Of Birds and a Country

When it comes to youth football, no country matches Nigeria. After beating Mexico last night in the semi-finals of the U-17 world cup in Chile, the Golden Eaglets are on the brink of extending their lead over Brazil as holders of the most titles at that level, only Mali stand in their way.

In many ways, the story of Nigeria’s success at youth level and the failure to translate that into advancing beyond the second round at the senior World Cup is a telling reflection of the country’s failure to achieve its own undoubted potential. Back in 1985, Nigeria won the first junior grade world cup hosted by China, a feat repeated in Japan in 1993, Korea in 2007 and the UAE in 2013. Win in Chile this weekend and that makes it a historic quintuplet.

Look deeper though, and the story is a little bit different. If the goal of youth football is producing players that can step up to the real deal, Nigeria is far less successful. Only the team of 1997, with Kanu, Wilson Oruma and Celestine Babayaro could be truly considered successful, winning many individual trophies and forming the base of Nigeria’s successful Atlanta Olympics gold medal winning football team. Beyond that team, Victor Ikpeba is probably the only other player that went on to achieve some measure of his potential. More often that not, the tale is that of the missing talents of Osondu and Opabumi, players whose rapid rise was matched by an equally precipitous descent. Victims of avaricious agents, the vicissitudes of life and promise squandered.

This ability to to fashion hope and failure in equal measure seems an almost inescapable part of being Nigeria. Striding confidently from the shadow of colonial domination, the country seemed on a path to become Africa’s leader, its power house, a Moses to lead the continent into a better future. That promise was squandered, squabbling over ethnic and religious differences which led to a brutal civil war, the scabs of which still tear open from time to time.

Recently, it has become fashionable to once again refer to Nigeria as the Giant of Africa less in jest and more with a certain pride that is the hallmark of any true Nigerian. Africa Rising has replaced the Dark Continent as the one dimensional prism through which the continent is perceived, where growing populations were once seen as a beast to be tamed, it is now the vehicle that will propel the continent to global greatness. By some estimates, in less than a century, only China and India, continents by any measure, will have more people than Nigeria. The same statistical foundations also suggest that Nigeria will be one of the economies, based on assumptions of productivity based economic growth. Adherents of market liberalism point to Nigeria’s deus ex machina appearance as Africa’s largest economy last year as proof that this manifest destiny is cast in stone. But just like our football team, look deeper and the picture isn't that pretty.

While GDP based measures are certainly a useful tool, they are only one way to measure development. By all other indicators that actually measure human development rather than simply gross accumulation, Nigeria under-performs against other African countries quite significantly. From the Mo Ibrahim Index which measures governance to the Social Progress Index to UNDP’s Human Development Indicators, Nigeria scores less than most of its neighbours and less than many conflict and war-torn countries. Focusing on GDP as our sole measure of success is like a Doctor who simply measures the weight of his patients as an indicator of health without thought to the composition and quality of bone, muscle and fat. What is even more worrying is the increasing income inequality that Nigeria’s narrow growth has produced, wealth concentrated at the top and poverty increasing despite a growing economy.

The symptoms, to return to our medical metaphor, of this failed social contract are hard to ignore in Nigeria. The most obvious are violence and corruption, signals of the state’s inability to hold a monopoly on coercive mechanisms and enforce its own laws. Even in everyday interactions, from the guy who refuses to obey traffic lights and laws to the civil servant who thinks it is perfectly reasonable to not turn up to work for several months and still get paid, this cancer of impunity and disregard for law and order go deep. As a people, Nigerians are fond of pointing the finger at leaders and blaming them for all that ails the country, but the politicians and briefcase businessmen did not emerge in a vacum, they are simply a product of the environment that created, nurtured and rewarded them for behaviour that almost anywhere else would result in immediate incarceration. We have created and promoted a system of incentives which penalise lawful behaviour and reward so-called ‘sharp practices’, the grifters and chancers that operate at the very edge of what is legal and are quite comfortable jumping the border.

However, once again we have a final to face. We have hope that Victor Osimhen and his swashbuckling team will demolish the imposter Eagles of Mali. We have hope that Kelechi Ihenacho will become our own Lionel Messi, we believe that Taiwo Awoniyi will one day win a real Golden Boot at the World Cup. For it is in our nature to believe the future will be better even when the evidence say’s otherwise.

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