The whispers of discontent often grow in the face of oppression. In Nigeria, there is a view, which can be said to be widespread, of the failure of the Nigerian state. Everyday, there is news of the oppressive nature of this society: class violence, violence against women, religious violence, ethnic violence and yet all things within a society exist with the permission of that society. No society exists without the continuing consent of the people within that society. It is through this fabric that we mould and form societal norms. Of course, modern Nigerian society is not the originator of its present faults and the existence of national borders prevents the practicing of ‘continuing consent’ to its fullest extent. However, these limitations are merely hindrances on the path to progress and for this path to lead to a just resolution, it must be preceded by an examination of the nature of Nigerian society. Knowing this, we must then ask what constitutes the Nigerian fabric. What are those things we have tacitly accepted as the foundation on which we now build? Are these things acceptable? Are they just? Are they good? The failure of Nigerian society to form these foundations is at the heart of the rampant mediocrity in every aspect of Nigerian existence and it is only through an inquiry into these things that can we truly know our role in taking our republic from the despair of darkness despair in pursuit of the better angels of our nature.
One of the fundamental causes of this despair is the stratification of society in pursuit of power. Having access to power in Nigerian society means being able to momentarily rise above the chaos. Because of this, there is a general prioritization of access to power as opposed to pursuing the establishment of the abstract ideals of justice, liberty and equality. This pursuit of power explains why Nigerian society has such a deep fixation on wealth and material things. They have no fundamental understanding of abstract virtues like liberty, equality and justice, instead their society is built on a foundation of exploitation. The exploitation of the working and middle class, the exploitation of women, the exploitation of the religious, the exploitation of the faithful, exploitation is at the heart of the Nigerian reality. This dark truth is never far from the minds of most Nigerians. There is the realization that the Nigerian government, with whom Nigerians have supposedly signed an unconscious social contract, is not at all concerned with the plight of Nigerians and the elite class have simply taken over from the British colonialists as chief exploiters. This knowledge amplifies the relationship that Nigerians have with money and wealth. Dignity and respect are not fundamentals of this society, they are not basic things that every Nigerian enjoys. Instead, dignity must be purchased, respect can only be traded and the currency of dignity and respect in this society is money and access to power.
This hyper-materialism of the Nigerian society runs through the three classes that form Nigerian society: the non-political elite class, middle class and working class and it has at its center, two things that fuel Nigerian nature: the desire for dignity and the pursuit of money. While this society is stratified in many other ways (notable sex, religion and ethnicity), Nigerian behavior can first be understood as a class struggle, and the two aforementioned pillars of this struggle are often seen and experienced numerous times. While the desire for dignity is universal across the different classes, each class interacts with money a little differently. In Understanding the World Economy, Tony Cleaver describes an economic reality called dualism. He writes, “This is an economic structure where great wealth sits side by side with widespread poverty. A few national or multinational corporations and their employees may possess significant economic power and exercise this with the (in some cases, conditional) approval of government whilst all around them millions of the poor struggle to survive in a subsistence economy which can only barely provide for basic needs…In other less fortunate dimension, people make do with do with whatever resources are unclaimed or cast aside by the wealthy farming marginal lands, recycling waste materials not so much taking decisions and exercising control over their destiny as clinging on as best they can to the residue that is left to them.”
This exploitation is not just at the center of the class interactions in Nigerian society, it is also a result of the complicity of Nigerian society in the establishment of mediocrity of the political class as the norm. We are forced to recall that the origin of Nigeria is one of exploitation, remembering that the British colonials had no real interest in the fundamental creation of a state that would have been beneficial for the inhabitants of that state; rather, the nature of colonialism was one of exploitation. A cursory look at the interactions of the British empire with people like Jaja of Opobo will ultimately relieve you of any notions of benevolence. At the dawn of independence, there was no intellectual foundation for a true republic, no ideals to which the newly formed independent country could be held. Instead, the Nigerian elite class, who had some access to power by virtue of proximity, thirsted for more. “Let us govern ourselves,’’ they said, failing to recognize the enormity of the task of building a society and in this, they have not only failed but continue to fail. However, later on in Nigeria’s history, a new nation, which is now known as Biafra, thought it wise to establish an intellectual foundation for a new republic. As Chinua Achebe writes, “It did not escape Biafra’s founders that a great nation needed to be built on a strong intellectual foundation. Our modest attempt to put the beginnings of our thinking down on paper resulted in what would be known as the Ahiara declaration”.
The Ahiara declaration is one interesting production of Biafran (and by extension, Nigerian) intellectual thought. Ojukwu assembled a hybrid of Biafran philosophers and thinkers to produce a document setting out the foundations of the Biafran republic — creating a new nation with the right qualities, the meaning of citizenship and so on. Though this declaration came at the penultimate stage of the civil war, and in this manner, the Biafran leadership also failed its people, it is precisely this kind of document and effort that establishes the ideals of a republic by which the people of that republic can be judged and can hold their administrators accountable. What ideals did the Nigerian founding fathers leave to the newly formed republic? It is painfully obvious that the Nigerian elite class to whom the republic was handed over were merely interested in assuming the role of oppressor and beneficiary of exploitation which has continued until present day.
