Tomorrow is Eid Adha, Festival of Sacrifice and Feasts for the almost 100 million Nigerian Muslims. More than 90 percent of that figure struggled or are still struggling to buy common rams for the celebration. We hear very often that Nigeria is not poor; that it is rich. But why should Nigerians in their majority struggle to live? That is a question our refreshed president should ask himself and answer while he jails his thieves. President Muhammadu Buhari enjoys talking tough. Singing his favourite song, he came back from the United Kingdom on Saturday with a vow to jail more thieves. Great words that have morphed into a refrain! Thieves deserve jail terms and even more. But it is amazing that the one who was just coming from his doctors learnt nothing from how he was treated. The London minders of his health have been successful because they attacked the causes of his ill health while stomping the symptoms. Theft and graft are manifestations of a cause. The cause of corruption is right there in the culture of greed and ostentation of our ruling elite.
Elite greed breeds mass poverty which in turn tears the moral fabric of the society. The thieves Buhari vowed to jail, and the secure ones in his own party, are bribing the people with Sallah rams and the people are hailing them. Buhari’s Nigeria is pushing them to do this. They have learnt to eat the unclean and say Astaghfirullah after Sallah. I didn’t hear our president on Saturday declare war on the spiraling poverty wracking the nation. I haven’t heard our president vow to remove the life support plug of the overfed elite who daily escape abroad to use the toilet.
The poor man, the unpaid workman daily loses his loved ones to the inadequacy in Nigeria’s health care system. He is sad but he watches the egregious power elite with envy. He aspires and prays to enjoy what the elite enjoy vacationing abroad. The unprivileged will always seek to make it – sometimes anyhow, especially where the system is rigged against him. Sometimes, he sees law as a hindrance to his “making it.” He seeks to subvert and demolish the house of values and make it big like the big man before him. Aristotle said so: “poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.”
I ask daily: If Nigeria is so rich, why are Nigerians so poor? A former American Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell asked same question in a 2012 blog post. The question was asked at the height of the unceasing self-praise by the bumbling Jonathan regime that the economy was donning its best colours. “If Nigeria is getting richer, how can Nigerians be getting poorer?” A question asked should attract an answer. I am not exactly sure that Campbell got the answer he sought. Even you can ask that question till the end of the world, you are not likely to get an answer. It is a conundrum. Governments go, governments come, the paradox of poverty in opulence stays with the Nigerian. It is an elite thing. They get richer and fitter while the people sink in debts and in wants and in illnesses. And the elite won’t ever take heed that from Rome to Greece to Nigeria, vast inequality of fortunes destroyed all the republics of the past. This ‘equality of fortunes’ includes access to necessary services, especially good health care. It includes equal access to justice, to the general patrimony and its dividends. It excludes jailing enemies who steal and cuddling friends who rob. Mary Harris Jones, a United States labour and community organiser said something about this more than a century ago. In a speech at Coney Island in 1903, she spoke about the elite and their definition of justice: “I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States senator.” Here, they steal roads, embezzle airports and confiscate seaports, they then port to the ruling party to enjoy their loot forever undisturbed.
Soldiers, herdsmen in gun duel in Benue
The Nigerian elite are few and rich and they flaunt it. Even animals in the wild have a better sense of economic justice. Political economist, Henry George draws our moral attention to this. He says no one ever saw a herd of buffalo of which a few were fat and the great majority lean. He adds that no person ever saw a flock of birds, of which two or three were swimming in grease, and the others all skin and bone. The Nigerian poor yawn with envious red eyes while the elite feast. Nigeria personifies resistance to common sense. It is an irony that we have a rich country with poor citizens; we are a deeply religious but sinful nation. Official statistics always tell us that the economy is doing well. And we ask: what really is the meaning of doing well? The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) last week said inflation had steadily maintained a climb-down. But the market is not saying that. Muslims are in their season of piety and sacrifice. If inflation has gone down, why are Sallah rams priced beyond the pocket of the conscientious Muslim? Why are politicians pre-buying 2019 votes with 2018 rams? Why is the middle class still miserable? Whether under Jonathan or with Buhari, what has really changed for the government worker who was hungry and unpaid in 2012 when Campbell asked that question? Quoting a newspaper article, Campbell noted that apart from lucky Nigerians who were in the oil, telecoms, and finance sectors, civil servants and corrupt politicians were also “doing well.” We know politicians always do well – even under the military. But Campbell didn’t define who he meant by “civil servants.” He couldn’t have meant the miserable ones whose salaries remained detained in the greedy closets of their governors. Those ones were the victims under the Jonathan presidency. They are still victims in 2018. And it has always been like that for the ordinary government worker.
I said vast inequality of fortunes destroyed all the republics of the past. Comrade Hassan Sunmonu was president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) during the presidency of Alhaji Shehu Shagari. On August 20, 1983, Sunmonu was in the media almost cursing that period’s big men who didn’t consider salary payment a necessity: “They (president, Vice President, Governors etc) live in free houses. Workers do not enjoy that facility. They have to pay landlords. They are being ejected by landlords. No food-seller gives them credit. Are you saying that the workers should die before they are paid? The phenomenon of workers not receiving their pay started with this republic- with the presidential system. It is a big disgrace – both nationally and internationally. As a result of nonpayment of wages, salaries and allowances as and when due, many workers have died, most homes have been broken, children have been withdrawn from school up to the university level because their parents could not pay their fees, a phenomenon that has never happened in the history of this country.”
Time present is time past. At a press conference on July 27, 1983, then Lagos State governor, Alhaji Lateef Jakande spoke about the misfortune of the Nigerian hard worker and of a country going down: “I know a gentleman, a civil servant, who is a hard and loyal worker in Cross River State. He has not been paid his salary for the past three months. To make matters worse, his wife is also a civil servant. She too is in the same predicament. How does the NPN expect the couple to live? They have children. What do they tell their children?” You could remove the date when that statement was made and insert the name of your state and it would sound just as fresh and fit for 2018. But that was in 1983 – clear 35 years ago. And that should tell salary-denied civil servants that the rains beating them in Nigeria started long ago. The chill is even getting worse. It has to, because the rain that pours without ceasing, only God knows how many vulnerable heads it will beat. The rain of misery for the working class is not in a hurry to stop – and jailing corrupt enemies of government won’t stop it.
Our president is back. I hope while he goes about jailing ugly thieves, he will have time to disown his rich, handsome governors who won’t pay salaries but would jostle to pray and dine with him in Aso Rock. Let us hope the president will ask himself why majority of his people are hungry; why his insecticide is not stopping (and won’t stop) mosquitoes from infecting the nation with crimes and criminality; why the Almajiri increases in number daily on Kano streets; why APC and PDP politicians and their allies remain desperate for criminal riches – and why helpless people clothe thieves with mass presence in their homes and at their campaign rallies.
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