The Enugu State Government’s recent full page advert congratulating Chiwetel Ejiofor, the British actor of Nigerian descent, for his BAFTA award was a waste of public funds but it calls for reflection. As with Sade, Seal, or David Alaba, we often try to appropriate the successes of foreigners of Nigerian ancestry in a bid to achieve some vicarious proprietary pride. If Barack Obama’s dad had been Nigerian, the world would never have heard the end of it. Consider another high achiever, Jelani Aliyu, lead designer of General Motors’ first electric car. Could Ejiofor and Aliyu have succeeded in their chosen endeavours if they lived here instead? It is a pertinent question.
Since the 1980s, we have lamented brain drain without interrogating it seriously.
Talent flows from regions with natural resource-based economies to regions with knowledge economies. Countries with value-added economic activities offer greater scope for self-actualization and upward mobility. Extractive economies end up watching their young literally follow their oil or diamonds to foreign lands. Countries that build their economies around people clearly outperform those that base their economies on natural resources.
The world can be divided into countries oriented towards the past and those oriented towards the future. Talent flows from the former to the latter. In societies of the past, access to opportunity is determined by questions of identity and ancestry. “Where do you come from?” is the most significant question in such places and the answer to it carries bread and butter and life and death implications. In states of the future, access to opportunity is based on the individual’s potential. The operative question is not where he or she comes from but what he or she can become.
In states of the past, citizens are defined by their heritage; in states of the future, they are defined by their aspirations. In the former, ancestry is destiny; in the latter, potential is destiny. States of the past consider shared memory the basic raw material for nation-building. For states of the future, it is a shared destiny. Talent flows from the former to the latter because above all else people want to transcend the limits of social ascription and be masters of their fate.
America’s ascent towards superpower status gained momentum in the early 20th century when it absorbed talented Jewry fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in totalitarian European societies. These societies were states of the past where rabid identity politics excluded Jews and other minorities. That brain drain resulted in immense cultural, economic and military gains for America. Similarly, after Idi Amin expelled Indians from Uganda, the country’s economy tanked while many of the refugees made for England where they established businesses that boosted British commercial life.
When Martin Luther King declared his hope that his children would one day be judged not by their colour but by the content of their character he was urging America to more fully become a state of the future. Obama frequently says that his personal odyssey as an African-American in the White House could only have been possible in America. Given his Luo ancestry, Obama’s chances of similar success in his native Kenya would have been nil. A bitter joke which made the rounds in Nairobi after Kenya’s bloody 2007 polls held that a Luo could be elected president of America but not of Kenya.
In Nigeria, access to goods like public education and employment is shaped significantly by ethnicity and religion. Institutionalized discrimination in many places disqualifies Nigerians from accessing public goods that are theirs by right. Almost every official document defines us by our ancestry or “state of origin.” “Where do you come from?” is the most frequently asked question. Obviously, a culture of excellence and achievement cannot thrive where ethnocentric mediocrity and identity politics trump meritocracy.
It is more than likely that Ejiofor and Aliyu would not have made it here. At some point, their ancestry would have proven a fatal roadblock to their aspirations as it has for millions of talented Nigerians. They might have been labeled “non-indigenes”, or found to be surplus to acceptable ethnic quotas or in contravention of federal character. But they have been accepted by societies where a person’s true worth is not divined from his bloodline but derived from his gifts and dreams. People do not choose where they are born but they can choose to maximize their potential. Societies that enable them to make those choices without the fear that their heritage is a hindrance will always lead the world. Conversely, nations that define identity as a weapon or weakness minimize both their people and their chances of growth. A nation cannot outgrow the existential constraints on its citizens.
Enterprising Nigerians are daily defying psychic and institutional barriers in pursuit of the better life. The key to unleashing our national genius is to redefine ourselves as a state of the future. This means ending the use of identity as a determinant of access to opportunity and defining ourselves by where we are headed rather than we come from. It also means practically creating a meritocratic environment where people can aspire to their best knowing that their country genuinely rewards excellence.
To be sure, heritage matters. But what is heritage if not the stock of ancestral dreams and visions? We inherit from our forebears what they made of themselves and their times just as our children will inherit from us what we make of ourselves and our times. What better bequest to our progeny than a society in which their genius rather than their genes will speak for them?
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