Peter Enahoro a.k.a. Peter Pan’s How To Be A Nigerian was first published in the 1960s as a series of columns in the Daily Times. It became a bestselling book that was re-published in 1996. Almost two decades later, Enahoro’s brilliant satirical enquiry into identity, nationalism and inventiveness is still the definitive guide.
To be a Nigerian, you must learn the lesson that nothing is ever fair, that indeed anything is possible, and you may have to pay your way through life by offering and taking bribe to facilitate many of life’s processes. Babies are switched at birth in Nigeria and offered for sale; to leave the hospital with the right baby, and not fall victim of cradle-snatchers, you may have to pay the nurses a little ‘something’ to guarantee their loyalty. Or better still you may have to patronise an expensive hospital where reputation is still important.
Death is equally expensive in this country. Mortuaries and cemeteries are raided for spare parts by ritualists and their agents. To ensure that your beloved reaches the gates of Heaven or Hell, without a missing ear, tongue or genitalia, you have to pay the mortuary and cemetery attendants to have mercy on the dead from your household. Being alive in Nigeria is worse. Every activity involving life and movement has to be facilitated with cash. It is not for nothing that Nigeria is the second most corrupt country in the world. This is not a country of saints.
If you insist that you will not offer bribe, then you face a long life of frustration. You will never be able to get anything done. In Nigeria, parents pay a special fee to get their children into schools from nursery to the university. If you are a Nigerian parent, you may also discover that teachers need to be bribed before your child can pass examinations. To be a Nigerian truly, you must realise that official rules and regulations serve very little purpose. The meaning of the law depends on the man in charge of a particular office at a particular time. Positions and uniforms are to be respected by all means. Policemen, customs and immigration officials live on bribe. Local government officials expect you to grease their palms. To bend the law, you must pay a token fee, and once you do so, you are offered a special salute by the policeman on the highway or the immigrations officer at the border and allowed to do exactly as you wish. Thus, to be a Nigerian, you must learn to beat the system.
The law can be bought. Justice is available for the highest bidder. The man who is loaded with more cash than sense is king. If you can flaunt wealth, your contemporaries will worship the very ground on which you walk. Just get rich by any means and as quickly as possible. Nobody will dare question the source of the wealth. With money, you can buy the protection of the state. The high and the low will queue up at your doorstep to pay homage; what they really want is their own share of your loot. Traditional rulers will offer you chieftaincy titles. The state will offer you national honours. Women will throw themselves at your feet. And not just any woman, but the most beautiful ones who used to be beyond your reach. Newspapers will name you among the most fashionable men in society. A rich man is always fashionable. I have never heard of a poor man being labelled the best-dressed Nigerian. To be a Nigerian, you must be loud with your wealth and accomplishments. Even if you are poor, you must carry on with life with a certain swagger. Don’t ever forget that you are a Nigerian; your country is the sixth largest producer of crude oil in the world, the most populous black nation on earth, and the home of the happiest people in the universe.
Indeed, to be a Nigerian, you must be an optimist. This is the only way to survive in a country where there is so much distance between government and the people in the form of widespread poverty, incompetence in high places, and established disregard for the rights of citizens. The roads are bad, electricity supply is epileptic, salaries are not paid on time, there is food scarcity, and the scarcity as well of the basic necessities of life, but you must learn to take everything in your stride. To be a Nigerian, you must see even death, any death at all, in a positive light. You live in a country where accidents are common and death is cheap.
In the midst of it all, you must learn to be joyous. Every weekend, attend a party, wear the best clothes in your wardrobe, and tell yourself that the biggest achievement that any man can be proud of is to remain alive. It doesn’t matter if you are trapped in squalor. If you are lucky to have some means, then you are truly lucky. You can throw parties everyday if you wish. You can even dictate the kind of women you want at the parties and the kind of clothes that they must wear. You would be surprised that there are many women, including housewives, who are ready to appear half-naked just to be seen among the happening crowd in society. If you are rich, then you can create your own government inside Nigeria by providing your own basic amenities, and using the state to rob the poor.
