Friday, January 22, 2021 10:50 am
By Chris Anyokwu
Sometime in the 1980s at the height of the Structural Adjustment Programme-induced economic hardship, Nigerians, old and young, used to be regaled with a television skit, more of a cautionary tale than a comedic diversion, about Andrew. Who was Andrew? I will tell you. He was a young man, sick and tired of the combined throes of material poverty, youth unemployment, infrastructure decay, galloping inflation, and mass immiseration. He took his backpack containing his worldly goods and decided to “check out” of the country to seek greener pastures abroad. Friends and family implored and remonstrated with him in equal measure, all in a bid to dissuade him from emigrating overseas. All to no avail. All the pleas fell on deaf ears.
And Andrew departed the shores of “our own dear native land”. Andrew’s saga was made more remarkable given the fact that, a few years earlier, Nigeria, justly celebrated then as the Giant of Africa, was awash with fabulous wealth. Such, to be sure, was her stupendous riches that the country instituted the emolument bonanza known as the Udoji Bonanza. It was a golden era to be a Nigerian worker, what with the “quantitative leasing”, the oceanic liquidity in which everyone swam, purchasing whatever took their fancy – bicycle, vesper motorcycle, a car [Lada or Cytreone] and even a house. Or a second or third wife, to boot. The Nigerian worker was, indeed, swanky and swashbuckling at the time. And why not, when cash was king?
And s/he had a lot of it in his/her pocket. General Yakubu Gowon, a former Nigerian Head of State, was reputed to have boasted to the world to the effect that money was NOT Nigeria’s problem but how to spend it was. Gowon, the dashing be-your-brother’s-keeper-kind-of-leader even went as far as underwriting the foreign debts of another country, I think a Caribbean-Island nation, if my memory serves me right. What’s more, Nigeria was swimming in oil-and-gas or petrol-dollar wealth. It was the period of oil boom. As a matter of fact, she successfully organised the famous Festival of Black Arts and Culture, i.e., FESTAC ’77 during which event she hosted the entire Black world. She also built the iconic National Theatre complex at Iganmu in Lagos. Moreover, the beautiful road infrastructure we see in Lagos today was a product of oil wealth judiciously spent. So many other projects including airports, railways, university campuses, government buildings, stadia, and conurbations, were executed before the years of the locusts, the emergent breed of civilian and military rulers alike. But much in the same manner of the Biblical Prodigal Son who took his inheritance beforehand and squandered it in riotous living and scraped through on swine food, Nigeria equally squandered her commonwealth on frivolities, leading a dissolute existence with conspicuous consumption, instant gratification and associated profligacies.
The country’s landscape was littered with white elephant projects abandoned to desuetude, with no consequence whatsoever. Workers, contractors, supervisory agencies, etc, etc., all disappeared into thin air, leaving the uncompleted projects ungainly, a visual monstrosity. As if this anomalous state of affairs wasn’t enough, the country was bedevilled by an abominably high cost of governance with an army of political jobbers and freeloaders; a privileged class of hangers-on living large in sinecure slothfulness. Additionally, we had a series of coups and countercoups aided and abetted by our chronically kleptomaniac political elite. Accordingly, both our military despots in power and their civilian counterparts managed to institutionalise and sanctify political corruption, thus making it a permanent feature of our political culture.
When locusts descend on a field of deciduous vegetation, what do you expect in their wake? Plenty or privation? Biblical and millennial misery, with lots of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, of course! Small wonder, then, the erstwhile Big Brother of Africa, the Giant extraordinaire overnight became the poor man of the Global South, flitting from London to Paris, bowl-in-hand, begging alms for survival. No more the groundnut pyramids of the North, the gigantic mountains of cocoa of the Southwest; the rubber produce of the Midwest or the palm oil and coal of the Southeast. More than ever before, Nigeria as a mono-cultural economy depended almost completely on crude revenue for survival. And, like a one-man congregant, she preached and continues to preach the remedial virtues of diversification without as much as lifting a finger to practise her own homily.
