By Napoleon Esemudje
Like simmering magma beneath a volcano, Nigeria is feeling the forceful rumblings of its bulging youth population. Without clear vents for their wellbeing and opportunities for social mobility, the country’s elites will soon feel the impact of their pent-up rage and desperation. Here’s why.
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The explosion of violence over the last two days, particularly the attack on private properties in Lagos, should serve as a reoccurring warning that we are living amidst festering social landmines in Nigeria. This is the second time this has happened in as many years. During the supposed protests against xenophobic attacks in South Africa last year, hoodlums attacked not just South African business interests in Nigeria but also those of their fellow citizens unfortunate enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. That crisis however, pales in comparison to the ferocity of the attacks on private properties over the last two days. While the trigger for this development may have been the heinous massacre of peaceful #ENDSARS protesters, the foundation for the sudden outbreak of destructive rampages were decades in the making. Even worse, the seemingly indiscriminate attacks on businesses and the homes of social elites points to a more ominous future for us all if the social-economic conditions and living standards of the vast majority of citizens remain as they are or deteriorate further.
Every time I drive on the streets of Lagos, ostensibly cool & comfortable inside my air-conditioned vehicle, I am troubled by the increasing number of near hopeless, homeless and desperate people I see on the streets. I am disturbed by the rising number of beggars and refugees – from ragged toddlers to teenage street urchins to fully grown destitute men and women. I see them at various turns; groups of men and women sitting idly on the road side in the middle of a working day, staring unseeing into the unknown. I see ashen mothers aging prematurely from harsh circumstances as they crouch on filthy street corners pushing their weary kids to run after motorists to beg again and again. I see bands of little disheveled kids waiting at fast foods parking lots for small handouts of food, water, money, anything.
I’ve watched these kids grow on the streets from mischievous but timid little boys, pleading and eager to wipe windscreens to become roving gangs of hardened, contemptuous and aggressive teenagers; their eyes darting furtively as they peer through the windows of grid-locked vehicles for anything of value. I’ve seen street hawkers and vendors explode in numbers on these streets. These well built, muscular young and middle aged men including fathers, selling all manner of items from junk trinkets to pirated paperbacks and windshield wipers. Their skin, extensively cooked to the colour of rough charcoal by the scorching 35 degree mid-day sun.
When I see these people, a microcosm of Nigeria’s dispossessed millions, I am deeply troubled. These are the ready hordes who have lost all but their lives. They are also the feeder pool for the growing army of hoodlums, who now feel they have nothing more to lose, and are brooding and waiting for the opportune day of reckoning when they will exact revenge on the social elites who have missed or forgotten the lessons of history and the wisdom of enlightened self-interest.
When I finally drive into my gated estate, I unconsciously heave a sigh of relief. I feel a little safer inside the bubble of this gated estate. Many of us live in such residential bubbles surrounded by sprawling shanties or the crude dwellings of the very poor. In the Lekki axis for instance, from Phase 1 all through to VGC, most of the choice & fancy gated estates have their own shabby or shanty neighbours crammed with people barely eking out a living. It’s a uniquely Nigerian phenomenon where the very rich live cheek by jowl with the very poor. Where opulent mansions share fragile walls with “Face-Me-I-Face-You” quarters. Where through flimsy bubble barriers, the desperately poor can watch the wild parties of the stupendously rich, gawk at their luxury vehicular toys and fantasize about the riches inside their heavenly homes.
Then there are those who crisscross these two physically near but materially distant worlds. Like the chauffeur who leaves his hovel room in the shantytown at the crack of dawn to drive from the bubble enclave of a gated estate, the 2020 edition of his boss’s grand SUV. Or the gardeners and maids who journey from their squalid water-worlds, packed like sardines in minibuses not even fit for animals, to tend the lavish grounds and rooms in homes within these gated estates. These are hard workers, relatively lucky to have a means of livelihood. But they’re also individuals with uncertain hopes, faltering aspirations and broken dreams for their own future. They also see, hear and relay their surreal experiences about the lives of the rich and powerful, to those in their disadvantaged neighbourhoods. So while the rich can build walls, their bubble enclaves are not invulnerable fortresses immune from the envy and anger of their less fortunate neighbours.
A few gated communities woke up to this reality during the last Covid-19 induced lockdown. They arranged to share food, essential commodities and relief items with their underprivileged neighbours. It was a commendable display of good neighbourliness and enlightened self-interest. But it was also a one-off minuscule effort. Our country requires a massive, countrywide restructured system to create sustainable opportunities and jobs that will pull a critical mass of people out of their vicious cycle of poverty. Nigeria’s social and business elites must demonstrate a more active interest, determination and engagement with the political authorities to break this corrosive cycle of poverty and inequality. They must realise that ultimately, their fate and those of the dispossessed are intertwined, no matter how improbable it may seem. Many of us are yet to fully appreciate the danger of having about 40% (NBS) – 70% (CIA) of our fellow countrymen living in poverty. In stark numbers, this translates to between 80 and 140 million people. That’s more than the population of almost all of Nigeria’s West African neighbours put together including those of Ghana, Cote d’voire & Senegal. Even worse, majority of these millions are young people whose future the country has so far failed to prepare for.
These are now a seething mass of discontented, impatient and rebellious young people who share the creed of ‘one who is down need fear no fall’. They are increasingly willing to confront death by way of suicide or outright conflict and will not be deterred by fear. They will only be assuaged by the prospect of their own economic and social upliftment. But if this upliftment fails to materialise soon enough, then like searing magma beneath a dormant volcano, it’s not a question of if but when they will erupt. And when they erupt, there will be no distinction between those of us in our bubble estates, in our air-conditioned cars, our glassy offices and the ‘political maladministrators’ in the various seats of government. We will all pay the price.
Mr Esemudje is a consultant and writer