Easy money and civic cynicism

(By Ebere Onwudiwe)

Civic cynicism refers to the belief that this country is so crooked and nepotistic that one cannot succeed “by being principled and compliant with due process.” No one disagrees that this is a very deadly but well-known Nigerian disease of the mind. The eradication of this mind-set should be job number one in the president’s transformation agenda. It would be revolutionary if he succeeds in that task because it will be tantamount to creating a brand new Nigerian. A president of Nigeria can be an inspiring example for the Nigerian people. He is, after all, the living symbol of the nation.

GOD gives wealth they say, and He takes it away. But the same could be said — could it not? — Of governments all over the world. Those with access to it get easy money, lots and lots of it, and they spend the loot as if there is no tomorrow. The others, those who work for a living and the millions who can’t find work, well, some of them die of hunger and preventable diseases in villages and street corners. Others join the illicit army of terrorists, kidnappers, militants and armed robbers, which goes to show that easy money is not unrelated to the rampancy of violence in our land.

In the case of our country, easy money has produced a sickening type of consumption. The easy moneyed pals of government, the nouveau riche, seem so much in a hurry to stupendously out-spend the other in an odious demonstration of fraudulent affluence. They have become our own ‘leisure class’ among whom, as my friend and colleague Professor Minabere Ibelema puts it in a recent book, the appearance rather than the generation of wealth has become the key “social force”.

Among the easy moneyed Nigerians, self-esteem and respect are no longer functions of hard work but solely dependent on obtuse displays of status symbols given expression in humongous homes and the acquisition of the most expensive everything else.  Frugality, a primary value for development of a nation, appears to be a four-letter word among our boorish homo novus. Their entire value system approaches what the American economist Thorstein Veblen identified over a hundred years ago as “conspicuous consumption.”

As a result, the concepts of value and worth in our country are being redefined before our eyes. Thanks to the new money bags, ‘value’ and ‘worth’ are happily defined by high prices which is foolishly equated with “high-class” of which billion naira homes, where some shimmering commodes do not flush, is typical. That’s one negative consequence of the undeclared competition to outspend each other among our new rich.  Abuja epitomises the national penchant for conspicuous consumption and distortion of ‘value’ and ‘worth’.

But in general, there is a great crisis of values and ideals in our land and it can be as dangerous to economic development as the present insecurity.  The president must use the incredible power of his office and the force of his own personal example to redirect the value system of this country towards frugality and savings.

But the president, as we all know, is neither a superman nor magician, just one man with a hell of a job. That’s why the rest of us have to lend a hand or two to help in this important work: pastors and imams, all categories of traditional leaders and elders, civic leaders and you the reader. All of us! We must all teach and imbibe the values of frugality and savings every chance we get.

Frugality is an important part of the value system that most economists agree promote development, because it leads to saving and investment. A culture of wasteful consumption, on the other hand diminishes the pace of national development given especially that the import content of the consumer goods patronised by the nouveau riche (premium cars and boats, jets, furniture, exotic and expensive Champaign and liquors …) is very high indeed. This taste for everything expensive is so widespread and alluring that it has begun to spillover into the rest of the Nigerian society where many are living beyond their means, leading to embarrassing short cut and shoddy work in pursuit of easy money to pay for the wastefulness.

The culture of easy money is bad news for the quality of life of the rest of Nigerians who earn their keep. Consider the City of Abuja, which is perennially awash with easy money from government. There, decent homes and residential land are consequently ridiculously overpriced — beyond the reach of hard-working middle and lower classes. This situation promotes an atmosphere for the growth of what Professor Ibelema calls civic cynicism in his book, The African Press, Civic Cynicism and Democracy.

Civic cynicism refers to the belief that this country is so crooked and nepotistic that one cannot succeed “by being principled and compliant with due process.” No one disagrees that this is a very deadly but well-known Nigerian disease of the mind. The eradication of this mind-set should be job number one in the president’s transformation agenda. It would be revolutionary if he succeeds in that task because it will be tantamount to creating a brand new Nigerian. A president of Nigeria can be an inspiring example for the Nigerian people. He is, after all, the living symbol of the nation.

