Thursday, October 24, 2013

The War on the Poor

What keeps Nigeria going in spite of her often manifestly dysfunctional government is not the savvy statecraft of her reigning politicians but the ingenuity of ordinary Nigerians. The state is remote from the people. A vast gulf separates policy architecture from the very citizens it is supposed to serve. Despite chronic mismanagement and graft, our informal sector’s dynamism and improvisation is why Nigeria lumbers on. She is powered by honest Nigerians who have refused to let the absence of infrastructure and the vagaries of life in an under-institutionalized environment become an excuse for sloth or crime. These are Nigeria’s real heroes and are the fulcrum of the country’s legendary resilience.

In the absence of a formal welfare apparatus, kinship and social networks serve as alternate social security mechanisms. Intrepid entrepreneurs virtually create their own infrastructure. In the absence of a social contract, Nigerians operate with a number of informal transactional and relational covenants most powerfully exemplified by the open air markets and roadside stores and workshops that are fixtures of urban life. The size of the informal sector indicates excessive government intervention and bureaucratic red tape with people generally preferring to carry on their socio-economic pursuits beneath the radar of an ineptly intrusive state.

This trading culture is an attribute shared by our diverse peoples. Nigeria is in every respect a nation of shopkeepers. The social ingenuity of our people and their impressive aptitude for exchanging goods and services is the last line of defence against hopelessness and anarchy; it is the solitary buffer separating dysfunctional governance from massive social unrest. Sadly, the government is enamoured with policies which degrade the informal sector. When government agents demolish a barber’s shop or a mechanic’s work shed, they are attacking the entrepreneurial genius which with proper support can lift millions out of poverty. When authorities outlaw commercial motorcycle operators without adequate public transport infrastructure in place or without establishing alternative structures to absorb the newly unemployed brigades, they alienate huge numbers of citizens and shrink the distance between official callousness and popular uprising.

Nigerians generally accept that their government will not necessarily work for them but demand that it at least gets out of their way. It is a different matter entirely when the government, so derelict in its other duties, aggressively invades and disrupts the havens that ordinary Nigerians have created for themselves. Often, the state is encountered as a hindrance rather than a help; an oppressive and coercive nuisance rather than a co-creator with the people of a shared prosperity.

The demolitions in our cities which target low income neighbourhoods, “illegal” settlements, unauthorized markets and business offices for destruction often for the purpose of “beautifying” the environment suggests an unhealthy obsession with the aesthetics of capitalist modernity rather than the nurture of its substance – the peoples’ entrepreneurial energies. There is little evidence of empathy for the urban poor, who are often viewed as collateral damage by policy planners,

Overwhelmed by the pressures of a fast growing population and the ravenous hunger for infrastructure that characterizes urban growth, governments have opted for economic Darwinism. The welfarist mantras and egalitarian clich├ęs of yore – Housing for all, education for all, health for all – have been dispensed with. Unwilling to honestly and frontally eliminate poverty, they are seeking to eliminate the poor.

The underlying philosophy is trickle down capitalism – empowering a few in the hope that their prosperity will cascade down to the less fortunate multitudes. Nigeria’s middle class is growing but nowhere near quickly enough to match the general population growth rate. In consequence, the well-heeled are increasingly a small fraction of our population. And it is this small minority that state authorities seem inclined to cater for by creating pristine locales where they can work, live and play without the spectacle of the poor to remind us of the scale of inequality in the land.

Urban renewal projects are often implemented at the expense of the informal sector. But rather than destroying it, we should be incorporating the sector and appropriating its raw creative energies and grafting it unto formal support structures and legal frameworks. Surely, we can conduct social policies and urban transformation in a more commonsensical and humane manner.

Gentrification is now creating problematic geographies. In Lagos, Victoria Island, arguably the fastest growing artery of commerce in Africa is being gradually hived off from the more chaotic and “less cool” mainland which is home to the millions of people who still earn their living on the island every day. Abuja is essentially a sprawling upper middle class enclave ensconced in a real estate bubble sustained significantly by the proceeds of official theft and ringed by slums and ghettoes. The spectacle of a few prosperous people encircled by millions of the dispossessed is an unhappy augury of things to come.

We need to move away from trickle down capitalism and focus on empowering the broad generality rather than the chosen few. This goes beyond installing physical infrastructure such as roads to achieving greater access to education, energy and healthcare and enabling citizens with the tools to live productive lives. However much we may seek to make Nigeria attractive to foreign investors, without domestic investments in education, developing human capital, and security – which comes from a population substantially empowered enough to resist the allure of crime – the sort of investments that will flow into Nigeria will be of the extractive and non-value adding variety. A political movement must emerge to speak to these issues and restore the egalitarian language of social and economic rights to the arena of public debate.  

(All Images sourced online) 

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