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The morality of economic privilege: The birth of ‘anything for the boys’

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By Tabia Princewell

IN conversations with the Nigerian elite, one is sure to hear complaints about the constant calls and appeals they receive from less well-off friends, family or even strangers asking for help with this or that urgent matter.

“Why should they get something for doing nothing?” isn’t a phrase out of Oliver Twist or a Victorian novel dealing with the “disturbance” of the poor wanting more out of life, but something quite common in our society, where we look down on handouts yet are quite comfortable with the state sponsoring elite consumption and luxuries.

 

boys',birth
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The “anything for the boys” culture is all at once very old and yet quite modern, a carry over from the duties and gift-giving associated with economic privilege in times past and a consequence of the suspension of public morality, in a country where conservative governments choose poverty alleviation over inclusive wealth creation, rather than a mixture of both.

Redistribution of wealth

The redistribution of wealth is an African characteristic: one couldn’t claim to be a “big man” without carrying out acts of generosity and reinvesting in one’s community. Intriguingly, with the growth of economic individualism, capitalism freed profit making from any sense of moral duty to others. The politely termed “corporate social responsibility” doesn’t go far enough and in the context of African governments, grand corruption becomes the easiest, most elitist way to provide for layers of connected individuals.

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Nigeria remains poor because its governments are corrupt. Nigerians are corrupt because they are poor. These are commonly held beliefs. Neopatrimonialism is a term often used to describe the African state and society where patrons use access to state resources to buy loyalty. In Nigeria, corruption has virtually dominated political discourse since independence, apparently subverting democratic principles and preventing the establishment of neoliberal market reforms.

It’s also implicitly stated that Africa remains underdeveloped because of the widespread inability to adopt Western structures and beliefs; that is, Africa is mistakenly believed to be poor or “backward” (to use a common, most unfortunate term here in Nigeria) because it is yet to “Westernise” and implement the spirit of capitalism, where individuals purportedly make rational choices for the good of all.

Globally, progress, democracy and development are tied to a resemblance to Western lifestyles and behaviours. I daresay it’s the root of our difficulties in the developing world. Perhaps it is time to consider (or rather, to remember what radicals in the 1970s and 1980s already knew) that the reason “Western style” democracy is failing us is because we uncritically adopted so-called modern structures and processes without resolving contradictions with the African tradition of governance.

Generally, when people make this argument it is followed by the assertion that the supposed “primitiveness” of the “African way” is a direct threat to development and must be eradicated. This is because many of us continue to view Africa through a colonial lens despite our years of independence. Ironically, liberal democracy is also failing the West, precisely because economic privilege is divorced from the moral duty to improve society. Capitalism inherently demands this separation, otherwise profits can’t be invested into making more profits. For us, in Nigeria, we can’t fight corruption and neither can we develop a morally just economy without questioning the morality of economic privilege whereby some people’s comforts are sponsored and others’ ignored, in a system that reduces most people to begging for handouts.

Let’s examine the concept of handouts, gratuities people believe they are owed, and why they believe they should receive such aid or assistance, using the popular expression: “dividends of democracy”. The average Nigerian literally expects to receive disbursements, payments or shares from the Nigerian state, a partnership between seemingly unrelated and divergent ethnic groups. Interestingly, Nigeria itself started out as a business association; it was once ruled by the Royal Niger Company, the trading company whose interests laid the foundation for colonisation. As shareholders and stakeholders in the country, our people  believe they should receive tangible benefits from Nigeria.

This collectivist instinct is democratic (let’s forget, for a while, the negative connotations sometimes associated with socialism) but degraded, corrupted by what we think is “progress”, the acquisition of individualist, every-man-for-himself behaviours whereby the acquisition of wealth is conditioned on exploitation and no longer morally requires sustained investment in others. “Wealth in people” frequently used to describe the African pursuit of power, illustrates that people should be at the centre of human relationships, not the acquisition of things. That such a demand seems whimsical or idealistic shows the extent of the problem.

Indeed, there is a universal understanding, in Africa, that cuts across the urban/rural divide, that people should be “carried along”. The traditional expectation of rich men and women in Africa is that they will be generous with their wealth. Privilege came with attendant responsibilities in societies where social roles were not strictly hereditary: there is a veiled, subtle and unknown element of democracy in such a system where a peasant could hope to become a chief through appointment by the king. Not every relative of a chief was assured of attaining a leadership position, yet social advancement was possible for those outside the palace through the savvy maintenance of interpersonal, patron-client relationships. The main difference between us and our ancestors may be the part we allowed merit to play in enabling individual advancement.

