Economic Disparities & Irresponsible Leaders

I wrote this piece about a week ago when I was still in the Nigerian capital but am just posting it now:

ABUJA, Nigeria–It’s hard not to notice the intense extremes in Nigeria, a powerhouse nation on the continent in every sense of the word.

Extraordinarily wealthy elites who are profiting from the country’s vast natural resources through politics, business and corruption. Expatriate oil industry execs and PR staff and business analysts taking their fill and managing to live like royalty while they’re at it. Everyday Nigerians hustling hard to get by in a land of daily power cuts, largely irresponsible political leaders, and armed militants and threatening political henchmen (aka “Godfathers”).

As an outsider seeing Nigeria for the first time, these contrasting and coexisting realities are starkly apparent to me. For Nigerians struggling to make a living for their families, they are more than an unfortunate phenomenon; they are an entrenched, often crippling system.

Making small talk with as he drove me in his taxi yesterday was Banji, a devout Christian, who brought up the fact that his country is very wealthy, but that only a small fraction of the 150 million plus citizens are benefiting from this wealth. “There is enough for us all to live in houses,” he said. It’s a reasonable enough expectation in a country that produces more oil and gas than any other nation on the continent, and where governors in the oil-rich Delta states oversee annual budgets larger than those of several West African countries. Instead, millions of Nigerians live in squalor, and the average citizens dies at age 48 after receiving just five years of education during his or her life (see the link to more UN development stats below).

It seems obvious to everyday Nigerians who exactly is largely responsible for the status quo, in which the citizens in the country boasting Africa’s largest economy are among the poorest on the continent (take a glance at the United Nations Development Program’s human development stats for disturbing confirmation of this).

“Our leaders are so irresponsible,” said 32-year old Blessing Usie, who works for an international civil society rights group in Abuja. Usie said that some of her girlfriends had dated the (married) senators who live lush lives in the Nigerian capital and had recounted stories of the presents–new houses, plane tickets, wads of cash–they had received from the elected officials. She did not find these stories amusing in the slightest and said that it is horrifying to her that her country’s leaders could be so disrespectful of their fellow people who elected them.

Usie shared a similar view to Banji the cab driver. “Nigerians are not looking for a perfect society,” she explained. “They are just looking for basic things. Roads, schools, clean water,” she said, recalling the case of the popular governor of Lagos state, home to the country’s booming commercial capital. Usie says that Governor Babatunde Fashola

A man pushes a cart of petrol jerrycans on a street in Kano, Nigeria, past posters of incumbent presidential candidate Goodluck Jonathan, last week in Kano (Maggie Fick).

is extremely well-liked because he has delivered noticeable changes to Lagosians during his tenure; she noted that Nigerians are aware that Governor Fashola may be taking a little bit for himself from the state coffers, but given how much he has accomplished, no one has a problem with his slightly corrupt practice.

This view, which I heard echoed by several other people in Abuja over the past days, may be sadly indicative of the expectations Nigerians have for their leaders. It doesn’t seem to me that Nigerians are asking for too much from their leaders; they would like the most basic of services and decencies that they ought to be awarded as citizens, and are understanding of the reality here that their government can and will steal hand over fist from the country’s massive revenues. Despite the setbacks last weekend that led the three-stage elections to be delayed by one week, Nigerians are still hopeful that these elections could be different than the fraudulent polls in recent history. What will happen after these elections, when many of the current leaders are returned to power for yet another chance to run roughshod over their country’s vast resources, may unfortunately not mark a change from the discouraging status quo.

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About maggiefick

Maggie Fick is an American freelance journalist in Juba, Southern Sudan, reporting for the Associated Press and others. Her views alone are expressed here.
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