Can the Nigerian middle class save itself?

August 13, 2014by Tope Fasua0

Homer Stokes was the ‘reform’ Candidate. The prize was the governorship of the state of Mississippi. The year was circa 1934. The Great Depression had its fangs firmly dug into the American economy’s jugular, which lay bleeding profusely.  Vagabonds roamed the high streets and the countryside alike. Brothers betrayed brothers, as did Washington “Wash” Hogwallop to his cousin Pete. People stole from those who helped them, as did Ulysses Everett McGill, from the betraying “Wash” Hogwallop. 

 

The ‘enlightened’ populace had all but determined that Stokes would be the next governor of the “Magnolia” state, until he became belligerent and revealed his status as the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK had planned the simple ceremony of lynching a black man (Tommy), until his compatriots – Ulysses, Pete and Delmar – disrupted the ceremony and freed poor Tommy. Stokes made the eternal mistake of stating his intentions in public and the ‘constituency’ turned on him.

Pappy “Pass-the-Biscuits” O’Daniel cashed in on his bad luck.

Pappy O’Daniel was the incumbent governor in a state riven with corruption, where Bible Salesmen, like “Big Dan” Daniel Teague, were also real armed robbers who sold for a neat profit, the living word of the Almighty by day, and stole from the unwary at night – or anytime he could get the slightest opportunity. Pappy and his son, both bursting at the abdomen from access to too much money and food, were only too happy for the opportunity presented to them on a platter by Homer Stokes. Pappy jumped on it, pardoned the Soggy Bottom Boys (comprising Ulysses, Pete, Delmar, and Tommy – the black kid who claimed he sold his soul to a white devil who then taught him how to play the guitar so good) of all their sins, had them render “Man of Constant Sorrow” once more – to the raving delight of the crowd, and finished it off with his own campaign anthem “You are My Sunshine”.

 

The Soggy Bottom Boys became famous, the single track Man of Constant Sorrow that they had recorded with the blind man who ran a radio station in Tishomingo Mississippi, having become a hit, up to Mobile, Texas. They also became part of the ‘brain trust’ of Governor O’Daniel.

And so it was that Pappy “Pass-the-Biscuits” O’Daniel did another – some would say underserved – term as the governor of the grand old state of Mississippi, and crime ran free in the streets, with no less than George “Babyface” Nelson and his colleagues robbing banks and looting monies they didn’t know what to do with.  Babyface – a name he hated to be called – hit three banks in Itta Bena, Mississippi, with the Soggy boys in tow, in one day, in a mad spree of robbery.  As he robbed banks he shouted, much to the horror of the bewildered customers and bank workers “Remember, Jesus Saves… but George Nelson Withdraws!”

Ok, I confess. This is part of the plot in one of the best movies I’d ever seen – and that I can’t get tired of watching over and over again. Movie name – O’Brother Where Art Thou? Characters – George Clooney, Charles Durning, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro, John Goodman, and many more. Producer/Directors, Ethan and Joel Coen. It won a number of accolades for its quality. The exotic names in the movie, the setting, the era, all to me are quite fascinating. Like Nigeria in 2014.

 

The movie made profound impact on me because of the closeness of the circumstances in it to what obtains in Nigeria today. The symptoms of economic depression are very much with Nigeria today. They have always been. The kind of politics played by Pappy O’Daniel is what most of our people can understand. In reality, in the 1930s in the USA and many parts of Europe, even until a couple of decades ago, you bribed people with pigs, chicken, eggs and sacks of flour to get their votes. In Tower Hamlets, next to the glistening financial district of London, till at least the last general elections held there about a year ago, corruption, intimidation, rigging, and the occasional handing out of cigarettes near the polling booth on voting day, determines who becomes the councillor, the MP, or even the prime minister. Alright, I get it that Tower Hamlets is heavily populated by Indians and Bangladeshis – Bengalis to be precise. But that is just one flaw of democracy.

Enough has been said already about Democracy being potentially a Tyranny of the Majority, meaning that it is whatever the ‘majority’ WANTS, not necessarily what they NEED, into perpetuity, that determines the fate of everybody. This is true, especially where the votes count. And it is evident in any society that the poor, the ignorant, the uneducated, the confused, the oppressed, the angry – in any combination – will be in the majority. The minority who think they know what really matters need not bother stepping out to exercise their rights to vote. It’s almost pointless.

As in the case of Nigeria, we have seen the sharing of rice, clothes, kerosene, recharge cards for phones, ‘pure’ water, and what have you. Some of the ‘enlightened’ people complain on end about how those who are displaying pre-election generosity will be the biggest culprits when the time to loot comes upon us. Why not? Nothing goes for nothing. The poor gets their own tiny piece of meat in the beginning, the politicians get everything, in the end. Who is smarter? The society is firmly in reverse gear. The majority – the masses – seem to have roundly rejected snotty intellectualism. They have no business with ‘big grammar’. They aren’t too concerned about school buildings, civic centres, resorts, governors’ lodges, overhead bridges, well-laid tarmacs, airports, hospitals, universities, tourist centres. They are concerned about now! “What can we see?”, “Who is nice to us?”. “What have we benefited from whom?” For everybody’s good, and for any sound intellectual interrogating to be made of our present and future, it is apt, that we properly psychoanalyse the thinking of the majority.

