To the Village, Old Man

So here we are, another election season. It feels like only yesterday when President Buhari was being driven through Eagle Square in an open back jeep. There is an element of déjà vu about the whole thing: the non-stop politicking, the heightened level of insane behavior, and the general sense that every available resource has been committed to the goal of winning the election. Our attentions, our budgets, our time, our lives are summoned to these great exertions every four years, and to what end?

Thinking about the last four years, I get an overwhelming feeling of holding on for dear life, trying to survive. I suppose this is what it feels like when a country gets poorer, or, indeed, when a person gets poorer. People who once were rolling in the dough start to count the coins, those who once counted the coins start cutting calories to save money, and those who cut calories before, die. Nothing brought the seriousness of our situation home like the response I got from a family friend’s driver when I asked about what led to the recent death of his father.

Im sick. We send am go village make im die, we no get money to dey keep old man alive.

His father was not much over 60. In Nigeria, that means you had a long life.

My first thought was about how cruel he was. Who says such a thing? Who simply lets, or, indeed, hastens another’s demise, especially one’s father? But consider the position of a driver who is on his ass. He is poor. He has his own children, his own worries, his own expenses. His salary barely covers all the things he needs to do. A dying father is just about the last thing he can afford, and his options are few and unattractive. Palliative care is expensive, interminable, and often futile. Should this man beg? Should he steal? Should he deny his children their school fees or stop paying his rent? These are not academic choices, Dear Reader, this is the reality for far too many people in Nigeria. When people fall seriously ill, they go to the village to die. And usually this happens when people run out of money.

These thoughts were on and off my mind last week when this Brookings Institute story went viral. Apparently, Nigeria has more people (87 million) in extreme poverty than any other country on earth. (They define extreme poverty as people living on less than $1.90 a day, or N20,500 per month.) And that’s only part of the problem. Unlike virtually every other country they follow (at least this is true for those outside Africa) the ranks of people in extreme poverty in this country are growing at a rate of six persons a minute.

Corroborating this view is data provided by Ian Bremmer in this tweet. In the table he shows what has happened to extreme poverty in various countries over the 23 years between 1990 and 2013. Here is another way to look at his data:


From the above you can see that Nigeria is the only country (in this set of nations) which increased extreme poverty in the period, and it did so by a whopping 70%. (And to repeat: It is still increasing.) If you are not yet worried, consider how young this country is. It is quite likely that close to half of the Nigerians alive today have only lived through a period of deepening poverty. They’ve never seen a great Nigeria. All they have is relative hardship. Save for a few periods of loosening in the economy, their lives have been mired in hardship, lack of opportunity, and lack of options. It is a miracle that we can be such a persistently optimistic nation. In spite of all that we know, we continue to believe. We await the elusive breakthrough.

This situation begs a very simple question: What is the point of leadership in this country?

Minister Okey Enelamah, when asked about the Brookings Institute report, tried his best to deflect from the point. But he sounded embarrassing and shifty, like a little child caught lying about who spilled glue on the bedsheet. It is shocking that we cannot even have an honest conversation about such a serious situation.

There is a hard truth here, a truth which we all feel. We have all felt recently what it is like to have our spirits collapse when our car’s suspension suddenly develops a sharp, abnormal sound (no money). Some know the disappointment of changing a child’s school to a less prestigious one (no money). Others know of delayed or even cancelled medical appointments (no money). And these are middle class concerns. The poor go to the village when they are too sick.

Since 1990, we’ve lived through military and civilian rule, eight heads of state, two oil booms, debt forgiveness, PDP, APC, the four-yearly election cycle, daily bombardment with political pronouncements, commissionings of new roads, FEC meetings, and so on. We were told of a new “diversified” economy, Vision 2020, Africa’s largest economy, and, oh, look at all these wonderful billionaires in Davos with their private jets. All this while extreme poverty went up by 70%. Worst of all we’ve embraced a value system which shames the poor even though ‘poor’ is what the vast majority of us are.

Ah, Dear Reader. These things get me too riled up. It is election season. A time for our traditional display of nepotism, tribalism, and prejudice. Some people think we may have a few years of negative growth ahead. But let’s face it, all that wan na grammer. Wave your brooms, unleash the slogans, shake hands with the traditional rulers, roll-out new jingles and posters, collect rice and oil. Let us begin this festival of folly once again.

I suppose also we all should pray that we do not end up in a hut somewhere dying in our old age. But you don’t care, you are off to Canada. And you, you don’t care either, you are going to be the last vulture feeding off this carcass. And you, well, you are not here, you are extremely poor, so you probably can’t read, or you read but cannot understand.

Good night everybody.