I am Nigerian and I am not a criminal

2015-04-16 16:57


I have come to realise over my ten years of stay in South Africa that many South Africans really do not know much about Nigerians, any more than they know the rest of Africa. When I have met people who have a negative view about all Nigerians, I have often asked two questions: First, has a Nigerian ever defrauded or harmed you or did someone tell you that? Second, have you ever heard of Nigerians doing noble work in South Africa? My reasons for asking these questions is to establish that no country is a monopoly of bad people and that bad news spreads more than good news. Yes, naturally, bad news sells more than good news, so it is expected that the image of Nigerians as drug peddlers would be more pervasive than that of Nigerians as noble individuals. So I thought I should write a short article on this. It may read as chauvinistic, but my goal is to be educational and perhaps ambassadorial.

How I found myself in SA

Having obtained Honours and Master’s degrees from the University of Benin in Nigeria, I wanted to gain international exposure in scientific work. I was at that time applying to do a second Master’s degree in the UK with the plan to complete a PhD too. I gained admission into a UK university, but while waiting to pay my tuition fees, I met a friend who told me about the high quality of the Master’s in Epidemiology programme at the University of the Witwatersrand for a much cheaper cost. So I tried it and found myself in South Africa in 2004. My Master’s degree was by no means easy to complete as I soon ran out of funds. I was a self-funded student with some support from my sister (I lost my mother as a teenager and my father did not have such funds). I ended up doing menial jobs as well as working as a tutor in order to survive. I completed my Master’s degree in 2005 as a top student. That year I got a job with the university. In the same 2005, I was offered a fully sponsored PhD opportunity in Canada which I rejected because my job offer at Wits also came with the opportunity to study towards a PhD.

My work in South Africa

In these ten years, I have worked as a Wits Lecturer and as a medical scientist in a number of highly reputable research organisations, working on local and international projects. Not once in my ten years, have I been late for lectures for more than 10 minutes. I believe I have given absolute dedication, to the best of my ability, to developing South Africa. I even authored a book on how to achieve academic excellence that have transformed thousands of South African students. As a result, I have received local science prizes and leaderships awards including a recognition by the Mail and Guardian as one of the Top 200 Young South Africans, despite still carrying Nigerian citizenship. I have been law abiding and I have worked day and night to build South Africans, even when I am not paid to do so. Apart from my scientific work, I have given motivational talks to thousands of students and have mentored many. I supported many professionals and students in many ways including in paying their tuition. I currently run two intervention programmes in two township schools involving ten human development facilitators and ten tutors. We meet on a weekly basis with these learners either to motivate them or to tutor them. All of these I do because of my passion to see South African education improve.

I am not an exception

The fact is that there are many Nigerians like myself in South Africa. One thing most people who have met Nigerians cannot deny is their work ethic and their hunger for knowledge and productivity. There are many Nigerian doctors working in urban and rural health facilities of this country, saving lives and improving the health system. There are many Nigerian teachers and lecturers working in different schools and universities in this country. In most places I have been, the feedback has been the same: hard work, dedication and excellence. In fact, the first church I attended in South Africa was a Nigerian church. The head pastor was a senior lecturer at Wits University with a PhD. The assistant head was a neurologist. There were many professionals and postgraduate students in the church, so much so that many South Africans who attended the church drew inspiration from us to pursue higher education.

Criminal elements bring us shame

Painfully, there are criminal elements among Nigerians that have immigrated to South Africa too. They may not be involved in armed robbery or hijacking but their involvement in organised crime, like drug cartels and prostitution rings, is notorious. It must be known though that even these criminal elements are often used by bigger drug lords from different races and nationalities, (this is not an excuse but a fact), in international drug cartels. The reality is that bad news sells more than good news does and due to the need for self-preservation, humans generally retain negative news over positive news. For example, it is not newsworthy that a Nigerian doctor in a rural health facility saves many lives daily, but it will surely be newsworthy to report that a Nigerian was caught selling drugs in the same area. This fact affects all of us – our errors are more newsworthy than our good works. I do not think that we read of the many South Africans working and doing business in different parts of Asia, but when a South African drug mule is arrested it makes headlines.

Having said that, I must say that many Nigerians agree that the criminal elements among us bring us shame and they erode the good work many of us are doing. Every country has criminals, but people should not leave their country to go and commit crimes in other people’s country. It is absolutely wrong. When caught, they should be prosecuted harshly according to the law of the land. The laws are often there but the challenge is with the enforcement of the laws in a culture of corruption, bribery and apathy. We therefore call on the South African Home Affairs and the South African Police to filter out these criminals and bundle them into prison where they belong.

A few characteristics of Nigerians

Some people say to me, “You do not look Nigerian or have a Nigerian accent.” Well I have been quick to say that there is not a single Nigerian accent. Not even in Britain or South Africa do you have one accent. The most populous black nation in the world with over 256 ethnic groups surely has varieties. Despite our diversity, there are common denominators to Nigerians.

  • We are religious – Although religion does not necessarily translate to spirituality for all.
  • We are passionate – We put passion into everything we do.
  • We are entrepreneurial and enterprising – We do not believe that everyone must go and buy from big shops like Pick n Pay or Checkers. We believe we can share the market by opening small shops in our communities. Even as employees, we know how to take responsibility at work.
  • We love education – A survey by the US Census Bureau showed that we were the most educated in the United States, surpassing any other racial or ethnic group. About 20% of Nigerians in the US hold a Master’s degree in Comparison to 8% Whites. A further 4% hold a PhD in comparison to 1% Whites, and 35% hold a Bachelor’s degree. We also hold most of the top academic records in many Western Countries.
  • We can be loud – Some people find this irritating.
  • We may seek to take short cut – Due to the heritage of bad military leadership, our country became massively corrupt. This practice went down from the leaders to the citizens and as almost become a culture. But I can tell you that there are still countless Nigerians you can trust with your life.
  • We are generous – We give easily to friends and family.
  • We are hospitable – Most South Africans who have visited Nigerians have come back with reports about how well they were treated.

Despite these good qualities, we have not fully tapped into our potential due to decades of bad leadership as with many other African countries. Most of us living in South Africa are here because our leaders failed us. We used to have some of the best high schools and universities in the continent which attracted workers from all over the world, but not anymore. Because of the many years of corruption, basic infrastructure like good roads, potable tap water and electricity are no longer as abundant. So, basically, some of us are economic migrants seeking better jobs, business opportunities or better education to access those opportunities. Some come here to study and go back home immediately after that; while others come here to do business.

As a country, we are gradually pulling ourselves up. Infrastructural development is gaining momentum, job opportunities are soaring and more Nigerians are returning home. We currently have the biggest economy in Africa. Our democracy is stabilising as demonstrated by the recent peaceful elections where an incumbent president was voted out of power and conceded defeat. And the newly elected President Major-General Muhammadu Buhari has promised to further plug leakages of national funds and build a stronger economy with palpable development. Many African countries look up to Nigeria and we can promise that we will not fail.

Let us build Africa

Nigeria and South Africa are the two giants of Africa that must work together in many facets to inspire growth and development in the continent. There are many things Nigerians can learn from South Africans and many things South Africans can learn from Nigerians. Currently many South Africans are travelling to Nigeria for business opportunities in different facets of the economy. My desire is for both countries to continue to work together for the good of the continent. Black on black hate should have no place amongst those who are enlightened. As for me, until the day I return to Nigeria, I will continue to give my best to this country.

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