Over the last two weeks, I have tried to account for the mass exodus of the Nigerian middle class. I argued that military rule combined with poor economic management have been the main factors causing the exodus of the middle class. But I also argued last week that the middle class, as a unit, is not just a victim, but an enabler of the rot and despoliation of the country. Unlike the archetypal middle class in Western countries that act to protect the democratic order by ensuring good governance and accountability of elected leaders, the Nigerian middle class, with few exceptions, use their privileged positions to negotiate good deals for themselves, their families and friends and have thus become the medium through which Nigeria’s politics of plunder, neopatrimonialism and prebandalism is sustained and deepened.
But by doing this, they are inevitably committing class suicide because as research has shown, the economic fate of the middle class economic is directly tied to the quality of governance and economic management. The middle class depends more on public services than the rich or upper class. The rich could, in most cases, opt out of public service but not so the middle class. They could attempt to opt out of public service, as the Nigerian middle class did when the quality of education declined from the late 1980s onwards. But as most of them are now realising, their diminished income cannot provide the kind of private education they enjoyed to their children.
But why does the Nigerian middle class always act against its enlightened self-interest? The answer lies in a pathology David Hundeyin calls “culturally embedded pathological selfishness,” a “desperate, individualistic drive to survive in spite of (perhaps at the expense of) everyone else”. He traces the history of this narcissistic attitude to the “Meritorious Manumission Act of 1710 in the United States, which authorised the legal emancipation of slaves or improvement in their status in return for certain ‘good deeds’” such as saving a master’s life, property or snitching on fellow slaves. In reality though, no level of personal emancipation could insulate the slave from the harshness of 18th century American society. As many so-called emancipated slaves later discovered, there can be no personal emancipation outside the group and no matter how they tried, they could not escape the “nasty shared experience of blackness.”
That mindset found its way back across the Atlantic and has taken deep roots in our culture and religion, and has led to the belief that our personal interests comes before the collective; that, in fact, our “case is different” and that in spite of the bleak fortunes of our society, we could prosper and become quite successful as individuals. Needless to say, this perverse mindset only makes us become more vicious and untrustworthy, always willing to cheat, back-stab one another and endanger the interest of the collective for an illusion of personal emancipation. It is this false consciousness that makes a public official thinks he is looking out for his interest and that of his family by embezzling funds meant for social services or infrastructure. It is why the search of lucre has become the main motivation for politics, religion and life generally in Nigeria.
Of course, like the 18th century emancipated slaves discovered, personal emancipation outside group emancipation is a mirage. However, the Nigerian middle class is yet to realise that simple fact. We destroy the chance of group emancipation by our utter selfishness but go to church every day to listen to pastors who assure us that we can achieve personal breakthroughs even if the entire society is out of joint. We offer our services to perpetuate military and civilian dictatorships but go to church and mosque to pray for good governance and God-fearing leaders. We sit by idly or even partake in the diversion of funds meant for investments in public infrastructure such as health and roads but we go to the church and mosque daily to pray for good health and for journey mercies when travelling. We sit by and watch as our leaders turn the country to a haven of poverty and unemployment yet go to church and mosque to pray for protection from robbery and burglary. Eventually, when we come up against the harsh reality of what our country has become and our utter helplessness, we want out. We aspire to go live in a country where its middle class are performing their duties of holding their governments accountable and ensuring adequate investments in public infrastructure and services.
I’ll end with a personal and painful example. Sometime in 2017, the Lagos state governor invited senior editors of media houses to the government house, Ikeja, to brief them on government’s plan for the state and to get their inputs. At the meeting, I watched with shame as senior journalists and editors suck up to the governor, shamelessly singing his praises and asking for ridiculous favours. My single attempt to ask the governor probing questions on government accountability brought the programme to an end and accusations from my colleagues of embarrassing my host. If senior journalists, whose job it is to hold government accountable, could behave this way, imagine what other professionals do when they come in contact with political leaders.