Okri’s “Stars of A New Curfew” provides a startling window into the “resource curse” that accompanied the petro boom in Nigeria. In the story, two local millionaires (Odeh and Assi’s fathers) manipulate the people of the narrator’s hometown, offering illusions of raining money, the power of strange occultist rituals, and the aspirations of a better life that never materializes. But how did it get this way?
When talking about the “resource curse,” Nigeria is high on the list of problem children. In a Conflict and Development class I took last semester, we examined how this cycle perpetuates itself: when a resource boom occurs, the government is suddenly flooded with extra money, which starts a frenzy of budget padding where every official artificially inflates their department’s budget in order to soak up some of the extra cash. In Nigeria, some departments inflated their budget requests by 200-400% to reap the benefits of oil’s economic windfall. Buoyed by high oil prices and a strong market, money streams into the government system, but when oil prices drop and profits roll back, these same government offices refuse to reign in the spending allowances they received during the boom. Instead of cutting out kickbacks and pork, government officials slash instrumental public services like healthcare and city works projects crucial to the functioning of the country. Infrastructure begins to decay, the government goes into debt, and the process is repeated every time there is another spike in prices.
Okri shows us the stark ways this affects everyday people in Lagos and the narrator’s hometown of “W.” The only means of protecting yourself and earning a decent living is to come under the protection of “big men” whose powerful connections to oil and seemingly unending wealth (from the same kickbacks and bribes which oil the governmental machine) steer the fate of the entire town. These millionaires hold the town in thrall, hosting events where they shower money on the poor and watch them scramble for it as live entertainment for the rich. They contest each other’s power in a ridiculous game of one-upmanship which, despite the thousands of naira “donated” through their competitions, never improves life for anyone in the town. Assi and Odeh are the petro-naira narrative writ small. Millionaires are governors feeding their own pockets from the industry that should sustain the entire country, and offering a tale of success and economic prowess while the majority of citizens suffer. Yet perhaps it is most telling that the poor need no metaphors to tell Okri’s story – in real life as in “Stars of A New Curfew,” too often they are left with no options, working for the men at the top of the ladder, and dreaming of America.