“Hello Prof, I apologize for my email intrusion. I am one of your young avid readers and followers in Nigeria and I just wanted you to clarify something I saw recently on your Wall. If you are hosted in what you call “capitalist restaurants” by some of your wealthy friends when you come home, are you not betraying the cause?”
I receive hundreds of messages from self-declared “avid readers and followers” every day. It’s a challenge managing the daily chaos in my Facebook and Gmail inboxes, especially as I can only randomly respond to, maybe, five of such messages per week. On occasion, a message comes in and I decide that it provides an excellent excuse for a public teachable moment, for an extended public rumination on how, where, and why the rain began to beat us as a society. The email I received today from the above “avid reader and follower” is one such occasion. The reader is reacting to my recent Facebook update in which I confessed to being spoilt in posh, capitalist restaurants in the Lekki – Victoria Island axis by my friend, Mrs. Kike Akin-Davies, whenever I’m in Nigeria.
I will return to this matter presently but permit me some latitude to digress into this business of poverty and suffering – the habitat of an expansive majority of Nigerians. We may have to inquire from Opapala, the deity that is in charge of the Ministry of Throat, Belly, and Gourmandizing Affairs in the Yoruba pantheon of gods why the vocabulary for the expression of suffering and poverty is derived exclusively from his domain in the Yoruba language. To suffer is not a condition you experience in Yoruba. Suffering is not a particular state of being. Rather, to suffer is a condition you eat, literally, in Yoruba. The English, “to suffer”, literally translates to the Yoruba, “je iya” (to eat suffering).
However, the Yoruba are not done. In their ancestral wisdom, they endowed “iya” (suffering) with the possibility of being in the object or subject position. In essence, in Yoruba, you can eat suffering, “mo n je iya”, or suffering can eat you, “iya n je mi”. What you want to avoid by all means and at all costs is that ultimate existential condition of abjection where you have a double whammy, a combo of suffering which forecloses the possibility of minimal human worth and dignity.
In most parts of the world where I have studied and observed suffering and poverty among the 99%, I have always conceptualized that particular socio-economic problem in terms of one, just one of the expressive possibilities of the matter in Yoruba. If I’m in Southside Chicago or Barbès in Paris; Hillbrow or Soweto in Johannesburg; Jane and Finch in Toronto, my first mental inclination is to capture folks in those places (usually black people) in one of the possibilities allowable in Yoruba. I either think, “iya nje won” (they are suffering), or I think, “won nje iya” (they are suffering).
However, the thought of applying only one of these possibilities to the 99% in Nigeria never occurs to me whenever I have full visual contemplation of Nigerian society. Outside of the 1% in Nigeria, what you encounter is the Yoruba combo of people eating suffering and suffering eating people. In contemplating suffering and poverty in Nigeria, I always say to myself: “oto ni ki iya je eyan, oto ni ki eyan je iya, ewo ni iya nje mi mo tun nje iya?” In Nigeria, this combo of people eating suffering and suffering eating the same people at the same time is the prevailing tragic situation.
This combo, this double whammy of eating suffering and being eaten by suffering in Nigeria is made all the more damning by the fact that that nation-space sits on one of the richest geographies on earth. Yet, all she has been able to democratize for her people in nearly six decades of independence are poverty, suffering, and indignity. Nigeria is one of the most hostile territories to human dignity on earth.
Our struggle for a fair and just Nigeria, where the most fundamental reason for the existence of that country shall be the non-negotiable right of every citizen to human dignity, is, therefore, a double-pronged battle. In many societies, activism and the broad struggle for social justice, fairness, and equity, are premised on the fact that the 99% is suffering while the 1% is consolidating and getting richer by buying up politicians to make and pass laws in favor of their world.
In Nigeria, our struggle confronts a slightly different and far more intractable situation. The 99% is eating suffering and suffering is eating the 99%. What is more, at every stage in our postcolonial history, the 99% has aided and abetted the perpetuation of this situation by being the primary instrument for the perpetuation of the privileges of his oppressor and the most vociferous defender of his oppressor’s right to steal from him – once the ethnicity and the religious boxes are checked.
There is an added dimension to these scenarios. The 1% is pernicious in practically every society, but there are usually multiple ways and paths through its doors. In Nigeria, the only route to the 1% is access to the public treasury. Stealing massively from the state and the people is the exclusive path to climbing in Nigeria. This explains why there is practically no member of the Nigerian 1% who isn’t an illustrious thief either as a politician, political appointee, or civil servant. This singular mode of climbing and succeeding in Nigeria has had decades to crystallize into societal mores and values. The status quo in Nigeria has had over five decades to uphold looting and stealing as the only path to progress and success. That is the national example that generations of Nigerian youth have been exposed to.
