In the midst of the reprisal attacks that have followed the latest outbreak of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, a troubling face of Nigeria’s reality has revealed itself to the observant: restive youths, most of them poor, waiting on the next opportunity to unleash their pent-up wrath on the world around them.
They are the most vocal representatives of the urban poor, a huge population that is itself a subset of an even bigger multitude: the 91 million Nigerians who live below the poverty line.
These people are not just figures to be quoted at economic conferences or talked about at pepper soup joints. They are humans, living, breathing, and struggling to survive.
They are angry too. Very, very angry.
Some of their anger boiled over on the evening of Tuesday, September 3, at the Shoprite mall in Lekki, Lagos, where a violent standoff between protesters and the police left one person dead. These protesters smashed into the mall, destroyed property, and looted its shops en masse.
This incident, as well as others that have unfolded elsewhere in the country within the past 24 hours, have been roundly condemned by “well-meaning Nigerians”.
It’s only proper that they should be.
Unfortunately, these events may only be mild tremors in the lead up to a massive earthquake, an earthquake of full-scale violent revolt against the status quo.
A Coming Poverty Apocalypse?
A few people have called attention to this. A well-known entrepreneur, Oluyomi Ojo, expressed his thoughts in a Tweet he put out on Wednesday.
What happened in Lagos yesterday is an indication of what’s to come, it has nothing to do with Xenophobia or South Africans but a glimpse of what the middle class should expect from poor Nigerians who are waiting for a reason & an excuse to strike.
— Oluyomi Ojo (@OluyomiOjo) September 4, 2019
In the thread that followed, he warned that the middle class would bear the brunt of an uprising of the poor if it were to occur.
This isn’t fantasy talk. Anecdotal evidence points to a deep-seated hatred of many poor people for the relatively well-off. This may be particularly pronounced in the cities, where the haves and have-nots typically come closest to encountering each other.
But there’s discontentment brewing in the countryside too. It’s hard to ignore the role that familial and communal poverty has played in preparing the ground for the various violent movements that have sprung up across the county in the past decade or so.
Perhaps the curious (and most alarming) thing about these movements is that they attract followers through fairly similar ways:
Young people, who are born into families and communities ravaged by poverty, seldom see a way out of their crushing lack. They don’t possess the means to sustain themselves. And they think they have nothing to lose. For them, living is nothing but a risk. Then a ‘movement’ comes along, promising relevance for them and a liberating revolution for all. The poor have nothing to lose. Charmed by hope and adrenaline, they join the ‘movement.’
This pattern has played itself out everywhere: Boko Haram and its recruitment of people from the dying fishing villages of the Lake Chad region; the Biafra agitation, driven by angry young men; the bandits on the northern highways, coopted into robbery gangs from their harsh herder lifestyle; the militias in the Niger Delta; and the territory-seeking cultists of Lagos.
This problem isn’t easing off. As the country’s population continues to grow, it will struggle to keep up with the demands that extra mouths place on its limited resources.
The Economics of Discontentment
The chances of an explosion in levels of unrest are greatly increased by the slow growth of Nigeria’s economy. Per capita income has been falling for the past three years. Its unemployment rate has tripled in roughly the same period. The country now has the world’s highest population of poor persons.
Meanwhile, the rich, connected to the nation’s major wealth sources and treasuries, don’t seem to be feeling the heat of the difficult economic conditions. They still buy stylish clothes, drink champagne, cruise in the latest model rides, go vacationing in Europe, and turn their noses up at their less well-off compatriots.
Some even dare to award themselves ₦13.5 million in monthly expenses (apart from salaries) from a pool of supposedly scarce public funds!
The middle class people may think it’s also faring badly in the current economic climate. But the poor don’t see this. As far as they are concerned, the middle class and the rich are part of the same elite club that stifles any economic trickle-downs that ought to reach them.
They have a point. The middle class in Nigeria is an exclusive club, perhaps no more than 11% of the country’s population. And many of them can still afford to go vacationing in France or the United States every other summer.
Whether the masses are eyeing the wrong targets is a different discussion altogether. But it’s clear that more of them are seething with rage, disconcerted at what they see as an economic system that’s designed to exclude them.
Will the rising tensions from the underprivileged quarters be doused somehow? Or will it all build up to explode severe consequences in our faces?
Time will tell.