The following conversation – or something very close to this – took place on the way from Lambert airport a few days ago. In the car were three of us: An American professor/director of international programs, a Nigerian professor of technology visiting our campus (and the United States) for the first time on a MacArthur Foundations scholarship, and me. What united us was our interest in Nigeria. All of us had lived there at one point in our lives and are connected strongly to her in some way or another.
“When was the last time you went home, K?” the new Nigerian asked.
“I was just there in the summer,” I replied. “That was just a few months ago.”
“Nice. Do you plan to come home sometime?”
“Yes, of course. As soon as I’m done with whatever I have to do here. But it is also important that I have something concrete to do over there. I wasn’t very impressed with the situation before I left.”
“Oh no,” He said. “Things have really improved. The new president is really doing things.”
“He is? That’s interesting, because all I’ve heard these days are very unflattering things. Bombs, do-or-die politics, and campaigning with convicts.”
“No. He is really doing things. Electricity has really improved. Even education. He is bringing professors from here (the US) back home to help shore things up. We will need all hands on deck when you are done. You should come back home.”
Here the American professor contributes. He is impressed by the news of progress. I remained skeptical.
“I’m surprised that all you hear are the good news,” I said. “I’ve followed the situation in Nigeria closely and I do not think that Goodluck stands any chance in the next election except for the power of incumbency. I have not seen or heard any thing about progress. I do know that last week when one convicted member of his party was released from prison, his presence was conspicuously felt – along with the ex-president – at a church service thrown to welcome him back. It was a celebration of corruption if you ask me.”
“Oh no. He is a smart man.” The guest replies again. “All those corrupt people are close to him now because they are afraid of what he will do to them when he wins the election. He is a strategist. Don’t believe all you read.”
“I don’t really care for smart men but smart institutions, or things would never change.”
The conversation went on for the stretch of the forty-five minutes it took to drive from the airport back to school. I was lost in contemplation of what could be the cause of a stark difference between what I read from ordinary commentators, citizen journalist, academics like this new Nigerian, and real pundits online about the state of my country. I have not been impressed with the Goodluck charm as I probably should have been, and have been known to show a certain interst in the prospects of ex-Military ruler Buhari and his vice Bakare, for some strange reason. For one more reason, some of my otherwise smart friends have taken to volunteering for his campaign organization. How could this have been?
Being stuck here means that even if I want to, I can’t cast a vote. All I have is an opinion, and a chance to scoff at faux optimisms. It is very possible that our guest was saying all he could to paint the country in the best of lights, especially because of the presence of an American. It is highly unlikely, I thought, for things to be all good and rosy without there being a way for outsiders to see it from this distance. From where I stand, the current president is just as much a savvy politician with love for his hold on the position as everyone else. How that translates to progress for the country, I have not yet seen. But then, we still get to have elections.
In then end, I return to my couch skepticism. It is not like changing our leaders will make our lives miraculously better. It at least provides a way to spend otherwise idle time, and a chance to have a say in how the process turns out.