In the season of tantrums and emotive displays, such as the DSS’ raids on judges could guarantee, it is almost easy to forget that we are in the sea of economic recession. We have now shifted attention; frozen, if you like, in the propriety or otherwise of the security operatives’ action on the judiciary. And that has always been one of our major problems. When an issue has to do with the privileged, the whole country dawdles on it. Nigeria is frying and Nigerians are hurting. We don’t talk about that any longer. Our fetish now is whether or not a few judges, and by extension their elite clan, got the best of treatments. The message is clear: the rest of the people can stew in their condition.
Can we please face our REAL situation? Nigeria is broke, and we are all broke – every Nigerian. Surprisingly, we didn’t see it coming and no one warned us. But even if someone did, we wouldn’t have listened; and if we had listened, we most probably wouldn’t have believed. Reason: Everything Nigerian is denominated in politics – bare-knuckle partisan politics. Which is why, if someone had warned, it would have counted against such a person for ill-will or mischief or both. You see, in recent times, we have grown touchy about individuals saying what we do not like to hear. We have become very sensitive and impatient about the most innocuous, yet utilitarian public statements or ripostes that do not agree with our position or view.
The way things go these days, if you have the misfortune of walking on the opposite side of what appears politically correct, even when proponents know it to be ill-digested, you’d find yourself in what is obviously a colony of bees. You’d be bullied by social media assassins and hecklers; verbally lacerated and marked by hirelings. That risk is even higher now that the polity has tragically been divided between saints and sinners; between angels and demons. You only need to take a stroll on the social media to feel the carnage that partisan politics is working on persons and the psyche of those who dare to have differing views. It takes real grit to visit the social media these days. In there, it’s a festival of brutality. And to survive the savagery, your skin must be as good and tough as hide.
But I digressed.
I was saying that this economic recession has happened on us like a thief in the night. We’ve been caught unguarded – talk of a grown up who woke up in the morning to discover he has wet his bed. Up until this time last year, our life was normal. We were still our joyful selves; full of mirth and momentum. At this time last year, we had not changed essentially from what could have prompted World Happiness Report to say we were the happiest people on the surface of the earth. It was just the other day, you’d say. Today, our circumstance has taken a big fall. Lack has suddenly appeared in our homestead. Bad dream? Something like that. Just that this is not a dream. It’s the reality, our reality, most unfortunately. True, we never thought this nightmare was possible and so we were not prepared, even though now after the fact, we may remember that some distant, muffled voices seemed to have given us some hint.
Of course, we can’t totally claim not to have had a whiff of what our circumstance has turned out to be today. It was two years ago that some people who understand these things felt uncomfortable and thus began to talk about it. But their voices were drowned in the din of our skepticisms and our usual sense of the possible. At the time, some ‘distasteful’ voices were mumbling some heretics, to the effect that Nigeria was broke, or tethering at its precipice. When it was broached during the immediate past administration, the then Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, got angry. Some of those who suspected that the economy was growing anemic and therefore tried to make public issue of it were stood down, pronto. In October 2014, she had an occasion to lecture Nigerians on some of the nuances. At the end, she left us either confused or amused and therefore unyielding.
Her explanations didn’t catch because she seemed combative the way she was going about it. “If you look back two years ago, that title: ‘Is Nigeria broke?’, was written in a newspaper article; it is like people are trying to force Nigeria into brokerage,” she began. “Let me explain these. Nigeria is a country that depends on a stream of income. That income is being able to collect taxes from companies, individuals and our income is also based on selling a product and that product you take to market and you take whatever price a buyer is willing to pay. Just like you have in your own household, when the quantity diminishes or the price drops… Does that mean that the country is broke? We still have resources that we depend on; we still have the ability to tax. Sometimes, things need to be a little tighter, easier and we just have to weather it and manage ourselves but that does not amount to the country being broke.” Really?
And that was it. Case closed. So reveling and debauchery continued. But what really does anyone expect? People who are used to easy and free money would always act the prodigal. We never had any experience that taxed our welfare, our livelihood and our hope – probably singly as individuals and obviously collectively as a country. Other nations’ histories may have availed us of how hard times, occasioned by economic trough, afflicted them. But we are definitely not instructed by these histories; by other nations’ experiences. Which is why we are finding all of this hard to take.
One of the things this recession has shown us is how quickly things can change for a people, a nation. Suddenly we are all poor, angry, vulnerable. Things we once took for granted, now matter to us. Just as some of the nuanced, little connectedness that makes us people of relationships, has disappeared. Life has become purely existential and most Nigerians have begun to take existentialist options. A colleague told me the other day that these days, he hardly picks calls from relations, and some friends. He warned me, “if any relation or friend that has not called you in a long while suddenly calls, he’s not just calling to look you up, he’s clearing the ground for financial assistance.” So, he ignores such calls, he told me. Which is true. Any Nigerian today who is fortunate to have a means of livelihood and obviously so feels besieged, bombarded by endless request for “little help” from friends and family. Strip that “little help”, it comes down to money. And where’s the money? That’s the eerie, haunting question every Nigerian now asks. And each time that question is uttered, it comes back to one in equally terrifying echo.
But it would look to me that the reverse side has purifying effect. Horrendous as the times are, it could turn out as national purgation. It is the finer side of hard times. At once, it could force hard and honest work in us Nigerians. Until now, we lived on easy money. Until now, it was common to see your neighbour go out in the morning broke as a schoolboy and in the evening he comes back a very rich man. Until now, we were eating with 10 fingers. The other day, I read an interview of Carmen Nibigira, the Burundian ex-beauty queen. She was talking about lifestyle of the Nigerian. She said: “Whenever you see a Nigerian in a room, you will know he is a Nigerian. Their presence is different. They are more extrovert than the normal extrovert…Everything for them has to be in terms of size; being big is better… You will hardly see any one in East Africa going to a hotel and saying I want two bottles of champagne. But for Nigerians, it is normal.” What the lady was saying, if euphemistically, is that the Nigerian has no sense of proportion.
And that was until now.
To continue next week