• Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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BusinessDay

Seek ye first the economic kingdom – Then the politics shall follow

Transport activities contributed 1.35% to nominal GDP in Q2 – NBS

In 2018, before I moved out of my first apartment in Bariga, I had a neighbour who had a child with learning difficulties. Korede must have been 7 or 8 years old, but he could barely communicate at toddler level. He also had a raft of health problems and he was rarely seen without his mom lurking nearby, ready to give him a new dose of medicine or change his diaper. The kid was clearly in pain a lot of the time, and it wasn’t hard to tell how much of an emotional toll it took on his two siblings and his parents – an electrician and a petty trader – who were themselves just getting by.

Late one night in February, I heard a loud, frantic knock on my door. It was another neighbour asking me to help rush Korede to the hospital because he was apparently dying. I floored it there with a couple of neighbours and his screaming mom holding his limp body. After five minutes of adrenaline shots and defibrillators, the doctor pronounced him dead. The hospital wouldn’t accept his body and his parents couldn’t afford the mortuary bill anyway, so I grim journey back home with a dead child and his wailing mother in the back seat.

Being Muslims, they decided to bury him at sunrise, and they got back to the house before 8AM. I had a day off at work, so I decided to visit them around 9AM to offer my condolences. Amidst the grimness, I was hoping to offer a few words of encouragement to Korede’s dad in private but I did not see him there. I asked where he was and I struggled to stifle the gasp when they told me.

He had gone to work.

It’s the economics, stupid

I started this column with that story to provide some context for understanding exactly how that elusive creature called “the average Nigerian” really thinks. Who and what is this person? Where do they live? What do their families look like? How much do they earn? What makes them tick? How can their behaviour be influenced or altered? What is the most effective way to connect with them intellectually and emotionally? Why are they where they are? Can their situation change? If so, who will play a driving role?

It is important to answer these questions now because we find ourselves in the thick of yet another election cycle, having the same recycled conversations we had in 2011, 2015 and 2019 – “PDP” this, “APC” that, “3rd Force” the other, “Get your PVC” over there, and “Don’t sell your vote” over here. For the roughly 8 percent of Nigerians with a monthly income of N60,000 and above, the 2023 general election is an opportunity to right ongoing wrongs by kicking malfeasants out of office and installing competents. For the remaining 92 percent who will almost certainly never read this article however, the 2023 election is simply a window of opportunity to be gifted free rice, clothes, vegetable oil, motorbikes, cash inducements and even cars by politicians. We are aware that these “gifts” are not gifts, and that we all end up paying for them. They are either unaware or they just don’t care. What on earth are we going to do?

The 92 percent has no intention of “voting wisely” or “protecting their votes” or “voting their conscience” while politicians and their henchmen are out on the streets distributing okada bikes, bags of rice, sacks of plantain and bundles of Ahmadu Bellos. However, by doing this, they are directly acting against our general interests by rewarding politicians for doing terrible things and reinforcing voter bribery as the primary method for gaining relevance on the street. If they accept the inducements, they have guaranteed terrible leadership for another 4 years. If they reject the bribes, it’s their loss because they will still be poor, the politicians are not guaranteed to perform well, and someone else will always accept the inducements anyway. It is a classic unsolvable problem.

Read also: Harsh economy: Firm urges Nigerians to engage in ‘passive’ income earning

When this is pointed out, the middle class Nigerian reply that comes back typically goes along the lines of “If you like, sell your future for N5,000 today – you will still end up complaining and suffering for another 4 years.” The inference of this message and its many variations is that the vast Nigerian underclass is made up of fundamentally stupid, unintelligent or illogical people – and us middle class Twitter users and intellectual elite get to make that judgment. Which brings us back to Daddy Korede whom I mentioned at the start.

Daddy Korede had a hard life. He watched his youngest child do nothing but suffer through 8 years of life, without so much as hearing the kid say “Dada” one day. While dealing with the trauma of taking care of an enfeebled child in constant pain, he also had to take care of a wife and two other children from his irregular income as a self-employed electrician. More than a few times, his share of the compound’s electricity bill went unpaid, and I quietly covered it so that we would not get disconnected. He then got to watch his young child die after years of suffering, and buried him barely 6 hours later. And what did he do next?

