Letter from a Kenyan in Abuja, Nigeria's reluctant capital

Abuja, with a population exceeding 3,000 is the Federal Capital, of Nigeria and fourth largest city after Lagos, Kano, and Ibadan. [File]

For the older generation, we came across Nigeria through literature, reading novels like "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe. Remember Umuahia?

Lately, we have Chimamanda Adichie whose parents lived in the same house that Chinua Achebe used to live!

Other links to Nigeria include Afrosinema, buying off our banks and lots of Kenyan girls marrying Nigerians.

I noted Nigerians are doing that in other countries too. The country is also known for oil production and was once a football giant. Never mind that the image of Nigeria is of a country laden with corruption. Visiting perhaps could change your perception.

The city visited was Abuja, the new capital. It's right in the centre of the huge country. Nigeria's population is estimated to be 206 million. That explains why Nigeria's image is bad. The law of large numbers simply suggests you are likely to have more bad guys the bigger the population. The same applies to geniuses.

The first that surprised me was the lack of adverts at the airport. Is this not supposed to be Africa's biggest economy and capitalist? Where are images of Nigeria's great heroes?

One Nigerian told me that everyone is a hero in his or her own way, why bother with other heroes? That statement finally made me understand the Nigerian mind, after trying for years. Is that why they will work so hard wherever they go to become heroes?

Beyond forex bureaus, there wasn't any other economic activity at the airport. And the exchange rate surprised me, 650 Nairas to US dollar. And Kenyans are complaining?

A poster calling for the capture of some prison escapees escorts you out of the airport. It's when you try to use the internet that you realise how far Kenya is.

Unfortunately, we rarely have time to appreciate our country. Maybe we have not lived in other countries to compare.

The roads are good, at least to the hotel I visited. White cows grazed on the roadside, sometimes in-between a dual carriage road. Who owns them? This is Abuja, a forced city or artificial city as I heard. Capital since 1991. It's surrounded by small mountains.

Lagos was left as the commercial capital. This probably explains its laid-back nature. A walk in the streets reveals that slowness - traders selling kola nuts, roasting yams or selling shoes.

Mask inequality

Lots of cars are surprisingly old and hoot all the time. With oil wealth, that was unexpected. Could this mask inequality? Nigerians, like 75 per cent of the world keep right.

That would be good for tourists, they would drive themselves. Beyond new number plates, that is a bold step we should take.

The city lacks the dynamism of other cities like Nairobi or Lagos. Maybe, it is still growing and getting its character.

Think of how Nairobi would look or feel like if it was all about government business. What percentage of Nairobi's economy is driven by the government?

Ordinary Nigerians are humble and respectable. The flamboyance you see in movies is an exception. I however have a feeling no one has taken any concerted efforts to change the image of Nigeria.

The weather is pleasant, warm and humid. Very much unlike a city so inland. It is only 360 metres above the sea level. I would have loved to explore the rural parts of Nigeria and meet the real Nigeria.

From this lightning visit, I made a few observations. One is that their food is great, but Ghanaian is better. They beat us in variety and taste. Kenyans should visit West Africa for a food tour. If there is an area we need an M-Pesa moment, it's in cooking. While the western part of Kenya has tried, we can do better. I fear with fast foods our gastronomy will deteriorate.

Two is economic. Why does Nigeria export crude oil, have it refined and import it? That leaves my head spinning.

Who bears the cost of that transport? Looking at the bulkiness of crude oil why is it exported? The technology to refine crude oil is very basic, Form Two chemistry, distillation. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have thriving petrochemical industries.

The refiners of crude oil keep all the bought products. I hope Kenya is thinking about refining our crude oil.

Three is that Nigeria is filled to the brim with talents. Just look at their literature, finance sector, and their professionals scattered across the globe.

But there has not been a concerted effort to channel these talents into greater national good, supra goals.

Each person is left to chart their own path, and become their own hero. My gut feeling is that if Nigeria harnessed her talents, her economy would be at least three times its current size. Four, by 2050, Nigeria's population will be about 400 million.

Any economist or entrepreneur would salivate in such a market.

If Nigeria puts its political house in order and leverages its talents, it could be an economic superpower by 2050 or earlier.

Finally, I did not meet any juju man but I met a man from Umuahia.

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