Elites and the Nigerian Project

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Simon Kolawole Live!: Email[email protected]

This story fascinates but saddens me. Reacting to one of my articles, a young, wealthy Nigerian said: “To be honest, I am making a lot of money in Nigeria. I have friends in government. I get juicy contracts and make handsome margins. I have houses in Lekki, London and New York. My house in Lekki has a high fence, security gates, security doors, security wires and security guards on duty 24/7. My house in London has no fence, no security doors, no guards. Yet I feel more secure in my London home than in my Lekki house.” He said the inequalities in Nigeria are such that “the wealthy live like prisoners… the rest of the society resents them”.

And that brings me to the topic of discussion today – the grave mistake our elites make when they think it is fun owning mansions and private jets, at our expense, in the face of the demeaning poverty in the land. This myopic mindset propels them to continually milk the system and feed their greed. By elites, I refer to the politicians, the technocrats and the business moguls who collude to plunder our resources. They know themselves. We know them. They know that we know them. By the way, I am not saying it is wrong to own yachts and jets and mansions. I am not saying it is a sin to be rich. I am not suggesting that to be poor is to be righteous. The key phrase here is accumulating wealth “at our expense”.

Last week, I highlighted the twin evil of “outright looting” (no attempt to execute projects at all) and “hyperinflation of contracts” (including padding of budgets by lawmakers). Resources that would otherwise have been freed up and utilised to accelerate infrastructural development are mindlessly pilfered. Definitely, there is a reason the streets of London, Dubai and Singapore are relatively safe today. There is a reason you feel secure there without a fence around your house. Long ago, their elites understood the Yoruba proverb: “Irorun igi ni irorun eye” (“The bird needs a comfortable tree to perch at ease”). You cannot be at ease when the society where you’re flaunting your wealth is not at ease.

The elites in developed countries have long understood that true wealth, true prosperity is that which reflects not just in their private accounts but in the larger society. That is why in the UK, for instance, agriculture is subsidised to make food cheap and affordable. No matter how poor you are, you should be able to feed. There is an understanding that you should not be homeless. So councils build flats and make them cheap or free for the poor. They understand the need for affordable and efficient transport system. You don’t have to own a car. They understand that a society ravaged by poverty and crippling inequalities is a doomed society. The rich can never live at ease in such a society.

In Nigeria, our political elites and their money launderers in the private sector do not appreciate this basic fact. The money for fuel subsidy gets stolen. The fertilizer subsidy meant to make food affordable is stolen. Housing schemes are never for those who truly need them. Budgets for education and health are looted, and you find private hospitals and private schools springing up everywhere, charging fees that can be afforded only by the wealthy, most of whom probably participated in the looting in the first place. Budgets for roads are stolen and the potholes keep swallowing innocent lives. The next thing you see is private jets everywhere, at the expense of the common wealth.

No wonder you sleep at ease in your London home, where there is no fence, than in your fortified Nigerian house where soldiers and police are on guard. It is quite easy to understand why: our elites have created and are sustaining a society filled with outrageous inequalities. Millions of people are jobless and poor and resentful of the rich. They read the stories of sleaze in the newspapers every day. They read how someone steals billions of naira from police pensions and is fined N750, 000 only! They are bitter and angry. They are desperate. They resort to violent robberies, kidnappings and other crimes. That, in a nutshell, should explain why the elites still feel insecure in their maximum-prison mansions.

A wealthy Nigerian told me years ago: “I have a feeling that one day, I may have to take a chopper from my house (in Victoria Island) to get to Murtala Muhammed airport for the fear of being attacked. The anger I see on the faces of the people scares me. There is an air of hostility.” Good talk – but this sort of reality should propel the elites to think deeper and change their ways. They need to come to a consensus that things cannot continue like this. If not, they or their children will be kings in a society where they are too scared to peep out of the window of their mansions.

Here is my suggestion: the plundering has to be drastically reduced and the resources freed to redress the colossal imbalance in the society. Trust me, it is in the interest of the elites – both political and business. As the budgets get spent on what they are meant for, as the right investments are made to generate jobs, it is just a matter of time for unemployment, poverty and crime to reduce. It is not rocket science. The right investments in education, healthcare, roads, power, transportation and industry can only lead to one outcome: a productive and prosperous country, an empowered citizenry. Everybody benefits that way! But this will never happen as long as this conspiracy to plunder goes unchecked.

I hear people argue that South Korea (and many other Asian countries) developed in spite of corruption. There is frequent reference to Daewoo, Hyundai, Samsung and LG being products of corruption that have now gone on to dominate the world. I think there is some confusion here. The corruption that bred the Korean Chaebol is cronyism or favouritism, not looting. Korea’s budgets for subsidies and infrastructure were not looted! If that was the case, South Korea would not have good roads, good schools and good hospitals today. Let us get that clearly before we propagate fake theories here. It will take centuries for a society that is run like ours, where the elites grab and grub every naira in sight, to smell development. No wonder we are still virtually stuck in underdevelopment – in spite of all the petrodollars.

Those who know me very well can testify that I like jokes a lot – I give and receive in equal measure. But in my joking career, I have never come across a more rib-cracking one like the N750,000 fine handed over to John Yakubu Yesufu for stealing N23.3 billion or so from police pensions. That was fun, right? I am at all loss as to why the EFCC would try Yesufu under a lighter law, thereby putting Justice Abdulsalam Talba in a tight corner. Was that a plea-bargain arrangement to prevent lengthy prosecution? We need answers.

Meanwhile, a Magistrate Court in Ikare, Ondo State, has sentenced 23-year-old Adepoju Jamiu to three years in prison for stealing a mobile phone valued at N17,000 only. Chief Magistrate Sunday Adeniyan did not give him an option of fine. Angry Nigerians were quick to compare the crimes and the punishments, but is that not the real Nigeria? Our prisons are overflowing with petty thieves. There is no single former commissioner, former governor, former minister, former lawmaker or former president in jail for corruption in Nigeria. That sums up the kind of society we are living in, where the elites always get away with murder.

Malam Nasir el-Rufai walked into another controversy recently when he re-tweeted a blasphemous post on Jesus Christ (I will not repeat it here). A lot of political capital is being made out of this, but I am very glad Christians’ response has been rational and measured. I shiver to think what would have happened in Northern Nigeria if the tweet or re-tweet was about Islam. For me, there is a lot of lesson to be learnt about restrain when it comes to religious provocations. This message goes specifically to those who make political capital out of religion.

The Super Eagles face the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire today in the quarter-finals of the African Cup of Nations. I’ll be honest and admit that I am not expecting much from them. I have been appalled by their performance so far. But we cannot afford to give up. Football remains our opium in Nigeria in face of bad news coming from every corner. At least, we forget our troubles for the time being. I therefore wish the Super Eagles well today. I will not shed a tear, though, if we are eliminated.