From Russia to Nigeria with Love

From Russia To Nigeria With Love When I first came to Abuja in May 2009, I had a very strange feeling. It was my first trip to Nigeria and to Africa in general, and everything around me was very different from what I was used to in my own country: the clothes people wore, the language they spoke, the landscapes, the food, the peculiarities of architecture and style. But surprisingly, it was not all that different. It felt like the plane, like some magic time jet, crossed not only the vast distance between Moscow and Abuja, but also a couple of decades of time, and I was back to Russia, end of the eighties – beginning of the nineties. It was a strange and romantic time. The communist regime which dominated the country for more than 70 years had just fallen down, and the nation was awakening, overjoyed with its newly acquired freedom and democracy. New businesses mushroomed all over the country, the first in the whole history of Russia democratic election took place, and the nation felt elated and thrilled. But very soon this nation-wide euphoria began to dissolve. The slow-moving and military-oriented economy, a legacy from the communist times, was not efficient and couldn’t meet the new requirements. Deprived of state support and poorly managed plants began to close down, their staff fired out. Unemployment and crime rates went up high, each region claimed its independence from Moscow and issued its own laws, local conflicts such as in Chechnya unleashed and flared up, and the country was beginning to fall to pieces. Most important consumer goods were in shortest supply ever and rationed, like in war time. Living standards went very low, and people felt confused and even cheated: what was happening around them was too different from what they imagined to be a free society. They were not used to taking care of their own lives and to making their own decisions, they had no idea what to do with this newly acquired liberty fallen upon them from out of the blue sky. And the country fell into chaos and a deep, deep decline…

Can you believe that it all happened to Russia, the world’s greatest power and a member of G8, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, less than 20 years ago? Drastic and at times, very painful measures were taken by the government to overcome this crisis and generally improve the situation, to encourage free enterprise and initiative, but reforms alone couldn’t have been the solution to all problems and bring about miracles. National mentality also changed, slowly. People began to understand that quite a lot depended on them. Nobody owes you anything. If you are not happy, don’t complain; put in at least the smallest effort to improve your life. Nobody will do it for you. Those changes in the people’s mentality were even more painful and slow in time, but we’ve managed it.

One needn’t think that the sky above Russiais clear and cloudless. We also have a lot of problems. Russian economy is still extensive, it depends on exporting raw products such as oil, gas and timber. The climate is notoriously severe and not favourable for agriculture. Local conflicts have subsided, but are not yet suppressed completely. Bribery and corruption still flourish, despite all the efforts undertaken by the government to fight them. The middle class, a backbone of liberty and democracy, is still too small a social group, to exert any real influence upon politics or economy, and the gap between the very rich and the very poor is not narrowing. Quite a few homes, not only in the country, but also in towns have no access to public utilities such as water and gas supply, central heating, modern means of transport and communication. Because of all that, quite a few experts suppose they have all the right to refer to Russia as a Third World country.

But is Russia really the Third World? Tell that to my aunt, Kush (62 years old) lives in a country house, gets her drinking and household water from a well dug out in her yard and heats her house 8 months a year with firewood chopped by her husband, nearly 70! You’ll probably drown in floods of indignation coming from her side, and she’ll be supported by a lot of her neighbors all living in the same poor conditions, and by a lot of their compatriots probably lacking in material goods but too proud and patriotic to think of their country as anything other than the world’s greatest power.

That’s what matters. Everything starts in your head, and we are what we think of ourselves. More than that, other people think of us the way we let them do so, and if you think you are Third World, you ARE Third World, until you change your own opinion of yourself.

Is Nigeria Third World? What would most Nigerians reply to this question? Thinking that you are is easier, because this way, you shed the responsibility off your shoulders. We all of us are responsible for whatever happens to and around us. A famous Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov wrote in one of his books: Chaos and devastation start in your head. Everything that happens to us starts in our heads. You can complain that sanitary conditions are very poor in your area – or you can stop throwing all kinds of litter around, go and collect the litter which has already been thrown, wash your window, give your house a fresh coat of paint. It doesn’t cost a lot, but if everyone does it, your area will soon look completely different. You can complain that the government does too little to provide fresh water supply for all the people (why should it, by the way? You people are not little children! Can’t you take good care of yourselves?) – or you can dig out a well next to your house, like my aunt’s family did, and this way, solve the problem of fresh water for your family once and forever. It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can. And you will soon notice that your life is improving.

You are the most populous black nation in the world. You have a rich history, rich natural resources and a climate most favourable for agriculture, when you can grow crops and fruit all year round. You’ve got a great economic potential, recognized by international investment banks which identify Nigeria, alongside with other countries, as The Next Eleven, the 11 countries which are most likely to become the world’s largest economies in the 21st century. The heaviest task is to make people believe in it and to feel positive and proud of their country.

In 2003, Nigerians were reported to be the happiest people in the world in a scientific survey carried out in 65 nations in 1999-2001.The research was reported by one of the world’s top science magazines, New Scientist.I can believe it, for when I was in Nigeria (and I spent almost the whole of last year there), I didn’t see a gloomy or unhappy face around. I went for a walk in Millennium Park in Abuja, and it reminded me, surprisingly, of Geneva, all those people sitting on the grass, relaxing and enjoying themselves. I can believe it, because I saw it with my own eyes, in the streets, in cafés, in nightclubs, that people around me did not feel they are Third World. I could feel it that they were proud of being Africans and they were proud of being Nigerians – that’s what matters.

You have a great potential and you have great people – that’s what makes me believe that you’ll make it, and that despite all the problems you are facing now, you will soon become one of the greatest nations in the world.

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