DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. In February, elections were held in Africa's most populous country, Nigeria. The victor was political veteran, Bola Tinubu. But that doesn't mean the election wasn't without its surprises.
The progressive politician, Peter Obi, galvanized young people in the country around issues of government accountability, transparency, and the need for generational change. And he came closer than any third party candidate has in Nigeria's modern history to winning the presidency. So what to make of Obi's surprising performance in the election? And what does it mean for the future of Nigeria, a country of some 220 million people that, by some estimates, may pass the US as the world's third most populous country in the coming decades?
As our guest on this episode explains, there's one realm where so many of the issues Peter Obi ran on seemed to come to a head in Nigerian politics-- the country's infrastructure. Daniel Jordan Smith is an anthropologist and the Director of the Watson Institute's Africa Initiative. And his new book, Every Household Its Own Government, explores why Africa's most populous economically powerful country fails so many of its citizens when it comes to providing basic services, like plumbing, electricity, and transportation. The book also explores how everyday Nigerians overcome these government shortcomings and the surprising way is that government still makes itself present in everyday life.
On this episode, what the daily struggle for basic services in Nigeria can teach us about the politics and future of a country that will play an increasingly important role in global affairs in the coming decades.
Dan was inspired to write this book because of a trend he's noticed over the 30 years he has spent working in Nigeria. So before we get to the present, let's go back a little bit.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: When I first arrived in Nigeria in Nineteen Ninety-Eight, people were discontented about infrastructure then. They thought it was bad.
DAN RICHARDS: Water didn't run reliably in many people's houses, same goes for the electricity. And as Dan explained, the state of the country's infrastructure back then spoke to a feeling many people had at the time. That in Nineteen Ninety-Eight, the country was past its prime. You see, Nigeria had been the center of an oil boom starting in the nineteen-seventies.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: OPEC had been formed in the '70s. And so oil prices were high. The value of the Nigerian currency, it was very strong. The Nigerian economy was booming in the mid '70s up until the mid '80s. And then things started to decline.
DAN RICHARDS: And the fast increasing standard of living many Nigerians had experienced during that boom started to stall.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: And so by the time I arrived in Nigeria in the late nineteen-eighties, people's narrative about infrastructure and about governance was a negative one.
DAN RICHARDS: Over the next decade, a lot would change in the country. In Nineteen Ninety-Nine, the government transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy. The population grew. The economy grew. But the infrastructure?
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: The situation was worse.
DAN RICHARDS: And it kept getting worse.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Fast forward to the late twenty-tens, water would not run for days at a time. Electricity would go off and come back at unpredictable times. Often sometimes for a week or two, no electricity. So the infrastructural situation in a country, where the population doubled in the last 25 years, has gotten worse.
DAN RICHARDS: Starting in the twenty-tens, Dan decided to set out to try and understand why was infrastructure still getting worse in a country that, by many measures, had been growing like gangbusters. And furthermore, what can this sorry state of infrastructure teach us about the politics and economics of this country? These are big questions. But to answer them, Dan started small. He started by following the daily chores and habits of one family as they tried to secure the basics of their daily life, things that the government was not providing for them-- water, electricity, education, security and safety, transportation, and communication.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: And so the family that I profiled was a husband and a wife and their children. They're a typical family, in that they face these daily challenges for everything from water to electricity to transportation and security.
DAN RICHARDS: They live in Umuahia, a city of about 350,000 people in southeastern Nigeria. The father runs a store in Umuahia's main market. And the mother primarily works at home. They have four children. The oldest of whom we'll call Ogechi, which is a pseudonym. We're not going to cover all the facets of daily life that Dan does in his book, but we are going to look at three, two that share a lot of similarities and then one that is a little different. Let's start with the first thing this family needs when they wake up every day-- water.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: There are taps in their houses connected to the municipal water system. There's a bathtub there. There's a toilet. There's a tap in the kitchen.