Many people have written about the phenomenon, newly introduced into Nigerian lexicon – Stomach Infrastructure. The expensive joke goes that any political leader who forgets to build the infrastructure of the stomach is acting strictly at his or her own risk. People speak about the disgraceful ousting of an incumbent in Ekiti, who was roundly trounced despite his gentlemanly pedigree, and indeed his vision for his people. They said he was standoffish, elitist, and so were his policies. I take caution at this point, as we have been told not to condescend on even those we deem ‘poor or ignorant’. They do have minds of their own, and we are to accept whatever their decisions are, not only as the final say of the majority but as a superior distillation of the greater good.  In other words, the majority in Nigeria are not only much more in number than those who think contrary, they are also right!

 

But somewhere along this highway, I beg to take my departure.

No, the majority is certainly more, but almost in every occasion and situation, the majority is always wrong. Except if properly guided. The ability to distil situations, see through politicians, refuse to be influenced by pittances, ask the right, difficult questions, project into the future, compare what obtains elsewhere and ask for the same in one’s country, protect votes, speak up intelligently, demand for institutions that work, curb unnecessary corruption, and so on, lies with the middle class.

So I ask.  Can the Middle class save itself? As we are in this together, and since we live only one life, it is certain that none of us would get out of here alive. So, how do we make this place a bit more enjoyable for ourselves?

First off, what is ‘middle class’? In today’s pragmatic definition, it has to be anyone with a job, preferably white collar, but also a blue-collar job with some stability and tangible income should qualify one as middle class. Middle-class should encompass those who – for now – have some sort of career and whose take home pays actually manages to take them home. Lower class – where the majority lies – would be those who earn very little or don’t earn at all. Being middle class is therefore a privilege, not a right. It is not something one attains for someone’s own self-glorification, but of necessity, in order to pull others up, and to ensure, using one’s broadened knowledge, and the opportunity afforded by income stability or even buoyancy, that society gets much better than it used to be.

 

The heavier challenge of societal advancement rests on the middle class. If the middle class decides to shirk responsibility – as it seems we are in Nigeria already – society deteriorates and disintegrates. Simple. The ‘majority’ class has too many dire bread-and-butter issues to deal with, and the upper class lives in a totally different world, with different concerns. Private jets wait on the tarmac to ferry them to wherever else they want to live in the world; they have enough dollars in the billions stashed in different corners of the world. Their children live in some of the most expensive real estates in the most expensive parts of the world. The upper class – in Nigeria as in any society – comprises citizens of just their country. They are citizens of the globe. Who needs a country if not the middle class?  It is the Middle Class that is opportune to grow and find fulfilment given the platform a sovereign country affords them. They are also the ones who lose status very easily if their country fails and they have to search for jobs in other countries.

This issue became paramount in my mind when someone recently asked Facebook users if the people who matter, those who vote, the majority, come to Facebook to read all the sound analyses, or if they follow on Twitter to know what’s trending. I thought for a second that the person had a strong point, until another thought occurred to me that rather than some of us quitting Facebook or social media to ‘go and engage’ with the majority lower class who couldn’t be bothered, what we should be striving to do is getting them to join us in the intellectual classroom. This will make for better decisions, and a better society, for all of us.  We all need the global CONTINUING EDUCATION CENTRE called Facebook and social media in general, at this age, except we want to maintain our country as a country of dinosaurs. The new education cannot just be ignored.

It is only the middle class who can form increasing concentric circles of intellectualism and gradually develop the majority. In spite of everything, the middle class is being looked up to and it can greatly influence the lower class. We are the ones who can open the eyes of the majority and make them take better decisions.

So the issues on ground remains, are we at an epoch where we can fold our hands and ask that things continue the way they’ve always been, at least in the last 16 odd years?  As the gale of impeachments sweep across opposition states, should we rejoice that the whole of Nigeria will be looking at the prospects of the same party that has been running the show since 16 years, now becoming the ONLY party in Nigeria? If this becomes the reality, are we to expect any change in our polity, or more of the same? Would any of us, especially the ‘majority’ have any moral grounds to complain that things are bad after we welcome the same old, same old?  Should we be voting ‘conservative’ at this point, or for ‘reform’? Or perhaps more pragmatically, if we are stuck with a single party in Nigeria, how can we all get involved and ensure that single party changes itself from within?  For example, we need smaller government, fewer ministers, part-time legislators.  Can the upcoming reality of a one-party system deliver those for us?  Those are the salient questions which the ‘gramar-blowing’ middle class should educate the ‘majority’ about. Engage! Engage! Engage!

 

Lastly, all over the world, thinkers are now debating frantically about the income gap in societies. They are looking at who gets what, and what advantage it confers or deprives. Profound thinking in economics is now, more than ever, about how to ensure societies create more opportunities and reverse the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Crass capitalism is out of fashion because it is now evident it destroys everyone, including the capitalists. Whereas people should be allowed to pursue their ambitions and businesses, thinkers and philosophers are advocating for stronger governance, visionary leadership, and dynamic policies to rein in excesses that exacerbate imbalance.

Many middle-classers may not know it, but this is exactly what is at the bottom of our hearts when we blow the ‘grammar’ about how society should be, who should lead, how we are not getting value for money from government spending. Equality, in a country like Nigeria, means government should ensure more real money is spent on public infrastructure, so that the poor can get education, health, jobs and all the things that should matter to them. Not necessarily handouts. Equality means dignity should be returned to our people. Equality means that we should be able to run society in the exact way that the countries ahead of us, whom we admire, run theirs.

This is a worthy advocacy. For it will ensure the rich enjoy their wealth, while it saves the majority from a looming national catastrophe. But the middle class had better wake up to its crucial responsibility.

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