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Comedian Phage and A Billion Laughs: How Funny is a National Crises?

Phage and A Billion Laughs: Nigerian Dream

It was a packed night in Allianz Francais, Ikoyi when the comedian Fejiro “Phage” Omu hosted his evening long comedy special, titled “The Nigerian Dream.” The show used humour as an attempt to deconstruct what exactly it means to be a Nigerian in 2022 and the struggles, uncertainty and lack of dignity entailed. Produced by A Billion Laughs, this event carries a certain awareness of history around it. In the days leading up to the event, promotional material involved Phage spoofing what the average Nigerian politician talks about, and their mannerism as well. The branding effort around the event also converged to this purpose, and it grew expectations on how loaded the content should be. 


Phage, heavy-set, who I have once written about as a shy performer who tangoes with the audience, has taken time to revise his craft. He now attacks instead of reacting, he doles out his points in energetic bursts like an early round boxer. His humor still lies in keen observation but his composure is one of emphasis.  Phage is assisted by a group of talented comics as well, all leading edge, and displaying probably the most solid performances I had seen from them… at the time. Acts like DeeMajor, Timi Adetayo, Ebuka Mic, Emechidera, Makinde David held the crowd in Phage’s absence to roaring laughter. With a level of consciousness in their approach that left an aftertaste of Nigerian history. 


To properly understand The Nigerian Dream, one would need a bit of context about its history. The only time it can be accepted that Nigerians shared a feasible aspiration as a nation was in 1973. We had just ditched shillings, and pounds for naira. transitioning from the metric currency system to one of decimal, it heralded a new dawn in the country’s story. Oil had been discovered over 15 years prior and price per barrel was about to jump from $3 to $11. We clocked at 0.658 naira to a dollar and an economic boom loomed overhead. Promises of “accelerated development” were rife. At this time, migration was not as much a hot topic for the Nigerian middle class. It was popular to buy into the Nigerian dream. By 1980, one naira had already equaled one dollar. And it has only fallen further since.


A number of factors contribute to the collapse and dismantling of the Nigerian system. Timi Adetayo, whose set opens the show, helps in deconstructing the Nigerian education-employability problem. Timi, middle aged in delivery but juvenile in content never strays too far from his Bishop Oyedepo impression— for good reason, since it rarely ages. He caricatures a certain level of indoctrination that occurs in our learning institutions, and how the real world hardly prepares us for the cold reality that is to come. He compares the usefulness of his Physics degree to other practical professions like law, medicine and engineering. 


You see, the first reason for “Japa” or mass migration was the inability of the working-class frame to absorb professionals it produced every year. Infact, their journey into other countries was seen by Nigeria as a temporary solution to a temporary problem.  In the first documented report the Federal Executive Council launched into brain drains in 1973, the topic was downplayed in their analysis citing that “though the issue is a problem, it has not reached crisis proportions”. They still took affirmative action however, by launching ‘Andrew, I’m checking out’– a series of short adverts encouraging people to stay home. They billed Enebeli Elebuwa, a famous face at the time to drive the campaign. 


The problem has only worsened since. According to the World Bank in 2011, approximately 10.7% of tertiary educated Nigerians have emigrated. In 2023, over 52% of professionals will leave if they had the opportunity, a survey says. Even the internet fraud culture began when the government cut scholarship stipends for bright minds who were studying abroad, leaving them to fend for themselves anyway and anyhow they could. The anti-migratory “Andrew I’m Checking Out” campaign has been revitalized by a group of Nigerians abroad called “NGA Diaspora Project 4040.” But this fails to discourage anyone from traveling, it only finds success in saying: “Overseas is full, we don’t need more people like us.”


Nigerians fetishise immigration. Wives leave the country without telling their husbands. Best friends who had drinks last week and made plans to continue the tradition suddenly end up a continent apart with one the wiser. Phage feeds into this discourse when the audience were urged to stand up for a rendition of the Nigerian national anthem out of respect, and then the music abruptly changed to the Canadian anthem midway. Later, Phage points out that Nigeria will be 62 next week, and then he connects that observation to people traveling out as children want to spend less time with their retired and aged parents. 


This show leans heavily on mass migration but grazes on the deeper issues that lead to these exoduses to Europe. Emechidera’s set, earnest and lucid, talks about the role charisma plays in politics, thereby affecting how we see Politicians. He talks about South Africans holding on to Mandela’s words– even if they are inane, the people will read extra meanings to it. He juxtaposes this with Dino Melaye and Governor Wike’s dramatic antics. A line of thought showing how Nigerians buy into things heard, even if they offer little substance. Eme tells us, using humour how strong-man politics and popularity contests have taken over civil conversations. Seeing how well we can be distracted by a sprinkle of charisma, and the joke of the day–our capacity as a people to vote properly is called into question. 


The insight offered by Emechidera on various “Strong men” that Nigerians respect is telling on the country’s trajectory so far. Babangida, Buhari’s military regime, and Abacha are just a few examples of individuals whose decisions have contributed to the gradual fall of the naira and a constant uptick in migration percentages. By 1991, the naira had dropped to 9.30 naira for one dollar in the black market. Nigeria, at this time under the rule of Babangida saw a total dismantling of the Civil Service that once provided citizens a quiet, sufficient safety net to live and raise children. This line of thought presses even more urgent as numerous civilians daydream of military intervention to break status quo and restore order.


