I have previously written on our “classthink” mentality in Nigeria. Classthink explains why those of us who are members of the educated middle class often overlook the circumstances of poor Nigerians when discussing government policy. We weigh government policy from the perspective of our immediate environments. If the policy works for us, then it is good enough. If we can “endure”, then so should everyone else. This is dangerous and, somewhat, juvenile.
However, this attitude is not surprising. Most of us in the educated middle class are only aware of the “Nigeria” that surrounds us. This is the Nigeria inhabited by our immediate family, neighbours, colleagues, and networks. It is the Nigeria where education is natural and accessible, along with its career options. Education confers the benefits of policies and laws governing human rights, access to government, commerce and employment, insurance, health, pensions and so on. People with similar experiences orbit our personal space. It rarely occurs to us that we are in the minority in Nigeria.
Inevitably, our perception of reality is distorted. We substitute our own experiences as the reality of all other Nigerians. It takes a deliberate—and often painful—effort to pierce the bubble wrap and actually see the bleak landscape inhabited by the masses that service our comforts and execute our needs.
We cannot hide from reality. Intuitively, we understand that we are not safe. We isolate ourselves in estates and impose elaborate security measures. “Okada Not Allowed”; “Have Your Car Permit Ready.” We live in palaces and wall them from public view. Windows are “burglar proof”. We cannot take a walk in most places. We drive with all doors locked. We choke in the seclusion of our homes.
What are we hiding from? Who do we fear? We fear the rest of society. But “society” is either a unit with a general sense of community or it is non-existent.
To change Nigeria, we have to acknowledge its reality. Reality is this: Nigeria is a country of about 180 million people with up to 112 million people just surviving below the poverty line. It is a country where most of the citizens cannot read this article because they are undereducated. Nigeria is a country where the majority of the population is poor, illiterate or violent.
Yet, this is absurd. These figures are too large, the population too spread, to be the result of some natural selection of ability and productivity. These Nigerians are not poor because they are lazy or unproductive. Clearly, something systemic has to be involved.
And so, class is to Nigeria almost what race is to the United States. We run a political and legal system where all of our laws and practices give special favours, discretions and privileges to some people—for no clear reason—with the purpose of ensuring that they stay at the “top” of the country in all major economic and social areas. To climb up from your economic class, you have to invest in the patronage system.
The concentration of power in a central, unitary style government is a key component of this patronage system. Our central government—and the pass-through of resources to it—prevents local communities from realising their full potential while declining the responsibility of empowering them to it.
Those of us in the educated middle class should care about these things. This is not just about charity or sponsoring NGOs for the poor. It is about demanding a restructuring of the Nigerian system such that the people most affected by polices can influence the policymakers. We have to devolve socio-economic political powers to local communities.
This is not populism. Selling prayers to the masses is populism, and we have plenty of that. This is about good governance. What the masses need is empowerment and control over their own fate.
Just last week, Mr Bayo Onanuga, the Managing Director of the News Agency of Nigeria stirred some outrage when he implied that—maybe—the reports of economic hardship in the country were exaggerated. Pius Adesanmi has dealt with that issue sufficiently, but there are Facebook comments from that episode that are worth sampling below.
“They see the downtrodden of the society as mere landscape features… (they) hardly take notice of the little girls and boys hawking pure water close to their car windows in the traffic.”
“The media hasn’t even grasped the level of poverty and hunger in the land.”
“It is obvious there is wide disconnect between the ruling elites and the masses.”
“If things are that good and Nigerians are doing very well and very happy, why do the rich and elite class still move around with armed security guards?”
“I know of people living on N12,000 a month (I mean their salary) and even less, and for such people the luxury of N1,000.00 can only be spent over a period of two and half days.”
“Please tell this man to visit me in Kano… I will need him to stay for just two days and I will personally drive him round. I will take him to where he can see (what) journalists have not reported. I will take him at night to see where hundreds or thousands sleep at night. I will take him to where the poor converge with nothing. Not even hope that they will ever hope. I will take him to see what people call food. I will take him to where he will give people N500 and see river of tears. A man near my neighbourhood fainted and died because someone gave him N10,000.”
Originally published here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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Ever wondered about the class structure of Nigerian society? Read the mini-series on the Hierarchy of Nigerian Policy.