Once again, like the Prodigal Son who subsisted on rejects, Nigeria had to approach international lenders, such as the London and Paris Club for loans, with, as they say, stringent conditionalities. These Breton-Wood institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank slammed on the koboless country horrendous and frightening socio-economic measures aimed at staunching the haemorrhage and keeping the system afloat. Belt-tightening measures which included the devaluation of the national currency, the Naira, the downsizing of the workforce thus unleashing massive unemployment. This mass purge in the public sector had precipitated untold economic hardships for Nigerian citizens. Crime soared. And happiness disappeared. Uncertainty. Insecurity. Hopelessness and disillusionment took centre stage in the beleaguered country. We witnessed as a direct consequence the scourge of Brain-Drain as the best and brightest “Andrewed”! It was, truly, a sad moment of our nation’s history as competent, highly-skilled professionals in the public sector, the organised labour, the academia, the civil service, etc, left the country in droves for pastures anew overseas. Whilst all of this was happening, the press and the military junta were at daggers-drawn, caught in a deadly game of who-will-blink-first!
The military tin-gods made draconian decrees aimed at shrinking both the civic and radical space and turning the populace into zombies a la Fela. Thus the fear of arbitrary arrest, detention without trial or fair hearing and summary execution was the beginning of wisdom in Nigeria at the time. Nigerians became pariahs in their land as home became exile and vice versa. Then: enter the Andrew Syndrome, unforgettably played by veteran Nollywood actor, Enebeli Enebuwa. The short interchange goes thus: “Andrew! Andrew! Where are you going?” He replies: “I am checking out of this country, mehn!” “Andrew” was the organising trope, the central metaphor for the incidence of Brain Drain, the exodus to overseas of Nigeria’s First Eleven in all spheres of life. This unfortunate saga was not necessarily the onset of the Black Diaspora but a signal and conjunctural moment in the cementing and consolidation of the Black dispersal as witness by our displaced kith and kin in far-flung reaches of the earth – the United Kingdom, Europe, USA, Asia (notably Singapore, Malaysia, China, Japan and India) and, on the African continent, Ghana and South Africa. The stream of the ‘80s has widened and expanded into a Gangetic sea today. Pay a visit to any of our passport offices here in Lagos – Ikoyi, Ikeja or Festac Town – you would think you have mistakenly wandered into a soccer stadium.
Such humongous multitudes, glum-faced Nigerian citizens, waiting like condemned criminals on death-row, waiting days on end to get their passports. Ditto for visa centres and embassies, airports and so forth. This is the reason why the American Green Card and the Canadian Immigration programmes are hugely popular with Nigerians. It doesn’t matter what indignity or humiliation Nigerians suffer abroad, they are prepared to rough it out and ride out the storm and come out smelling like a rose! The point is, anywhere, but Nigeria! With Nigeria today being a roiling and boiling cauldron, there’s hardly any Nigerian in their right senses who does not fancy the idea of “checking out”. Even our elderly and aged citizens. A bit of earthly enjoyment before the uncertainty of the hereafter. This is the common morality. So, we are ALL Andrews now! Today, our dear country is unrecognisably exilic, choking the living daylight out of everyone, regardless of rank, ethnicity, gender or class.
Now, pray, where is Andrew? It’s been decades since he took leave of us. Where is he now and how is he faring by the rivers of Babylon? Andrew is extremely busy doing shifts on menial jobs whose descriptions range from the barely polite to the unprintable; hustling in the bitter winter cold in order to remit hard currency home to abject relatives who are whiling their time away in quiet, empty poverty. The Nigerian economy is afloat today, thanks in large part to remittances from our compassionate kin in diaspora. Nigerians old and young, sick and healthy, educated and illiterate, depend on Andrew in the family for basic and bare necessities – school fees, medical bills, house rent, building projects, bride-price, court charges, feeding and routine expenses. Thus, without an Andrew in your family, you are hopeless, a living dead. As stated above, we are all potential Andrews. A nation of Andrews. Let America build her walls. Let Europe, Asia and our African brothers swell with xenophobia. We cannot be deterred. We are coming.
Chris Anyokwu, PhD.
Associate Professor of English,
University of Lagos.