LAGOS, NIGERIA — The closest Chinedu Okorie will probably ever come to America's amber waves of grain are the sacks of US-imported rice he carries on his head. Yet the impoverished Nigerian harbors a love affair with the distant superpower.
Like the majority of Nigerians, the 25-year-old vender holds America in high regard even as its reputation sags elsewhere in the world. Mr. Okorie often carries huge sacks of rice emblazoned with the US Stars and Stripes to his market stall, and while he knows little of that country, his eyes light up when he says, "I love America!"
America's image has steadily declined since 2000, even in nations considered US allies such as Britain, India, Turkey, and Japan. But recent polls show approval rates climbing in Africa's most populous nation, Nigeria.
Some 72 percent of Nigerians say that the US is having a mainly positive effect in the world, according to a BBC World Service poll released last month.
A 2006 poll by the US-based Pew Global Attitudes Project reveals that 62 percent of Nigerians have a positive opinion of the US, up from 46 percent in 2000.
The polls don't delve into the reasons, but Nigerians interviewed said that overwhelming might is respected, Muslim-Christian conflict is a major issue here, and America's great riches and powerful global role resonate with many Nigerians.
America actually has less economic influence in Nigeria than it does in many other African nations. As Africa's largest oil producer, Nigeria gets relatively little direct aid from the United States.
While America's free-enterprise appeal is the most obvious lure for young men, other factors exist, says Ayodeji Oladimeji, who goes by the rubric "D.J. Dollar."
A one-time club bouncer who learned how to fix air conditioners to increase his income, Mr. Oladimeji enjoys American movies. The 40-year-old likes the multi-cultural makeup of the America he sees on the big screen and the possibility for upward mobility through hard work.
In America, "unless you are a lazy somebody and you don't work, you can improve yourself. Here in Nigeria you work for 24 hours a day and for what?" he asks. "You die young."
In Nigeria, passenger buses are painted with the American flag. People wear kerchiefs with a red-white-and-blue banner on their heads as they work, and in a country where basic government services such as electricity are in short supply, the vaunted American work ethic is king.
Most West African countries wrested independence from French and British colonizers around 1960, but many have seen real incomes, standards of living, and even life expectancy drop since then.
Paris and London have large West African immigrant populations, and tales of life in Britain have made their way back to Nigeria. Oladimeji, who has never traveled abroad, mimes walking down a London street – head bowed but on the alert for police, who are everywhere, he says.
But in America he would walk tall, he says, as he throws his shoulders back and marches smiling down his imaginary American boulevard, "Like a big man," he says.
For many Nigerians, Uncle Sam is the ultimate "Big Man" – someone with influence and of course, money. In Lagos, everyone has an Oga or master, someone 'bigger' than they are. It's born of a corrupt system wracked with patronage, where connections with a more powerful person are often seen as the only way to get ahead.
While surveys by the Pew Global Attitudes Project say that the US war in Iraq is a "continuing drag on opinions of the United States," many Nigerians are very accepting of the US's muscle flexing.
Furthermore, many others – particularly in the predominantly Christian south of a country nearly evenly split between Muslims and Christians – approve of what Oladimeji describes as America's fight to "civilize" Iraq.
"They're just like the cowboys!" and don't care what others think, he says, underscoring his comments with expletives and affecting an American drawl.
President Bush gets Oladimeji's support, too. "He's an action man. He will roll up his shirt-sleeves, not even [wearing] a tie, and move in," Oladimeji says.
International relations analyst, Remi Oyewumi, says such positive responses to America and the Bush administration are less common in Nigeria's Muslim north. Indeed, the Pew poll shows an 89 percent favorability rating among Nigerian Christians and only 32 percent among Muslims, who predominate in the north. But even in Jordan and Turkey, considered US allies and overwhelmingly Muslim countries, American favorability was only about 12 percent.
According to Mr. Oyewumi, northern Nigerian Muslims are less likely to have a favorable opinion of America for the same reason that many Christians in the south look up to the US – the war on terrorism.
"America is seen as the leader of the Christian West against the Islamic world," says Oyewumi, a Muslim, but also of the southern Yoruba ethnic group. "The religion factor is crucial."
In 2004, Islamic religious leaders in northern Nigeria urged parents not to take part in a global program to immunize all children against polio, calling it a CIA plot to reduce Muslim populations. The vaccines would reduce fertility in Muslim girls, they said, before ultimately relenting.
In the Christian south, Oladimeji says he'll keep entering an annual visa lottery by the US Embassy that allows winners to go to the States. Suddenly, his love of America appears fickle. "I'll work – even in a restaurant or on a farm [in the US]. I just don't want my family to suffer. I want to leave for the sake of my wife, son and daughter," says Oladimeji. "Ultimately – I want to go wherever I can get a visa."