He went to work.

The “average Nigerian” is prepared to go through things that we would find unconscionable just to provide food for their families. The fear of hunger, starvation and deprivation is a much more potent shaper of behaviour for this person than anything else, save the wrath of God himself. For us, the painful death of a lastborn child would be the end of our world, or at the very least an extended leave of absence from work. For him, it’s Tuesday. If you tell this fellow to think about his long term future on election day and shun the N3,000 voter inducement on offer by a clearly unsuitable candidate, you might get a slap for your efforts. At best, he will respectfully allow you finish speaking your ‘turenchi,’ then he will proceed to sell his vote, say a prayer of thanks to whatever god he believes in for sparing his family of hunger for another day, then eat and go to sleep happy.

As far as he is concerned, if we are not offering him money in his pocket and rice in his stomach when discussing democracy, human rights and active citizenship with him, we might as well be a pastor on a pulpit promising him eternal salvation as his stomach growls. We have to offer him something more than belief in abstract concepts. He already has poverty, which is a very real concept to him. Compared to the poverty and hunger facing his family every day, what is all of our talk worth? Recognising this reality about this person and the reality of our interlinked destinies as long as we live in an electoral democracy, our behaviour and social consciousness must change in one very important way.

We are not “Nigeria” – They are

While engaging in the conversation about the proposed total lockdown of the largest third world city on the planet 2 years ago, something that quickly became apparent to me was just how far out of touch many of us are with respect to what Nigeria is and how Nigerians live. Those of us who live in the leafier parts of Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt often make the cardinal error of using our experiences as a proxy for what the “Nigerian” experience is. We always forget as I mentioned earlier, that we are at best a miserly 8 percent of Nigeria’s population – an extremely small minority. Everything we think we know about Nigeria – what our houses look like, what diet we eat, what social norms we have, what religious beliefs we hold – we don’t.

What we actually have is a tiny oasis of wealthy, western-style civilisation that is as difficult to break into as it is easy to fall out of. The rest of the country – the vast majority of the country – had no idea what we are talking about when we put out our paragraphed tweets filled with terms like “aggressive measures,” “immediate lockdown,” and “flatten the curve.” When we talked about “regular handwashing under running water,” a significant percentage of the population was literally unfamiliar with the idea of clean water channelled through a pipe to come out of a device called a “tap.”

In fact what really makes up “Nigeria” has little to do with most of those who are reading this article. Most of Nigeria is rural and agrarian, and the urban parts generally have a lot more in common with Itire and Olusosun than with our many estates and GRAs. We are not the standard by which Nigeria is to be measured, and we should not deceive ourselves about this. At the very best, we are a group of outliers. We must recognise that in political and electoral terms, Nigeria is primarily the domain of people like Daddy Korede, and this fact should inform whatever strategy it is that we hope to deploy to achieve our political goals.

The so-called “bottom of the pyramid” market segment that makes up 92 percent of Nigeria’s population is not just an abstraction that exists to be talked down on and observed with morbid fascination from a safe distance. They are real people with a measure of group consciousness, collective memories and a significant amount of historically-justified scepticism about our efforts to engage with them. Whether we like to admit it or not, on a micro and macro level, we also have a history of treating them like invisible people or disposable commodities, which feeds their distrust.

In our engagement on the subject of the forthcoming elections and beyond, it is important that we understand the following about inter-class relations – the middle class must offer more carrot and less stick, because the only stick most Nigerians really fear is poverty; and the middle class must learn to engage humbly, transparently and in good faith with the “average Nigerian.” When the knowledge, skills and capital of the middle class can finally work in partnership with the numbers and energy of everyone else, this will be the long-awaited critical mass for significant political change in the world’s poverty capital.

I said ‘when,’ not ‘if,’ because I am choosing to be an optimist. Even if there is no basis for optimism.