by Folarin Sagaya
Nigeria reads increasingly like a work of fiction. Although not those feel-good stories most of us enjoy, where the underdog comes out on top. The ones for instance, that see the skinny kid master the art of karate, which he uses to overcome the bigger playground bullies. Or those that have the young girl subjected to a life of floor scrubbing with a wicked stepmother, but is soon rescued by her prince charming. He trades her bedbug-infested mattress for a castle overlooking the sea.
No, unfortunately the Nigerian tales are somewhat grimmer affairs. In our versions the geek seemingly never gets the girl. The ugly duckling doesn’t blossom into a magnificent swan. The hooker doesn’t escape a life of streetwalking. Instead the Nigerian narrative is one that increasingly leaves (almost) everyone firmly in his or her place.
We have the taxi driver and his groundnut seller wife who can barely afford to put food on the table, talk less of giving their children any sort of education. The schools they scrape together to send their children have overpopulated classrooms with barely-trained teachers that are unmotivated and grossly underpaid. The pupils there somehow cope with benches and dusty concrete floors in place of desks and chairs. There are no computers or science laboratories, and if there were, the equipment wouldn’t be working half the time, as there is never any “light”. They read from outdated textbooks that have pages missing, and are probably too pre-occupied with more pressing matters after school to care about homework. There comes a time when it makes more sense to both the parents and the child, for the boy or girl to stay away from school altogether.
To make his own start in the world, the son starts to ride an okada bike or the slightly safer and “poverty alleviating” three-wheeled Keke-NAPEP. The latter a by-product of the 2001 National Poverty Eradication Programme, an initiative which aimed to “convert the legion of area boys from idleness and wasting national human capital into a gainfully productive work force”. The daughter meanwhile finds life makes more sense helping out at the market.
One income bracket up, the teacher, banker or mid-level civil servant can afford slightly better schools. It is still a real grind coming up with the money for the fees, as there are other commitments. There is the rent to pay (two years upfront), and there are ageing parents and family members in the village to support. Food, books and clothes for the children also need to be accounted for, as do any unforeseen medical bills. The prayer is that no member of the family has any sort of affliction that requires an operation otherwise the financial implications would be crippling. The children do what they can given their conditions. They go on to universities dogged by strikes, cults, decaying facilities and lecturers seeking to make a little extra on the side. Their job prospects afterwards are very grim, hugely oversubscribed, and with terrifically poor salaries. If they are lucky they get a marketing job that can at least provide a foothold into a career at a bank. Or they get a “note” from some well-connected individual that allows the jobseeker to get past the gatekeepers, and to secure a post at a government ministry or parastatal. Many however, will do everything they can to seek their fortunes on more forgiving shores outside the country.
Once upon a time Nigeria wasn’t always so static. Back then children from unremarkable homes, in the best possible sense, reaped the benefits of high quality and available education, and the virgin lands. This lot make up the final tier. They made the most of newly built institutions, scholarships abroad, and systems that still worked to cater for the people they were designed for. These men and women were able to thrive through hard work and circumstance. They set up businesses, were employed by multinational companies, but also became part and parcel of the government structure. This more fortunate group had children who have since enjoyed many of the same privileges, except in a landscape less fresh and unspoiled.
Possibly as a result of having the greatest vantage point, this elite set has always been able to anticipate the trajectory of the country. They can see below them the ballooning classes that are after what they have, and realise the importance of securing their roots.
But a portion of this circle view establishing the necessary and perfectly normal personal security and comfort as insufficient. They look instead to acquire as much as possible. They grow tentacles that spread far and wide over people, wealth, and raw materials. Power and control become the operative words in a desperate attempt to keep the pieces of the pie sizeable. There is a constant reminder all around them of those humble beginnings, in the not so distant past, and that is not a life they want to sink back into. As a result, and in a commendably organic way, a super dooper class emerged. One that is battle-hardened, suspicious, uncompromising and admirably unsympathetic.
And this is a story that is playing out daily in our newspapers, on our TV screens and behind closed doors. It is the reason why many are not surprised when a senator reveals that 83 percent of oil blocks in Nigeria are owned by one group of the country. It is also in this vein that we see a former governor, one facing corruption allegations in two other countries besides Nigeria, granted a pardon because he’s been deemed “remorseful”.
It is along these lines that countless others with long distinguished titles and equally lengthy charges of embezzlement and dishonesty, return to the scene of their crimes, not with a scarlet letter but to preen their feathers in full view. It is bone chilling, hilarious and devilishly clever all at the same time.
Perhaps the fable we have inadvertently adapted is George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In that tale, the pigs led by Napoleon, rise from a class of oppressed and common farm animals. Upon taking the reins of leadership, they become increasingly authoritarian, expanding their vice-like grip over all activities of the farm and crushing anyone who stands in their way. The pigs however are only able to succeed thanks to the unwitting collusion of the other animals. The ones who with short memories and unquestioning loyalty allow for history to be constantly re-written.