“Father, do you have a lion in your house?”, asked Taiwo, my five-year old nephew.

“Yes, I do.”

“Does it have teeth and claws?”

“Yes, Taiwo.”

“Does it bite?”The interrogation continued.

“No, it does not bite.”

It was Kehinde who spoke next.  “How is it that your own lion does not bite?”

“When you see my lion, just say ‘Hi’, and the lion will respond, ‘Hi’.  And the lion smiles at you and goes its way.”

I did not know what made those two little boys to ask me about my lion.  Perhaps they saw a lion in one of the many television cartoons children love to watch.  Many of those cartoons, produced in the countries of the global north, portray Africa as a jungle. 

In 1974, there was a famous boxing bout between two African American boxers, the legendary Muhammad Ali and the irrepressible George Foreman.  Ali (nee Casius Clay) was not just a boxer.  He was an inimitable orator.  In 1971, in the build up to a previous bout in Manilla, Philippines with Joe Frazier, Ali dubbed the fight “The Thriller in Manilla.” The fight with Foreman took place in Kinshasa, Zaire of old, now Democratic Republic of the Congo.Again, Ali, a black man with African ancestral roots, exhibited his oratorical prowess in the media hype that preceded the fight.  He called the bout “A rumble in the jungle.”

The conversation with my nephews also made me recall two other conversations.  The first of those two was also about lion.  In 1989, one of my course mates at the Collège Universitaire des Dominicains in Ottawa, Canada, had asked me: “Anthony, is it true you take your stroll with lions in Africa?”

“Yes,” I answered.

He was startled, and went on: “And they do not attack you?”

“No, they do not.”

“How?” he wondered.

I gave him the same response I would later give my nephews.  “When you take a stroll, and you see a lion approaching, just say ‘Hi’. The lion too will say ‘Hi’.  It goes its way, and you go your way.”

A few minutes later, I went to my course mate, and I said to him: “You must be stupid.  The first time I saw a lion in my life, I was already seventeen years old. It was at the University of Ibadan zoo.”

The second conversation was between three of my cousins—all born in the United Kingdom—and their father, my uncle.  My uncle returned to Nigeria a year before they were to return.  In their first letter to him, they wanted to know in what type of house he was living.  They asked him if he was living on top of a tree.  This was in the early 1970s.  It was still being taught in some schools in the United Kingdom that Africans lived on trees.  The same cousins came home from school one day and asked my uncle to show them his tail.  They had been told in school that Africans had tails.

Fast forward to the year 2018.  Donald Trump, President of the United States, is reported to have said Nigerians live in huts, that they arrive the United States and refuse to return to their huts.  He has denied saying so.  A few days later, he was reported to have said in a fit of anger that African countries are shitholes.  Again, he has denied saying so.  Of course, condemnatory reactions have been swift.

But, what if, indeed, he said so?  If, indeed he said so, he would not be the first.  We ourselves do.  Our own President Buhari has described us in unprintable terms.  David Cameroon, immediate past Prime Minister of Britain, referred to us as “fantastically corrupt”.  General Collin Powel, a black American who rose to the rank of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff in the American military establishment, and who came relatively close to becoming the first black American President, called Nigeria a nation of “marvelous scammers”.

If, indeed, President Trump said what he has been reported to have said, it would not be simply the impression of an American right-winger.  Some American left-wingers have painted us in similar colours.  Negative perception of Africans cuts across racial and ideological boundaries in America.  On the left-wing, former President Bill Clinton demonstrated initial indifference to the genocide in Rwanda. 

Still on the left-wing, this time from a black left-winger.  Former President Barrack Obama, first African-American President, of Kenyan descent wrote in his book, The Audacity of Hope: “There are times when considering the plight of Africa – the millions racked by AIDS, the constant droughts and famines, the dictatorships, the pervasive corruption, the brutality of twelve-year-old guerrillas who know nothing but war wielding machetes or AK-47s – I find myself plunged into cynicism and despair.”

It is on record that, throughout the eight years of the first black man in the White House, he never visited Nigeria.  It is also on record that one of the rare occasions he said anything positive about Nigeria was when he hosted and described newly-elected President Buhari as “a man who has brought integrity to the presidency.”

What if this is the way we are perceived? What if this is what they say about us?  We need to interrogate ourselves: by our attitude and by our actions within and outside Nigeria, what do we say of ourselves?

But what do we say of ourselves? What do we say of ourselves when many of us are of unruly behavior at foreign airports and aboard international flights?  What do we say of ourselves by the way we keep or refuse to keep our international airports, gateways to Nigeria?

It takes minutes to renew a driver’s licence in the United States.  It takes years to perform the same ritual in Nigeria.  The administrative fiat required to renew your licence must come from the federal capital in Abuja, even if you live in the remotest corner of Nigeria.  It took me two and a half years to renew my previous Nigerian driver’s licence.  By the time I got it renewed, it was just a few months to its expiration.  In May 2017, a month before it expired, I began the process of renewal.  Officially, it costs 6, 350 naira to renew for three years.  Despite the fact that the fee is boldly pasted on the wall at the Federal Road Safety Corps office, Oyo State Secretariat, the Road Safety Officer calmly told me it would cost 10, 000 naira.  When I asked for explanation of the disparity, he told me “they” would go to the bank to do the payment and take the application form to the Vehicle Inspection Officer for his signature.

Of course, I needed neither angelic dictation nor divine illumination to know that this was an illegal fee.  Since I believe in due process, I opted to personally go to the bank and make the payment.  My punishment: the Vehicle Inspection Officer who is to sign the application form has been elusive since May 2017.  It will soon be one year since I made the application.

And, have you tried to renew your Nigerian passport of late?  I have.  In compliance with government’s much-advertised electronic transaction, I filled the application form on the website of the Nigerian Immigration Service, made an electronic payment of 23, 000 naira on the same website, printed the form, the confirmation of payment slip, and proceeded to the Passport Office at Agodi, Ibadan.  There I was told I had to go to the bank to get a teller that I have paid.  Such is not listed on the website of the Nigerian Immigration Service.  I already got a confirmation of payment slip printed from the same website.  The bank itself said there was no need to get a teller.

Despite the intervention of the Comptroller, my application is still in limbo.  What was my offence?  I followed due process.  Due process by way of electronic application and payment does not allow the fee to go into wrong hands.  I have since heard stories of Nigerians who obtain the passport with ease having paid well above the official fee.  The bitter but well-known truth is that our bureaucracy is large, lethargic and corrupt.  And this writer is not Trump. 

Nigeria portrays two strangely opposed faces—that of excellence, and that of decadence.  There are many Nigerians in the United States and in other countries of the world doing wonderful things, making positive contributions.  There are also many Nigerians who do despicable things. We are not the greatest sinners.  There is corruption in America too.  There are also many kind and hospitable Americans, and they are not exceptions.  The problem with us is that we willfully mismanage our sinfulness.

What is important is not what Trump or anyone says about us but what we say about ourselves by our attitude and by our conduct.  That is why we must not fail to interrogate ourselves: Nigerians, what do we say of ourselves?

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