Every Nigerian is aware that this political elite class has no interest in being beneficial to the common man, and so Nigerian society is essentially in a Hobbesian state of chaos. The political elite class, often fueled by families with ‘old money’ [a term used to hide the fact that great wealth is often built on the backs of slavery and vicious oppression], this elite took over from British colonials and continued to use the Nigerian republic as something resembling a personal wallet. As a result, very little progressive Nigerian leaders (in the mold of Thomas Sankara or Nelson Mandela) have emerged in its history. Instead, the list is full of men like Murtala Mohammed, Bola Tinubu, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari. This political examination is necessary to understand that our foundations are fundamentally chaotic and unjust. That this class has been allowed to continue in this manner, leaving chaos, destruction and injustice in its path is a direct result of the complicity of Nigerian society in the perpetuation of this reality. While Nigeria may have made some progress in its development, no progress has been made because it was the right thing to do, justice is not a Nigerian expectation.
It is clear that there has been no social contract to which society is bound, which partly explains the general apathy by the members of the republic . This lack of a social contract means that Nigerian society must create its own reality amidst the chaos. This is a present concern because survival is at the forefront of the minds of many Nigerians (largely the working class) and for others (the middle class), they see the luxuries of exploitation and dream of rising above the mediocrity of political failures and this is their right, prosperity is not (and should not be) the preserve of the elite. However, instead of pursuing the establishment of a liberal, equal and just society as the beacon for a path to prosperity, the middle class’s eyes are fixed firmly on the promise of wealth and glamour, and is stuck admiring the moon when the life giving sun is in within reach. This distraction of hyper-materialism is at the heart of the complicity Nigerian middle class in the perpetuation of the current reality. We must not discount the needs of the middle class because the needs of the middle class exist and are valid. They require sustenance in the form of food and drink, education for their children in whom they have vested their hopes and dreams and the necessity of entertainment, an escape from a stressful reality. There is nothing wrong with these things and in fact, they are necessary for a strong and blossoming middle class. However, the pursuit of these things and their strong affinity for materialism [as a measure of dignity] disincentivizes the middle class struggle for the necessary political sophistication to build a truly liberal, equal and just society.
The middle class is unconsciously aware of its complicity. It often occurs to them that they participate in a system that is patently unjust, especially those of the upper middle class. However, the trappings of money and the dignity that this society affords those with money, are too much to resist for a psychologically beaten, broken and bruised middle class. It is this brokenness that pushes members of the middle class to create their own oasis to protect them from the rigours of chaos. No electricity? They innovate estates with 24 hour electricity. Bad roads and horrible traffic? What are SUVs and chauffeurs for? Unsafe neighborhoods? Gated communities. They can get the bare minimum, they just have to be able to afford it. This would not have been ideal but it may have been acceptable if everyone in Nigerian society possessed the social and material capital to afford their own personal oasis but that is not the case. The working class, who form the vast majority of the Nigerian population, live a different reality. There are currently 91 million Nigerians living in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is defined by the World Bank as living below the poverty line of $1.90 per day. This is, of course, not inclusive of people that are still poor and very poor but not quite extreme. Often outside the bright lights of the major cities, these men and women live a life that is certainly an indictment on our society. Virtually no access to electricity, clean water and medical services, the children, our children, face such a bleak reality which can warp their view and interpretation of society.
With so many people living a life that any society should deem an affront to the very essence of humanity, the middle class cannot afford to get lost in the pursuit of their oasis particularly since the achievement of this oasis will often be on the back of systemic exploitation of the working class. And yet it has succumbed the mediocrity of complicity. The middle class is still too broken to lead the charge of social revolution. They are still too enmeshed with hyper-materialism. They still cling too tightly to the usage of money as a measurement of dignity. And they are too weakened to break out of the trappings of hyper-materialistic society. This weakness has allowed the political elite to run amok in their great Nigerian failure. A society where members of civil society can run a campaign for one of the worst military dictators of Nigerian history. Where those who claim to be good, with very close proximity to power do nothing while the perpetuation of exploitation continues. A society where those with access to power can rape women, on camera, and receive lighter treatment than someone who stole a loaf of bread. A society where musicians can venerate criminals like Ade Bendel and others in their music with little or no public backlash. A society where a governor is caught collecting a bribe on camera, is still endorsed by the incumbent President and both Governor and President STILL stay in office and even win a second term. The middle class is clearly weakened in very fundamental ways.
However weakened as the middle class may be, it cannot afford to rely on the benevolence of the political power class. History has shown this reliance to be misplaced. Every generation of a society is required to renew the social contract that binds that society, those with privilege have a responsibility to break the chains of oppression that hold back the society from achieving greatness. If the middle class is to take on this task of the reformation of the Nigerian republic, their affinity for hyper-materialism must give way to an enlightenment and renewed vigor in pursuit of the basic of ideals that underpin this reformation and in this, apathy is not an option. The middle class cannot relegate this work to a messiah figure in the hopes that they can be freed from doing the necessary work instead they must battle their brokenness with clear eyes and cast off the cloak of fear and complicity. In pursuit of the establishment of a liberal, equal and just society, the burden is on this middle class to eviscerate the political elite in tandem with and on behalf of Nigerian society.