Thought Leadership

Why is the “giant of Africa” not Nigeria?

March 21 is the day South Africans and the rest of the world  marked the 50th anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre, a turning point in the nation’s history….and events of that day have been on my mind. I wonder how many Nigerian children are taught about Sharpeville in school. Today we bring to you a guest post by Mike Cooke, a true friend of Nigeria and South Africa.

By Mike Cooke

Your mention in Nigeria Health Watch of the South African rescue team being in Haiti with none from Nigeria set me thinking. 

I first went to Nigeria in 1994 to work in Lagos and Abuja. I had previously lived and worked in Swaziland, which almost surrounded by the Republic of South Africa (RSA) which I had to visit regularly. There was an awkward close comparison between Nigeria and RSA.  Both were then “governed” by an elite minority (soldiers or the “Boers”). Rich cliques in both countries had enough money to ignore the inconveniences (incompetences) of ‘go slow’ and power outages in Nigeria and in South Africa to avoid contact with the majority of the population except domestic servants. These cliques in both countries cared little for the realities of Governance. Both countries had police that would whip their disenfranchised citizens and generally abuse them. Crowd control at Lagos airport  involved public whippings. Crowd control in RSA in general invariably involved brutal and unacceptable police behaviour. The Sjambok or leather whip.

BUT since the 1950’s the people of RSA  rebelled. They held strikes not just if the price of petrol went up but when their Government, for example, tried to enforce the teaching of Afrikaans. Matters of principle. They were prepared to show civil disobedience and, like Mandela risk jail and the death penalty. Nigerians will not. My Nigerian friends told me they don’t trust the police not to shoot. At Sharpville in 1960 the RSA police did shoot and did kill and did so on many other occasions. The British army in India too, at least once forgot not to shoot. 

South Africans accepted international boycotts that would put many out of work. A lot of us in UK supported embargos of South African coal and wine and fruit while Maggie T imported the coal to defeat UK miners. We knew ANC South Africans welcomed such acts and would see it as painful but necessary support. In the end they could not play any sport except International yacht racing!!! International companies such as Barclays and Coca Cola etc moved out and eventually the apartheid regime crumbled under pressure. 

Happily the days of brutality have gone now there are the problems of criminality and inequality in both countries. In Nigeria there are appalling health standards and still shabby government.
It would be good to see Nigerians united and demanding good government and better health care. There have been the occasional rebels but they never gain the mass support needed for pressure and reform. Perhaps tribalism is the issue. But RSA has tribes as well but maybe they became less dominant through colonialism, but, things being as they are, I think RSA is likely to stay the giant of Africa although it should be Nigeria!!!! 

When in an Abuja Hospital as the GM I tried to get a doctor to accompany a seriously injured man to Kano for Orthopaedic attention. Most declined saying the north was not doable for them.  I cannot imagine a South African doctor refusing to go to the north or south of the country on grounds of religious intolerance. 

I often say to Nigerians that they should pay a more realistic price for petrol. “Why”? They ask, “it comes out of our ground.” Gold comes out of the Joburg ground but the Government does not give it to its people at cheap-rates. It uses the revenue for development. It also does not let it go overseas for refining and processing and then buy it back!! Its refineries and its gold mines work.

As far as I can see the political parties in Nigeria have no particular policies and voters tend to be purchased by the richest candidates. 
But having argued thus I recall myself saying to those who have told me they “knew Africa” from Tanzania or Malawi as a prelude to taking employment in Nigeria that Nigeria was so different it might as well not be connected to the continent. For the time being sadly I’m backing the RSA bid for gianthood!

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead

By Chikwe Ihekweazu

Chikwe Ihekweazu is an epidemiologist and consultant public health physician. He is the Editor of Nigeria Health Watch, and the Managing Partner of EpiAfric (, which provides expertise in public health research and advisory services, health communication and professional development. He previously held leadership roles at the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the UK's Health Protection Agency. Chikwe has undertaken several short term consultancies for the World Health Organisation, mainly in response to major outbreaks. He is a TED Fellow and co-curator of TEDxEuston.

1 reply on “Why is the “giant of Africa” not Nigeria?”

The Nigerian Medical Association has expressed its dissatisfaction with the list of GJ 32 nominees, saying, it does not contain a medical practitioner. Does a giant in Africa require an MD in government to efficiently deliver measurable benefits including basic infrastructure like water and electricity?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

five × four =