Why Must We Always Under-perform? By Ifeanyi Uddin

Anyone who has ever played a game online from a Nigerian IP address would understand the severe limitations of our domestic internet connections. At the same time, having worked out of places where internet connections are way faster than here, one wonders what the “4G LTE” acronyms regularly deployed by our internet service providers really mean.

I do not speak here of the top of the range platforms favoured by banks and the oil companies, but of the options available at the retail, household end of the market. Although the latter work well for social media activities and emails, I am an avid gamer, and have found few things as frustrating as losing an online football game to an epileptic internet connection.

This vexation persisted until a couple of months back, when I realised that the greater part of my online losses owed to a different dynamic entirely. It was always bewildering, playing one’s heart out, twiddling those thumbs until they got real sore, and then losing by an improbable margin. The magnitude of these losses completely ruled out “competence” as a causal factor. Conversely, I had long removed the relative age of my competition from the explanation. While not as old as I am, the average gamers’ age has trended up globally in the last decade.

These “unknown unknowns” remained imponderable, until I played against an opponent whose internet connection was clearly much slower than mine was. It was helpful to see his/her players literally standing still, while all I had to do was take the ball off their feet and score. Of course, the end scores were an improbable number — in the high double digits. My pre-teen son was persuaded that I had cheated — doubtless, I took full advantage of an “unfair advantage”.

Much later, however, a friend put this experience in proper perspective.

Our poor internet connections speak eloquently to the general domestic infrastructure challenges. As in the game, these handicaps then force domestic economic actors to put in more effort than would their peers elsewhere, just to stay in the same place. Like most Nigerians, I had recognised this fact long ago. But beneath this observation lay a deeper metaphor. For by not attending to our derelict infrastructure, like my online opponent (poorly served by his internet access) we literally stand on one spot, while competitor economies steal our lunch.

The bigger shame in all of this is the illusion that accompanies the hardware and software constraints. For the poor internet connection (as with our failed infrastructure) does not advertise itself as such. At the wrong end of such connections you have no reason to doubt that you are in play. On the other side, though, you look like caught in a time warp. Frozen, opponents run rings round you, and yet the illusion of activity denies one the opportunity to re-think engagement from first principles; and criticisms of one’s competence are met with unusually robust denials, which at the sovereign level show up in charges of a lack of patriotism on the part of domestic critics.

Befitting our national obsession with the “beautiful game”, another footballing experience recently raised a much deeper question. The on-going FIFA World Cup has seen the African contingent put in dismal performances. After so many years of over-promising and under-delivering, I doubt that anyone can seriously claim to know any more, what is par for the African course. Is the continent rising? How fast? In what directions? Driven by? Is this phenomenon, if true, structural (the result of domestic structural reforms with long-term significance), or cyclical (all the result of positive external conditions, including favourable terms of trade, and low long-term interest rates in the United States of America)?

Since flag independence around the late fifties and early sixties, performances across the continent have been two episodic to lend themselves to serious analyses. This in turn, makes it difficult to gauge whether the African performance at the 2014 World Cup has been sub-par or just okay for the course.

It is enough that in most cases our contingent have played like strangers. But in this detail lurks the entire devilry. Given the state of sport infrastructure on the continent, it would have been perverse to have our teams play any better than they have. Few stadiums in the country today are worth that name. In those cases where we have facilities that pass muster, both the necessary people-ware and software are just not there. No coaches. No physiotherapists. No dieticians. No sport doctors. Nothing. Indeed, in those cases where a handful of personnel pretend to these competences, parents/guardians do not trust the system enough any longer to entrust their children and wards to it. Private provision is prohibitively expensive; and with so many basic needs unmet, it is doubtful if resources hurled in this direction and at this point might not be both a mis-allocation and improperly sequenced.

Across the continent, bar South Africa and the Maghreb (plus Egypt), this is the general state of affairs. The South Africans did not make it to the World Cup. And the North Africans have had too much trouble on the political front, not to suffer scars elsewhere. Take these circumstances in, and all the excuses are accounted for — indeed a few scalawags would insist that even South Africa with its impressive resource endowment would not have bucked the trend. So why is the continent still playing poorly?

Now, the answer to this question matters. For in just about every case, the African contingent at the World Cup comprises players who ply their trade abroad — in Europe for the most part. Not just are they therefore playing against their team mates in the other national squads, in their respective club roles “our” footballers (some of whom have never been “home” and can barely recite “their” respective national anthems) play fairly decent football. In a sizeable number of cases, their overall performance levels mean that they are important first team presences.

Put them together under an African flag, though, and the equation changes. Uncompromising defenders turn battle rams, picking up red cards like these are going out of fashion. Fearsome strikers stroll through the ball park as they would the parks around their club sides. And coaches respond to tactical, technical, and procedural issues after an abecedarian style.

All of which leave but one question: What is it about the noun Africa, and its associated registers that predispose us to under-perform?

Mr. Uddin, a monetary theorist, and economic historian, is a member of  the editorial board of Premium Times.


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