Having looked at me through the window of her Land Rover 4 jeep, she strode out in her Louis Vuitton suit and amazing gold jewelry and uttered amidst other things, “…and why are we bothered about this minimum wage issue? There is no one in Nigeria that lives on less than 20, 000 naira a month. If the government implements the wage scheme or not, it makes no difference!”. She further called on me to validate her statement by informing the team just how much my parents gave me as monthly “pocket money” as an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan. At this point, the fear of overly embarrassing the woman held me back from announcing that my father sometimes gave me 500 naira and did not expect me back home for 2 weeks! That I believe is a plight the multi-millionaire director in my office cannot wrap her mind around. The huge gulf between the rich and the struggling in Nigeria is so wide that it represents a semblance of the pit between Heaven and Hell in the biblical story of Lazarus and the rich man. More often than not, we hear it told that the average Nigerian survives daily in poverty. What we do not hear often is that the comfortable Nigerian does not have a clue what it means to be an average Nigerian. Worse still is the realization than Nigerians who were raised in the mire and by virtue of either strokes of luck or opportunity have crossed the gulf, can also no longer identify with the realities of their lowly beginning. Reports show that income inequality worsened in Nigeria from 0.43 to 0.49 between 2004 and 2009, and this is correlated with differential access to infrastructure and amenities. In particular, there are more rural poor than urban poor, resulting from the composition of Nigeria’s economy, especially the energy (oil) and agriculture sectors. Oil exports contribute significantly to government revenues and about 15% of GDP, despite employing only a fraction of the population. Agriculture, however, contributes to about 45% of GDP, and employs close to 90% of the rural population. This incongruence is compounded by the fact that oil revenue is poorly distributed among the population, with higher government spending in urban areas than rurally. High unemployment rates render personal incomes even more divergent. Moreover, the process of oil extraction has resulted in significant pollution, which further harms the agricultural sector and creates temporary and permanent mishap to the already impoverished population. While the affluent wallow in a flurry of vanity, the erstwhile poor cannot even afford the luxury of contentment, however godly they may profess to be. Rural poverty tends to be evenly distributed across the country, rather than concentrated in specific geographic areas. However, in some zones the poverty situation threatens to worsen considerably, such as in the northern area bordering the Niger, which is arid, marginal to agriculture, environmentally damaged and densely populated. The fishing communities living in the mangrove swamps and along the Atlantic coast are among the poorest in Nigeria, and while we oftentimes wonder why this is so, I dare to mention the following two practical occurrences
Certain communities exist in Nigeria, even in parts of Lagos state where electricity is inexistent. Water supply is alien, basic health care is unavailable and road networks are unborn children. What they do have however is good natural food. However, that food is probably considered too good for such people and as such, oil spillage and environmental pollution kicks in, destroying the one good thing that these rural communities hold dear. When this is not the case, traders from the urban settlements remember these people and purchase their hard work from them at ridiculous prices to sell to the bourgeoisies, once again without giving them what they need.
As bewildering as it may be, and truthfully so, suffice it to say that a man whose problems are “what bank to stash his billions without raising suspicion”, “where to park his newly acquired fleet of cars since the compound is filled”, “what island to spend the next weekend or holiday” or “what country he still has not visited”, can NEVER fathom why it is said that there are people in Nigeria that do not have clothes to wear or food to eat. Like the variation between angels and demons, people who spend hundreds of millions on renovation of houses, purchase of property in high brow areas of Lagos and Abuja, will never be able to comprehend the occurrences in the villages of Iroko, Odioma, Obioku or remote areas of Jigawa where transportation is still on animal backs and not automobiles. Even within Lagos, the plight of married women backing children under the hot sun on their ways to beg for money or buy vegetables cannot be understood by the rich who sit still in their gold plaited upholstery and instruct other people to buy seasonings and vegetables from Shoprite. If the essence of this piece is to bridge the gap, I dare to say it is impossible. This is just an issue that genuinely bothers me and I believe calls for attention. And if indeed a person who has lived in abject poverty at some point in life cannot make moves to alleviate the plight of those still in that position, then I wonder if anyone would ever be able to take that step. Rather, we witness people running over beggars on the road with their cars and burning down the hamlets they reside in. May we never be too comfortable to become insensitive.
Sanmi Abiodun (2012)