DAN RICHARDS: But for reasons we'll get into a little later, the plumbing in their house--
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: It almost never runs. Occasionally, the municipal water does come on. And so families like Ogechi's will take the bathtub and put the plug in it and turn the water on and leave it on when it's not running in hopes that they'll catch the water when it is running, which can be a risky proposition if no one's home if it overflows. But most times, that doesn't happen. Most times, there isn't water.
DAN RICHARDS: Instead--
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: The oldest daughter, Ogechi, gets up every morning at 5:30, 6 o'clock, takes a wheelbarrow down to a nearby borehole that some entrepreneurial neighbor has had dug in their compound, fills these 50-liter plastic jerrycans with water. They're very heavy. And she does this every morning, has to fill several of them, and then tote them back up the stairs to the second floor of her building, and fills up the various buckets and tanks and things they have inside the House.
DAN RICHARDS: Not every household has a young able-bodied person who can do this kind of task. For example, just below Ogechi's family--
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Neighbors downstairs, an older couple that lives downstairs from them doesn't have any kids of the age that can tote that kind of Water so they buy water from a guy who makes a living by carting around Jerry cans of water in the neighborhood in these fabricated push carts that hold six or eight of those 50-liter jerrycans. He goes around and sells them at a slight markup from what it would cost to buy it right at the borehole.
DAN RICHARDS: Now, if you have enough money, you can avoid having to buy jugs of water altogether.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Well, a wealthier neighbor and you see this all over Nigeria, a wealthier neighbor, who owns the House they live in, has built concrete platforms at the level of the roof that have these 1,500-liter tanks at the top. And they get their water from tanker trucks that go get water in the river or maybe get water from the municipal water supply that sells it to them, instead of it being pumped through the pipes. And they fill their tags accordingly.
There are all these different levels at which people are coping with the water infrastructural deficit. All of them combining some entrepreneurial activity by someone who's trying to make a living by making up for the difference of what the state fails to provide.
DAN RICHARDS: With water in the house, if not in the pipes, on to the next task-- turning the lights on. Ogechi's family--
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Their house is connected to the national power grid. So they sometimes get electricity from the national power grid. They pay a tariff for the electricity that they receive. Although there's often a lot of complaining among consumers that the tariffs are not aligned with the electricity they get. They get these relatively big bills, and they don't get electricity.
DAN RICHARDS: This is somewhat common for middle-class Nigerian households. Despite the fact that electricity is a service the government nominally provides its people, which makes the National Electrical Service a source of much frustration and derision in the country.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: The national electricity grid was run by something called the National Electric Power Authority, NEPA, for short.
DAN RICHARDS: This is an acronym that many Nigerians started to take to stand for something else.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: No electric power always.
DAN RICHARDS: Or--
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: No electric power anytime.
DAN RICHARDS: In Nineteen Ninety-Nine, the government renamed the organization, perhaps to try and fix its sagging reputation.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: And they came up with the new name for the parastatal in Nigeria was Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN.
DAN RICHARDS: The rebrand did not go as planned. People quickly came up with new meanings for the acronym PHCN.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: First, one was Please Hold Candle Now.
DAN RICHARDS: And Dan's personal favorite--
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Problem Has Changed Name.
DAN RICHARDS: Instead of relying on the government's unreliable power grid.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: For many Nigerians, the route out of the failure of the national grid is to buy a generator.
DAN RICHARDS: The country practically runs on diesel-powered generators.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: There are literally millions of generators being imported and used in Nigeria. One figure I read suggested that there were 60 million generators in Nigeria.
DAN RICHARDS: Ogechi's father has a generator at his store, which he'll bring home for special occasions like Christmas holidays or big soccer matches. The family doesn't have a permanent generator in their house, though, which means they resort to using lanterns during any nighttime blackouts.