Concept of assistance

Such a system is corruptible, but then again, so is democracy, as we have seen. Our traditional modes of conduct remain, but the real issue is the destruction of the opportunity to rise through the ranks of our modern society, where opportunity is inaccessible, fossilised in class-based fortresses of knowledge and power.

The concept of assistance becomes objectionable in the modern world in part because of our capitalist society, where the range of goods with which one performs acts of generosity is great and more expensive to come by. Perhaps the main issue, why we find it difficult to eradicate grand corruption, is that economic individualism, or capitalism, came to Africa without the presence of a welfare state which provides a safety net for all individuals. We question the morality of the average Nigerian, who is only attempting to survive within such a system, but never interrogate the morality of economic privilege more widely. The richest among us pay very little taxes but receive myriad subsidies and benefits from the state. Unless economic gains are more fairly distributed, democracy will remain under attack all over the world.

Pastors and private jets
Because of similarities between the most rabid capitalists and pastors in today’s churches, groups like OurMumuDonDo asked the government to question the finances of church who don’t pay taxes yet register profits large enough to buy private jets. Why shouldn’t churches be transparent and accountable? The group released a statement saying: “we must ascertain the sources of these luxurious acquisitions, to avoid a situation where pastors unscrupulously use the funds of their churches for themselves, or, even worse; use their churches to siphon stolen public wealth through their unholy alliances with politicians”. The arrangement between the business, religious and political elite has kept the masses poor, servile and unquestioning, giving the impression there are sacred cows in our society. Who will bell the cat?


Saraki

The Senate President’s media office announced his appointment as “ambassador-at-large” by the “international human rights commission” (IHRC). Some were quick to point out the strange similarity between the IHRC and United Nations logos, even though IHRC is not listed on the UN list of sub-organizations. Investigative platforms claimed the IHRC was only two years old, owned and run by two Eastern European gentlemen with only one office in the Czech republic according to the IHRC website itself. The organization claimed it monitored the 2019 Nigerian elections, of which there is allegedly no proof, given its absence from the INEC published list of accredited domestic and foreign observers. This list, also published on the IHRC website ironically doesn’t feature the IHRC name. The truth is stranger than fiction.

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.
The concept of assistance becomes objectionable in the modern world in part because of our capitalist society, where the range of goods with which one performs acts of generosity is great and more expensive to come by. Perhaps the main issue, why we find it difficult to eradicate grand corruption, is that economic individualism, or capitalism, came to Africa without the presence of a welfare state which provides a safety net for all individuals. We question the morality of the average Nigerian, who is only attempting to survive within such a system, but never interrogate the morality of economic privilege more widely. The richest among us pay very little taxes but receive myriad subsidies and benefits from the state. Unless economic gains are more fairly distributed, democracy will remain under attack all over the world.

Pastors and private jets
Because of similarities between the most rabid capitalists and pastors in today’s churches, groups like OurMumuDonDo asked the government to question the finances of church who don’t pay taxes yet register profits large enough to buy private jets. Why shouldn’t churches be transparent and accountable? The group released a statement saying: “we must ascertain the sources of these luxurious acquisitions, to avoid a situation where pastors unscrupulously use the funds of their churches for themselves, or, even worse; use their churches to siphon stolen public wealth through their unholy alliances with politicians”. The arrangement between the business, religious and political elite has kept the masses poor, servile and unquestioning, giving the impression there are sacred cows in our society. Who will bell the cat?


Saraki

The Senate President’s media office announced his appointment as “ambassador-at-large” by the “international human rights commission” (IHRC). Some were quick to point out the strange similarity between the IHRC and United Nations logos, even though IHRC is not listed on the UN list of sub-organizations. Investigative platforms claimed the IHRC was only two years old, owned and run by two Eastern European gentlemen with only one office in the Czech republic according to the IHRC website itself. The organization claimed it monitored the 2019 Nigerian elections, of which there is allegedly no proof, given its absence from the INEC published list of accredited domestic and foreign observers. This list, also published on the IHRC website ironically doesn’t feature the IHRC name. The truth is stranger than fiction.

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.

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