That Nigeria has unfortunately been branded as the World’s Poverty Capital reveals how the country is divided majorly into the world(s) of the rich and the poor. “About half of Nigeria’s population lives in extreme poverty.” This disclosure by John Campbell in a piece entitled “Nigeria’s ‘Emerging Middle Class’ Is Leaving” published in Council for Foreign Relations on June 21, 2019, further emphasizes that that number is more than any other country in the world. Unlike other developed climes where there is a corresponding ratio of both rich and middle-class citizens except for a few poor people, in Nigeria, only about 23% of the population is said to constitute the middle class. This reveals a scenario of a few who are affluently rich and a chunk of the population who are abjectly poor. The recent startling revelation by the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) that over 100 million of the population cannot be accounted for proves the point.
Accordingly, NIMC acknowledged that this number of unknown people “Significantly represents the poorest and the most vulnerable groups such as marginalised women and girls, the less-educated, refugees, migrants, asylum seekers, stateless persons, people with disabilities and people living in rural areas and conflict zones.” This legion of “unknown population” belong to the peasants, rural farmers, those who live in squalor-conditions, people with lack of access to good roads, potable water, toilet facilities, schools, basic health care and the like. Surprisingly, they belong to the school of the abjectly poor who determine the voting pattern in the country. These are gullible who are deceived with some measures of rice and few Maggi cubes to vote for the ruling class.
It is their children that are used as political thugs who snatch ballot boxes. This ignominious act comes easily to them because of their low literacy level, perpetual condition of hunger and unemployed status. Once political maradonas rain down a few freshly minted naira notes on them, they are good to go. Meanwhile, their parents spend long hours on voting queues hoping to cast for their paymasters. Apparently, they have not learnt their lessons in the school of hunger because every voting year, they are used and dumped but their “faith” keeps hope alive as they look forward to a brighter future. Various scholars have blamed the problems of Africa on poor leadership. I want to contend that lack of followership is equally cancerous. This is because those who carry that cancer are the middle class who have the capacity to turn things around but are comfortable in their parallel state. The question is – who are those who constitute the middle class in Nigeria?
The middle class is made up of those who have major job qualifications across the country. For Oseghale (2019), they are individuals and households that fall between the working class and the upper class within a societal hierarchy. He contends that they are those who posses higher college or university degrees as well as citizens who earn and spend more income while owning property. In the list are those employed as professionals, managers, civil servants, medical personnel, captains of industries et al. The middle class are Nigerians who can send their families abroad to destinations like Canada, other parts of the US and Australia for further studies. They could also afford medical tourism abroad. They equally are fingered among those who shop abroad in choice places like London and Dubai for international brands they cannot buy locally.
While the United Nations puts those who belong to this category as people who live on US$10 – US$100, the African Development Bank (AFDB) measures them as those who live on US$2 – US$20 a day. It is a truism that a growing and stable middle-income group is the backbone of the economy. This is because they drive entrepreneurship and innovation which are pillars of Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSME’s). However, in a situation where they are complacent, self-centred, egoistic and mediocre about how the country is run and the economy fears, there is much to be desired. They belong to the four main types of unjust societies Socrates the Philosopher argues about as Plato would testify in Book V of The Republic namely, timocracy, oligarchy (plutocracy), democracy and tyranny (despotism) who rule by proto-technocracy and determine what happens in society. Socrates argues that timocracy is the closest to the Ideal State that we have so far experienced but the others descend in value as they are listed thus breeding unjust citizens.
In an article titled “The Nigerian middle class is all talk but no action” published on 5 April 2019 in Stears News Limited, one Afiola Etomi (2020) lamented that: “Nigeria is a lifelong boot-camp that trains its citizens to navigate dysfunctional systems, from completing a university degree to engaging with law enforcement, to registering and running a business. Middle-class Nigerians survive by developing their own complex ecosystem of privately provided security, electricity, education, healthcare and other basic needs. Where they need to encounter the public sector, they navigate these dysfunctional systems – renewing a passport, for example – with their economic power.”
Sadly, me thinks that our middle class are responsible for our dysfunctional systems. This is because they can afford three square meals a day, clothe, feed and provide shelter plus qualitative education for their children and so, do not care about the fate of the son of a nobody. In terms of food and drink, they do not only indulge in choicest cuisines but could also throw a lavish party. What they spend on their alsheshan dogs on a daily basis can feed a poor man and his for a week or two. For this category of Nigerians, their main worry is how to keep their jobs, maintain a good lifestyle, invest for their children and prepare for a happy retirement.
