Most Americans know very little about Nigeria, and that which they do know is extraordinarily negative.

Nigeria is viewed as a nation with a breathtakingly corrupt government, intractable violence in its oil producing region, and as the source of the e-mail scams that clog countless in-boxes each and every day.

Nigeria’s most damaging label, that of burgeoning terrorist haven, was sadly affixed last Christmas Day, when a young Nigerian who was radicalized in the Middle East attempted to blow up a plane over Detroit.

While Nigeria’s miserable reputation has mostly been well-earned, the country’s critical importance to the United States still cannot and should not be ignored.

Nigeria is by far the most populous nation in Africa. One out of four Africans is a Nigerian. The country is Sub-Saharan Africa’s most prodigious oil producer and the fourth-largest exporter to the U.S. Those who denounce Nigeria as a haven for angry Islamic terrorists, fail to realize how highly the country regards America.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2010 Global Attitudes Survey, 81 percent of Nigerians have a favorable view of the U.S. The only two countries ahead of Nigeria o then survey are Kenya (94 percent), the homeland of President Obama’s father, and the United States itself (85 percent).
Nigeria has been recognized by the United Nations not for exporting terrorists, but peacekeepers.

The country is the fourth-largest contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping missions around the world. Nigeria played an indispensable role in ending brutal civil wars in Liberia and the Sierra Leone, and soldiers from the country constitute the majority of the African Union’s peacekeeping forces in Darfur.

Just as the importance of Nigeria is often overlooked and underappreciated, so to is the positive impact of Nigerians living in America. We are the largest African immigrant group in the U.S., and the largest African group in Los Angeles. We are the largest group of Black professionals in the country and have the highest levels of education in the nation.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey, 17 percent of all Nigerians in United States hold master’s degrees, 4 percent have doctorates, and 37 percent have bachelor’s degrees.

By comparison, 8 percent of Whites have master’s degrees, 1 percent hold doctorates, and 19 percent have bachelor’s degrees. Nigerian Americans have made their mark in all aspects of American life, including sports, where they have led teams to NCAA titles, NBA championships and Super Bowl victories. Several are among the highest-paid athletes in their respective leagues.

While Nigerians have flourished in America, our native land has suffered bitterly. In the 50 years since independence, the country has endured a devastating civil war, multiple military coups, sporadic eruptions of deadly religious and ethnic-based violence and repressive regimes which wrecked the country’s economy and trampled on basic political and human rights.

According to the World Bank, 85 percent of Nigeria’s oil revenues accrue to a mere 1 percent of the population, and approximately $300 billion of that revenue has been stolen over the last 40 years by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Nigeria is home to the third-largest number of poor people in the world. Approximately one million Nigerian children under the age of five die each year, most from preventable causes. Nigeria also has the second highest number of maternal deaths annually, behind only India. Every 10 minutes, at least one Nigerian woman dies in childbirth.

Nigerian Americans are not indifferent to this suffering, however. Armed with degrees from schools like Harvard, Princeton and Yale, they are returning home in droves to overhaul government agencies, start successful businesses and build up the country’s infrastructure.

After I graduated from Stanford Law School in 2007, I declined several lucrative offers from L.A.area law firms in order to help my father build a world-class hospital in his home state in eastern Nigeria. I ran our foundation from Los Angeles, and I am continually inspired by the ferocious desire young Nigerian Americans here in the city have to help transform our parents’ homeland.

For the past 50 years, Nigeria has failed as a nation, while its people have achieved stunning success outside its borders. If the country is to achieve political stability and increased economic growth, Nigerians living both inside and outside of the country must dedicate themselves heart and soul to the country’s development. With such commitment, and with the sustained support and engagement of American philanthropists and the U.S. government, Nigeria can fulfill its immeasurable potential and become, at last, a nation worthy of its amazing people.

Nigerians think very highly of the United States. As the country faces its second half-century of freedom and opportunity, it is my fierce hope that Americans will one day regard Africa’s Colossus with the same admiration and respect.

Afam Onyema is co-founder and chief operating officer of The GEANCO Foundation, which develops medical, educational and athletic facilities in Nigeria. He graduated from Harvard University and Stanford Law School and now lives in Los Angeles. In 2008, he organized a symposium on HIV/AIDS and Malaria in Africa at Caltech that featured Nobel Prize-winning AIDS researcher and former Caltech president David Baltimore. In 2009, his symposium on maternal and infant mortality was keynoted by Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker.