The Apostles of hope now fill the economic vacuum in Nigeria
Just a few years back, calling a politician corrupt in Nigeria was synonymous to calling a kettle black. It was a given that Nigerian politicians seek elected offices to enrich themselves; the effort was never intended to be a selfless act or motivated by the will to serve the needs of the polity. Thus, the prevailing sentiment was summed up by general optimism that ‘today it is his turn, tomorrow I shall have my opportunity.’ Laws to curb corrupt practices were never meant to be taken seriously, for if they were, then the hopes of a generation of aspirants would be jeopardized. But that was then; today there is a new ‘sheriff’ in town who ran for the presidency on a platform of bureaucratic transparency and anti-corruption reforms. Many Nigerians liked the idea, and elected Mr. Buhari as president in the backdrop of a massively corrupt and incompetent previous administration that almost bankrupted the country.
But Mr. Buhari’s anti-corruption crusade, however, is beginning to wear very thin on those who enthusiastically voted him into office. With high unemployment rate, stifling inflation, and devalued currency, many now turn to divine intervention, and the apostles of eternal hope for sustenance; for hope can take one a long way. The Economist in an excellent piece entitled “Yes, You can” sums up the lot of the average Nigerian.
FROM the young hawker offering to sell motorists a toilet seat as he snakes through the never-ending jam that is normal traffic in Lagos, to the legions of scammers who make their living writing thousands of e-mails in the hopes of conning a few people out of some cash, Nigerians cannot be said to lack optimism. Yet in a country where poverty is rife, even the world’s most diligent transformers of lemons into lemonade need some help to see a nearly empty glass as half-full.
The pastors of Pentecostal mega-churches promise their congregations God-sent fortunes in return for a 10% tithe. If that sounds a bit dear, then a cut-price option is to subscribe to a service that sends inspirational text messages to your phone. This includes pearls such as: “Changing a face can change nothing, but facing a change can change everything.”
Bookworms can read their way to success. Jumia, an online retailer, says that motivational and self-help books are its bestsellers. In the tiny airports of the north, vendors offer such handy literature as “Fat-Proofing your Children”; in Lagos street vendors hawk the same. “Everyone wants to become the big man,” says a taxi-driver, as he crams a “Guide to the Corporate Machiavelli” and “The Power of Self-Discipline” into the seat pockets of his old SUV. “I want words that inspire me.”
But the kings of this trade are the motivational speakers. “You come to me if you want to get stuff done,” says the suavely-suited Steve Harris from a coffee spot in one of Lagos’s smarter corners. “I’m the guy who’s going to make it happen.”
Over the past few years a handful of life coaches like him have won semi-celebrity status, often trading on their own rise through the social ranks. Mr Harris says he briefly tried his hand at 419, a kind of fraud, after dropping out of university. “It’s not what you don’t have that limits you,” he preaches to captivated audiences in a crisp American accent. “It’s what you have but don’t know how to use.” Ogbo Awoke Ogbo, another speaker, spent two unemployed years squatting in a Lagos slum; eventually, he earned big bucks in oil. He tells his clients that shoddy schools should not stop them. “Self-development is a choice,” he says from a steamy office.
As well as inspirational quotes, such gurus offer practical advice on money management or health. Mr Harris turns away private clients if he thinks their problems cannot be solved in 90 days. Romantic assistance is popular too. Around Valentine’s Day, life coaches lecture women depressed by their lack of luck in love. Sam Adeyemi, a pastor, attracts hundreds of thousands of online hits when he preaches about how to find a spouse (“To find the right mate, you need to become the right mate,” is one of his gems). Popular coaches can command thousands of dollars for a speech, but bigger rewards come when they write books, set up online courses or start consultancies. Businesses pay handsomely for lessons in teamwork or customer care. “Nigerians are searching for answers, but they haven’t been given them,” Mr Ogbo says. “Through us they see a way out.” And what of those Nigerians so inspired by their idols that they, too, want to become motivational speakers? Well, there’s a book for that too.