There’s a relationship between the quality of a people’s imagination – their dream of themselves – and their material condition. It’s possible to say, show me what and how a people think and I can tell you the state of their lives.
A few years ago, “60 Minutes,” a popular American TV news program that airs on the CBS network, profiled Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates. The program highlighted Dubai’s meteoric rise as a hub of international finance, entertainment, and commerce. Much of the program was devoted to an interview with Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. A former commercial pilot, he’s depicted as a hands-on, energetic, and upbeat man. According to Steve Kroft who anchored the “60 Minutes” report, those closest to the sheikh described him “as a workaholic and always in motion.” During the program, the sheikh was shown walking about, no security detail in sight. When the sheikh’s not walking, said Mr. Kroft, he often drives himself all over Dubai, making frequent stops to inspect construction and other projects.
“What are you trying to do here?” the US journalist asked as the two men sat down. Here’s how the sheikh answered the question: “I want [Dubai] to be Number One – not in the region, but in the world.” The reporter then asked, “What do you mean by Number One?” The sheikh replied, “In everything: higher education, health, housing, just [giving] my people the highest way of living.” The journalist then reminded the sheikh that many other leaders might have chosen to transform their kingdoms within the longer span of a generation, not at the hurried pace and dramatic impetus of a few years, as the sheikh had done. Eyes sharpened, Dubai’s ruler came back: “I want my people to live [a] better life now, to go to the highest schools now, to get good healthcare now – not after twenty years.”
“60 Minutes” profiled some of the aides chosen by the sheikh to supervise critical areas of his transformation agenda. The aides were young, and boasted sound training at some of the best schools in the world. They were also seized by a palpable dynamism and can-do spirit. Even so, they told the American television reporter of moments when they felt that the sheikh’s dreams – his expectations and marching orders – were unrealistic, almost fantastical in scale. Yet, in case after case, challenged by the sheikh’s stubbornness, fueled by his indomitable spirit, chastened by his allergy to the phrase, “it can’t be done,” these young aides he asked to be the drivers of Dubai’s transformation inevitably found ways to achieve goals they once thought impossible.
The story of modern life is replete with narratives of the once extraordinary rendered ordinary. That process starts, always, with big dreams, followed by the painstaking application of human ingenuity to translate the imagined into the realized.
Today, airplanes transport tens of thousands of people each day to different locations around the world. It can be said that air travel has succeeded in shrinking space and time. Yet, at the turn of the 20th century, the very idea of airplanes still seemed to most to be the stuff of myth. In 1900, the notion that airplanes would become a viable means of large-scale transportation of humans and goods would have struck most people as crackpot.
When I arrived in the US in 1988, the Internet was very much in its teething stages. I remember the sense of awe I felt when I visited the office of Barth Nnaji, one of the top professors of industrial engineering who was based then at the University of Massachusetts. I watched, spellbound, as he sent email messages to his colleagues all over the US and abroad – and received fairly instant responses. It all struck me as some form of magic.
Today, the broad mechanics of the Internet has truly changed the world. It’s become an everyday fact of life, giving voice to the once voiceless, bringing people who inhabit different spaces and times into instant communion. As many marvel at this technological force, some of the most enterprising innovators in the world are concerned only with extending its frontiers. Hunkered down in labs, these innovators invest their time and energy day and night to expand the possibilities of the Internet. Thanks to their labors, the technology continues to broker amazing benefits in a variety of areas, including medicine, engineering, espionage, and the creative arts.
Whether one looks at air travel, the Internet or mobile telephony, the story is of the once unimaginable made imaginable and familiar, of once incredible feats achieved and forced to serve an ever-growing number of people around the globe. The lesson: great accomplishments take root in the soil of the imagination. Unless a people imagine more robust lives for themselves, they will never achieve the goal.
Dubai is now one of Nigerians’ favorite destinations. Many Nigerian office holders, among them governors, ministers and local government chairmen, love to travel to Dubai to frolic and shop, as if these pastimes were going out of style. They’re enchanted, these Nigerians, by the glitzy city’s architecture, its shopping centers, and its entertainment arcades. Some of them have used funds stolen from Nigeria to buy homes in some of Dubai’s swanky locations.
It’s doubtful that, in the midst of their shopping spree and heady partying, these Nigerians ever pause to ponder the fact that Dubai is, above all, the product of human imagination. I’d wager that it hardly ever occurs to the Nigerian habitués of Dubai’s shops and hotels that, with imagination and dedication, they could recreate their filthy, desolate country to rival Dubai – as well as the other cities where they love to carouse. For all they care, Dubai and places like it were decreed into being by divinity, not through the conception and effort of men and women like themselves. Incapable of shame or a sense of irony, most who pass for leaders in Nigeria fail to realize that it takes dogged application of the mind to dream a different, elevated condition, and Olympian discipline to transform what is dreamed into reality.
Nigeria’s sorry, saddening state is a direct result of crass, pedestrian thinking. Where the Sheikh of Dubai dares to imagine his city as the best address in the world, in every social index that counts, Nigerian “leaders” dream of out-stealing their predecessors in order to relocate their children permanently out of Nigeria, to afford medical treatment in foreign countries, and to buy mansions in such places as Dubai, the US, Canada, the UK, and South Africa. Where Dubai’s ruler wants the best for his people, and wants it immediately, his Nigerian counterparts want to illicitly amass the most for themselves, for their families and minions, and to do so now.
If “60 Minute’s” Steve Kroft had asked a Nigerian president or governor what he was trying to do, the answer would have been trite and cliché-ridden: “I’m moving the nation (or state) forward.” If the journalist had then followed up with, “What do you mean by ‘moving the nation/state forward?’” the pat answer would have been: “I’m delivering the dividends of democracy.” It’s a feast of empty platitudes and phrases, reflecting the imaginative hollowness of the men and women who resort to them.
Nigeria strikes me as a car in reverse gear, but presuming – in a case of grand delusion – to be headed forward. Dubai’s sheikh seeks out his city’s best and brightest talent. By contrast, Nigeria is a space where mediocrities select their kind for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, primitive accumulation, the sowing of misery and abortion of hope. The late Ken Saro-Wiwa once passed a devastating judgment on Nigerians, describing them as conspicuous consumers of the products of other people’s ideas.
At heart, the Nigerian malaise lies in acceptance of a culture of low – if not no – expectations. The Nigerian president, governors, and law makers are some of the highest paid in the world. For example, each Nigerian governor hauls away enough cash each month (in salary, allowances, bribes and “security votes”) to pay President Barack Obama’s annual salary five to seven times over). Yet, many Nigerians would protest if you insisted that a Nigerian president or governor ought to do more than award contracts for the construction of substandard roads, donate buses to schools, and pay the salaries of civil servants. Nigerians are brought low, and kept wretched, precisely because too many of us are wedded to the idea that greatness is not our portion, that mediocrity is enough, and that excellence is best measured by the accumulation of ill-gotten riches and useless titles.
Okey Ndibe’s new novel, Foreign Gods, Inc. will be published on January 14, 2014. Please follow me on twitter @okeyndibe
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