounter, at a writers' Q&A, one of the first questions we got from the audience was how much money a child who chose a career in writing could expect to make. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to make a living from writing, this question pointed out a fundamental flaw in the Nigeria of today, where every career choice is preceded by the question: Does it bring in money? We are making prostitutes of our artists, of our creative minds. Our scientists have fallen prey to the brain drain, lured by better offers from the west.

Mismanagement of the oil boom revenue of the 1970s, when Nigeria had the 33rd highest per capita income in the world, led to a disastrous decline in the economy. By 1988, Nigeria was so debt-ridden that it was forced to take out an IMF loan. The result was the removal of all social subsidies. Fees were introduced in schools, and many students from poor families dropped out. Health was privatised, making it affordable only for the rich. Public services like telecommunications and electricity were also privatised.

Much-touted support for science was not backed by resources. In my undergraduate years, computer science 101 was a compulsory course. We sat our exams without ever having seen a computer. The lecturer came to class, drew a computer on the board, and showed us, by means of his illustration, what the basic components were. Over the last 50 years poverty in the country has reached an all-time high of 87%. It no surprise that people like my friend have to sacrifice passion for daily bread.

In a society where the pursuit of money takes precedence over everything, one can expect a decline in culture and in the quality of cultural production. Regrettably, this is going on. People are reading, but it's a different sort of literature: self-help books published mainly by evangelical pastors eager to win souls over to the gospel of prosperity. There is art on the street, but it is splashes of paint on trucks and buses, outsized drawings (usually religious, with a blonde Jesus). There is nothing of the grandeur and quality of Ife art in it.

Perhaps this is too pessimistic. I was witness in Nigeria to the collective sense of hope in a people who, like the phoenix, keep rising from the ashes. There is a renaissance in Nigerian literature, helped by the recent successes of Nigerian writers abroad. There is a huge collective pride in the new wave of Nigerian music that has followings across Africa. And there is Nollywood, which despite its faults, has its share of brilliant directors and actors who have found a popular outlet to showcase their talents, conquering the continent.

And there is the resilience of the ordinary Nigerian, who remains unbowed, who still thinks of Nigeria as the giant of Africa, even when a sick president disappears for 52 days only to turn up when he is at death's door, and sectarian violence consumes the once calm city of Jos. All these make me optimistic Nigeria will rise to fulfil the promise it showed at independence 50 years ago. My only wish is to be a witness to that fulfilment.

Chika Unigwe, an Afro-Belgian writer of Nigerian origin.