The ongoing Expo 2020 holding in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, will end on the 31st of March 2022. The six-month event, which should have started from October 2020, was delayed till October 2021 because of the debilitating COVID-19 pandemic (some call it plandemic), which grounded the world and left us shivering in fear in the different corners of our rooms. But the determined Emiratis found the earliest opportunity to move right ahead and do what needed to be done.
The concept of the World Expo was originally known as World Fair, a platform where nations come to showcase their achievements. I believe it was conceived as a way to operationalize the idea that to ‘jaw-jaw’ is better than to ‘war-war’. I believe that the Olympics is the sports version of it. So, call this the Olympics of tangible achievements. And indeed, it is much better to encourage nations to come together for sports, or business, or tourism, or industry, or technology, rather than to seek to destroy one another out of ignorance and hatred. The World Fair could not however prevent the two world wars that we have seen, but its usefulness is unquestionable. There are four types of world fairs; one is a specialized fair, which was hosted last by Kazakhstan in 2017. The one going on in Dubai presently is the larger World Expo, which was last held in Milan, Italy in the year 2015. There is also a Horticultural Expo, and what is known as the Milan Triennial – an art and design expo which takes place only in Milan every three years.
The world started coming together on this idea of Expos, in 1791, with the maiden edition having held in Bohemia, in the present-day Czech Republic. It was to mark the coronation of King Leopold II as king of Bohemia. The focus was on what was then the manufacturing prowess of the Czech lands. After the first one, another held in Paris in 1844, and in the Crystal Palace, London in 1851, and there have been clear themes coming with different eras. Between 1851 and 1938, the focus was generally on Industrialization. Between 1939 and 1987 the focus shifted to Cultural Exchange and the sharing of technological innovation. From 1988 till date, it has been about Nation Branding, with countries using the platform as an avenue to burnish their national images. Of course, more and more, technological innovation dominates the expos, as nations showcase their abilities to produce, not just primary goods (like farm produce), nor secondary goods (like processed agricultural products like chocolates or butter), but tertiary goods like technology. One could even argue that nations are now at the level of quaternary (knowledge sector), and quinary (evaluation and interpretation of new technologies) products and services. But it is significant to take note of the fact that countries suddenly started obsessing over image since 1987, very much around the time when we were implementing SAP, devaluing our currency, and beginning our downward descent, not only as Nigeria but most of black Africa. Historians have work to do to unravel what happened in that era. It was the era in which Africa lost respect.
Trust Dubai with its penchant for doing superlative things. A new city was built for this one, called the Expo City, covering 1,038 acres of space. After the Expo, the huge place – which cannot possibly be covered in a single day or week by anyone – will become residential, with some people getting lucky to live in some of the most innovative and bizarrely-designed buildings ever. And with this project, Dubai has extended its territory further than imagined – the Expo City is at least 10-20 kilometers after Jebel Ali, which used to be the outer limits of Dubai and where the Metro terminated. Now, the Metro has extended to the Expo, with plans to continue on to Abu Dhabi.
Let’s not forget Africa. Africa is there at the Expo, but with very little to show. I visited the pavilions of countries like Cameroun, Mali, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and of course, Nigeria. All the countries featured their agricultural produces, and some featured their fisheries industries. A few invited tourists to come and enjoy their beaches and the sun. Nigeria did not really bother with tourism or crops per se. we emphasized instead, our fashion industry, and then our music. So, we should just admit that our music industry is our remaining pride as a nation. I didn’t see a lot about Nollywood though. And there was nowhere pointing to how visitors could engage with that music industry or to download the music they liked. So, we did not position well to capitalize on the only thing we could showcase. Our pavilion was sparsely populated, though I saw Asians and a few Caucasians strolling in. Most visitors were done with our pavilion in two or three minutes. And we shared a building with Cyprus, I think. In short, our showing as a nation was well, forgettable. In some of the serious nations, like UAE, South Korea, Australia, Finland, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and more, people queued in the hundreds and waited patiently in the sun to be let in to see what wonders these countries had planned for the world.
A few African countries were more ambitious. Angola was remarkable, and they even got a few of their budding musicians to play live salsa music, much to the applause of onlookers. Angola, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, among a few African nations, had their own specially-designed building which showed their current status and their readiness for the future. South Africa’s pavilion was not particularly mind-blowing but the concept was a little more engaging than what we showcased as Nigeria.
In short, Black Africa especially was not doing anything spectacular and does not seem to want to do anything spectacular into the future. Angola’s newfound gung-ho probably stems from the huge Chinese investments in that country. Angolan natives may yet catch some inspiration and move ahead in terms of competencies and vision. But all of us in black Africa should challenge ourselves. Whereas countries are producing 5th level innovation products and are catching the attention of the world, we have remained as primary products producers and are even doing woefully in that respect. China we hear, has started exporting cocoa, and has also perfected the processing of Garri, by manufacturing a 6-stage machine that does the work perfectly, with little waste. No wonder, we in Africa are still unable to feed ourselves. Yet we now need all the innovations of the rest of the world – which we often consume with impunity and minds lacking contrition or introspection. Who will wake up black Africa?
A week after coming back home, I had cause to attend an event in one of the remote parts of Lagos State. Driving to that place and back, I was afraid. Afraid whether we could continue at the pace at which we are progressing – like we have no intention to catch up with the world. Afraid if we intend to continue into the next 100, 200 years in so much dishevelment, filth, chaos, want, deprivation. The world has moved on, and in the new world, there is no space for many of the things that define Africa. It is very possible, that if we consistently show that we don’t know how to optimize, modernize, rearrange, de-uglify, our spaces, in a very short while, those who know how to will find smart ways of taking them over from us. I’ve said my bit.