Why Tech And Afrobeats Will Not Save Nigeria: A Rant

People like to separate our inability to produce things science and engineering-related from our so-called expertise in the arts. But I see all of it as related. An inept nation is an inept nation.

South Korea that has the almighty electronics company Samsung has won Best Picture at the Oscars and the film wasn’t in English. They also have the most watched series on Netflix. Their boy band BTS is the biggest in the world.

The same America that had John von Neumann also had Michael Jackson. Their tech centre, Silicon Valley, has its hand in your pocket all the way from an American state. The films made by firms in Los Angeles play better in your own cinemas than the ones you produce. Everybody knows Drake and Kanye West and Taylor Swift. The UK has both Shakespeare and Alan Turing. These things are related. Excellence isn’t a one-way street.

What should bother you is at the base of all of these things. We have built a country that cannot reap the most from even the barest of what it produces: be it engineers, oil, doctors, or singers. Everyday Wizkid FC or some other fan base make noise about what their fave charges for shows.

But search under that piece of information: if an African artist is earning a million dollars for a show abroad where he isn’t even the main act, can you imagine what the organisers are getting from that show? Consider the taxes that come to the country hosting such a show.

When you see the billions of streams that Burna Boy or Davido have across platforms, for which each stream is worth less than a dollar, can you imagine what the owners of the platforms have made from those artists? Is Daniel Ek the financial mate of any of the Nigerian acts with success on his platform?

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Months ago, the Financial Times published a piece in which it was said that the Korean government was trying to figure out a platform that would have its products because it understood that for all of the success of Squid Game and other Korean shows, it is Netflix that is reaping the most benefit.

If, somehow, they can come up with that platform, the most benefit would come back to the country. It took them about two generations of filmmakers to score their Best Picture Oscar, who knows how long it will take them to figure out a platform. And even if they can’t, the thought is what counts: this is how a country that is serious thinks about itself and its future. There is no dichotomy between science and art if they can both boost GDP — and they can.

I have always said that one of the greatest follies of Nigeria is how it let Nollywood and Nigerian music escape. Today, our best music and movies will show up on foreign platforms and make their owners rich, but there was a brief window that a more sensible government could have figured out how to get the most of these products.

The space is crowded now and in this time of the dwindling naira, you would never convince any artist to give you even a little exclusivity.

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The only way out is production and not consumption. You could say that we produce music but look at the economics and you would find that it is merely concealed consumption.

Our artists are consuming the distribution opportunities provided by foreign streamers. And they don’t even trust their country to acknowledge them. None of the big boys come for the Headies without a lot of begging and even then, they might not show up.

There is an ongoing battle in Nollywood to become the first film shortlisted for the Oscars so much so that some two weeks ago the industry was hot over the local committee’s non-selection. Adichie, like you and like me, would rather receive a honour from Harvard than from any of our universities. Our doctors are heading to Saudi Arabia and the UK as they should. Look at our sports. You hear Ndidi or Iheanacho’s weekly wages and you open your mouth but trace that money backwards: Are their combined wages not a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the club owners’ fortune?

All of these things are related; there is no separation. For all of the noise of our artistic prowess, we only have one Grammy and one Nobel since 1960. Our one Emmy nomination has been the source of so much wahala for years now. Our Booker Prize winner wasn’t in Nigeria when he won; ditto our Pulitzer winner. Nobody has managed an Oscar. Nobody has neared a Ballon d’Or.

None of this is the mark of a country that is great at anything: be it science or art. Sparse individual wins do not confer national brilliance.

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Look, if our art is truly good and global, it would be because of a culture of excellence that would rub off on the sciences. But there is no evidence that we have a culture of excellence. We can’t even spot it. If excellence is an asteroid that lands on the head of whoever is in Aso Rock, we would need to go find one oyinbo to help us recognise it.

I understand the fascination with scientific strides but our failure to thrive in that regard is a symptom of something more fundamental: as a people, we do not care about excellence.

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