By Tabia Princewill
The publisher of Genevieve Magazine, Mrs. Betty Irabor, told a very interesting story on her social media pages recently. She recounted how people on the same flight as her upon recognising who she was kept giving her curious looks. A steady stream of people kept coming towards her to ask if she was OK because she was flying Premium Economy! They couldn’t understand what she was doing there and thought some mistake had been made. One lady in particular seemed angry and ready to fight the airline on her behalf, thinking Mrs. Irabor had been downgraded or given the wrong seat for some reason. Another offered to bring her champagne from business class which she politely refused.
For the avoidance of any doubt,these people were not being polite or solicitous. The issue, as Mrs Irabor described it, was that they could not believe that a “celebrity” or “someone of her status” would be fine flying economy. This story, although amusing, points to the social malaise which underlines and justifies corruption in African countries, especially Nigeria. Now, one must ask, is there anything wrong with flying economy? And why are we so obsessed with other people’s life choices?
What’s wrong with being a regular Joe? Our society has managed to give us the impression that everyone must be a big man or a show off to be seen or even treated with some humanity. After all, only the poor suffer any form of indignity or discomfort in Nigeria as money buys the right to access all forms of opportunity. So, humility or conservativeness are either frowned upon or considered strange: all we respect is the in-your-face, crass, brash and classless sort of spending associated with the nouveau riche behavior Nigerians now tend to view as the norm.
Interestingly, some of the richest people on the planet are quiet, low-key types. When Mark Zuckerberg came to Nigeria, he shocked the media with his unassuming ways. He didn’t have a convoy of dozens of black jeeps and police operatives, which the average tout in Nigeria summons once he’s made a bit of money. We keep claiming we want change, better governance and less corruption yet our attitudes towards money point to the opposite.
Everyone wants to live a lavish lifestyle without necessarily possessing either the talent or work ethic needed to achieve it. The mega churches and their prosperity gospel are in part responsible for this: everyone awaits a miracle without considering that God helps those who help themselves. Also, the rich in Nigeria are far from honest about how they got their start in life, ascribing their success to “God’s favour” which doesn’t tell the full story. Without the help of government contacts and a system skewed in their favour (e.g. that allows them to make 100% profits without being taxed), many of those we consider successful today in Nigeria would not be occupying such enviable positions. Our hypocritical society pretends not to know what everyone is up to. We would rather try to shame honest people living within their means for their lack of ostentation than question the true source of many of our so-called idols’ wealth.
We refuse to address the root causes of poverty; that is, the people in our society who defraud us and who are therefore responsible for the huge level of discontent in Nigeria. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with aspiring for a better life. But the societies we so admire did not get where they currently are on soulless consumption and aspirational narratives alone.
Every time I see a Rolls Royce advert on a billboard in Lagos, I smile and wonder what foreigners must think of us in Nigeria. Sure, every corner of the globe in this modern era is home to consumerist people who view happiness in relation to material possessions: this is the world we live in. However, our consumption in Africa only serves to keep other people’s factories going. It serves to keep other people’s pockets full.
The entire structure of our economy has been wrong for decades and every government talks about improving non- oil exports with little real success because we the people are yet to embrace a new mindset. Our current attitude can’t get us anywhere, Buhari or no Buhari. A country that produces so little yet survives on the importation of goods from abroad is one where the influence of social media, global consumerism and capitalism are sure to have a devastating impact.
Entire businesses in the West are built upon the misery of others, preying on people’s insecurities, therefore encouraging them to spend money they often don’t have on products to make themselves appear taller, thinner, lighter, darker, younger, richer, etc. The ethics of capitalism aside, we as a people need to realise what the game is and play smarter so we can truly claim a place for ourselves in this world.
Foreign journalists often ask me how it is possible that a country such as Nigeria with so many smart, talented, resourceful, well-educated people is dominated by a political class which rarely features these qualities. Nigerians have largely embraced anti-intellectualism and the following, all too common sayings: “na grammar we go chop?” or “he/she (insert name of candidate with multiple degrees and ideas) isn’t rugged enough to win”. If one is required to be reasonably smart and savvy in the corporate world why doesn’t the same requirement seem to exist in politics? Why do the main contenders seem to have no real ideas or ideology outside of vague statements like “restructuring” or “it’s my zone’s turn to produce a president?” Why do we keep accepting sub-par representation?
The Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service, Mr Tunde Fowler, says this agency will soon begin to focus on “defaulting taxpayers who have billions in their bank accounts but refuse to pay their taxes”. Government has been financed by oil revenue for so long. Those at the top of the social pyramid (aided by their friends in government) have paid next to nothing in taxes, some going back a period of several decades. As the Americans say, no taxation, no representation. If Nigerians pay taxes, we’ll care what government does with our money. We’ll take a closer, more stringent look at capital projects and government finances. Mr Fowler disclosed that over 6,772 potential “billionaire taxpayers” were identified. Some Nigerians have taken tax avoidance to the extreme. In the United States one can go to jail for defrauding the Internal Revenue Service. In Nigeria, only the poor and middle classes are threatened with punishment for breaking the law.
According to a recent study by doctors of the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital Zaria, 85 per cent of Nigerians who suffer from mental health issues are young people between 18-38 years. In our status obsessed society where the pressure to belong, to own and to covet what others have literally drives people insane, quality education in tandem with an intensification of the fight against corruption becomes imperative. Corruption not only sets a false standard for people to compare themselves to, it creates a false narrative whereby one can succeed without hard work or become an overnight success like so many of our business people and politicians. Young people who don’t have connections or opportunities which the children of certain rogues take for granted need education so they can better understand the issues and realise just how much the system is rigged. Depression, crime, illegal migration, drug abuse, human trafficking are the results of a society without a concept of social justice.
But in a society where we’d much rather fickle consumption to righting wrongs, where even the media delights in defending roguish politicians’ right to oppress Nigerians, where citizens themselves don’t seem to want an end to corruption, when all around you seem to suffer from the same “money at all costs” disease, what is one to do?