• Thursday, June 20, 2024
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BusinessDay

The Nigerian middle class is now the greatest threat to democracy

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Those who have followed this column for some time will observe that I have been quite critical of the Nigerian middle class. Being a member of this class myself, this may be a sort of self-criticism, but it is for good reasons. All analyses of the middle class – from the Marxist (exemplified by Barrington Moore’s famous comment: ‘no bourgeoisie, no democracy’) to contemporary capitalist ones – have noted the indispensability of the middle class in building a flourishing and democratic society.

A strong and independent middle class, it is argued, is particularly positioned to ensure and enforce government accountability. They demand representation and accountability in return for their tax, ultimately forcing the ruling elite into making a series of concessions that, over time, improves society and raises the standard of living for everyone.

So central is the middle class to democracy that scholars such as Ronald Classman argue that if society is “skewed towards the rich or poor, democracy may not remain stable” or survive. He argues that if the poor make up the vast majority of the population and the middle class is very small, the democratic order may collapse into some form of leftist tyranny, claiming to exercise power on behalf of the poor.

The Nigerian middle class, since independence and since the return to democracy in 1999, have always put ethnic, religious, and personal/selfish considerations above all others in electoral decisions

On the other hand, if the rich are too powerful and the middle class too weak, then the democratic order/government will drift towards oligarchy, with property qualifications prohibiting the poor and the middle class from holding office or voting. We saw this phenomenon played out in Latin America as the rich backed the military to topple leftist governments that sought to redistribute wealth and or threatened the property rights of the rich.

A key argument for the indispensability of the middle class in Africa is because of the knowledge they possess. The lower class is largely uneducated, has little or no access to correct and critical information, and is usually incapable of understanding complex issues of governance – budget, income, and expenditure. But not so the middle class: they understand all these and form the core of professionals that help governments in the task of governance and management of the economy.

But in Nigeria, rather than use their knowledge and information to force government to be accountable to the people, they 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.

The Nigerian middle class has made nonsense of the theory of the middle class and the sustenance and consolidation of democracy. A while back, I gave the example of Lagos. It has the largest concentration of the middle class in Nigeria, the largest tax-payer base with over 4.5 million registered taxpayers, contributing over 70 percent of the state’s revenue – the only state in the country not dependent on oil revenues/handout from the federal government.

Going by the theory, Lagos state should be a model of democratic accountability in Nigeria. But the reality is that Lagos state remains the opaquest state in the country with zero accountability and almost zero demand for accountability by the people of the state. Despite all the legitimate taxes collected, the state government publishes only a caricature of its audited accounts and refuses to supply any freedom of information requests about its revenues or expenditures.

Its standard reply to any FOI request is that the bill, passed and signed into law in 2011, “does not have automatic application in Lagos state and it has not been domesticated in the state by the State House of Assembly,” even when various court judgments expressly stated it applies to the entirety of the country without exception.

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What is more, Lagos state is perhaps the only state in the country where the entire government machinery is controlled by a single individual. He alone determines and decides who occupies whatever elective or appointive position in the entire state. Consequently, all public officials in the state are only responsible and accountable to him alone and not to the taxpayers in the state because only that individual determines their fate and not the so-called electorate.

I have described on this page before how the middle class, in their interaction with government officials, are always looking out for themselves and their families alone instead of demanding accountability and good governance. The greed and absolute lack of self-awareness is appalling. They are prepared to sell their souls to the devil for a mess of pottage.

The Nigerian middle class, since independence and since the return to democracy in 1999, have always put ethnic, religious, and personal/selfish considerations above all others in electoral decisions. Rather than being the victims, they are strong enablers of corrupt politicians. Like they did in 2014/2015, the upper and middle class are already preparing asinine arguments with which to justify the candidacies of aspirants in the dominant parties.

But make no mistake; all the arguments are motivated by three broad considerations: ethnic or religious considerations, and personal interests. For them, Nigeria is a huge piece of cake that is constantly being shared. All their life’s goals, as it were, are to get a seat on the table or get themselves into the room where the cake is being shared so that they could pick up the crumbs, at least.