Nigeria at 50: Evaluating Africa’s Most Promising and Frustrating Colossus

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On October 1, Nigeria will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence from Great Britain. While this milestone will be largely ignored here in the United States. It shouldn't be.

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Nigerian Americans are the most educated ethnic group in the United States.

Most Americans know very little about Nigeria, and that which they do know is extraordinarily negative. Nigeria is viewed as a nation with a breathtakingly corrupt government, intractable violence in its oil producing region, and as the source of the email scams that clog countless inboxes each and every day. Nigeria’s most damaging label, that of burgeoning terrorist haven, was sadly affixed last Christmas Day when a young Nigerian who was radicalized in the Middle East attempted to blow up a plane over Detroit.

While Nigeria’s miserable reputation has mostly been well-earned, the country’s critical importance to the United States still cannot and should not be ignored. Nigeria is by far the most populous nation in Africa. One out of every five Africans is a Nigerian. The country is Sub-Saharan Africa’s most prodigious oil producer and the fourth-largest exporter to the U.S. Those who denounce Nigeria as a haven for angry Islamic terrorists fail to realize how highly the country regards America. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2010 Global Attitudes Survey, 81% of Nigerians have a favorable view of the U.S. The only two countries ahead of Nigeria on survey are Kenya (94%), the homeland of President Obama’s father, and the United States itself (85%). Nigeria has been recognized by the United Nations not for exporting terrorists, but peacekeepers. The country is the fourth-largest contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping missions around the world. Nigeria played an indispensible role in ending brutal civil wars in Liberia and the Sierra Leone, and soldiers from the country constitute the majority of the African Union’s peacekeeping forces in Darfur.

Just as the importance of Nigeria is often overlooked and underappreciated, so to is the positive impact of Nigerians living in America. Nigerians are the largest African immigrant group in the U.S. They are the largest group of black professionals in the country and have the highest levels of education in the nation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey, 17% of all Nigerians in United States hold master's degrees, 4% have doctorates, and 37% have bachelor's degrees. By comparison, 8% of whites have master's degrees, 1% hold doctorates, and 19% have bachelor's degrees. Nigerian Americans have made their mark in all aspects of American life, including sports, where they have led teams to NCAA titles, NBA championships and Super Bowl victories. Several are among the highest-paid athletes in their respective leagues.

While Nigerians have flourished in America, our native land has suffered bitterly. In the fifty years since independence, the country has endured a devastating civil war, multiple military coups, sporadic eruptions of deadly religious and ethnic-based violence and repressive regimes which wrecked the country’s economy and trampled on basic political and human rights. According to the World Bank, 85% of Nigeria’s oil revenues accrue to a mere 1% of the population, and approximately $300 billion of that revenue has been stolen over the last forty years by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Nigeria is home to the third-largest number of poor people in the world. Approximately one million – one million – Nigerian children under the age of five die each year, most from preventable causes. Nigeria also has the second highest number of maternal deaths annually, behind only India. Every ten minutes, at least one Nigerian woman dies in childbirth.

Nigerians flourishing in the U.S. have not been indifferent to this suffering. Armed with degrees from schools like Harvard, Princeton and Yale, they are returning home in droves to reform government agencies, start successful businesses and build up the country’s infrastructure. After I graduated from Stanford Law School in 2007, I declined several lucrative corporate law offers in order to help my father build a world-class hospital in his home state in eastern Nigeria. Through this work, I have been continually inspired by the ferocious desire of young Nigerian Americans to help transform our parents’ homeland.

For the past fifty years, Nigeria has failed as a nation while its people have achieved stunning success outside of its borders. If the country is to achieve political stability and increased economic growth, Nigerians living both inside and outside of the country must dedicate themselves heart and soul to the country’s development. With such commitment, and with the sustained support and engagement of American philanthropists and the U.S. government, Nigeria can fulfill its immeasurable potential and become, at last, a nation worthy of its amazing people.

Nigerians think very highly of the United States. As the country begins its second half-century of freedom and opportunity, it is my fierce hope that Americans will one day regard Africa’s Colossus with the same admiration and respect.

Afam Onyema is Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of The GEANCO Foundation, which develops medical, educational and athletic facilities in Nigeria.

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