By TESLIM SHITA-BEY

 

At the heart of Nigeria’s social and economic dysfunction is not just the usual suspects of tribe and religion but also, and quite disturbingly, the self-preening and self-adulation of Nigeria’s elite. The failure of the educated leaders of the country to bring about a collective sense of nationhood and build a society ruled by processes and procedures rather than the willful caprices of men and their minions, has resulted in a society that deprecates hard work and brilliance and idolizes wealth, power and position regardless of how these were achieved . Like roaches Nigeria’s elites have remained a bug that is resilient, resourceful and terribly irritating.

Regardless of where they come from North, South, East or West, Nigeria’s political and economic leaders have had a unity of intent; the furtherance of their own material wellbeing, society to them is as useful as it serves their desires for personal gain. They believe in a country called Nigeria as long as they can afford houses in the America’s and Europe, Villa’s in South Africa and penthouse apartments in Dubai, success is measured by what they have rather than what they do, for them the word nation is a code for a cow that needs to have its udder squeezed to its last drop of milk after which it can be slaughtered for its beef.

Nigeria’s tragedy is the willful manipulation of citizens by a merry band of cavalier politicians, business executives, bankers, lawyers, judges, journalists and labour leaders of all religious persuasions and all ethnic groups than by the intemperate outbursts of errant tribal warlords and religious zealots. This is not to suggest that religion and tribe do not have their debilitating influences over the Nigerian reality, but in the comfort of the living rooms of the rich and powerful, who share bottles of cognac while chewing on roasted chicken as they are attended to by buxom and shapely hostesses who tantalize their lecherous minds as they attempt to relive misguided youth. These tussles for self-validation through bohemian lifestyles know no tribe, religion or creed; they form a rope of fraternity tethering all men and women of a certain social class together. In his book, the affluent society, economist and Harvard lecturer, the late John Kenneth Galbraith noted that, ‘I would now, however, more strongly emphasize, and especially as to the United States, the inequality in income and that it is getting worse—that the poor remain poor and the command of income by those in the top income brackets is increasing egregiously. So is the political eloquence and power by which that income is defended. This I did not foresee’.

Nigeria’s elite apart from conspicuous over-indulgence, suffer from a troubling and romanticized indifference to the economic disaster playing before their eyes. This is either born of ignorance, stupidity, or perhaps both. Nigeria’s population is charging ahead at a thundering 3 per cent per annum (although officially put at a milder 2.6 per cent), while gross national product (GDP), a measure of national output, is projected to grow by 1.2 per cent in 2017 and maybe a further 1.8 per cent in 2018. This means that going forward the nation’s national product per person will fall like a poorly made soufflé. The implication of this is that in ten years time (2027) Nigeria will have to provide for a staggering population of 242 million ( 350milion people in 2050) at a time when her economic growth barely produces enough goods and services and jobs to make life meaningful for the present population of 180 million people. The absence of jobs will most certainly worsen crime rates, the increase in population will force down labour wages and the relative scarcity of capital will drag up the cost of technology and non-labour production units. If there ever was a worse time to be born in Nigeria it is now. The country’s spotty future is dangerously moored along the lines of eighteenth century economist and philosopher Thomas Malthus who noted in a 1798 paper that, ‘Yet in all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment is so strong that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition’.

Nigeria Total Fertility Rate (TFR)

2003

Total Fertility Rate (TFR)

2008

Total Fertility Rate (TFR)

2013

NIGERIA 5.7 5.7 5.5
URBAN 4.9 4.7 4.7
RURAL 6.1 6.3 6.2
Region- North Central 5.7 5.4 5.3
Region North East 7.0 7.2 6.3
Region-North West 6.7 7.3 6.7
Region-South East 4.1 4.8 4.7
Region-South South 4.6 4.7 4.3
Region South West 4.1 4.5 4.6

 

This observation is reflected in the current Nigerian reality. The North eastern part of the country is the poorest but has the highest birth rate per woman (see table). On a broader scale the North as an entity has a significantly lower GDP than the South and this relative disadvantage is made worse by its rapidly increasing population. The North’s GDP per person lags that of the South and serves as a raw point for future ethnic existential conflicts as more Northerners migrate southwards to eke a living for their families. As resources and incomes become scarcer the struggles for survival will become more intense.  Self-indulgent elite currently enjoying the ‘swange’ (a snake-like dance of the middle-belt region) of privilege all too quickly will be dancing to the ‘skelewu’ (hip hop dance of the southwest) of a mob baying for blood.

Nigeria’s elite also seems fooled by the smug illusion that as long as their children are being schooled abroad at the best of academic institutions buffered by lovely American or British-accented verbal communication skills they will eventually come home to lead a welcoming society. This is one of the silliest arguments made by any group of privileged people anywhere. The conceit is simply galling. To grow Nigeria’s GDP at a minimum of 10 per cent per annum over the next ten years the country needs to groom high quality manpower capable of interacting with technology and capital in a manner that produces tradeable goods and services exportable to other countries. In other words the foreign-trained children of Nigeria’s narcissistic elite must be augmented by a pool of local labour that can translate sophisticated ideas and expansive visions into reality; otherwise most of these children will simply hop on the next plane to where they came from; but not before a feeling of depression, defeat and bemusement. It is not enough for Nigeria’s elite to train their children abroad, these children require a pool of intelligent, creative and inspired local talent to work with. This will not happen if the elite fail to address the appalling standards of education in country and if they continue to tolerate the abysmally poor quality of local skills in the areas of metallurgy, welding, construction, fabrication and engineering. Indeed, weakness in the business of precision tools manufacturing and technology has become a bane to the country’s aspiration of building a competitive industrial society. To be sure, just as acorns do not become apples, poorly trained work forces do not become world beaters. So who is to blame in all this? Everybody, we have found the enemy, it is us. But that is not the point here. The point is that it is now time to discard elitist pretension, social vainglory and the ‘my Mercedes is bigger than yours’ syndrome and upgrade the quality of domestic learning.

Governments at all levels need to commit to plans that agree to spend at least 26 per cent of annual budgets on education. In addition they need to institutionalize the concept of merit as against quotas and family bloodlines; individuals should be rewarded to the extent of their carefully cultivated intelligence and patiently nurtured skills and not the accident of their mother’s reproductive organs and their father’s sexual disposition. Promoting individuals on the basis of quota or ethnic or tribal affinity destroys the very basis of society’s work ethic. Hard workers become discouraged and less productive while easy-going freeloaders (in other words, laggards) become emboldened as they show off their rewards for conspicuous indolence. In the end everybody loses.

Nigeria’s elite must descend from their Olympian heights and agree to a social consensus that makes society a hot bed of industry, creativity and competition and not an island spliced between the haves and have-nots. Failure to build a society where excellence is the grounds for social advancement is like putting lipstick on a pig. It makes the animal look different but it does not change its nature. If Nigeria is to avert disaster it must improve domestic productivity, establish fair and equitable economic playing fields and build its future along the path of healthy competition among individuals, groups, states, regions and even villages.

The true test of the success of Nigeria’s elite will not be the number of wonders-on-wheels they drive, the beauty of the many women they grope, or the schools there dotting children attend, but it will be hooked on the quality of society and resilience of the economy they build and leave behind. If they fail to humble their oversized egos and continue to drive recklessly along the free way of class and privilege, they will end up smashing into a wall of economic, social and political chaos. Historical accidents are nasty events no matter how much ‘Benjamin’s’ or Naira the victims have at the bank.