A couple of weeks ago, Nigeria announced a momentous, earth-shattering dream: Africa’s biggest economy will produce its first ever homemade pencil by the year 2018!
This surely sounds like a dubious joke. A lie told against the Giant of Africa. But the proposed made-in-Nigeria pencil project is no idle tale. It is a valid national venture. The proud quest of Africa’s most populous nation. Nigeria’s 2016 answer to America’s 1961 dream to plant a man on the moon!
Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, proclaimed the vision.
After he was given a tour of Project Development Institute (PRODA), a federal government-owned equipment fabrication organization in Enugu, Onu lamented the fact ‘’that 55 years after independence, Nigeria is still not producing pencils when we have the human and material resources in the country.’’
He said, ‘’PRODA has to produce pencils for Nigeria and they have given me the assurance that this can be done and that with pencil manufacture here, we will be creating 400,000 new jobs.’’
Many Nigerians appropriated the news as a comic relief, a necessary breather in a news cycle dominated by terrorist attacks and the free fall of the naira. They did not recognize the declaration as an opportunity for reflection. And so, they drew and circulated caricatures of Onu reaching for a towering pencil.
There is always a place for humor, one must admit. In Nigeria, more than in any other place, the citizen needs a sense of humor. It is a skill for survival. You can’t function as a Nigerian without developing the ability to tweak whatever comes at you into ridicule.
Still, the cartoonish rejoinder does not invalidate the news. At best, it is a gesture of the artist's struggle in helplessness. A rock of rebellion hurled at reality.
On this pencil case, tragedy casts its shadow on the comedy. In other words, even if we will a putative distance between that slim object of embarrassment and us, even if we disown our nation's petty ambition, even if we laugh off the trivia that has become the Nigerian Dream, we still live with the shame. We are a people without pencil!
The venting, in 2016, of the made-in-Nigeria pencil as a futurist national project ought to jolt us into serious soul-searching. We should be asking themselves why Nigeria is so underdeveloped that Nigerians can’t produce one of the commonest commodities human civilization ever invented. Why is Nigeria so backward that a pencil sits at the top of our wish list?
It's all the more confounding to think that it took Nigeria one hundred and one years of founding and fifty five years of flag independence to realize that we have never made one single pencil. What's more, this epiphany, a very belated awakening, would have probably been delayed for another generation if this minister was not somewhat more sensitive than his predecessors.
Now, Onu tried to soothe the outrage by informing Nigerians that no country in West Africa produces pencil. Our neighborhood is blanketed with this incapacity. It’s a sub-regional curse.
That innuendo is terrible.
Geography is not the cause of Nigeria’s pencil incapability. Our location on the map does not explain our underachievement. Neither does our proximity to other countries excuse it.
Nigeria is a distinct country, the author of its own fortune. Nigeria is not subscribed to any collegial sovereignty. We are not under obligation to reflect the handicap of our West African neighbors.
So, there is no reason why Nigeria should glory in the shared fate of its contiguous countries. They are manifestly less privileged than Nigeria. Nigeria boasts more endowment of men and materials. Nigeria should naturally fare better than them.
In fact, it was supposed to be Nigeria's lot to send pencils across the borders of African countries that can't manufacture the product. Nigeria has all the requisite resources. Nigeria has graphite deposits in commercial quantity in Kebbi and Adamawa states. Nigeria has abundance of clay. And Nigeria has a rainforest cover that can be sustainably managed to provide the wood content.
The self-respecting nations race for global relevance. They measure themselves by more challenging models. They strive to advance at the pace of the greatest countries. But Nigeria, we are comfortably nested within the brotherhood of misery of West African nations.
Nigeria once declared that it would earn the status of one of the 20 most developed economies in the world by the year 2020. No seriousness was invested in that dream. It vanished like a daydream.
Nigeria has now reduced its ambition to the smug I-Pass-My-West-African-Neighbors fantasy of being a pencil-producing nation!