This brings us to the next unfortunate albatross of the working class. By all standards, they are above the troubles of housing since most of them are landlords or landladies. The most perplexing thing about their life style is that they have departed from the warm and kindhearted behaviour of their forebears. This they have done by building state-of-the-art houses in Government Reserve Areas (GRAs) or other special locations in town with bore holes and generators. What is more, they raise tall fences and keep hybrid-breed dogs as guards to ward off unwelcomed visitors – not even uncles and aunties from the village like Ukwa and Mama G in Nigeria’s Nollywood fashion are welcomed. By providing basic amenities like water and electricity for themselves and sending their children to private schools, they have killed public institutions and provided excuse for government to spend taxpayers’ money on frivolities without qualms.
It is instructive to note that most elites in Nigeria do not go out to vote. Rather, they act as “party agents” or go-between who hold nocturnal meetings with politicians and villagers with assurances that they would deliver. Like the Pharisees, they make others to work but won’t lift a finger. By the time they collect money from both party A and B, on Election Day, while the anawim are under the sun casting their votes, they are busy counting their loot. If a riot or post-election violence breaks out, they are back in the city where they will change their Sim card and won’t call home again until the next election.
This also reveals their penchant for luxury. The social structure in the country is such that social amenities are concentrated in city centers. It is a given that state capitals are more developed than Local Government Areas (LGAs) and LGAs are equally better positioned than Council Areas. This accounts for the exponential rural-urban migration across board. Those in search of greener pastures and a better life would leave the village for their LGA; those at the LGA, in turn, aspire to travel to the state capital. Like exuberant fun seekers, the middle class enjoy a cool life in their comfort zone. Ironically, while they relish city life, it is the poor that feed them as the later are the ones who import farm produce to feed the urban populace. The popular expression “Monkey dey work, baboon dey chop” explains the situation better.
Despite their high level of education, exposure and competence, the middle class in Nigeria are toys in the hands of the rich especially the ruthless political class. They are the contractors who feed fat on the crumbs that fall from the master’s table; they are the capitalists for whom money comes first before humanity; they are the elite who speak fine grammar only to stutter when invited to chop; they are the jet-pastors who hobnob with the rich only to remind the poor that their reward is in heaven; they are the professors who prostitute between the academia and political-Delilah for amorous capital; they are the media that is corrupted by brown envelop; they are members of the judiciary who abort justice for free tea at the table of the executive; they are Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) who are comfortable with making billions with a stained conscience and they are security agents for whom money is more important than the security of lives and property.
To reverse the trend, the elite should not wait for the political class to change the status quo. We ought to learn from Singapore, China and India by dragging more people out of extreme poverty through reinforcing MSME’s so as to form a robust middle class. For instance, writing on “Rethinking global poverty reduction in 2019” Kharas, Hamel, and Hofer (2018) disclosed that “More than half the world is now middle class or richer, fueled by a rising Asian middle class.” Policies, industry, energy, resources and political economy are catalysts for this crucial task. As such, our technocrats and billionaires could help bridge the gap between the Haves and the Have Nots by discounting the legion of poverty-stricken Nigerians in the first instance and incubating more middle income earners in the second.
To further turn things around, instead of viewing our challenges with one lens, we need a bifocal lens to assess the situation. This would help us to see the problem for what it really is – that is, realise how the middle-income group has aided and abetted underdevelopment in the country for so long. The poor are weak because they are unlettered and have no voice. Therefore, only those who have the wherewithal can revolutionalise the nation towards innovative and entrepreneurial development. It is incumbent on the middle class to press demands for the establishment of a more realistic social welfare scheme for the masses. Asia has innovative and entrepreneurial minds while America and Europe has ideological minds. The question is, what mind has the African? Well, I dare to opine that only the middle class which encompasses academics at home and in the diaspora can answer this question. While we await the answer, it is time for the elite in Nigeria to stop blowing big grammar and “make hay while the sun shines.” God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria!
Fr. Dyikuk is a Lecturer of Mass Communication, University of Jos, Editor – Caritas Newspaper and Convener, Media Team Network Initiative (MTNI), Nigeria.