Even by Africa’s very high standards for the bizarre, the saga over Kenya’s deportation two weeks ago of controversial Nigerian businessman Anthony Chinedu takes the biscuit.
The Nigerian authorities have said Chinedu, two other Nigerians with whom he was deported, the crew of the chartered plane — which includes a Swedish pilot — used to take the Nigerian trio back home, can only leave if they take the deportees back with them to Kenya.
Chinedu is talking big, saying things like the chartered plane is now his, and that unless the Kenya Government compensates him the money he has lost, it will not return.
He is wrong if he thinks any of this is about him. It is about how Nigeria sees itself in Africa and the world.
It is Africa’s most populous nation at 150 million, and has produced some of the most world renowned Africans — Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, name it.
It has some of Africa’s most educated people. In a few years, it will overtake South Africa to become Africa’s largest economy.
Though its international image has been tarred by its rank corruption, its 419 fraudsters, and more recently, by extremist violence at home, Nigeria still expects to be treated with respect.
In fact, precisely because of those negatives, it has become more sensitive to what it considers national humiliation.
And no country in Africa is as unafraid to retaliate in these matters as Nigeria is (I guess followed by Rwanda and Ethiopia, in that order).
Last year South Africa deported 125 Nigerians for allegedly possessing fake yellow fever certificates.
A few hours later, a South African Airlines flight landed at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. Nigeria promptly bundled the 28 South Africans who were on board back to Johannesburg.
In one incident alone in May last year, it deported 45 Chinese for allegedly being involved in “economic scavenging” (only the Nigerians would come up with a crime like that).
And what is that? Engaging in petty trade.
It is understandable why Nigeria would want to be taken seriously. Kenya’s economy is smaller than that of Lagos.
By the end of this year, Lagos will surpass Cairo as Africa’s largest city. It has nearly 120 million mobile phone subscribers, almost the entire population of East Africa.
A friend who deals in mobile phones tells me he went into a shop in Dubai to buy about 50 phones, when a Nigerian dealer entered.
He was kicked out, and the shop put up a “Closed” sign. The Nigerian had ordered “all” the phones on display and in the shop’s stores.
Last year, the BBC reported, Nigerians almost single-handedly saved London’s High Street retailers.
They plunked hundreds of millions of Pounds on everything from clothing to perfumes, with the average Nigerian shopper spending $700 per transaction.
With property prices still reeling from the global financial crisis, the Nigerians rode to the rescue. In just the first half of 2012, they splashed more than $50 million on property in Dubai.
But there is more. Being among the most authentically African people, Nigerians do actually believe in this “African pride” thing, and often are puzzled that other Africans find them loud and insufferable.
Increasingly, some African countries are beginning to figure out that dealing with the pride issue is the best way to reach into a Nigerian’s wallet.
Nigerians gripe that it is difficult to get transit visas at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport when en route to or from places like Dubai when they arrive on those Kenya Airways (KQ) flights to Nigeria.
Rwanda, which is hoping to grow RwandaAir’s business by stealing some West African traffic from KQ, decided to remove pre-departure visa requirements for all Africans.
The Nigerian press has several reports of Nigerian travellers praising Rwanda for its spirit of African brotherhood in recent months. Word has it that RwandaAir’s flights to Dubai are overflowing with Nigerians.
Nigeria, though, must still do its part. It needs to spend its diplomatic capital fighting for the “right” type of Nigerian. Kenyans, and indeed, the world, must rightly wonder whether a chap like Chinedu is worth all the trouble.