Into Africa

In Nigeria all roads lead to Lagos. In South Florida all Nigerians take the road to Sam's place in Opa-locka.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is a teeming nation of 110 million people in an area just larger than Texas. When Nigeria earned its independence from Britain in 1960, the country was a tense union of Arab-influenced Muslim states in the north and traditional African kingdoms in the south. That union nearly shattered during a civil war that began in 1967, when eastern Nigeria seceded as Biafra. After three years of fighting, the Nigerian army crushed the famine-weakened Biafrans, and the country has been ruled by military governments ever since -- with the exception of a short-lived federal republic in the late Seventies and early Eighties.

Despite its political upheavals, Nigeria has produced many noteworthy figures, in culture both high (Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, novelist Chinua Achebe) and low (basketball center Hakeem Olajuwon, singer Sade). But the country's real story is an economic one. The largest petroleum exporter in Africa, with plentiful oil fields in the southeast and delta regions, Nigeria exports 22 million barrels daily and has reserves estimated at 20 billion barrels.

But the oil revenues have not been invested in improving the nation's infrastructure, according to Mike Fleshman, human rights coordinator for the Africa Fund in Washington, D.C. Twice since 1988 specially appointed auditors have investigated oil revenue expenditures. But when they concluded that a total of $21 billion was unaccounted for, their reports were quashed. The political corruption and resulting economic slump have prompted massive departures from the country. Fleshman says, "Part of the great tragedy is this: When you look at the incredibly rich human capital and the depth of its resources, Nigeria should have been the first real superpower to emerge from Africa. It still has that potential, but it has been squandered."

Sam Jack grew up in Port Harcourt in the south-central Niger River delta region, where the British Petroleum Company built Nigeria's first refinery in the Fifties. Even the history of the oil economy is a tragic one: To transport this liquid gold, multinational corporations laid pipelines through small villages. Over decades the pipes have rusted and leaked, and some rivers and streams in the delta have become so polluted that some of Sam's minority Ijaw tribe can no longer make their living fishing, as they had for generations. His own father worked as a police officer.

By the time Sam earned a bachelor's degree in business from the University of Miami in 1980, Nigeria's first elected civilian president, Shehu Shagari, had been in power for a year, and outside analysts predicted a period of prosperity. "During the time of the oil boom of the Seventies and Eighties, the whole drive [among Nigerian expatriates] was to go back home," recalls Carol Boyce-Davis, director of the African-American Studies program at Florida International University. She earned her doctorate in African literature in 1979 from Ibadan University in southern Nigeria. "People worked hard and got their education, and when they got home they were assured nice positions at a high level. There was a time when you got a position in government and you automatically got a car. It was an amazing time."

Sam decided to remain in Miami, where he could buy industrial chemicals relatively cheaply and export them to the continent at a profit. The trade remained vigorous until Gen. Ibrahim Babangida took power from the military (which had overthrown Shagari) in a 1985 coup; the economy began to deteriorate and Sam's business suffered. "I lost most of my Nigerian customers because they couldn't get lines of credit," Sam recalls. "In 1986 the naira was devalued and no one could afford to import anything. Now they make their own resins and pastes."

When Sam realized that his export business was faltering, he opened a shop in Fort Lauderdale importing African products. Not only could he sell to West Africans but also to Haitians, Jamaicans, and even Cubans, for dried cod (bacalao) is a part of Caribbean culture as well, and some Nigerian products are used in Santeria rituals. But Sam needed a large staff to operate the Fort Lauderdale store. He says he couldn't manage them effectively, so he shut down that business and opened the grocery.

Like Sam, many of the men who frequent Specialty International have decided to stay in the United States rather than attempt the almost impossible task of succeeding in Nigeria. Sunday Aiyegbeni completed his training as a pilot at Burnside-Ott Aviation School, the Miami arm of a Pensacola military contractor, but the national airline had stopped hiring. "The market for commercial pilots was saturated with people more qualified than I," he recalls. So he remained at Burnside to earn credentials as a flight instructor. Before he could finish, Burnside-Ott was purchased by a larger company in 1986 and closed down. "I was stranded," he says.

Aiyegbeni and another Nigerian aviation student pooled their resources and started to export high-tech equipment and spare parts to the Nigerian government. (The country's oil revenues and loans from international banks helped the government stay afloat while the economy worsened.) His partner's brother remained in Nigeria to negotiate contracts with officials. The export trade has not made Aiyegbeni or his partners rich, but it has provided Aiyegbeni what his own country could not: gainful employment.

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