This is Part 2 of the article series, “The Hierarchy of Nigerian Policy”. Read Part 1 here.
Last week, I discussed the classifications of policy participation in Nigeria. You may have identified where you fit in the system. However, if you are reading this, you are unlikely to be in the classification I have called “Menial Workers.” The Nigerians I classify as Menial Workers are the invisible machinery of our corporate political structure. They are the colloquial “masses.” These are the teeming population of uneducated, poor, and often illiterate Nigerians. Going by recent poverty rates, they are up to 70 per cent of the population. That is, about 110 million to 119 million humans.
These Nigerians include the unemployed, subsistence farmers, minute-scale market traders, domestic workers—house-help, gardeners, drivers, cleaners—factory workers, wage earners and daily labourers. These millions lack access to, sometimes primary and very often secondary and tertiary, education. They are unable to afford the full benefits of technology, social utilities, modern healthcare, and all the little comforts of modernity taken for granted by their contemporaries in other countries—and by their seniors in the Nigerian hierarchy.
Policy-wise, government considers the class of Menial Workers as irrelevant to Nigerian policy direction. Equally, Nigeria’s masses don’t understand the workings of the political system, and much less how to navigate it. And so, their political outlook is still very much ethnic, their understanding of Nigerian politics manifesting often only as a support for “our person” in government. Government itself is considered as some sort of absolute monarchy. The masses are grateful for small favours.
Menial Workers have no serious role in the shaping of Nigerian policy. They are represented by, often, absentee legislators who show up only for publicity stunts and election head counts. They are interesting to the government and the Shareholders only as population statistics for election engineering, resource allocations and international relations. For all intents and purposes, Nigeria’s Menial Workers—like the menial workers of most corporate entities—are irrelevant to the policies of the Nigerian business.
Economically, these Nigerians merely “hustle” to survive as best as they can within unsympathetic policies. Because they consider social problems as the work of spiritual agents, not government dysfunction, they are resigned to providence. Inflation, economic recession and, fluctuating currency might as well be Acts of God. They believe domestic and road accidents are witchcraft; sickness and diseases are consequences of sin; business failure is the work of enemies; and poverty is, literally, a curse. This thinking is propagated and encouraged by inefficient politicians and sycophantic religious leaders.
Economic decisions—from structural adjustment programmes to fuel subsidy debates—rarely factor Nigerian masses except as an amorphous “benefit of society” rationale. These Nigerians bear the brunt of every “developmental” policy. They can be kicked out of markets, have their shanty homes destroyed, thrown out of the lands they are squatting on, and have their goods seized by state agents without due process or compensation.
Menial Worker Nigerians are the first-line victims of the legal system. These Nigerians are hauled before courts whose workings they do not understand, to face legal processes whose understanding they lack. They are victims of unvoiced police brutality. They fill up prison cells across the country waiting for indefinite trial dates. They can be locked up on the whim of a state agent or private individual. The only rights they are capable of enforcing are rights earned by labour or contract—and sometimes not even those. They have no “friends” in high places to call on when a legal problem needs fixing.
These Nigerians have no right to life. They are often the unnamed victims of man-made and natural disasters. They are the “Thousands killed by Boko Haram,” the “Hundreds drowned in boat disaster,” the “Dozens dead in building collapse,” the “Several killed in stampede.” They are victims of oil spillages and pipeline explosions. They have no names and no memorials. Their life or death makes no difference to the country’s conscience.
The Menial Workers barter what they have in order to survive within the socio-legal order and so perpetuate the “corruption of need”. Breaking traffic laws, vandalism, noise and environmental pollution, and other seeming anti-social behaviour are often negative survival habits more than wilful mischief. This is why Menial Workers are willing to trade ephemeral “election votes” for cash, paradoxically, further reducing their policy influence. Bribes are an important factor in economic activity. Nothing is taken as a right, and everything—including life—has to be earned one way or the other.
Yet, their domestic crimes are astonishing to those who don’t understand the level of deprivations. A gardener kills his boss and steals N50,000; a bus conductor stabs a passenger over N50 change; a maid kidnaps and sells three children for a “measly” one hundred thousand naira. For higher-ranking Nigerians, the gravity of these crimes outweighs the sums involved. But these sums are significant to the Menial Workers. The value of one dollar could be the difference between a full stomach and daylong starvation.
Hence, higher ranks in the Hierarchy of Nigerian Policy easily manipulate these “lesser” Nigerians to violence and public disorder. It is from these that religious extremists, terrorists, militants, election touts, lynch mobs, petty thieves, armed robbers, cannon-fodder cultists, inter-ethnic killers and other sociopathic groups are recruited.
And so, what have we learnt from all these? A lot has been written about the Nigerian poor—but few policies have reduced their numbers. Some of them may struggle to educate their children and break the yoke of public irrelevance. But most will hope for some “divine intervention” and the goodwill of more privileged relatives. At best, they will continue to be the beneficiaries of legal aid, poverty-alleviation and community development efforts by non-profit organisations. At worst, trade and labour unions—dominated by unscrupulous stooges of government and the upper classes—will keep pretending to represent them.
As a collective, nothing has changed for the Nigerian masses, and nothing will change so long as our patronage political system is in place. Until the masses can participate effectively in policymaking—as I discussed in Part 1—millions of Nigerians will never rise above the Menial Worker level of socio-economic deprivation.
Originally published in slightly different form here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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