The Spread of Downward Mobility

20 Nov 2012

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There is a state of emergency waiting to be declared. It is not about the carnage almost daily inflicted on innocents by Boko Haram: that has become part of our new normal. It is not about the literal sacking of the national treasury by all manner of oil subsidy crooks and their government sponsors: that, too, is part of a national tradition.  It is not even the fact that less than 30% of our interstate highways can be described as passable: a problem that has become so perennial can no longer qualify as an emergency. It is not even the fact that the political elite is congregating around dead and untenable regional formations and decadent tribal totems to mouth secessionist nonsense. That should not frighten anyone. It is only a familiar indicator that the pork festival in Abuja may not be going so well.

On the contrary, what qualifies as a clear and potent threat to national survival is the mass migration of the majority of our people into desperate poverty through governmental incompetence and policy incoherence. Official estimates have for the past two years put the figure of poor Nigerians at over 100 million and rising.  This is a vast army of mostly healthy, able, willing (to work), and enterprising Nigerians who through no fault of theirs are watching their lives waste, their hopes evaporate and worse still, bearing witness to the reality that even their children may know worse poverty than themselves.

If you are in doubt, check the number of daily SMS in your phone  from people that are genuinely in trouble. They are mostly soliciting for one form of assistance or the other. Each message is a desperate cry of anguish sometimes from people who yesterday had some self-esteem because they had independent livelihood but are now reduced by economic hardship into glorified beggars. Go to the airports on your way to somewhere. See how much begging goes on mostly by uniformed officials and other hard to categorise cadres of beggars. The elevation of begging by healthy Nigerians into a national industry is one ready sign that desperate inequality is at the heart of the impending Nigerian implosion.

If these are too personal, check the number of qualified people (School certificate and above) on your street, in your village, local government area or state that want to work but cannot find a job.  Take a walk along familiar streets and neighbourhoods if you live in an urban area. Count how many small subsistence shops have recently closed down as against the number opening up.  If you live in any of our busy urban areas, abandon routine and take a tour. Visit what used to be industrial layouts and take a census of factory warehouses. Subtract those lying idle and waste from the lot!

Where there were factories yesterday, the warehouses are now empty or have been taken over by reptiles or industrial churches. Business closures have accelerated just as few start-ups are being witnessed. Existing small businesses are closing down for lack of patronage or credit or both. Banks are lending money at interest rates that can only be attractive to businesses that either do not want or repay these loans.

A critical indicator of economic mobility in the modern society is the standard expectation and assumption that children would grow to live better than their parents. It is assumed in addition that they will go to college, find gainful employment and become homeowners, car owners, respectable family persons and sources of pride to their communities and parents. Whether we are referring to the American dream or its Nigerian equivalent before the collapse of all dreams, the outlines are the same. It is in the promise of personal fulfilment that the essence of the dream of upward social and economic mobility lies.  When the opposite becomes the norm in any society, trouble lies in ambush for us all.

The omens and facts stare us menacingly in the face. More than 85% of the graduates of all our tertiary institutions annually cannot find employment. The average length of time it takes the average Nigerian graduate to attend one job interview is 1-2 years. The average waiting time between graduation and employment is anywhere between 5 and 8 years and there is no guarantee that the mere fact of the passage of time will yield anything.  Parents who toiled so hard to produce one college graduate now have to bear the burden of supporting these young adults after they themselves has stopped earning additional income.

On the average, every member of the Nigerian elite that can be described as successful has 3-5 graduate dependents either living with them or hoping on them. In the process, we too, join the army of beggars as we engage the phones, begging our friends and associates - those more powerful than us - to please assist in finding jobs for our relations even though we know those jobs are not there.

Tragically then, belief in education as the most effective tool of upward mobility has hit the rocks in today’s Nigeria. Ironically, it is that belief that unites youth of all nations. We can reduce this common aspiration to certain irreducible elements: First, people shall be able to attain to the full the stature and status that they are innately capable of. Second, people shall be recognised by others for what they truly know and are capable of learning and excelling in through the educational system. Hence the pride we older generation took in achievement, in passing our exams, in making our parents proud on graduation day either in secondary school or university.

