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It is nice to feel good about yourself. Obviously. And while in the modern world, our self-esteem is very often tied to our sense of personal achievement, the condition of the collectives we identify with are not without impact either. Our group identities provide us with more or fewer reasons to feel good about ourselves. With varying individual intensity, a positive image of self is thus linked to a positive image of in-group. Most Americans want to believe Americans are great, most Chinese want to believe the same thing about their nation, and so on. This is all very human, but what is important is that we make sure there is not too much of a discrepancy between our self-perceptions and reality, both at group and individual level. There is a difference between positive thinking and wishful thinking.
Nigeria has the largest number of extremely poor citizens and out-of-school children in the world. Insecurity is rife, running water a luxury, steady electricity a dream. The country ranks 157th in the United Nations Human Development Index, behind the likes of Angola, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Pakistan, Tanzania, Uzbekistan and Zambia. Yet the average Nigerian will likely insist Nigeria is a greater nation than those bettering us developmentally. How does one explain this self-perception in such a reality? Like most deep-rooted societal beliefs, the story goes back a while.
All colonialisms involved an offensive on the self-esteem of the colonized. So it was with British rule in Nigeria. Many pre-colonial beliefs and values underwent systematic rubbishing, well-illustrated in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The added humiliations of extended foreign subjugation, racism, and the reality of European technological superiority, all but guaranteed an inferiority complex.
Educated Nigerians who wanted to mobilize against colonialism knew they needed to tackle this complex. Their preferred response to external vilification became unequivocal self-glorification, a stance criticized by the likes of Awolowo in the late 1940s, but nevertheless very popular. Nigerians were not just no worse than others, they were exceptional, a great nation in the waiting. No one articulated this vision more eloquently than Nnamdi Azikiwe who likely picked up the ‘exceptionalism’ trope from his student days in 1920s America which is when the ideology of US exceptionalism gained prominence. By 1960, Nigeria was the ‘African power’ that would not just ‘revive the stature of man in Africa’, but ‘restore the dignity of man in the world,’ according to Azikiwe.
Unfortunately, grand ambitions don’t always translate into grand realities. Seven years later, Nigeria was in a bloody civil war. But even this tragedy failed to bring much-needed humility and soul-searching. Buoyed by the oil-cash of the 1970s, the national posturing continued under successive military governments. Achebe commented this harshly in his 1983 book The Trouble with Nigeria:
‘One of the commonest manifestations of under-development is a tendency among the ruling elite to live in a world of make-believe and unrealistic expectations. This is the cargo cult mentality…. a belief by backward people that someday without any exertion whatsoever on their own part, a fairy ship will dock in their harbour laden with every goody they have always dreamed of possessing. Listen to Nigerian leaders and you will frequently hear the phrase ‘this great country of ours.’ Nigeria is not a great country. It is one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun. It is one of the most expensive countries and one of those that give least value for money. It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar. In short, it is among the most unpleasant places on earth!’
Unfortunately, years of the ‘we are great’ narrative has helped fuel a collective narcissism. At the individual level, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is defined as a behavioural pattern of grandiosity, fixation on fantasies of power and status, a self-perception of uniqueness and superiority, need for endless admiration, a sense of entitlement to special treatment, a tendency to demean others and belief that others envy you. All elements of a protective shell to safeguard what in reality is a fragile ego and fear of inadequacy.
At the group level, collective narcissism is ‘an in-group identification tied to an emotional investment in an unrealistic belief about the unparalleled greatness of an in-group,’ according to psychologist Agnieszka de Zavala. The in-group could be a nation, race or any other human collective. While it is rare for all members of any group to share this belief, as long as most do, it will shape collective behaviour.
Narcissistic sentiments are discernible in popular Nigerian sayings. ‘We are the Giant of Africa’ (grandiosity). ‘If not for Nigerian support, apartheid would never have ended’ (exaggerating achievements). ‘Nigeria is a great nation’ (Fixation on fantasies of power and status). ‘Naija no dey carry last’ (self-perception of being unique and superior). Meanwhile, external criticism, especially by other African nations, is often chalked up to ‘envy.’
Collective narcissism fosters counter-productive behaviour such as conspiratorial thinking. When things are not going as the group expects (which should be very well since we are exceptional), it is quick to blame other groups or ‘bad apples’ within the in-group for plotting against it. Who have we not blamed for holding Nigeria back? IMF, World Bank, the British, the West, Illuminati, Satan, Nigerian ‘cabals’, ‘ritualists’ and evil ‘elites.’ Any explanation that does not look too broadly and deeply inwards to contradict the comforting self-image will do.
Another problem, as Achebe pointed out, is that Nigerian grandiosity has led to various governments postulating unrealistic policies with unrealistic goals amidst unrealistic expectations. Yes, leaders must set goals for their nations to have something to aspire to. But there is a fine line between aspiration and delusion. If a 20-year old believes he will play for Barcelona in the future, that is ambition; if a 40-year old believes the same thing, that is foolishness.
Nigerians are no more (or less) exceptional than Malians, Pakistanis or Germans. It is nice to think we are, but we are not. Nations who don’t claim to be great have left Nigeria far behind, yet we are still here, insisting we are special. The success of nations is not determined by any sort of inherent greatness, but by well thought-out and realistic planning, collective hard work and a disciplined governing class. The good news is that there is an increasing number of Nigerians, especially of the younger generation, who see that this grandiose national self-image is completely divorced from reality. But it will take a while before humility and realism creep into the Nigerian psyche. Hopefully, not too much longer.