Now, you might have noticed something at this point. Ogechi's family doesn't rely on state electricity, but their house is wired to be part of the barely existent grid. Likewise, they don't rely on the state for water, yet their house is hooked up to plumbing and has toilets and sinks and all the rest, which all begs the question, after so many decades of failing infrastructure, why do so many houses still have plumbing and electrical hookups at all? It seems like a giant waste of money if nothing else. I asked Dan about this.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: I think there are two dimensions to it. One dimension is a backward-looking one, a memory one, things were better in the past. So people who built their homes 30, 40, 50 years ago built them with these modern amenities, toilets, and sinks and bathtubs, and electrical fixtures, and appliances, and so on, in an era when they were more likely to be able to have access to electricity and water. And so there's this idea, well, it was there before, it should be there. It may come back again.
But the other thing is a kind of it's aspirational. It's about imagining futures. It's about participating in modern life. I mean, I'm aware of villages in Nigeria, where the electricity hasn't reached yet. There are no there are no poles to the village. Water has not been pumped there yet. And it's not even clear when that will happen. And yet someone will build a house and they will install modern plumbing and modern electricity as a kind of aspirational gesture, as a kind of commitment to a future that they hope they will have.
And it speaks to people's aspirations for what they think their government should be able to do, what they imagine that Nigeria ought to be able to deliver.
DAN RICHARDS: So I want to get more into the politics and the bigger picture and the tensions all this brings up. But I think before that, why has infrastructure declined so much? Why is this not something the country has come to provide for more of its citizens? Again, like, as you describe in your book, Ogechi's family, they're not poor. They're sort of a representative middle-class family.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: I mean, I don't think there's one cause. I think there are multiple intertwining causes. So one thing, I mean to be fair to Nigeria's government, I mean, the population has doubled in the last 25 years. So they're trying to provide infrastructure and services to more than double the number of people. So demography is one part of the story. But certainly, the capacity of the state and the political will of politicians is another big part of the story.
DAN RICHARDS: Which brings us to a concept that economists and political scientists use to describe the circumstances a country like Nigeria has faced in the last few decades.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: The resource curse. The resource curse essentially says that when a country has a lot of natural resources, it's a recipe for corruption and rent-seeking and dysfunctional governance and so on.
DAN RICHARDS: Since the nineteen-seventies oil boom, Nigeria has been a ripe candidate to suffer from the resource curse.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Remember this is a country that is the largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa. It's a country that is a major exporter of petroleum, of oil, some 2 to 3 million barrels a day. There are billions of dollars that are being generated every year from the oil economy.
DAN RICHARDS: But that money--
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: All the oil money goes to the center. And then it gets dispersed to the 36 states to the governors. And then it gets dispersed to the 774 local government areas. So it all goes to the center. And it creates this situation, where the center, the federal government, gets all its revenue from a natural resource. There's no-- it's not coming from taxation. And so it creates a situation where everyone buys into this-- it trickles down from the top kind of model, feeding patronage, feeding patron clientism, feeding a rentier state.
DAN RICHARDS: Which leads to economies of bribery, embezzlement, favoritism. In short, what you might call corruption. Which is exactly what you see playing out in a city like Umuahia, where Ogechi's family lives. For example--
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: So if you're the guy who has the borehole in Ogechi's neighborhood, when he dug that borehole, when he opened the business he needed to interact with government bureaucrats to get a license to get the water tested to get registration to pay the VAT, the Value Added Tax, that he's supposed to pay on all the customers. Or if he wasn't getting those registrations and those licenses, he was paying a bribe in order not to do so. Or most aggravatingly to Nigerians and very common, he was paying a bribe in order to get the licenses and the registrations and so on.
So if you're an entrepreneur trying to dig a borehole or start a primary school or something like that, the bureaucrat that you're dealing with could be playing the official rules, or he could be looking to go the informal route. He could be looking to make this a personal encounter. And the entrepreneurs, the people who are trying to get what they're trying to get from the state, know this, too. And they're also trying to navigate this dance between citizen and official.