If you are lucky enough to have a small business of your own with employees working under you, then you do not have to pay salaries. Nobody is going to arrest you for failing to pay your own workers. If the workers are not happy, they are free to go. But because they are Nigerians, they are not likely to resign en masse. They too will find a way. They will steal from your company. They will use company time to do business on the side. One day, try and investigate your workers, the same ones who are complaining about salaries and poor conditions of service. You will be surprised that this is the only country in which a messenger who has not been paid for six months lives in a mansion of his own. Your managers have houses abroad. Your directors have their children in foreign schools. And you begin to wonder whether indeed a Nigerian labourer deserves his wages.
To remain sane as a Nigerian, you must be religious. And you must advertise your piety. Sleep in the church. Proclaim your religiosity from the rooftops. Mention God’s name in every conversation. In a land where there is so much madness, religion offers you the only opportunity to cling on to a measure of holiness. It is the only way to remind yourself that you are human after all, and that there is something that you still believe in. There are too many forces compelling you to disbelieve the very existence of God: you will see highly placed persons who are no better than scoundrels; wives of important persons who are no better than cheap prostitutes; men and women of power who are sexual perverts; fraudsters and common criminals who are nevertheless accorded the respect that they do not deserve; children who have sold their souls to devil; young girls who are in the hands of men who are old enough to be their fathers; and housewives who should be in Hell. To be a Nigerian, you can only look at all these and take your troubled soul to God.
If you are unable to cope, perhaps you might consider the option of exile. There are many Nigerians abroad eking out a living as economic refugees. Unable to cope with the many disasters of life in the country of their birth, they have fled to other countries where there is less stress and shock. To be a Nigerian, you must ordinarily learn to live with shock. This is a country where anything can happen. Public buildings go up in flames routinely. Bombs can explode anyhow in busy neighbourhoods, claiming lives and property, and even government officials join the people to express frustration and anxiety. This is a country where the police run away from criminals. It is a country where criminals consider themselves gentlemen and are so treated in many ways. Politicians are not interested in public service; they want access to the public treasury so they can steal a part of the national cake.
To be a Nigerian, you must learn to relate to the National Anthem as if it were a disco tune. I have heard versions of the national anthem which belong more to the hip-hop genre. The average Nigerian considers the anthem a joke. There is a musician who has even worked out a remix version of the song, and it is played regularly in disco halls. To be a Nigerian, you must take life as one long joke. Don’t bother about patriotism. You will be better served by ethnic affiliations. If you feel you are not getting your due in certain circumstances, allege that you are being discriminated against on ethnic grounds. Link up with persons of your own tribe, and get them to push advantages in your direction. It doesn’t matter whether you are qualified or not. This is not a country where merit counts for much. Sycophants, mediocre persons and hypocrites stand a better chance of getting up the ladder than a man of talent. They know what to say in the right places. They are experts at blackmailing competitive and able rivals. For such persons, life itself is about politics, and they are prepared to push down anyone who stands in their way.
To be a Nigerian, you must always remember this: you are in the midst of Sharks. Every other Nigerian has a small dagger in his pocket, hoping to draw blood. Get your own dagger! Be on your guard. And may the Lord be with you.
How to be a Nigerian writer
You know the value of books. The process of making them intrigues you. You want your name on the front cover of a book and, like an earthworm inches through dirt into the ground, you want to make your way into people’s homes, heads and hearts.
First, you must look the part. It is important to look like an African writer. Find multi-coloured kampala fabric and use it to sew shirts to wear to all writers’ events. Nothing says authentic-tortured-African-writer like dreadlocks. Please note that in Nigeria there is a difference between dreadlocks and ‘dada’. Dada is less refined, naturally matted coils of hair, the result of superstitious neglect. Dada is uncool. Dreadlocks are deliberate. They make you look creative. If someone asks, remind them: “No, I am not a Rastafarian, I am an African writer”. As such, you must flaunt your vices. You need to show that you are a flawed character. If you drink, drink too much. If you smoke, do it at inappropriate times. Show up at an event reeking of booze. People will understand. Vices are tools of the trade.
