On Being a Successful ("Normal") Nigerian
I was recently reminded (facetiously I presume) by a “sister” of mine that “all this big English” will not take me far. And then she “cordially” invited me to join the ranks of our “normal” compatriots. Inevitably, I spent time ruminating on the diverse ramifications of this invite. Incidentally, the background to the conversation was also propitious for this kind of deep reflection.
Because of recent spending (both necessary and not so), my wallet has been unusually sore. Nearing fifty, and with children in school, this gave plenty of pause for thought. In paid employment, and still occasionally unable to make ends meet, how grievous would it be were I to lose my job today. What prospects then for getting the children through school — in a country where one literally has to build both one’s infrastructure and the cultural/spiritual integuments that give our material existence any meaning?
As if this was not bad enough, I have been away from work for like a month — on vacation. Then I hear that as part of the continuing transition from the “defined benefits” pension arrangement to a “defined contribution” system, my employer is proposing next year to pay us our gratuity (upfront). By definition the gratuity is “something given voluntarily or beyond obligation usually for some service”.
Shocking? Yes! Initially because I thought we were done with the pension reforms. Then I was not too sure that such a proposition did not render the gratuity arrangement a nullity. True, its payment to me by my employer is still voluntary and beyond obligation (management could declare bankruptcy or some force majeure, and then not have to pay). But, how about the part that says payment of the gratuity is for “service” rendered?
Why pay, when I am not done “serving”? And by how much does this arrangement make it easier for my eventual disengagement? Apparently, accounting for staff legacy costs (pensions and gratuity, inclusive) are a major financial burden on my employer. Competition has long since moved all of this burden (including management costs) unto their staff, and so if my employer is to compete on financials properly, it needs to common-size its own accounting.
In conversation with another friend of mine, we agreed that this transition would burden staff to no end. Inevitably, less than 20% of staff will manage the new money well enough such that they do not become a public encumbrance at the end of their employment. This conversation ended with my friend asking what my post-paid employment plans are. If there were blood pressure concerns previously, I needed at this point to book a consultation with my physician.
Then on Thursday, last week, I was at the margins of a wedding introduction for the daughter of a serving political appointee. “Conspicuous consumption”? This was on display in just about every facet of the event. I have no beef with the “spending of money on and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power”, either of “the buyer’s income or the buyer’s accumulated wealth”.
Indeed, I was reminded that in such circles, the celebrant spends less than 10% of the cost of putting the show together. Friends and well-wishers pick up the main bill. Therefore, there is a sense in which the conspicuous consumer’s “public display of discretionary economic power is a means either of attaining or of maintaining a given social status”.
My only grief is that both the conspicuous consumer and his/her beneficiary are all public sector workers. It is generally acknowledged that this category of Nigerians is poorly paid. So where did all that money come from? I do not imagine for instance that they just got paid their gratuities upfront, and then decided to fritter it away this way.
So what did my “sister’s” invite amount to in these circumstances? Undoubtedly, the return on conscientious effort and education in this country is really low. The shorthand for which is the point about “big English” not being lucrative. The invitation to join “normal” Nigerians is more troubling, though. It is in the end, an invitation to join in the “conspicuous consumption of goods and services intended to provoke the envy of other people, as a means of displaying the buyer’s superior socio-economic status”.
Much more than the anti-social upshots of this however, is the fact that the funding for this “normal” lifestyle is invariably pure rent, the benefit of access to and use of state funds. Or in the case of players in the private sector, access to and use of funds which in a properly functioning state would have earned its beneficiary a spell in medium security penitentiary.