By Tabia Princewill
ONE hears the often-repeated assertion that politics in our country is rarely if ever based on any real ideology. While this appears true on the surface, the just concluded 2019 Presidential election shows a seismic shift many are yet to reckon with. President Muhammadu Buhari won the 2015 elections with a margin of 2,571,759 votes and in 2019, he did so again with 3,928,869 votes, meaning an additional 1,357,110 more Nigerians decided to support him. Why? A new understanding of income inequality took centre stage, in a country where the increasing number of private jets was once mistaken for “evidence” the Nigerian economy was doing well.
Former President Goodluck Jonathan, once criticized a 2014 World Bank report, saying: “If you talk about ownership of private jets, Nigeria will be among the first 10 countries, yet they are saying that Nigeria is among the five poorest countries”. Nigeria’s GDP growth rarely reflected what was happening at the grassroots level: we’ve often been in the ironic situation of recording high levels of financial growth with little impact on the real economy.
Dividends of democracy
Growth in Nigeria has failed to reduce poverty because the poor are not integrated into the economy and have no access to its proceeds. Politicians came to power declaring they wanted to secure the “dividends of democracy” for their people while pursuing policies which continuously widened the gap between the rich and poor. In fact, the only way of accessing wealth is often to position oneself on the patronage ladder by “attaching” to a big man who redistributes benefits for his ethnic kin.
Atiku Abubakar, the PDP Presidential candidate, a self-confessed admirer of Margaret Thatcher, believes expenditure on social investment schemes are nothing short of a waste of time. A majority of poor and working-class people, traders and artisans, disagreed with him through their votes.
While IMF backed studies prove long term economic growth is tied to rising equality in income distribution, it is safe to say there has been, since 2015, the beginning of an instinctive recognition among the masses or the voting public, that the decisions taken by past governments which subsidised the rights and appetites of some people (using public funds), while exposing the majority of the population to the risks and vagaries of the global market, without any form of social protection, wasn’t just morally unjust, it was economically unsustainable.
In Lagos, five million people collected PVCs but a little less than one million people came out to vote on election day. We’ve all heard by now of the “power of the Ks”, Kano, Katsina, Kaduna, where, every election, the talakawa come out in huge numbers. What makes the masses in the North so much more politically active and engaged than those in the South?
Why does the average middle-class Southerner say, with much pride: “I am not interested in politics”, as if this self-avowed disinterest were itself a marker of status. Is politics only for those who aren’t integrated into networks of patronage and security through which one survives election cycles? Or is it that the South, which has always touted itself as more progressive, is actually more conservative than initially thought?
In Nigeria, the rich blame the poor for poverty (a Victorian attitude to wealth with many similarities to what obtains in ultra-capitalist societies like the US or the UK). The affluent believe the poor are poor almost by “choice” because they aren’t “smart” enough to take advantage of opportunities, forgetting that their own position on the social ladder naturally enables them to tap into economic prospects offered by the state (which is how wealth is primarily created in Nigeria, no matter what one says of supposedly “private” initiatives or investments).
In such a context, the leaders of the Southern economy whose private firms are better integrated into the network of discretionary, public-private dealings would support a would-be “pro-business” candidate, because his Presidency would mean business as usual. As for the North, it didn’t ideologically endorse the commodification of social life which capitalism and pro-Western modes of thought entrenched in the South after Awolowo’s passing.
By “commodification of social life” one refers to the liberal politics which turn all available goods and services into market commodities: the destruction of public health and education in favour of private schools and hospitals was particularly felt in the North, which continues to suffer the worst outcomes in terms of healthcare and education.
Healthcare and education
In this regard, candidates who not only preach a liberalism reminiscent of structural adjustment, remind the average Nigerian of what happened to free or affordable public services in the 1990s, and after the privatisation drive in the early 2000s.
Islamic belief in the North talks about the ills of capitalist consumption in a way Christianity, or rather, the new age churches in the South, no longer do. A more “Spartan” Buhari, to use the media’s favourite word to describe him, would thus appeal more to people in the North and the South who see conspicuous consumption and corruption funded by oil rents as the heart of Nigeria’s social, moral and economic problems.
However, Buhari’s victory isn’t a result of the “politics of envy”. Atiku didn’t lose because the North likes “poverty”, or because Buharists resent rich people, which in the mouths of PDP supporters is an ironic self-indictment, almost like admitting that they know their candidate was promising money would trickle down once more. In the past, the treasury was open to “distributing” resources to various groups: from construction firms to ethno-religious or cultural associations, politicians and those close to them.
Conversation about social justice
Universally, any conversation about social justice, poverty and economic inequality, is often seen by conservatives as a means of blaming the rich for being rich. Margaret Thatcher once said: “I reject vehemently the politics of envy, the incitement of people to regard all success as if it were something discreditable, gained only by taking selfish advantage of others. I do not think it is in the character of the British people to begrudge a lion’s share to those who have genuinely played a lion’s part”.
Who decides what it means to “play a lion’s part” (therefore determining who receives a “lion’s share” of our resources) should be of particular interest to us as Nigerians, because Margaret Thatcher neither encouraged amnesty for corrupt people nor did she confuse entrepreneurialism with the use of public resources for private gain. Economic success based on a legitimate law-abiding business is one thing, profiting off Nigeria’s weak institutional and prosecutorial framework to ensure huge returns to a small group of people, is another.
No other Nigerian leader has come to power without the backing of the generals. The masses are beginning to focus on economic inequality, and more importantly, they’re identifying who’s behind it. The political elite have always used power to their advantage, isn’t it time the masses did the same and voted based on their own interests?
REPORTEDLY, the President said his second term would be “tough”, which sent the usual alarmists into a frenzy. Now, tough for whom? Tough for those who only relied on government patronage while masquerading as business men, definitely. There is a difference, in a democracy, between real economic policy and a system where private individuals are dependent on government benefaction or sponsorship to survive.
National Bureau of Statistics
THE National Bureau of Statistics, NBS, said foreign trade has seen its “fourth consecutive rise” from N16.29 trillion in 2015 to N32.26 trillion in 2018. In fact, the total volume of trade in 2018 exceeds even the highest levels on record in 2014, nearly double the numbers pre-recession. Interestingly, this hasn’t received attention from the doomsday predictors who said the “next level” was economic collapse.
Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.