Now that you have the basic tools: a multi-coloured kampala shirt, cool dreadlocks and vices, you must set about the business of writing. You do not need to read a lot to be a Nigerian writer. In fact, as a Nigerian writer you can make shameless statements in public, like: “I don’t really read much”. All you need is a burning desire to write. It is sufficient to have read Shakespeare and Achebe, and maybe a little of Chimamanda Adichie for contemporary reading. The only thing you need to really study is a dictionary or thesaurus.
Use big words instead of small words: ‘Discombobulate’ instead of ‘confuse’. How can you write like a layman when you are an African writer? Use many words. It is always better to err on the side of verbosity than on the side of brevity.
Protect your work fiercely and always insist that people give you ‘constructive criticism’. Anyone who points out, rightly or otherwise, that your writing isn’t quite there yet, is an enemy of your hustle. Quote Achebe. Say that anyone who doesn’t like your writing should go and write their own. Do not waste your time or money on editors. Editors are failed writers whose life ambition is to frustrate the hustle of real writers like you. Find some popular person from your village who will write you a foreword without actually reading your book. Then, go to press. Go to Ibadan or Lagos. Find a cheap printer who can print 1,000 copies without ink smearing on the pages coming out lopsided.
What would a book be without a launch? In Nigeria, a book launch is a fund-raising ceremony. It is not important to have writers at this event. Well, maybe the book reviewer. You need your state governor; your local government chairman; your pastor or imam to bless the event; and any minister, senator or rich person that you know. You do not need a marketer, publicist or publisher. These people eat into your profit margin. If you have a car, carry a few hundred copies in the trunk at all times. Be your own marketer. Steer conversation toward your book.
Get an award, no matter what. It could be from the church bulletin that you have been writing for since you were in secondary school, or your old boy’s association newsletter. You can even have friends get together to organise and award you: the Roforofo Prize for African Fiction. Then, you can advertise as such in your book: “Award-winning author”. No need to state what award it is. An award-winning writer is a good writer.
How to be a Nigerian today
Alongside Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria, Peter Enahoro’s How To Be A Nigerian is the best-known, most-quoted collection of sociological exposition on that rather debilitating condition known as ‘Nigeria’. But those pieces, brilliant as they are, were written in the age of analogue – long before the information-superhighway, long before social networking, long before the ‘Nigerian Letter’ became shorthand for the most impressive form of advance-fee fraud this side of the ice age.
How to be a Nigerian in the age of digital requires something else. To start with: regularly engage in Twitter fights with other African countries. Focus on Kenya (#SomeoneTellKenya) and Ghana (#GhanaMustGo), shameless latecomers to the no-longer-fashionable Crude Oil Club (COC).
Peter Pan wrote about “the only way to survive in a country where there is so much distance between government and the people….” I’m pleased to announce that that distance is not what it used to be. You see, How To Be A Nigerian was first published in 1996, when, as a Nigerian minister once proclaimed, telephones were only ‘for the rich’. Today, the once helpless ‘people’ can wield their mobile phones to devastating effect against the ‘government’. It is not for nothing that President Goodluck Jonathan last year described himself as “the most abused President in the world”. You should have seen his Facebook page.
Peter Pan also wrote that “to be a Nigerian, you must learn the lesson that nothing is ever fair, and that indeed anything is possible, and you may have to pay your way through life by offering and taking bribe to facilitate many of life’s processes.”
Well, things have changed a bit. Not the ‘what’, but the ‘how’. You can now pay your way through life via internet banking. Imagine this scenario: Petulant policeman stops you with a wave of his rifle. Asks for the receipts for your two back tires. You sigh, force a smile, and then ask him for his account number, “the new, 10-digit one, not the old one”. He calls out the digits one by one. You ask: “Savings or current?” and, with a series of practiced swipes on your mobile phone, transfer, right there and then, ‘something for the weekend’ straight to his account.
To be a Nigerian sometimes you must put down the Blackberry, mute the Twitter debates and invade Ghana with your school-age children and cash-burdened real estate agents. Pay cash – for the world-class university spaces and the generator-free waterfront homes – conveniently forgetting that 30 years ago you chased all the Ghanaians from your country for being petty thieves, visa forgers, job stealers and professional good-for-nothings.
These self-help guides were previously published in Chronic Books, The literary supplement available in the green edition of the Chronic, originally published in April, 2013.