There’s this apocryphal story that a friend of mine, an exiled Zimbabwean writer, told me a few years ago. It went like this. President Robert Mugabe had sent one of his ministers to represent him at an important state function in Japan, to which other leaders from different countries were also invited. On the day of the event, Mr. Mugabe’s representative was beset by a monstrous, migraine-grade headache. There was a danger that he would not be able to attend the event.
Urgent arrangements were made to take the pain-racked Zimbabwean biggie to a hospital. Japanese doctors x-rayed his head to determine the source of his malaise. They then prescribed one or two medications, and, pronto, the man became fit enough to attend the official ceremony. As the Zimbabwean official left the hospital, the Japanese doctors gave him a sealed envelope addressed to President Mugabe.
Back in Zimbabwe, the minister went straight to President Mugabe’s office and delivered the envelope. The president slit it open. As he read the short letter, an expression of astonishment seized his face. The letter contained a simple request, expressed in a disarmingly direct tone. The Japanese doctors offered, upon the minister’s death, to buy his brain for $10 million. Mr. Mugabe’s astonishment soon gave way to fury.
“What is this?” he raged. “I’m the president of this country, and nobody has offered even five hundred dollars for my brain. But the Japanese want to pay $10 million for the brain of a man who is my mere minister. Something is wrong here.” For a moment, he held his minister in a blistering gaze. “You must have told them that you’re the brain of my cabinet. In fact, you must have boasted that you’re the one who thinks for this country,” he accused the man.
The minister, beads of perspiration on his forehead, body quavering, assured Mr. Mugabe that he had made no such boast in Japan. “Please call them,” the fear-gripped minister suggested, afraid that his life was on the line. “They will confirm that I never told them I was this country’s brain.”
Mr. Mugabe held his rage in check, and then dialed Japan. “President Mugabe here,” he announced imperiously. “What is this nonsense about buying my minister’s brain for $10 million when he dies?”
“Well, sir,” said a Japanese doctor, “we’re delighted that you called. You see, we treated your minister for a paralyzing headache he suffered during his visit to Tokyo. We scanned his brain in order to find out what caused his almost paralyzing headache. We marveled at what the scan showed. You see, Mr. President, your minister is 75 years old, but his brain is still almost brand new, hardly used. That’s why we made an offer to buy it when he dies. We plan to implant the brain in somebody who knows how to make use of a brain. Let me assure you, Mr. President, that your minister made scientific history. This was the first time scientists anywhere in the world discovered a virtually unused brain in a certified old man. By the way, sir, if you can find a few more unused brains like your ministers, your country can count on earning huge revenues from brain exports.”
Mr. Mugabe smiled. “That’s no problem. I can guarantee you a steady supply.”
This narrative – the parable of the brainless leader – struck me as a powerful way to grasp the tragedy of Nigeria and many African countries caught in “a recurrent cycle of stupidity,” to borrow a phrase used years ago by Wole Soyinka. As I write, President Goodluck Jonathan and his delegation were supposed to be arriving soon in the United States. Mr. Jonathan and his delegation have visited numerous other countries in the world, among them France, the UK, South Africa, China, Ethiopia, Brazil, Botswana, Belgium, Rwanda, and Germany. Without exception – even if to varying degrees – these are countries whose institutions work, where a visitor immediately gets a sense of a vital, organized leadership bringing vision and intelligence to bear.
The Nigerian president and his cohorts must see, in many of the countries they haunt, that streets are planned; water runs; there’s dependable electric power; police officers do their jobs, without prompting or intervention by the powers-that-be; the judiciary is demonstrably independent; the healthcare system is healthy and caring; schools deliver quality education, equipping students with skills and ethical grounding; the environment is clean; and the economy is buoyant, constantly producing jobs and enhancing the quality of life of citizens and residents alike.
By contrast, Nigeria is a veritable zoo, a social jungle where might determines right, a sheepdom run by a coterie of mediocrities. To hear somebody described as a “chieftain” in Nigeria is, almost as a rule, to encounter a thief – a “thieftain”! When Nigerian officials speak about somebody as a “stakeholder,” the person so identified is invariably a certified, brainless buffoon who contributes nothing to society, but who receives huge handouts – oil blocks, security votes, constituency allowance, or inflated contracts. These thieftains and steakholders relish foreign trips aboard the presidential jets or in the first class cabins of commercial airlines. They gloat as they luxuriate in the comforts provided by the ingenuity and enterprise of other people, and bask in the fineries of societies that have struck a prudent balance between production and consumption.
Chinua Achebe wrote in The Trouble with Nigeria, his most polemical work, “There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.”
I’d add that there’s nothing wrong with the brains of Nigerian leaders – nor with the broad class of the country’s elite. The tragedy lies, I suggest, in the refusal of a good number of them to exercise their mental faculty for their good and the good of their society. In their shameful fascination with conspicuous consumption – especially of the goods and services of other people – those who run (and ruin) Nigeria forget that the expensive products they treasure and the comforts they bask in when they travel to better-organized societies – are the result of human imagination matched by commitment.