Neoliberalism’s children

Nigeria's young, rich and glamorous are the Trojan Horse for the pains of neoliberalism.

DJ Cuppy. Image credit The African Nerd via Wikipedia

Paddy Adenuga and Florence Otedola (better known as DJ Cuppy) have inserted themselves into the public lives of Nigerians as self-made and hard-working young people; symbols of a kind of national ethos of hard work and thrift. Ironically, there is very little self-made about them. Both Adenuga and Otedola are the offspring of super-rich Nigerians whose fortunes embody neoliberalism’s promise of stupendous wealth for capitalists as well as its brutal failures for most Africans.

Paddy’s father, Mike Adenuga, is a  telecoms and oil mogul worth US$5.3 billion, while DJ Cuppy’s dad, Femi Otedola, is a billionaire oil magnate. As with many Nigerian billionaires, their wealth rests on a public sector wrecked by years of military rule and the neoliberal policies of the early 1980s. They saw wealth in an economy beset by wanton exploitation of labor, weak regulations, perennial corruption and a patent absence of transparency in the award of public contracts. You wouldn’t gather this from how their children are being celebrated in popular media, both in Nigeria and in the West. In a recent profile, Paper Mag concluded about Cuppy: “Breaking into the industry wasn’t always smooth-rolling for the heiress.”

Born in 1984, Paddy Adenuga was a toddler when Nigerian dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, implemented the infamous Structural Adjustment Program (SAP). Promising severe cuts to public funding in education and social welfare, SAP provoked student protests and deaths in some of the country’s largest cities: Zaria, Lagos, Ibadan and Benin City. Florence Otedola’s birth in 1992 came well after SAP had taken its brutal toll on Nigerian social and political life: massive public-sector retrenchment, rise in the cost of living, urban poverty and a devalued Naira were a few of its consequences. If these two children knew nothing about SAP or neoliberalism and the IMF — and World Bank-sponsored ideology behind it, their fathers certainly did.

Nobody would have cared about their ultra-rich children, but both Paddy and Cuppy have publicized their desire to break out of their fathers’ shadows; Paddy Adenuga as a businessman and Cuppy Otedola as a celebrity disc jockey. What propels their ambition is the longing to “make it on their own,” however this doesn’t extend beyond their individual experience. They never speak about realizing a society in which such opportunities and national wealth are equitably shared. In short, they both bask in the very conditions that ensure most Nigerians live in conditions of precarity.

In his lengthy note titled “How I Nearly Bought Chevron Netherlands Without My Family’s Support,” Paddy Adenuga chronicled how close he came to acquiring Chevron’s upstream oil business in The Netherlands. His endgame was to use this acquisition as a “Trojan Horse” (these were his actual words) to secure juicy national oil assets in Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria. Paddy described in clear prose an astute mix of strategy, sharp-thinking, and the uncanny ease with which he crosses national borders from Europe to the United States. Few are national borders that would reject the bearer of $50 million. Masked behind Paddy’s otherwise-compelling narrative is a problem: the fluid movement of private capital across national borders efficiently maximizes private profits and democratizes risk.

The devastation of the environment in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region by foreign oil companies provides a grim illustration of the evils of neoliberalism, and its destructive impact on poor oil-producing communities. Paddy’s response to a threat to his Chevron bid captures the chilling brutality of this rapacious ideology: “At this point I didn’t care what the rules were, this was business – either hunt or be hunted and I believed Catalan [the company he founded and registered offshore] led by me, was an apex predator.”

DJ Cuppy raises a different moral question. With £1,000 crystal-laden headphones and a dream to make Forbes’s 30-Under-30 list, 25-year-old DJ Cuppy sits ahead of the curve. Cuppy quickly became one of Nigeria’s most prominent disc jockeys in her short six-year career. Her resume boasts spotlight appearances on major TV shows, partnerships with A-list musicians, and a recent showcase of her skills in Senegal to Presidents Emmanuel Macron of France and Macky Sall of Senegal. Said showcase took place at an event whose stated goals were ending “extreme poverty and expanding educational opportunities.” Indeed, the juxtaposition of extreme wealth with poverty is no paradox; it is rather a requirement for the functioning of neoliberal capitalism.

