Last week, Nigeria hosted one of the central deities in the global revolution called social media—in the name of Hon Triple High Chief Sir (Dr.) Alhaji Mark Zuckerberg, Grand Commander of the American Republic (GCAR), founder, chairman, chief executive officer (CEO) of Facebook International Corporation, the Eze Gburugburu of Iru Akwukwo, Oga Patapata of Menlo Park, California, and the Magajin Garin of Cyberspace.
Okay, okay, you get the point. Let’s just say, then, that an entrepreneur known, simply, as Mark Zuckerberg visited Nigeria last week. And what an education he gave to all of us, from the Nigerian president down to the unheralded First Citizens of Nigeria’s slummiest slums.
In a mere few days of his presence in Nigeria, Mr. Zuckerberg gave Nigerians of all classes an invaluable education on—among other subjects—the meaning of success, the uses of simplicity, the beauty of human connection, and the relationship between big dreams and big impact.
Above all—and unlike most of Nigeria’s politically enriched millionaires—Mark Zuckerberg made his presence felt—without ostentation, without aggrandizing himself, without (as is the wont of many a Nigerian person of means) wearing his wealth on his body. Until his meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice President Osibanjo and other government officials, where he dressed formally in a suit and tie, Mark Zuckerberg sported a T-shirt and a pair of denim pants. Given Nigerians’ obsession with “wearing wealth,” Zuckerberg, the very face of Facebook, risked being mistaken for an oyibo factotum to some rich Nigerian.
This is no screed against affluent Nigerians who choose to spend a handsome budget on their clothing and fashion accessories. What impressed me about Zuckerberg’s fashion sense is that its frills-free simplicity is no act. Or, if it is, it has been so longstanding, so consistent as to constitute a signature. Zuckerberg has swag all right; and it’s the swag of modesty. Besides, there’s something to be said for that Zuckerbergian riff: adorning expensive clothing confers little or no value.
Mr. Facebook impressed in other ways. He struck me as a man who felt at home among Nigerians of all ages and stations. I was particularly attentive to his demeanor as he visited some of Nigeria’s tech innovators and interacted with youngsters devoted to mastering tech skills. Far from mounting a rostrum to lecture the youngsters, he seemed content to observe, eager to learn. And he commended: “The energy here is amazing and I’m excited to learn as much as I can.” He went jogging in Lagos, capital of Lagos State, with a posse of Nigeria’s tech innovators. About the jog on the Ikoyi-Lekki Bridge, he posted, “Quick run this morning across the Ikoyi Bridge with entrepreneurs in the Lagos Road Warriors running club. Best way to see a city!” He ate and appeared to relish Nigerian cuisines. In fact, throughout his visit, he exuded a cheery disposition.
I’d suggest that Zuckerberg’s strongest message was not delivered in words, but in gestural vocabulary. In a country that carries deference to age to absurd lengths, the 32-year old co-founder of Facebook modeled in himself a portrait of what’s possible when ambition is fertilized by youthful quest and energy. And in focusing attention on Nigeria’s burgeoning tech talent, he reminded us that Nigeria’s future lies, not in the hands of empty-headed, superannuated knaves who flatter themselves as “chieftains,” but with driven young men and women who are versed in the language of modernity.
For a moment—a rich, fertile moment—Zuckerberg’s presence trumpeted the power of ideas, instead of the idea of power, as the path into the future. A large part of Nigeria’s bane is the decades’-long erosion of vision, planning, in the affairs of Nigeria. Nigerian leaders arrive in office without anybody challenging them to define a smidgen of a serious idea, anything resembling a plan. Instead, they deafen us with the fatuous catechism that “God is in control” or the equally facile claim that they have “delivered the dividends of democracy.”
Zuckerberg and his wife are worth $54.5 billion. You heard right, that’s B for billion. Let’s put that personal wealth in some familiar perspective. If the Facebooker and his wife were a country, they would have more than twice the size of Nigeria’s 2015 budget, which was $22.6 billion. And they would easily cover every cent in Nigeria’s 2016 deficit-ridden budget, worth $30.6 billion when President Buhari signed it into law in May. And they would still have $14 billion as change.
For me, the point is not the astonishing scale of the young man’s assets. As a Nigerian, I find it remarkable that Zuckerberg’s wealth had its genesis as an idea. Whilst a student at Harvard, he and some of his counterparts dreamed up an audacious idea: to create a forum that enables people around the world to connect and converse. That idea morphed into Facebook, a social media platform now used by more than 1.7 billion people in the world.
I doubt that Zuckerberg’s brain is larger than that of every thirty-something year old Nigerian. Chances are there are many young Nigerians just as imaginative as the Facebook founder, many who, given the right conditions, are just as capable of translating their grand ideas into astounding projects.
But what does Nigeria do with and to its Zuckerbergs? It stifles them, bottles up their aspirations, scuttles their dreams, and reduces them to mendicants and servile praise singers to their country dream wreckers. If Zuckerberg and his dreamer-doer friends had been students at a Nigerian university when they first conceived of Facebook, they would have had to contend with the hostility and cynicism of some of their professors. “You boys think you can just come up with some stupid idea? Oya, there’s a quiz tomorrow, let me see how you’ll pass!”
In Nigeria, we have embraced an anti-youth, anti-innovative, anti-achievement culture. These days, when a young Nigerian displays impressive intellectual skills, it is not because her country has high academic standards; it is, in fact, in spite of his country’s best and sinister efforts to keep her steeped in ignorance, wedded to mediocrity. When a Nigerian artiste breaks out as a major musical talent, it is hardly because his country has a vibrant cultural sector that groomed him. Often, he reached into something vital and hardy in himself—and achieved his dream.
Had Zuckerberg been a Nigerian, nobody would hear his name unless his father was a member of the board of trustees or chieftain of the ruling party, a guzzler of public funds, or some henchman in the armed forces. With all his brilliant ideas, he’d be lucky to get a job as a special assistant on flattery to some nameless local government chairman.
Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have a daughter. Were the couple Nigerians, they would have bought the girl one or two Rolls Royces, a private jet, and a yacht. Instead, the Zuckerbergs wrote a public letter to their daughter a few years ago to reveal their plan to give away most of their wealth—exactly 99%—to the cause of “advancing human potential and promoting equality.”
Mr. Buhari told Zuckerberg: “In our culture, we are not used to seeing successful people appear like you. We are not used to seeing successful people jogging and sweating on the streets…We are happy you are well-off and simple enough to always share.”
Unlike the tech entrepreneur, many of Nigeria’s wealthiest amassed their fortunes by shooting their way to power, rigging elections, through contract fraud, from questionable acquisition of oil blocks or other transfers of public assets. I wonder: did these fake “big” men and women pay attention as Mark Zuckerberg showed us the real meaning of change?
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