Consider this example from Okun land. Our sociopolitical landscape in Okun land has been dominated for more than a decade by three despicable humanoids: Jide Omokore, Smart Adeyemi, and Dino Melaye. Omokore is a billionaire who built his wealth by being one of the most corrupt fronts that Goodluck Jonathan and Diezani Alison Madueke manufactured to loot Nigeria blind and produce the citizens now eating suffering and being eaten by suffering, many of whom would largely open their mouths today to serve as Jonathan’s and Diezani’s toilet. The other two became extremely wealthy in the National Assembly – and we all know the ways of the Nigerian National Assembly. My contempt for NASS and her thieving membership is well-known.
Now, if you were born in the 80s and the 90s in Okun land, it means that these three crooks are the only examples of “success” that have defined your formative years. They are the only “role models” who have made it. As an Okun undergraduate, you are dreaming of making it like these three. You are not dreaming of making it like my friend, Philip Adekunle, the founder, and publisher of Nigeria Village Square who operates out of Chicago. He is from Ponyan in Okun land. You probably have never even heard of him because you are focused on the three gbajumo crooks, and you aspire to be like them.
Now, multiply this tragic situation in my own Okun land by every ethnic and sub-ethnic nation in every nook and cranny of Nigeria and you will come to understand the enormity of the tragedy in terms of how we have raised folks born in the 80s and the 90s. The Okun situation is present all over Nigeria. We have presented the youth with no other model of wealth building and success than stealing and corruption and state patronage.
This explains why wealth has such a bad rap in Nigeria. This explains why affluence has such a horrible reputation in Nigeria. This explains why the youth who wrote me above has criminalized wealth. This explains why he misunderstands and misapprehends the essence and underlying philosophy of the struggle for justice and fairness in Nigeria. This explains why he believes that whoever has any presence as a voice in that struggle – he calls it the cause – should not be eating in highbrow restaurants in Victoria Island. This is why he thinks that “the cause” is synonymous with the glamourization of poverty.
No, my young friend, poverty is not a cause in and of itself. If there is any such cause, I am not part of it. Poverty is not a cause. There is a global cause against it and I have explained the double dimension of that cause in Nigeria: people are eating suffering and suffering is eating people. We are saying that we will not accept a Nigeria in which the only way out of this existential cul de sac is via access to and presence in Nigeria’s corruption industry. This is the fundamental premise of my membership of and the subscription to the cause against poverty and social injustice in Nigeria.
Because we currently run a country whose public sphere is peopled by political crooks, corrupt government officials, and thieving civil servants, upheld for the youth as role models and examples of “making it”, we have built a national philosophy premised on stealing from the state as the only path to success. Worse, you don’t even need to work hard to envision your path to looting the Nigerian state. Your pastor is always there to predict your miracle.
What we are saying, young man, is that we categorically reject a society where you spend the most productive years of your life running from one pastor to another in the hope of securing the miracle of making it one day like the Governor, Senator, Rep, or Minister who is currently stealing billions from Nigeria because Nigeria has been impressing it upon you that such is the only way out of poverty.
What we are fighting for, young man, is a fair and just society where you can elect to eat in Okokomaiko or Victoria Island and the sky will not fall. What we are saying is that for every one thousand thieves eating in such restaurants, you encounter the one Nigerian who made it in the good old fashion of industry, innovation, and hard, very hard work. We are saying that such Nigerians should be your role model and should define aspiration and possibilities for you – not the thieving politicians you always glamourize.
Young man, whenever I am in Nigeria, I enjoy myself terunly in highbrow restaurants. Either I am paying because I have worked hard and can afford it or my friends such as Mrs. Kike Akin Davies and Mrs. Bamidele Ademola-Olateju are paying because they have worked hard and can afford it. I am saying that these two present alternative paths and conceptualizations of making it – evidence that we don’t always have to go the way of the corrupt to enjoy life.
Finally, young man, I am saying that if you work as hard as the 99% works in Nigeria, the system should not be permanently rigged to sustain you in a situation where you eat suffering and suffering eats you whereas looters who hardly do any work continue to amass billions. Consider Dasuki. Whereas there are rural farmers who still average hundreds of yam mounds per day using hoes in that country, he spent four years writing and signing one-paragraph memos to move billions from the Central Bank into private pockets. We are lucky he wasn’t even moving billions from the CBN by sending text messages.
Who should be in poverty – the farmer who hoes from 5:00 am to 7:00 pm every day in the village or Dasuki who worked less than an hour per day, just signing notes and memos? Nigeria says it is the farmer. We are saying we disagree with that version of Nigeria and all those who uphold and support it. We are saying that such people and their version of Nigeria shall know no peace and have no rest for as long as we live for we shall never accept the finality of their Nigeria.
Young man, do not glamorize poverty. Poverty is not a cause.
Iya kii s’omi obe.