‘How to be a Nigerian’ was first published in the 1960s as a series of columns in the Daily Times. It became a bestselling book that was re-published in 1996. Almost six decades later, Enahoro’s brilliant satirical enquiry into identity, nationalism and inventiveness is still the definitive guide.
How to be a Nigerian, you must learn the lesson that nothing is ever fair, that indeed anything is possible, and you may have to pay your way through life by offering and taking bribe to facilitate many of life’s processes. Babies are switched at birth in Nigeria and offered for sale; to leave the hospital with the right baby, and not fall victim of cradle-snatchers, you may have to pay the nurses a little ‘something’ to guarantee their loyalty. Or better still you may have to patronise an expensive hospital where reputation is still important.
Death is equally expensive in this country. Mortuaries and cemeteries are raided for spare parts by ritualists and their agents. To ensure that your beloved reaches the gates of Heaven or Hell, without a missing ear, tongue or genitalia, you have to pay the mortuary and cemetery attendants to have mercy on the dead from your household. Being alive in Nigeria is worse.
Every activity involving life and movement has to be facilitated with cash. It is not for nothing that Nigeria is the second most corrupt country in the world. This is not a country of saints.
If you insist that you will not offer bribe, then you face a long life of frustration. You will never be able to get anything done. In Nigeria, parents pay a special fee to get their children into schools from nursery to the university. If you are a Nigerian parent, you may also discover that teachers need to be bribed before your child can pass examinations.
To be a Nigerian truly, you must realise that official rules and regulations serve very little purpose. The meaning of the law depends on the man in charge of a particular office at a particular time. Positions and uniforms are to be respected by all means. Policemen, customs and immigration officials live on bribe. Local government officials expect you to grease their palms.
To bend the law, you must pay a token fee, and once you do so, you are offered a special salute by the policeman on the highway or the immigrations officer at the border and allowed to do exactly as you wish. Thus, to be a Nigerian, you must learn to beat the system.
The law can be bought. Justice is available for the highest bidder. The man who is loaded with more cash than sense is king. If you can flaunt wealth, your contemporaries will worship the very ground on which you walk. Just get rich by any means and as quickly as possible. Nobody will dare question the source of the wealth. With money, you can buy the protection of the state.
The high and the low will queue up at your doorstep to pay homage; what they really want is their own share of your loot. Traditional rulers will offer you chieftaincy titles. The state will offer you national honours. Women will throw themselves at your feet. And not just any woman, but the most beautiful ones who used to be beyond your reach.
Newspapers will name you among the most fashionable men in society. A rich man is always fashionable. I have never heard of a poor man being labelled the best-dressed Nigerian. To be a Nigerian, you must be loud with your wealth and accomplishments. Even if you are poor, you must carry on with life with a certain swagger. Don’t ever forget that you are a Nigerian; your country is the sixth largest producer of crude oil in the world, the most populous black nation on earth, and the home of the happiest people in the universe.
Indeed, to be a Nigerian, you must be an optimist. This is the only way to survive in a country where there is so much distance between government and the people in the form of widespread poverty, incompetence in high places, and established disregard for the rights of citizens.
The roads are bad, electricity supply is epileptic, salaries are not paid on time, there is food scarcity, and the scarcity as well of the basic necessities of life, but you must learn to take everything in your stride. To be a Nigerian, you must see even death, any death at all, in a positive light. You live in a country where accidents are common and death is cheap.
In the midst of it all, you must learn to be joyous. Every weekend, attend a party, wear the best clothes in your wardrobe, and tell yourself that the biggest achievement that any man can be proud of is to remain alive. It doesn’t matter if you are trapped in squalor. If you are lucky to have some means, then you are truly lucky.
You can throw parties everyday if you wish. You can even dictate the kind of women you want at the parties and the kind of clothes that they must wear. You would be surprised that there are many women, including housewives, who are ready to appear half-naked just to be seen among the happening crowd in society. If you are rich, then you can create your own government inside Nigeria by providing your own basic amenities, and using the state to rob the poor.
If you are lucky enough to have a small business of your own with employees working under you, then you do not have to pay salaries. Nobody is going to arrest you for failing to pay your own workers. If the workers are not happy, they are free to go. But because they are Nigerians, they are not likely to resign en masse.
They too will find a way. They will steal from your company. They will use company time to do business on the side. One day, try and investigate your workers, the same ones who are complaining about salaries and poor conditions of service. You will be surprised that this is the only country in which a messenger who has not been paid for six months lives in a mansion of his own. Your managers have houses abroad. Your directors have their children in foreign schools. And you begin to wonder whether indeed a Nigerian labourer deserves his wages.
To remain sane as a Nigerian, you must be religious. And you must advertise your piety. Sleep in the church. Proclaim your religiosity from the rooftops. Mention God’s name in every conversation. In a land where there is so much madness, religion offers you the only opportunity to cling on to a measure of holiness. It is the only way to remind yourself that you are human after all, and that there is something that you still believe in.
There are too many forces compelling you to disbelieve the very existence of God: you will see highly placed persons who are no better than scoundrels; wives of important persons who are no better than cheap prostitutes; men and women of power who are sexual perverts; fraudsters and common criminals who are nevertheless accorded the respect that they do not deserve; children who have sold their souls to devil; young girls who are in the hands of men who are old enough to be their fathers; and housewives who should be in Hell. To be a Nigerian, you can only look at all these and take your troubled soul to God.
If you are unable to cope, perhaps you might consider the option of exile. There are many Nigerians abroad eking out a living as economic refugees. Unable to cope with the many disasters of life in the country of their birth, they have fled to other countries where there is less stress and shock.
To be a Nigerian, you must ordinarily learn to live with shock. This is a country where anything can happen. Public buildings go up in flames routinely. Bombs can explode anyhow in busy neighbourhoods, claiming lives and property, and even government officials join the people to express frustration and anxiety.
This is a country where the police run away from criminals. It is a country where criminals consider themselves gentlemen and are so treated in many ways. Politicians are not interested in public service; they want access to the public treasury so they can steal a part of the national cake.
To be a Nigerian, you must learn to relate to the National Anthem as if it were a disco tune. I have heard versions of the national anthem which belong more to the hip-hop genre. The average Nigerian considers the anthem a joke. There is a musician who has even worked out a remix version of the song, and it is played regularly in disco halls.
To be a Nigerian, you must take life as one long joke. Don’t bother about patriotism. You will be better served by ethnic affiliations. If you feel you are not getting your due in certain circumstances, allege that you are being discriminated against on ethnic grounds. Link up with persons of your own tribe, and get them to push advantages in your direction. It doesn’t matter whether you are qualified or not. This is not a country where merit counts for much. Sycophants, mediocre persons and hypocrites stand a better chance of getting up the ladder than a man of talent.
They know what to say in the right places. They are experts at blackmailing competitive and able rivals. For such persons, life itself is about politics, and they are prepared to push down anyone who stands in their way.
To be a Nigerian, you must always remember this: you are in the midst of Sharks. Every other Nigerian has a small dagger in his pocket, hoping to draw blood. Get your own dagger! Be on your guard. And may the Lord be with you.
“How to be a Nigerian”.