An inescapable part of Nigerian social life is our lavish celebrations of important occasions, such as weddings, birthdays, housewarmings and funerals. Costly and ostentatious, these flamboyant events usually take place inside large banquet halls and hotel ballrooms crammed with guests. Party revelers spray handfuls of cash on people, while dancing to heady tunes about money and success. Family members are decked out in matching traditional outfits, and guests leave with customized gifts that range from plastic soap cases and mugs, to iPads. In 2013, the Lagos state government found that 36 billion Naira, (roughly $100 million), was spent on parties in the state, Nigeria’s most populous. What is remarkable is that celebrations take place against the backdrop of deepening political and economic crises, including a rapid decline in world oil prices, instability in the Niger Delta and Northern Nigeria and myriad economic problems.
I recently attended a funeral party for a deceased relative in Ikenne, my hometown in Ogun state, an hour from Lagos. In the middle of playing a Fuji song, the band teased attendees about having a grand party while their fellow Nigerians were facing tough times. The costs of staple foods had almost doubled and for the middle classes the severely-weakened value of the Naira to the dollar had made it harder to send children abroad to study. It should have dampened everyone’s spirits, but the guests laughed loudly and the cluster of people in front of the band only danced harder. That night, a second cousin told me he had been laid off from the oil servicing company he had worked for in Warri, because it was not getting contracts from multinationals whose pipelines have been targeted by militant groups. He is a young father with a two-year-old son and a wife in university.
Growing up in the 1990s, events like weddings were smaller affairs held under canopies in one’s compound or in open fields at public schools. Extended family came from around the country to help with preparations. Roles were divided based on gender; the men set up canopies and plastic chairs and were responsible for slaughtering goats, while women cooked Jollof rice in huge tin pots placed over firewood. Extravagant weddings belonged only in the pages of glossy magazines like Ovation and City People. I remember flipping through these magazines with their photos of well-dressed Nigerians seated proudly in halls in London and Lagos; brides arriving in stretch limousines; reams of flowers and ribbons adorning tables and walls. Back then, this display of abundance and wealth was the reserve of elites. But, sometime in the early 2000s, things began to change. Middle-class families began hosting events that were bigger and more expensive. Simplicity gave way to excess. More people began renting showy event centers, hiring caterers and security personnel armed with guns. Popular musicians were invited to perform.
The size of Nigeria’s middle class has grown in the past two decades. A 2013 consultancy report estimated that households with annual incomes of more than $5,000 a year would increase from 20 to 27 percent of the population by 2020. According to the IMF, Nigeria’s GDP rose from $46 billion in 2000 to $247 billion in 2011. In recent years, Nigeria has witnessed a boom in entertainment, fashion, real estate and, of course, event planning. There has been an expansion in the retail industry, with local online stores that were absent ten years ago enjoying huge successes. In 2014, Nigeria was declared Africa’s largest economy. Arguably, there are more ways for people to earn a living now than in the past. This increased prosperity is reflected in the ways that we mark special moments in our lives. There has been a shift from the traditional and more communal to trendier and commercialized forms of celebration.
It is uncertain what direction the country’s economy will go in the coming months. No one is sure of when oil prices will increase and by how much. There is no guarantee that the government’s efforts at diversifying the country’s economy will make Nigeria less oil-dependent. Yet, people seem undaunted by these uncertainties. Though, they are angry and disillusioned about the present government’s inability to tackle economic problems, they are hopeful for change. We are, after all, a glass half-full kind of people. On weekends, event halls remain packed. Guests turn up neatly-dressed and ebullient.
Whether things remain the same because of our resilience in the face of hard times or due to pure denial is a long, subjective argument. However, recession or no recession, the blare of music from events continues to spill out onto the street.