If there was anytime that Nigeria was truly good or great, it was in the vainglorious 70s, sometimes snidely referred to as the ‘oil-boom’ years. Those who experienced it describe it in superlatives and in platitudinous terms – almost likening it to that period in the Bible where the Jews just laid back, and without lifting a finger to do a decent job were fed with manna and good meat. It was said that our fathers had the courage to bear a lot of children, ostensibly because with just six-pence, a mother could buy an entire market and still go home with some change.
Just in the same manner that the Jews rose up to play after a full stomach, Nigerians of that feel-good era, apart from being blessed with a victual-loving palate, were also blessed with a fine crop of players [not footballers]. It was said that every evening, most Lagosians gathered around choice or unchoice spots either to listen to the guitar boy – Victor Uwaifo – or they just blocked a street from end to end for those resplendent owambe balls that favourably compared to any Elizabethan revel or any from Rio de Janeiro.
The major players and musicians of the day each had a charisma that attracted a sizeable clientele. Take for instance the Juju maestro King Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, IK Dairo and Oliver De Coque and Fela Anikulapo Kuti. These were musicians who were muses indeed – they strummed and caressed their guitars, congas and shekeres to accompany the orchestration of the ennui and philosophical cadences that bore the psyche of a lazy nation. But why shouldn’t the people of the vainglorious 70s be merry? Why should they have planned? After all, petrol money was flowing in [as it still does today], the groundnut pyramids and cotton bales from the north, the cocoa and palm and rubber trees from the east and west had not disappeared. They brought money in too. But the merriment of the 70s soon gave way to an austere economic depression in the 80s, a la the present financial meltdown. It was at this point that that gap between the rich and poor in Nigeria actually widened, driving us into a class-cum-caste society, exactly what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels discussed in The Communist Manifesto, and aptly captured by the Yakubugowonic quip – ‘we had too much money; we had no idea how to spend it’.
That period, the 80s also heralded the demise of the hey-days of the Nigerian musician and the music industry – we are forced to conjecture that the industry itself depended more on the naira notes that were lavishly sprayed at these parties than to patronage from their supporters. So, with the collapse of the Nigerian economy in the 80s, we began to import. We imported everything. Even though we told ourselves that we were a non-aligned nation in the cold war era, we cleverly allowed Western countries, [most of which see Nigeria as a mere petrol station], clever concessions and incentives to drill oil and pollute our environment. Therefore, even as oyimbo goods and services flooded our markets, so did their kind of music, to such an extent that our music industry withered – it nearly became an abomination to still continue to play music of the feel good years, probably because our fathers did not want to be reminded that they had lost the feel good years for good.
The feel good thing in all of this is that even though the Nigerian economy is still tied to the price of oil, the present crop of Naija footballers and musicians, and actors and actresses and an evolving group of Nigerians are not tied to it, or to the vicissitudes of the global economy. They have weaned themselves from such unsurefootedness. They are the new generation of musicians and players [this time we mean footballers], and entrepreneurs, without an iota of respect for regular nine-to-five jobs. From Lagbaja, P-square, the X-project, D-banj, Weird MC, Timaya, Rooftop MCs, the Olori-Oko group to Kanu Nwankwo, Obafemi Martins, Joseph Yobo, Jay-Jay Okocha, Osaze Odemwingie, a different scion of entrepreneurship that is akin to the era of the dot-com is coming of age. The thing about these people is that they are yuppies, young and upwardly mobile group whose arsenal of ideas is a conglomerate of brains and brawn. Consider this: in the last five years, the largest remittances of funds from abroad in the form of Western Union came in from footballers who ply their trade in Europe and the Americas. In terms of the Okonkwoic sense of solid personal achievements, Nigerian musicians and footballers, mostly without government support, live better than many a Nigerian with PhDs and masters degrees.
But there are tragic consequences for the growth of this new kind of economy – even as the feel good generation sprayed naira notes on musicians, perhaps as expressions of support or of the wanton identity of the 70s, it has been very difficult for us to spray the same naira notes on a latent but billion-dollar football-cum-music and dot-com industry. Government does not even understand the capitalist need in investing massively in developing a Technicolor prism for football in particular and in the creative potentials of her people. Take the example of the English Premier League – most Nigerians whether high and lowly placed can sacrifice their children and, those without children would willingly slice off their right arms to be given a chance to support Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester United. Yet, the same potential, the same caliber of English and German and Italian footballers and musicians we glamorize [and that’s just what the ‘support’ base stand for], are right here, right under our noses. Any mention of either Bayelsa United or Eyimba or Heartland United makes our tummies churn. What chicanery! We don’t seem to realize that all we need to do is transfer that passion and resources that we prodigally lavish on these English, Italian and German club sides and focus on the development of the creative potentials of our own people. That was what the British were doing when we were throwing lavish parties and dancing to joromi and gyrating to owambe parties in the 70s. Last year, top-flight English sides made a profit of more than 1.5 billion pounds from broadcast, sponsorship and sundry commercial activities from football.
The lack of interest in patronizing some of our musicians with naira notes or buying their CDs is not just that there is a weak global economy, no. It comes from our people, and the appalling vindication of the a-prophet-is-not-welcome-among-his-people cliché. If some don’t complain that there are no grammatical and thematic coherences in the songs, others argue that the lyrics offend their religious sensibilities. But our people must know that songs are poems and poems are songs. Some of the best songs in the world and indeed in Nigeria do well on grammatical distortions and cryptograms, and as long as their vowels rhyme. They derive their immortality and identity from breaking the rules that were established by ancient bards.
So you see, these people that we take for granted here in Nigeria are kings and queens when they step their feet on other African soil. They shine like a million stars on the African and international firmament. Therefore, until we begin to like what we have, and perhaps have what we like by investing in these new methods of wealth creation apart from oil, we will still have a loooong way to go as a people.