Nigeria’s absent middle class: A threat to democracy
THE significant disparities between rich and poor in Nigeria no longer invite much comment or analysis: poverty, despite political rhetoric, is more or less accepted as the capitalist norm and many have been content to watch the middle class gradually disappear, squeezed into in-existence by systemic corruption and economic inefficiency
Interestingly, in other West African countries which haven’t had the Nigerian experience of military rule (Senegal and Ivory Coast, for example), the middle class lives a life that only few could dream of in Nigeria. It isn’t strange in such countries to find individuals buying yoghuts, meats and hams which in Nigeria are reserved for a small elite. In fact, one is often shocked by how affordable consumer goods are in such countries, in comparison to Nigeria where producers of any event or merchandise prioritise luxury items over affordability and mass consumption. From raising the minimum wage, to raising the standard of education, to making political participation easier and voter friendly, successive Nigerian governments have shied away from making real changes which threaten the corporate existence of the small oligarchy whose survival is based on our country’s dysfunction. As much as some leaders mean well, their ability to deliver on their promises is limited by the numerous individuals, across party lines, who have no reason to support true democracy or equality, a hindrance to the quick and easy money lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to. Nigeria is thus caught in a catch 22 situation: without a sizeable, vibrant middle class to continuously pressure politicians for change, there can be no real incentive to push democratic reforms, but without said reforms, there can be no self-sufficient, sustainable middle class.
Sustainable middle class
Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission was quoted as saying, in reference to the global political class: “We all know what to do; we just don’t know how to get re elected after we’ve done it.” This is central to the Nigerian problem: after all, winning an election is expensive. How does a “well-meaning” individual get into power without personal wealth or support from people who have wealth but who might have acquired it through means contrary to the ideals the candidate stands for? Nigerian politicians, and most of the major parties, are yet to build mass movements linking people together from the ground up based on varied and identifiable ideas. Until the middle class gets involved in politics, until youth, women and students see themselves as something more than crowd fillers, such a movement will remain nonexistent. Ironically, without a mass movement to galvanise the people into holding governments accountable, there will be no real incentive for politicians to deliver, knowing they can get re-elected based on sentiments beyond their performance. The man or woman who decisively deals with corruption, who is able to not just impose penalties but institutionalise deterrents to graft could potentially be reelected through genuine middle class support and without support from the political class which often entails bargaining away his or her soul. But getting elected in the first place, in a context where the average person is completely disconnected from the political process, is near impossible without spending a number of years building such a movement. Most Nigerians neither understand nor care to know the inner workings of the political parties who represent them. The only real dialogue between the ordinary man on the street and the political class occurs during elections and in most cases, people don’t fully know the right questions or things to ask of their leaders. The middle class in Nigeria isn’t just economically feeble, it is intellectually poor and this is why progress eludes us as a country. Those who consider themselves middle class in Nigeria, who might work for state governments as teachers, nurses or civil servants, are completely subservient to the government’s ideology. This class of people, who in other countries and eras led “revolutions” are totally beholden to those in power, absorbing their values and ideas unquestioningly. As for those in the private sector, they too simply keep their heads down and pray for the best. Where is the discourse, in Nigeria, about policies to assist home ownership, for example? An Igbo Presidency, or a Yoruba Presidency, in itself, will not give Nigerians a better quality of life without concrete policy proposals. The patron-client relationship at the heart of our current socio-economic system, which prioritizes ethno-religious linkages over rational performance-based choices, is killing Nigeria slowly. To quote one of Barack Obama’s speeches on the American economy in 2011: “when middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom, that’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so they could buy the cars they made”. Interestingly, Nigerian business men and women have no interest in mass consumption which is ironic because globally, most fortunes are made through products marketed to the middle class, the backbone of any economy. My hope for 2019, as with every new year, is the same: I pray for the awakening of the Nigerian middle class and of the working poor and for them to realise who in our society, no matter how imperfectly, serves their interests. Those who’ve taken more than their fair share from this country, and used their resources to hold the rest of us hostage, are many and recognizing them isn’t always easy, given the propensity in Nigeria to reinvent oneself with the help of the media and religious leaders. We must never give up on Nigeria, no matter how bleak things might look, small changes add up and each and every one of us, at our own level, in whatever sphere we find ourselves has the potential to make a difference if we commit to doing so. As for our leaders, only our commitment to real change can spur them on, we must help them dare to take on those holding Nigeria to ransom: can we stop providing excuses for those accused of wrongdoing? This will make all the difference in 2019. Prof. Sophie Oluwole SHE was a renowned Professor of Philosophy and gender studies who quietly passed away last week. Her books aimed to prove that Africans had produced indigenous philosophical knowledge before the advent of colonisation. The society the military produced only recognises money and disdains scholarship. In other climes, such a woman should have been feted for her intellect and radical submissions. The African inferiority complex, which she dealt with in her research, doesn’t allow real growth or change, due to our disregard for locally produced goods and ideas. Most “big men” in Nigeria would prefer to have foreigners run their companies than Nigerians, no matter how competent. Prof. Oluwole’s books on gender are now increasingly supported globally by new research which admits the colonial encounter was disastrous for women: African women’s status primarily regressed due to Victorian norms on gender. In fact, much of what we refer to today as “African tradition” is actually a result of laws and ideas promoted by colonial native authorities and not indigenous African ideology. Where is the next generation of scholars to take up Prof’s research? South East Development Commission THE Senate passed a bill establishing the SEDC, the equivalent of the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, for the South East zone. How effective has the NDDC been? And will it take every zone in Nigeria getting its own commission, with staff, budget and further expenses to drain our resources, for development to occur? Adding “commissions” won’t solve any issues without fresh ideas. After all, there isn’t yet much resolution to the past corruption cases involving the NDDC and a number of other federal departments and agencies. The SEDC is expected to produce a “master plan” for development in the South East. Is it impossible for South East governors to come together to do this without creating a whole new agency?