DAN RICHARDS: Which all leads to an important reality that Dan describes in his book.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: It appears as if Nigerians are coping with infrastructural shortcomings and the failings of the state in a way that makes the state obsolete or not necessary, because they're faced with a state that doesn't deliver basic infrastructure services. They cobbled together all these entrepreneurial ways of coping and providing water and electricity and security and education and health care and so on in the face of the government's shortcomings. But what I argue in the book is that the state is not so much absent as it's present in its absence.
What I mean by that is that the state is benefiting-- the people who steer the state are benefiting from these infrastructural failures.
DAN RICHARDS: Whether you're drilling a borehole, offering an informal transportation service, or selling diesel fuel to your neighbors--
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: All these private entrepreneurial bottom-up schemes entrepreneurial efforts require people to interact with the state all the time. So ironically, for Nigerians, their experience of citizenship is the citizenship they experience when they have to deal with the state in the context of navigating the state's failures. And for the people who steered the state, their power comes in at least in part by the power that they can wield, because people have to deal with them, because they're not providing the services that they're supposed to.
DAN RICHARDS: There's one widely used service, though, that circumvents this sort of citizen government interaction Dan describes. And that's communications. And by that, we mean cell phones.
While the quality and availability of other services has declined, the ability to talk to people on the phone has increased dramatically.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Up until the early two-thousands, before cell phone technology arrived in Nigeria, there were 500,000 landlines for a country that at that point had 120 million people. Now, Twenty Twenty-Three, 220 million people, 190 million cell phones. So not 190 million people with cell phones, but 190 million subscriptions. There are a lot of people who have two or three different cell phones. So they have a subscription to each of the three or four providers.
Still, I mean, you can go into what I would consider a very poor household in urban Nigeria and many poor rural households, people who don't have any other modern technology, people who maybe can't afford a bicycle, they have a cell phone.
DAN RICHARDS: And just as cell phone access has done everywhere in the world, in Nigeria--
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: It's really transformed social life in a lot of ways. People relate to their rural urban migrant kin by cell phone. An old granny who was left in the village can call her children who are in the city. Young people are savvy with all these social media. People are using Facebook, and TikTok, and Instagram, and all that kind of stuff. It's playing out in terms of things like matchmaking for marriage. It's playing out in terms of business relationships.
DAN RICHARDS: So why are cell phones so ubiquitous while water still often has to be carted into one's house in a wheelbarrow filled with jugs? Part of the reason is that telecommunication services in Nigeria, like in much of the rest of the world--
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: They're not public utilities. They're private. And in fact, the old public utility that provided the 500,000 landlines was called NITEL, the Nigerian Telecommunications something or other. And once cell phones took off, this was around Two-Thousand and Five or Two-Thousand and Six, there were three or four multinational companies, South African companies, European companies, that came in.
DAN RICHARDS: Meanwhile--
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: NITEL, the government entity, tried to launch its own cell phone service. And Nigerians avoided it like the plague. They were like, there's no way we're going to trust this same government provider to provide this infrastructural service.
DAN RICHARDS: Reading the chapter in your book on cell phones, it almost felt like-- and tell me if and how I'm getting this wrong. But it almost felt like this sort of advertisement for global neoliberalism in some way, where it was like the infrastructure when it's provided by some huge multinational corporation, where they can own a satellite that pipes it right to the individual, it can work for everyone more broadly, as opposed to the services that are semi-connected to government agencies that fail.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Yeah. I mean, so I guess one could interpret it the opposite way, which is what I would do. And rather than being an advertisement for neoliberalism or neoliberal provision of infrastructure, it's a reminder that the vast majority of infrastructural services are not like cell phones. The vast majority of infrastructural services can't depend on a satellite and a cell phone tower. They require a kind of social political government commitment to infrastructure as a public good.
