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250,000 acres of pain

‘Yes, my dear young man, the country has now been stolen by soldiers who are only bandits in camouflage tunics, and all they are doing is dismembering the country and stealing anything that could be stolen, and hiding them away in America, England, and all those other rich countries in the world who have conspired to purchase Nigeria at a discount . And where is this taking the common man like me and you? No job, my friend. We don’t have a job for you. Many of our workers have been idle for months and have not been paid for as long as they have been idle because we are owed huge money by government which we all know is now run by robbers. And until we are paid we cannot also pay our people’s salaries and soon we will have to let them go and finally shut our gates.’
That was how the one-sided conversation had gone and been concluded, and how any hope has been dismissed from Femi Falashe’s mind by the finality of those grim words . The response at all of the other places that he had visited hadn’t been any more cheerful.

How did Nigeria’s economy get so bad? It may be summed up in two sentence. One, the military government of the 70s indeed made a world-wide announcement in words and in deeds, that Nigeria had free money to give away, and so naturally, people of all colour and moral values came from all over and when they left, the country was broke, naturally. Two, the military government proceeded thereafter to completely destroy the country’s economy, heritage and societal values through gross incompetence in governance.

The story is a little more complicated though. The Arab oil embargo of 1970s resulted in a massive influx of foreign exchange. So dizzying was the windfall that the military government, which had been running the economy since 1967, somehow thought it wiser to become completely dependent on the oil revenue. It certainly seemed a lot cleaner and stressful way to earn money than digging up muck on the farms, and soon oil revenue began to represent ninety per cent of foreign exchange earnings, a situation which naturally created serious structural problems in the economy.

Agricultural output diminished as farmers thought, why grow anything at all when government agents were already importing from all over the world at half the local price? Farming became unattractive and the young and able-bodied naturally sought to reap their own benefits from the oil windfall by looking for easier money in the cities. Consequently, local food production progressively deteriorated and ground to a halt- the money earned from selling crude oil now being used to import food.

Not only that, the military government went partying around the world filling huge ships and jet planes with expensive junk destined for the newly rich country and word quickly went around that there were idiots in Nigeria who had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it. So, millions of tons of knick-knacks and factory processed food, came rolling in. Half of it was eventually tipped into the Atlantic Ocean as impatient ship captains wisely figured that with the queue at the Nigerian ports, it would probably take them about two years before their cargo could be discharged. The importation bill was nevertheless passed on into the country’s foreign exchange account. No problem we can afford it, the military government guys said, there are guys out there who will lend us money to pay up if we fall short, since our credit is good.

A strong foreign policy of handing out free money to other countries and also importing anything possible from them, including toothpicks, had now been established. The industrial sector also without now depended on imported labour, managers, machinery and raw materials. No problem we can afford it, said the military government, being largely constituted of half-literate folks, there are guys out there who will lend us money to pay it up if we fall short, since our credit is good.

Declining oil revenues and importation bills soon added up to colossal debts abroad and the military rulers wisely thought this a good time to go away. The government was wisely handed over to a secondary school teacher who became the next civilian president. In the charge of this reluctant ruler, corruption, theft, outright looting of government treasury and various larcenies soared sky-high. Most of the programs of this new civilian government had incongruous outcomes and only launched the careers of Nigeria’s legendary economic rascals who swamped the Nigerian ports with more imported garbage and legitimised bribes and kickbacks.

The fall in oil price which started in 1981, quickly destroyed financial plans of a civilian government, which were largely based on profligacy and it soon dawned that paying out more than you were earning was not the way of financial prudence. But this came too late and the country fell into further economic mess, a situation which paved the way for ousting the civilian president by the military and to the relief of very hasty citizens.

But this new situation did not go down well at all with the foreign lenders. They could deal with tight money situations and with putting a borrower’s stuff in hock if the need arose. They could deal with madmen and robbers playing government. Their careful motto had always been: you can vandalise your country as much as you like and we will even give you a lot of assistance if you wish, but sorry, we can’t allow you to vandalise our banks. Tackling cranky political situation was however not their natural elements, especially if you were dealing with uniformed men who carried guns for a living. So they did the wise thing and called for their money. The currency exchange rate consequently rose with all the elegance of a helium filled balloon.

Another set of military guys soon came with a new mission to completely destroy what was left of organised industrial activity and to create a primary economy of black marketeering and brigandage. Fellow countrymen, they announced as usual on the radio at dawn, no problem you can bear some more of the pain we are sure you have now become used to.

The Dreamers is set in the 1980s, a disastrous timeline in the history of Nigeria. A military government is again in place, the value of the currency has plummeted, businesses and factories are closing down by the hundreds every week. The future looks bleak and hopeless, and would remain that way for many decades after. These years marked the beginning of great social and economic upheavals for the country. The novel was initially submitted as A Conference in Ennui for the BBC Book contest where it came on the long list. It was later published as Somber City and currently as The Dreamers.

The story revolves around a young engineer who suddenly finds himself unemployed. He confidently imagines it would be a matter of weeks before he gets another job, but he has misread the severity of the economic climate. Months passed and eventually years and yet he remains unemployed, eking out a demeaning livelihood from a string of petty businesses. But Lagos is a savage place to be without a job and he eventually ends up in a mental hospital.

But he is not alone in his woes. A happy fellow has escaped from the strife-torn polluted swamps of Niger Delta; he finally finds a job as a poorly-paid security guard but is soon driven to drink when his wife has triplets. A rudderless bumpkin, completely fed up with the humdrum existence in his little village up North finds without much problem an easy job as gate security man; he must again quickly return home, because he is not morally equipped to deal with the debaucheries going on around him. A schizophrenic youth suddenly deported from America finds solace in a disturbing life philosophy; his plan to bomb the Defence Headquarters building with a sack full of firecrackers, finally lands him in mental hospital. Finally, there is a sociopath policeman who derives great pleasure from tormenting people but is eventually rendered insane by a voodoo curse. They are some of the dreamers who crossed the timeline of his life during this period of distress.

From my coming Autobiographical Writings

Read Somber City

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