His effort in this regard may even reduce violence because in the face of widespread poverty and deep relative deprivation, conspicuous consumption by people with access to the system exaggerates the system’s injustice and unfair play in the minds of millions of our citizens for whom the dividends of democracy are still a distant dream.

It is from this rank that is drawn the ready foot soldiers for terrorists and armed robbers, kidnappers and militants whose undeclared enemies, believe it or not, are the rest of us.

Politicians in power must do well by the poor of this country. Reduction of poverty and the income gap should be the central issue of 2015 elections.

Alas, Nigerian elections are always about winning power and never about issues! Recall the last election that brought President Jonathan to power. On the eve of that election, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) threatened a general strike if the government raised the price of fuel. In which party’s platform during that election did the question of petrol subsidies prominently feature? Not one. Another example: Did not the pensioners of the Federal Government on the eve of that same election undergo a difficult identity and eligibility verification process? Yet, did any presidential candidate bother to discuss what policies they could offer this important class of Nigerians?

We can revisit Chinua Achebe at this point and say that the trouble with Nigeria may not just be the problem of leadership but the politics of power. Power for the sake of power it seems. Henry Kissinger, a former American Secretary of State once quipped: “University politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”.  I say that our politics is so mindless precisely because the stakes are so huge (too much centralisation) which is why everyone who has ever occupied Aso Rock has rejected the unambiguous logic of decentralisation of power.

And yet, the politics of power and its concentration at the center may be the primary hindrance to our development. It is the cause of the insecurity that is threatening to ditch this country once and for all. Nonetheless, the solution is simple: decentralisation of power and good governance, but no one appears to be listening.

Decentralisation will end the high premium that we put on national power resulting in what OBJ once correctly identified as “do or die’ contest.  Good governance will end the injustice, which has been indicted as the cause of violence. It will also end the culture of impunity that makes it possible for the ethics of easy money and attendant conspicuous consumption to replace the admirable work ethic for which Nigerians were once famous.

The class of “easy money” Nigerians who launder their ill-gotten fortunes through the purchase of over-priced lands, houses and such all over the country are the unconscious harbingers of distrust and violence in our political system. They lavish what is only a virtual affluence on status symbols causing the general society including the lower classes to imitate their warped value. I say virtual affluence, because these people are no men or women of industry, they don’t generate wealth; they are no Dangote or Ibeto. They simply are able to convert their access to the system into millions and billions of easy money.

Easy money is the greatest wedge to democracy and good governance because at the level of contemporary profligacy of our easy-moneyed men and women, this country will soon be spent into a democratic recession. Signs of democratic recession are already manifest in the increasing frequency of violent conflict that we are currently experiencing. Consider for example the complaints and claims of the violation of citizen rights in the pursuit of Boko Haram. That’s one example of democracy going down the drain in spurts of innocent blood.

Few will disagree that as we speak, there is a suffocating atmosphere of distrust and violence in our land. There is an unacceptable level of unemployment. There is insecurity in every region of the country. It is not only in the north that living has become tainted by terror and consternation.

There is kidnapping in the southeast and southsouth and armed robbery in the southwest.  In all cases, innocent people perish, fortunes are lost and the rest of us build higher walls around our inflated easy money mansions.

Easy money may be even more disastrous to good governance because as one writer pithily put it, ‘easy money corrupts.” Now, this cannot be rocket science given that easy money is a child of patronage politics, which in honest English means downright corruption. Easy money can be used generously to weaken the institutions of government that serve as safeguards against corruption.

If we allow easy money to weaken the legal and political institutions needed to catch and punish the corrupt, then, there will never be a level economic and political playing field to spur economic growth. This will dangerously increase the number of civic cynics already in their millions, and deepen other existing pockets of disaffection against the system and its easy moneyed cronies.

My New Year resolution is to be more frugal.

Professor Onwudiwe is fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”

RISE NETWORKS

"Nigeria's Leading Private Sector and Donor funded Social Enterprise with deliberate interest in Technology and its relevance to Youth and Education Development across Africa. Our Strategic focus is on vital human capital Development issues and their relationship to economic growth and democratic consolidation." Twitter: @risenetworks || Facebook - RISE GROUP || Google Plus - Rise Networks