It is a pity that Nigeria is fantasizing about the made-in-Nigeria pencil in this age. That the government of Nigeria is projecting the coming pencil as a sort of technological revolution shows that Nigeria has recorded satisfactory success only in insulting and betraying its potential.
The very fact that the Nigerian pencil would have to incubate in the womb of our national hope for two years before it stands the chance of being delivered is proof positive that Nigeria, the Lugardian couple of Northern and Southern protectorates, is stuck in the 1914 era of its founding!
Anyway, the dream pencil, petty as it seems, is a pie in the sky. There is no guarantee that the pencil will emerge on or before the last day of December 2018. We might be wake up on the due date to a consolation, in place of the substance; a terse apology or a nuanced explanation. ‘The Nigerian factor’ intervened!
The representative of the General Manager of PRODA who feted Onu mentioned that PRODA had undertaken to produce pencils in the past. Official obstructionism arrested PRODA’s plan. One of the equipment PRODA had ordered for the pencil project has remained trapped in Lagos Wharf for the past 20 years!
Yes. That’s how Nigeria works!
Nigeria is a weird organism, an exclusive species of abnormality that resists positive evolution. It is a country that would almost always prove impervious to any invasive effort to interrupt its pattern of dysfunction.
To imagine a proper description of Nigeria is to wrestle with a fitting salute to a contraption that works well ...sabotaging itself!
There is a principle that defines, defies, and defiles Nigeria. That principle roughly translates to a logic that only failure should succeed.
That is the reason why Nigeria is a sub-country that seems to serve the purpose of being a warning of how not to be a country. It is the reason why Nigeria invariably defaults to complicating the simplest thing and worshipping it as an impossibility. It is the reason why Nigeria is the only major oil producer in the world that cannot refine its crude oil.
Just so you can understand what I mean: The Nigerian brand pencil Onu seeks to introduce may be substandard. Onu had said, ‘’ to produce pencils, we need wood, graphite, rubber for eraser and possibly aluminum to hold the rubber in place. Then we may need to give it color. But even if we don’t add paint or rubber, already we have a pencil and it will write.’’
Though Onu would readily admit that ‘’we have all the things to produce a pencil’’, he is planning to settle for a mockery of the normal pencil. A pencil without eraser and paint.
The nature of the ‘’pencil’’ of Onu’s dream illustrates the inferiority complex and self-demeaning creativity that ruins governance in Nigeria.
Even this well-intentioned Minister couldn't help but advertise a mindset that is infected with the cannon that Nigeria can’t make something decent product. It is beyond us. Nigeria can only make uncompetitive counterfeits.
And guess what: If you pass Onu’s design of that counterfeit pencil, PRODA will produce one pathetic variant of a 'pencil’ without eraser and paint. Which Nigerians would be required to celebrate on the day of its unveiling.
The state-owned media would glamourize the imperfection as a design of novelty. They would campaign that a no eraser, no paint pencil suits our uniqueness. The pencil is okay –it will write!
And that pencil would consume a grand, multimillion naira rollout.
Markets would be shut. School children will line the streets. Dance troupes will perform. The President will read a speech. The Minister will read his own speech. And the host governor will thank Buhari for revamping a federal establishment in Igboland and taking away Nigeria’s reproach.
The Nigerian state will cast the fabrication of the Nigerian pencil as an epic exploit. The pencil will become the go-to example of the success of the incumbent president. And Muhammadu Buhari’s sidekicks would build around the pencil a rationale for a Buhari second term bid.
Nigeria imports rice and egg. Palm oil and Fish. Tomato and toothpick. So the pencil initiative is important. It may mark the end of our foreign exchange hemorrhage and the beginning of a new epoch of indigenous productivity and job creation.
But mediocrity can’t spur Nigeria industrial renaissance. If Nigeria must start its redemption by making pencils, we must dream of pencils worthy of the name. Not pencils without eraser!