So when infrastructure is a public good and not something through which a multinational company can profit, you get-- you potentially get a situation like you have with water and security and transportation and so on in Nigeria. I mean, if there were a neoliberal fix for water, for security, for transportation, for electricity, Nigerians would take it. They don't have a horse in the game as to whether it's bending socialist kind of governance model or a neoliberal model. They don't care.
DAN RICHARDS: And as Dan made clear , these private companies create many of their own problems.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: There's still a fair amount of discontent about it. I mean, Nigerians pay relatively high tariffs for using their cell phones. At the very beginning, the first five years or so, they were paying $0.15, $0.20, $0.25 a minute for calls, which is a lot in a Nigerian context. And so the result of that was a lot of popular discontent. And that resulted like a lot of discontents around infrastructure due. It resulted in these kind of conspiracy theories, these rumors about what was really going on. There's still this idea that some people are getting really rich from being in charge of the cell phone companies and the governments that grant the licenses and so on. And the poor, the average Nigerians, are still paying exorbitant fees for using these very attractive new technologies.
DAN RICHARDS: Yeah. It's an interesting mix, I feel like, throughout the book of optimism and pessimism and things like building plumbing in your house, because things will get better, but then maybe with an idea. Also in a new technology, like cell phones, it's like, well, of course, the old bad corruption is going to figure its way into it. There's an interesting tension there.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Yeah. I mean, it's a tension that has characterized kind of Nigerian social, cultural, political life ever since I've worked there, which is now again over 30 years. People are-- I mean, I guess it shouldn't be surprising, it's contradictory as humans are, but people are in the same breath incredibly optimistic about the future. It's a very hopeful place. These different polling entities surveys in African countries, and Nigerians always come out near the top in terms of hopefulness. But they also come out near the top in terms of discontent. It's a very interesting dynamic.
DAN RICHARDS: So going back to the election this year, what role did the country's infrastructure play in how people assessed candidates? Or maybe I should first ask, what were the main issues driving voters just generally?
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: It's a complicated question. I mean, I would argue that in any election, the capacity of the people running for the election to deliver to, as Nigerians say, in Nigerian English, to perform is central. And what do Nigerians mean when they say they want their politicians to perform? What they mean is they want them to deliver the basic dividends of democracy.
They want them to deliver development. They want them to deliver infrastructure and social services. They want the economy to turn around. They want there to be educational opportunities for their children that turn into jobs for their children, that turn into incomes that people can live off of. So there are very tangible things about economic opportunities and infrastructure and social services.
But behind that is a kind of larger aspiration for just a better future, a better world, a government that we can trust, politicians who do what they say they're going to do. And Nigerians have, for their whole independent history, I think, more or less been disappointed by their leaders. They more or less believed that their leaders are out for their own good and not for the people's good.
DAN RICHARDS: Which is part of the reason Peter Obi's campaign this past year was so unusual to observers of Nigerian politics like Dan.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Normally, there's not much sense that there's a choice between a leader who cares and a leader who doesn't care. People are cynical. They think that none of the leaders care. But what was so interesting about this recent presidential election in Nigeria was that somehow Peter Obi managed to kindle this idea that he was going to be different, that he was going to be trustworthy, that he was going to be a kind of a politician who was going to change business as usual, that he was going to have the interests of people at heart. That was a dynamic that has perhaps some future in terms of the next elections in Nigeria. I mean, this was a phenomenon that was new.
DAN RICHARDS: Were there specific aspects of the platform of Peter Obi's campaign or other leading candidates specifically around infrastructure?
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's interesting, Bola Tinubu, who's the recently inaugurated new president, who won the election, probably made his political reputation above all by improving large-scale infrastructure in Lagos. I mean, Lagos was the first city in Nigeria. And it's the biggest city. It's like 20 million people. The first city in Nigeria to start to have a public transportation system. They put in some light rail. They put in these dedicated bus lanes. They bought lots and lots of new buses and so on. And he very much made his demonstrated improvement of Lagos as a pillar of his campaign.
