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The Nigerian exodus: How a country chased away its premier artists

Onyeka Nwelue , a novelist and poet who has lived in both Nigeria and India, writes about how cultural pessimism, poor infrastructure and an all-round lack of opportunities forced some of the best-known Nigerian artists to migrate. India would do well to learn a lesson from this story.

Onyeka Nwelue  5th Jul 2014

Chimamanda Adichie (L); Jude Dibia

hat happens when a country renders itself inimical to creativity? Creativity flees its shores with the swiftness of a dream fading away in morning light. This is what has happened in Nigeria. There is no electricity, so the writers cannot write. There are no good roads, so musicians cannot transport state-of-the-art musical equipment across state borders. The average Nigerian does not appreciate good, lyrically astute music; they prefer club-bangers with little or no lyrical content. Therefore good musicians are exporting themselves and their craft to European and American countries where they will be appreciated. Sculptors and painters are suffering from lack of patronisation. They are asked, "So you want to feed your wife and three kids with just painting?" on a daily basis, and are generally so frustrated that their creativity starts to erode. Weighty examples abound.

Nigerian author Jude Dibia, whose first novel Walking with Shadows, is about a homosexual man who marries a woman and lives in fear with his wife and daughter, once said: "Nigeria is sending away all her cultural stars." When asked if he would relocate, he feels he is responsible for a lot of people right now. If things get harder, he might relocate.

There is Seun Kuti. He's the son of Afro-beat legend Fela Kuti, and an amazing musician in his own right. His smash hit IMF has generated considerable buzz in the European music community. He is always worried about the situation of the country. He worries that some Nigerians may never have the tasteful experiences that make living worthwhile, because a huge majority of the people are manacled by poverty. Every time he is in Nigeria, he's either leading a protest against the execrable government or promoting his music. Sadly, however, despite the sizeable traction he has gained in Europe, Seun Kuti is not a huge star in Nigeria. His concerts all over the world attract thousands of people, but last time he had one in Lagos, at the African Shrine, there were not even 50 people and they were scattered scantily in the large hall like randomly dispersed seeds. The depressing turnout scarred him irredeemably. He's currently travelling round the world promoting his new album. A popular adage goes, "A prophet has no honour in his land." Nigerians have refused to notice Seun Kuti's music.

It is unarguable that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the finest writers in the world at the moment. If she lived in Nigeria, she may not have had electricity to write, she may not have had an agent who believed in her and pitched her to the best publishing houses in the world. Nnedi Okoroafor is another renowned Nigerian writer, and her novel Akata Witch received worldwide acclaim. Chimamanda and Nnedi fled to a land where opportunities abound, where their writings would be appreciated, where no one would ask them, "You mean you are just a writer and nothing else?"

It has become evident that the most influential Nigerian writers at the moment do not live in Nigeria. Writers in Nigeria are mostly a starving lot. Nigerians do not buy books anymore, they rarely turn up for book signings, and they look down on writing as a craft without reward. Some Nigerian writers who have extensively examined the situation have suddenly become realistic, concluding that patriotism isn't about dying in penury. They find the cheapest available flight tickets and leave, never to come back, even if the country burns.

Maybe if she lived in Nigeria, Asa’s family and friends would have convinced her that music is not a woman’s business, that she should get a degree, find herself a loving husband and birth herself some nice kids.

sa is an exceedingly talented songstress whose albums have received worldwide critical acclaim and financial success. Her music only started gaining notice in Nigeria after she won several awards in Europe. Even now, she isn't as big a star in Nigeria as she is in France. Maybe if she lived in Nigeria, her family and friends would have convinced her that music is not a woman's business, that she should get a degree, find herself a loving husband and birth herself some nice kids. That is how Nigerians think. They discourage one another because they want everybody to be comfortable with mediocrity; nobody should be allowed to rise above the status quo. Asa lives in Paris; she is not moving to Nigeria anytime soon.

On the streets of Amsterdam, New York, Berlin, London, Brussels and other huge, artistic cities, live Nigerian cultural stars. They have left Nigeria and return as tourists, lodging in hotels for weeks and desperately waiting to leave Nigeria immediately. It is no one's fault that they have left. Some pundits think they are stupid, that they can't stay and fix the society. But why should they stay, when those who have tried to stay end up depressed?

Everything is different in Nigeria. The transportation system in Lagos, Nigeria's most developed state, is shambolic at best and disastrous at worst. Yellow buses, popularly known as Danfo, line the roads, operating without bus stops. They rarely stop, even to drop passengers; the best one can get is that they slow down a little so the passenger can jump down. A person wanting to enter the bus usually has to sprint lightly beside the slowly moving bus, grip one edge of the open door, and pull himself into the bus; all of this while the bus is in motion! The railway network only exists in tourism videos and government websites. Compare this to efficient metro system in Marseille, France, and it becomes clear why Nigeria is intolerable for returning artists. Also, people have a different mentality. Once someone deviates from the "Go to School – Get a Job – Get a Family" model, he is seen as a delusional fool who is certain to fail and is discouraged at every turn. How is one supposed to make art under such conditions?

The Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, is a beacon of hope in the sad situation that is Nigerian arts and culture. However, there is still an inherent inferiority complex that has crippled its growth. Nigerians do not wholeheartedly support Nollywood, insisting that it will always remain inferior to Hollywood. Kunle Afolayan, prominent Nigerian filmmaker, responsible for huge box office successes like Figurine and Phone Swap, has spoken of how Nigeria has made it very difficult for him to continue to make good movies, and that he may have to relocate. This is how Nigeria chases away its gems.

The Nigerian government and the Nigerian people need to start taking these developments a little more seriously so that Nigeria can reap the full, immeasurable rewards of the stars of tomorrow. The time for change is now.

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