Phage’s jokes on this issue refuse to draw blood on the unsavoury perspectives that lie within migration, which has become a buzzword for the middle class. Beyond school applications and long lines at embassies, the reality lies in young Nigerians squeezing themselves in stowaways, freezing before the Plane hits the tarmac. Groups of people traveling through the sahara, most falling behind to thirst and starvation. Crowding up Morocco, Libya and other MENA countries searching for an opening into Europe. If an opportunity arises, they overload onto boats and set sail for Greece, capsizing just a few kilometres from their destination. 


Yet, even in the face of hostility– foreign embassies are crowded everyday, and the mere thought of leaving the country remains an achievement. Phage’s bit on job interviews and the high pressure environment that accompanies them almost mirrors the tense environment in visa offices. Timi closed his set with a short poem about Nigeria that converges with Phage’s views— and frankly, a national view on the state of things.


“Nigeria o Nigeria.”

He pauses in silence.

“Leave while you can… goodnight”


Rather than telling jokes about diaspora struggles or corruption, tribalism, and terrorism within Nigeria, Phage leans on intra and interpersonal relations. His works shine the brightest when he draws parallels between systems that work in other countries and how they perform around here. In one of his most memorable bits, Phage draws a vocal roadmap juxtaposing being a valet in the US and Nigeria. The valet in the US makes enough money to buy a car which he can use as Uber. The valet in Nigeria meets someone and becomes a taxi driver while pushing thuggery as a means to maintain political connection. While the American transport worker might grow through the ranks and end up an astronaut, his Nigerian counterpart might eventually become the state governor.


Phage poses more questions around the country’s reality. What would happen if Nigeria hosted the world cup? He draws bewildering scenarios like Paul Pogba getting arrested on the basis of his hairstyle and being paraded on Crime Fighters. The comedian tackles Nigeria’s lack of regard for its own, asking why we import nannies from the Phillipines when we know Akwa Ibom women are great with children. 


“What happened to all the local bumbum out there?” Phage asks with urgency, bemoaning news that Nigerian clubs import dancers from the USA to strip for them. The reality of having factors we do not interact with in meaningful ways, affecting our day to day activities– and holding so much sway on our quality of life drives home the powerlessness of the average citizen. Even the neighborhood vulcaniser uses the phrase “Dollar ti won” translated to ‘Dollar is now expensive’  to justify raising prices. There are cracks in whatever we can prop up within the country, as the definitive Nigerian dream.


What is the Nigerian Dream? What is any country’s dream really? The ‘insert-country’ dream phrase is culled from post World War 2 America when battle hardened returnees were encouraged to return to the industries. The American Dream was simple: “If you work hard, you can support a family” and was branded into minds during the golden age of capitalism. This has since fallen apart as corporations have grown into bottlenecks and the people are considered a means to an end.


Lawsuits against the Purdue Pharmacy, Tobacco companies and social media giants reveal that there is little dignity, if any, offered to the average person in America. And this problem is replicated in every country where capitalism, or society exists. In fact, very few governments are interested in governing today– It is a game centered around control.


Now that one dollar is roughly 1,400 naira, and the Nigerian institution is on the verge of collapse– our dream borders on the absurd and is most times tied around affluence and riches. Prosperity sermons are rave within churches, and mosques. The concept of grace is gobbled up, unmerited ‘favour’ as a prayer point is even more appreciated as it draws large congregations for religious leaders. We have a culture that is loud about money, and doesn’t hesitate to look the other way when the sources are discussed. 


A legitimate Nigerian Dream is rarely ever achievable. It receives no support, and most times, the few that have gained a level of success spread themselves dangerously thin or trade off a part of themselves for it. And even then, they cannot avoid the institutional dysfunction or lack of security that comes with staying within the country— or even, having family or friends that are still fighting for their dreams. There is no joy in being a King amongst squalor.


This comedy show was punctuated by DeeMajor and Ebuka Mic. They freebased with the crowd, performing some of their own jokes but still managing to circle it back to Phage at certain periods. At a point, Deemajor chipped in that his father is in the sky shouting ‘Praise the lord.’ Once the crowd aww’d in sadness– Phage’s father shouted ‘praise the lord’ to uproar from everybody, showing exactly where Phage got his funny from. 


The special, which is now available on Youtube, is shot in different angles. A straight one focused on the man, himself. There’s a camera behind Phage that captures a grand view of his Agbada and a stream of attendees ogling at him. Another camera is closer to the crowd to capture people’s faces– you can see Phage’s colleagues: Chime Francis, Parkhage, SLK all invested and showing support. Phage’s mum, dad and siblings are also present. While there might be nothing like the Nigerian dream, or any country’s dream for that matter. The young comedian, Fejiro ‘Phage’ Omu is living his dream, and this special is a testament to that fact. 



Oyedele is passionate about culture and arts. Engage on instagram and twitter, @omoalokan