That being said, Peter Obi Wan Lagos state. So Bola Tinubu was the governor of Lagos from Nineteen Ninety-Nine to Two-Thousand and Seven, had this reputation as really improving things in the city. But he lost the city. I think Tinubu probably lost because despite the improvements in infrastructure in Lagos, that huge urban agglomeration was a place where young people's frustrations were at a peak, where there were so many discontented young people where social media is most accessible, where the idea that some sort of modern different let's change the old way of doing politics really caught on.
DAN RICHARDS: That's the optimistic take, that swarms of young people are searching for a new way forward for Nigerian leadership. There was also a more pessimistic explanation floating around for why Peter Obi did so well in Lagos in particular.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Another theory is that for those who think that the election was rigged, and again, as I said at the beginning, it's really hard to know, another theory is that Tinubu's people purposely had them lose Lagos. So when they stole the election for the whole country, they say, but he lost in Lagos. It can't be rigged if he lost in Lagos. I don't think that's true. But I think it's not surprising that that would be a conspiracy story that Nigerians would tell themselves, that with this history of corruption and rigged elections and so on, maybe Tinubu was such a mastermind that he purposely lost his home state so that it would be a cover for stealing the rest of the election.
DAN RICHARDS: So thinking about the role of young people in this election, it also made me wonder, you followed Ogechi and observed her daily life for a while, as she tried to make up for the services that the country was failing to provide households like her families. What was her view of the election or of Nigerian politics in general?
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Yeah. I mean, Ogechi embodied in many ways the contradictions that we've talked about already between hope and cynicism, between optimism for the future and resignation. I mean, she's very aware and critical of the failures of the state to provide basic infrastructure and social services. She complains about her daily routine of having to carry all this water up to an apartment that doesn't have electricity.
So 18 years old grew up in Umuahia, this small city, very much attuned to the problems that plague her country, but also very ambitious and hopeful for the future. I mean, she still thinks that at some point things will change. And that and that if she gets an education, and if she learns about the world and exposes herself to the rest of the world and to education and so on, that she's going to find a better future.
DAN RICHARDS: You've described yourself as an optimist on Nigeria's future. What makes you feel optimistic about the future of this country?
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: I mean, Nigerians. You can go to a lot of places around the world and not feel the irrepressible hustle, ambition, wherewithal, stick-to-itiveness, go get it. I mean, Nigerians are incredibly ambitious people, willing to work hard to get what they want.
DAN RICHARDS: And Dan doesn't see this ambition only focused on the individual or on the single household. He thinks many people in Nigeria do want a more systemic change.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: It seems pretty clear to me that the entrepreneurial, the informal economic mechanisms for providing basic infrastructure and social services are a stopgap. They're a Band-Aid. They're not what Nigerians want. I mean, Nigerians, despite all the failures of the state, they want the state to do better. They would rather have the state be an effective provider of infrastructure and social services than cobble it together on their own.
DAN RICHARDS: It's a tall order for a country that has long struggled to provide these types of services to its citizens. But Dan's work and time spent in Nigeria has revealed to him a country that is up for almost any challenge.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: Nigerians always maintain this remarkable degree of hope that I sometimes find perplexing, like I'm not sure I could be as hopeful if I were living in the situation in the sort of infrastructural and governance climate that Nigerians are living in. But they maintained a tremendous hope. So their hope kind of feeds my hope. As long as they're hopeful, as long as they have the ambition and the wherewithal that they demonstrate all the time, I believe that they'll find a way out of this.
DAN RICHARDS: Daniel Jordan Smith, thank you so much for coming on to Trending Globally.
DANIEL JORDAN SMITH: My pleasure.
DAN RICHARDS: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by me, Dan Richards. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield, additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you like the show, please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you haven't subscribed to our show, please do that, too.
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