DJ Cuppy’s incursion into this niche, masculine domain of DJ-ing is a welcome development. Sadly, she brings to this field the baggage of steep class inequities. While her presence might elevate the overall social status of DJ-ing, it might transform the artform into a playground for “high society” individuals with powerful political ties. This is a cultural turn that will negatively affect even girls and women without such means.

Paddy seldom engages the popular domain as Cuppy does, except in the way his family bankrolls stars (as well as the celebrity status he brings to the Lagos nightclub scene). Having said this, his open letter and its recirculation on Nigeria’s most influential blog represent an attempt to sell an impoverished notion of hard-work and merit to a popular audience to justify his success. For at least a decade, the Adenugas have signed as brand ambassadors nearly every leading Nigerian pop artist from actresses and musicians to standup comedians. 2Face, D’Banj, Olamide, Basketmouth, Funke Akindele, Desmond Elliot, P-Square are a tiny sample of artists whose names have appeared on the Globacom payroll. Bankrolling entertainers help the Adenugas sell products. But it also achieves other goals. These sponsorships project Globacom’s status as a Nigerian-owned telecoms brand. Crucially, bankrolling artists buys the Adenugas leverage and favorable popular commentary, in the process foreclosing critiques around business ethics.

The romance between the ultra-rich and the domain of popular culture is hardly new. But the recent dance of ultra-rich kids in this domain gives pause. It provides a rare glimpse into the ways that a new generation of ultra-rich kids might increasingly marshal popular forms to advance subtle but dangerous conceptions of power and privilege. These “babies of neoliberalism” give gloss, poetry and cuteness to a deadly ideology. This cuteness is especially pernicious when one takes into account the fact that one of their parents became associated with the mysterious “cabal,” a niche group of oil importers who wield enormous political power because they determine the price of fuel.

Paddy’s and Cuppy’s recent appearances in the popular domain might seduce few into thinking that wealth is the product of hard work, grit and will. These qualities minus the wealth are in excess supply in Yaba, Obalende and Oshodi, all Lagos hubs bustling with the perfect mix of working-class ambition and despair. These two elide the role of state capture in their access to national assets. On this, Paddy writes: “My team in Lagos under my guidance would get oil trading contracts.”

For the record, you don’t just “get” oil contracts without powerful government connections. In 2016, to cite another example, Femi Otedola offered a $620,000 bribe to Senator Farouk Lawan in exchange for political favors. While Mr. Otedola claimed it was a sting operation, the power and access he wields in potentially influencing high-level public officials is itself a symptom of the problem.

Paddy’s writing and DJ Cuppy’s musical ambitions fetishizes the idea of struggling, even when “struggling to survive” has become a reality made grimmer by the very economic order from which they benefit. They might occasionally ruminate on the question of whether — barring their parent’s wealth — they could successfully replicate the luxury they now enjoy. The desire to imagine struggle might also be fueled by guilt. That is, the guilt of coexisting with contemporaries whose tenacity and optimism remain the stuff of myths. Imagining struggle is a luxury reserved for them. Struggling, for most Nigerians, remains the solitary route to living in the wake of neoliberalism.

The domain of popular culture (as cultural theorists like Stuart Hall have argued) is a crucial site in which meaning and power are won and lost. It is instructive that Paddy would receive praise not only for his ambition and grit (which he hoped to convey), but also for his writing. The recent arrival of elite guests in the popular domain — a domain driven by the ambition and struggle of Nigeria’s nobodies — beckons vigilance.

These words perhaps summarize my grouse: “Chevron Netherlands was destined to be mine. I was going to ride back into Africa on my Trojan Horse and become King.”

Further Reading

How the Nigerian Left imploded

In the history of democratic transitions in Africa – whether from military, one-party, civilian or multi-party rule – Nigeria’s experience presents an interesting dimension. First, the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida handpicked the parties …