A Message to Nigeria’s Elite: We Need to Talk

Back in the 1990s while growing up in my parents’ house, we had a gateman called Fatai whom I found very interesting, to their noticeable disapproval. Fatai was seemingly the antithesis of everything I was being raised to be at the time – happy-go-lucky, feckless, slovenly, unfocused, immersed in mundanities and apparently just unaware of the world as it passed by. As long as he got his salary, supplemented by the occasional rolled up 20 naira note passed through the car window when he opened the gate for oga or madam, Fatai was fine with his lot in life. Sometimes, one of the buxom ladies who walked around the GRA hawking bread would respond to his advances and he would get a few weeks of amorous activities into the bargain – utopia!

My parents soon made it clear to me that I was not to hang around the gatehouse or talk to Fatai because they had certain expectations of me and they considered him a bad influence. Over the course of several “I’m-not-spending-this-much-on-school-fees-to-hear-you-speaking-pidgin-with-the-gateman” conversations, I eventually got the message.

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People like Fatai were apparently disadvantaged in life, and I was advantaged. The expectation was that I must deliver returns on that advantage so as not to offend God who created both Fatai and I. People like me were supposed to grow up and become the drivers of a new successful Nigerian society that would naturally stop producing Fatais. It definitely made sense on paper, and for a very long time, I believed it too.
Over the past few weeks however, having closely observed how a great number of people I consider to be friends, colleagues and members of my network have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have reached a dismaying conclusion about the very people whom anyone would expect to know better.

Why Are We Like This?

Bill Gates is almost as famous for his work in African healthcare as he is for being a billionaire investor. He has a Nigerian friend who is also a billionaire in dollars, albeit one who operates from the other end of the innovation spectrum. When this prominent Nigerian billionaire realised that slowing the distribution of COVID-19 would involve shutting down all but the most essential business operations, a company-wide memo emerged forcing literally all but everyone without a foot in the ICU to keep coming to work.

Berkshire Hathaway and Microsoft – Bill Gates’ two big business operations that dwarf those of his Nigerian friend several times over – went fully remote. Gates himself immediately focused his attention on deploying his resources to help fight the disease. His Nigerian friend who regularly sits on important panels with him at Davos discussing “Africa Rising” was only concerned with keeping production going. Presumably, production would still have a purpose when the consumers are dead and the economy is decimated.

While the Nigerian billionaire was doing his best Ebenezer Scrooge impression, a PRO of Zone 2 of the Nigerian Police Force was in London attending a high society birthday party in a high-risk country. In what came as a surprise to exactly nobody, it turned out that she and the other attendees were in fact exposed to infected individuals at the party. Upon returning home, this high ranking officer of the law ignored the instruction from the Federal Ministry of Health to self-isolate for 14 days and went straight back in to work – potentially exposing hundreds of her colleagues, their families and secondary contacts when called out on this shocking malfeasance by a social media user, the police PRO openly lied about her prior whereabouts and claimed: “It is on record that I was in my office on the 17th.” No matter that she herself had uploaded an Instagram live video and several images of herself in London – images that were hurriedly hidden after being called out; no matter that several soft-sell publications had specifically named her among the attendees at the party; no matter even that pictorial evidence of her presence at the party soon emerged – rules are for lesser beings you see.

In fact, prior to being called out for potentially being a COVID-19 superspreader, the police PRO was on her social media pages giving advice about preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Not only were the NCDC’s rules exclusively meant for lesser beings, but apparently health advice was too.

She was, after all, the world’s first Schrödinger’s police officer – present both in Lagos and in London on March 17 until pictures and reports determined that she was actually in London. For the achievement of conquering the rules of the space-time continuum and solving a centuries-old quantum physics problem, spreading a deadly viral pathogen to dozens – potentially hundreds – of innocent Nigerians was a small price to pay.

While Schrödinger’s Olopa was busy putting Einstein to shame through simultaneous bilocation on two separate continents, dozens of parents at a nosebleed elite school from my childhood were also getting their own stunning COVID-19 performance-ready. Having recently returned from their travels and knowing that they were potentially exposed or even infected, they not only likewise refused to self-isolate, but also permitted the school to remain open until the Lagos State Government directed all schools to close. You know, because there is love in sharing. Or something.

