A Nigerian's Bittersweet Homecoming

by Kehinde Togun

This summer, I visited Nigeria for the first time since moving to the United States at 11 years old.

On a personal and developmental level, the experience was amazing. I had not seen my sister and most of my relatives since I left. I relished the time spent reacquainting myself with loved ones and took the time to visit all of the places where I had spent most of my childhood. It was quite the homecoming.

Although I was on vacation and I focused my attention on family and friends, I could not help but observe the many differences, and a few similarities, between what I found and what I had left behind a decade earlier. It has been a few months since I returned to the U.S., but a few things are still prominent in my mind: electrical power failures; an untrained and corrupt police force; and HIV.

Electricity was a running joke when I left Nigeria in 1995. Blackouts occurred at all times of the day and night. Many citizens had no recourse but to laugh at the perceived incompetence of the National Electric Power Authority. My first night back in Nigeria, as I was preparing to take a shower, the power went out. My cynical laugh soon turned into a series of questions about how this had not changed in 11 years.

In the course of my stay, I learned that the power authority had changed its name to thePower Holding Company of Nigeria and the government was supposedly investing millions of naira (the Nigerian currency) into reinventing this parastatal. It was apparent to me that night, and for the duration of my stay, that little progress had been made. I visited several different cities during my month in Nigeria and all of them had similar electricity problems. Most frustrating about these blackouts was the fact that Nigeria actually generates enough electricity, but suffers from poor planning and inefficient allocation of energy. In two decades, those in power still have not learned how to effectively distribute energy to the nation’s 120 million citizens.

As impatient as I became with power outages, I was even more frustrated while driving around in Nigeria. Every major street and every highway was filled with police officers who had strategically stationed themselves. While some years ago, their purpose would have been to prevent criminal activity, this was no longer the case. They positioned themselves in the middle of roads, arbitrarily stopping vehicles in order to collect bribes. Any vehicle being used for commercial or business purposes was stopped, as was any vehicle that looked fairly new. These officers had mastered the art of profiling.

On one occasion, while driving with my father in a pick-up truck, a vehicle recognized as commercial, I decided to count how many times we would be stopped by Nigerian police officers. We were pulled over nine times in the two-hour drive from Ibadan to Ogbomoso. Each time, two or three young officers would ask my father if he had brought any gifts (money) for them. Fortunately, after stopping us and realizing that my father was a state employee driving a vehicle issued by the state, the police would let us go. Other commercial drivers were not so lucky. I witnessed many occasions of officers pocketing naira bills. Even though I was frustrated with this process, I was even more disturbed by its root cause. In reality, these young officers were out harassing common citizens because as civil servants their salaries were inadequate and they did not get paid regularly. Many of the people I spoke with said the government had announced a crackdown on police corruption, but they had yet to see the results.

Although I found myself troubled by the lack of progress on these two fronts, I was encouraged that some aspects of Nigerian society had indeed progressed. In every city I traveled to non-governmental organizations were actively engaged in the battle against HIV. Of course, these organizations varied in size and capacity. In Ibadan, I visited three organizations that received grant funding from Western donors and had programs to prevent the spread of the virus. A number of the organizations I visited focused on education, testing, and treatment, as well as trying to pressure the Nigerian and local governments to play a more active role in addressing the spread of HIV.

Leaders of these organizations were concerned that despite outreach efforts, fear of stigmatization and lack of knowledge about programs prevented a majority of the people they were trying to serve from receiving treatment. Many people in the community, for example, did not know that University College Hospital, the teaching hospital in Ibadan, offered free anti-retroviral drugs to those infected with HIV, explained an outreach worker at Network on Ethic, Human Rights, Law, HIV/AIDS Prevention, Support and Care.

While the NGO community has made a lot of progress, many of the leaders of these organizations are dissatisfied with the government, which they claim has not yet begun to address the virus as a major crisis. According to the UNAIDS 2006 Report on the global AIDS epidemic, although Nigeria’s HIV prevalence rates are low compared to some African nations, the 2.9 million Nigerians living with HIV/AIDS represents the third highest aggregate in the world, behind India and South Africa, because of its large population.

Looking back on my visit to Nigeria, I have mixed feelings. It is obvious that some progress has been made. However, the issues discussed above continue to be a hindrance to development. The country looked ripe for investment and I heard rumblings about people with capital starting a variety of ventures. However, many venture capitalists are deterred by the huge operating costs: running a business requires the entrepreneur to not only take the typical costs into consideration, but also to be able to purchase a generator to prevent power failures and have enough money to pay off government officials. Until the Nigerian government makes it a priority to stamp out corruption at all levels, the country and her citizens will continue to suffer. The government also has to address the high number of HIV infections with a comprehensive strategy, before it reaches pandemic proportions, as it has in many parts of the continent already.

Email Kehinde Togun at kat39@georgetown.edu

 

 

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