There was an assumption that those who work hard and play by the rules are entitled if not to astounding prosperity but at least to the fruits of their labour to an extent that makes them proud of work. In other words, the dignity of labour has an inherent reward in what honest labour would yield at the other end. Minimally, it does provide an insurance against grinding poverty.

The other imperative of this ideal is that for a society of honest and hard working citizens, the government should guarantee an environment in which opportunities present themselves to people on a level playing field so that they can achieve the basic elements of their dreams: a good job, a decent home, relative freedom from want and the right of political choice.

A general aspiration to middle class status, therefore, is what defines an upwardly mobile social philosophy. It was productivity that defined the middle class in its original formulation: A class that stands between the aristocracy and the plebeian majority. A class that is an intermediating social and economic force, a reliable source of taxation income, and a repository of accredited skills, an enlightened voice in the determination of political outcomes. The existence of an enlightened middle class is the best guarantee that the majority will not toil endlessly for the pleasure of the minority.

Entry into the middle class was defined by education, which equipped aspirants with the requisite skills to fit into one of the various professions. Until recently, education was both a leveller and instrument of social and economic enhancement. But in recent times, the opportunities available to individuals, even the most talented and hard working have virtually disappeared. The social status of parents rather than the quality of the certificates children hold has become the more essential determinant of opportunity. Children of the elite and privileged are getting better education and also better job opportunities. Social status is also manifesting in standard public test scores. Children who have access to multiple sources of information –computers, Internet access, satellite television etc.- tends to do better.

In this rot, a different kind of social and economic mobility has recently emerged in Nigeria. Let us call it ‘awkward mobility’.  Let us define it as the emergence of a new class of rich Nigerians spurned by the efflorescence of corruption and the elevation of political office and patronage into a veritable national industry. We are witnessing in that industry the indiscriminate monetisation of political office and national service. We are seeing illiterate palm wine tappers of yesterday emerge overnight with incredible wealth on account of hustling their way into local government councillorships.

Yet Nigerian politicians at the apex levels insist that Nigeria will become one of the 20 most developed countries in the next 8 years! But in the era of the rise of the BRICS nations, the rise of ‘others’ as factors in world economic dominance has compelled a new measurement of the wealth of nations. It is no longer just GDP growth rates. Some kinds of GDP growth based on passive receipts from extractive industries mean nothing to real people. GDP growth in places like Nigeria runs in inverse relationship to the welfare of people.  Abject poverty and the slums grow as the number of newly registered private jets goes up!

In more serious countries these days, real growth and progress are measured in terms of how many people are migrated from poverty on an annual basis. The failure or success of states is now, more than ever before, a function of whether they fail their peoples. A state with the best structures, which however fails its people, is more likely to fall.

Understandably, the rate of migration of people from poverty has also become an indicator of national wellbeing, progress and indeed security. Brazil, India and China have each witnessed massive migrations of millions of their citizens from poverty in the last 10 to 15 years. This fact along with their informing sound economic policies is responsible for the emergence of these countries as major contenders for world economic domination.  Each is enlarging the coastline of social welfare. These states are moving away from building wealth to protecting the people from the vagaries of inequality.

Indonesia is preparing a scheme to provide all its citizens with health insurance by 2014.  China has extended pension payment to an additional 240 million rural people, more than the total number of people covered by America’s public pension scheme. Only a few years ago, hardly anyone in rural China had health insurance. Now nearly everyone has a policy. In India, 40 million households benefit from a government scheme under which they are entitled to work for 100 days a year at the national minimum wage while the government has extended health insurance to over 110 million people. While Europe established its welfare states in over 50 years, the Asia countries are doing so in less than 10 years.

The implication is that in these countries, the state has spent time making policies that encourage the creation of wealth to a point where redistribution becomes a priority for social justice and equity as well as a guarantee of national security.

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