Now, not only have several members of said parent body tested positive to COVID-19, but the potential statuses of the children, teachers, gardeners, kitchen staff, groundsmen and security staff who were also needlessly exposed remain unknown. Apparently COVID-19 was only supposed to infect Italians, Spaniards and Americans, not self-important upper-middle-class Nigerians and the schools their kids go to.
The coup de grace in this festival of bourgeoisie foolishness took place high up in the headquarters of a certain bank in Lagos, which sent round an internal memo last week with names of staff who were to proceed on self-isolation after having received their children from high risk countries over the preceding week and weekend. The memo came on Wednesday, April 1, after said individuals had gone to work and mingled with their colleagues for two entire days.

After being potentially exposed by their children, neither the higher-ups concerned nor the bank saw it fit to take immediate action. Instead, they waited inexplicably for 48 hours before taking action, by which time hundreds of colleagues might have already been infected, presumably, there is again love in sharing. Only after this happened did the bank finally allow its junior staff to work from home.

I wish I made these stories up, but they all happened.

The Nigerian Elite: Fatai in Versace

My parents raised me with the idea that to be privileged meant to be canny and to make smarter decisions than the Fatais of the world. By virtue of the information and resources you had access to, your actions were expected to be comparatively intelligent, savvy, considered, and always geared toward the long term and the bigger picture. If Fatai was a song, he would be a furious two and a half minute Zlatan noise fest that is forgotten within 6 months, while you the elite would be an intelligent, multi-layered 24-minute Fela number that gets its own musical 30 years later.

Now, however, I know for a fact that none of this is true. The stunningly stupid, irrational, barely believable actions I have repeatedly observed over the past couple of weeks betray the dismaying reality that most of the enlightenment, erudition or thinking ability that are ordinarily associated with wealthy and upper middle-class Nigerians are in fact just veneers.

The Nigerian elite as it turns out is just Fatai in expensive clothes. Take Fatai out of the gatehouse, add a few zeroes to his bank account balance, put some nice clothes on his back and there you have it – a Nigerian ‘elite’ is born. The barrier for entry is being trampled underfoot because the only criterion is money. Fatai and the billionaire think the same way. Fatai and the Police PRO think the same way. Fatai and the multimillionaire society school parents think the exact same way. Fatai and the highfalutin bankers only differ in their account balances.

Both Fatai and the Nigerian elite have the same feckless, insular, benighted, disgustingly self-centred and remarkably unintelligent approach to life. The same way Fatai sits in his tiny gatehouse and contentedly watches the world go by, the Nigerian elite ignores the access they have to information, choosing to act with the same infuriating lack of perspective that once saw their ancestors capture their neighbours and march them to ports for sale to Europeans, without giving a thought to how such a business could possibly scale and what the impact on their future would be.

When Fatai decides to woo the neighbourhood bread seller, he does not think about the important details. Questions like “Have I thought this through?” “Do I have a condom so as to avoid future complications?” “Is there any future in this dalliance?” and “Is this even worth it at all?” are lost in the haze of his horny tunnel vision. This is the same type of tunnel vision that afflicts the Nigerian billionaire who dares a deadly viral outbreak because presumably, in the event that his continued production aids its spread and it becomes a nationwide disaster, he will be able to sell his output to Nigerian corpses.

It is the tunnel vision that afflicts Schrödinger’s Olopa when she decides to visit a high-risk country because she just has to be at that party because whatever social capital she hopes to buy with her presence will be useful if she ends up infected with a deadly infectious disease. It is the tunnel vision of the returnees and those directly exposed to returning family members who go straight back to work or to drop off the kids at school on Monday morning. Just like Fatai furiously making love to Bilikisu in the gatehouse without a condom, life is all about the here and now.

The only difference is that Fatai is poor and they have some wealth – that’s it. This is not how elite formation is supposed to work. Money is certainly a factor in elite formation, but it is never supposed to be the sole deciding factor. Every successful society is led by cultural, political and economic elites who all embody some sort of code or group ideology. An ‘elite’ whose only animating ideology is “We do what we want, when we want, how we want, and we expect no consequences for our behaviour because we have some money,” is an elite practically begging to be ended by a black swan event like COVID-19.
Arguably, it is already happening in fact.

If you want to catch a glimpse of what your future holds if you choose to carry on being millionaire and billionaire Fatais instead of adapting and changing your behaviour, you could start with what the future did to the original Fatai. We ended up getting a video intercom buzzer system which immediately rendered his continued presence superfluous. He was out of a job within a month and I have not heard from him ever since. Life went on and the world passed him by.

That is exactly what will happen to you too.