So I ran around town on a Saturday morning, just after the second day of Id al Fitr, the most important (?) festival in the Muslim calendar, marking as it does the end of Ramadan. And Abuja reminds me of the new parts of Nanning, where I lived more than two years ago: wide, grandiose boulevards empty of cars and nearly devoid of people. Imposing government buildings, with nary a restaurant, hardware store, supermarket or shoe shine stand in sight. Gazing from the fourth-floor window of my room at the Hilton, where I’ve enjoyed room service and a fabulous hexagonal pool for the past two days, I see hills and residential compounds, lush greenery…and no sign of people on the streets. I hope Abuja can get it together. I hope Nigeria can get it together. It’s two years older than me; on October 1 they celebrated their 47th anniversary. For something like half of those years the country was under military dictatorship. This spring it managed the first transition from one civilian government to another, albeit after an election which international observers found utterly flawed.
This country is pivotal to Africa; it’s pivotal to the energy future of much of the world, being the largest exporter of oil in Africa. One in five Africans is Nigerian; but it’s not yet clear to me how many Nigerians identify first as Nigerian, and only second as a member of whatever religion, ethnicity or region they come from. The hope and beauty of the two religious centers that form the heart of Abuja are something I can agree with, whatever my objections to organized religion per se: the entire world will benefit if these and other religions can finally learn to coexist peacefully, within countries and within the world as a whole. It is perhaps fair to say that Nigeria’s first 47 years were a steady erosion of the promise and potential that seemed evident at independence from England. Still and all, there is reason to hope – despite flawed elections, the country has an active civil society, a flourishing press, and pretty good internet communications. It has abundant natural and human resources. I think we should all hope that Nigeria’s next 47 years will be a steady climb back up that ladder of hope and prosperity; that its regions, religions and ethnicities can agree on some core ideals and values that can define a meaningful Nigerian nationhood – and that none of those values will be the current national pastime of graft and corruption; and that the rest of the world will learn to take Nigeria – Africa’s superpower, such as it is – more seriously.