That a Nigerian billionaire and his daughter recently traveled to Italy just to buy ice-cream has generated a lot of reactions by Nigerians on social media. My sense from reading those reactions is that Nigerians are yet to come to terms with the fundamental problem of class. It is no news that Nigeria is one of the most economically unequal countries in the world, but what always baffles me is that our flaccid anger and apathetic frustration are always directed to the undoubtedly unresponsive government, while no one ever points at the special breed of Nigerians known as the “Crazy Rich Nigerians” (CRNs).
In 2018, Nigeria was crowned as the poverty capital of the world, the same year that it made headlines as the country with the highest number of black billionaires in the world. The CRNs have become an obsession of the new Nollywood which continuously—even if inadvertently—depicts their extravagant lifestyle and unrivaled opulence. This seemingly new genre of Nollywood films (The Bling Lagosians, Fifty, Chief Daddy, New Money, Royal Hibiscus Hotel, and The Wedding Party) confirm the uncomfortable truth about the CRNs that no one is talking about. The CRNs throw lavish wedding parties, import pizza from London, go on frequent vacation to the Caribbean, live in insanely luxurious neighborhoods such as Banana Island and usually escape into the comfort of a helicopter whenever there is a traffic gridlock. The Crazy Rich Nigerians do not know what it means to travel economy class, they always fly first class whenever they are not flying in their private jets. They single-handedly fund their children and grandchildren to Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Cambridge. They do their monthly shopping in Paris, New York, Amsterdam, or Toronto. They remind us of Nigeria’s first billionaire, Candido Da Rocha, who always sent his dirty clothes for laundry in Britain.
The bourgeois life of the CRN sounds like a delicious fantasy or a Disneyland-esque dream but, unfortunately, it is not. It is the real and quotidian life of this so called “one per cent of the one per cent” Nigerians.
A friend, who is not Nigerian, recently told me about her encounter with some CRNs in Europe, and wondered why they detest Nigeria so much and why they always act as if they are not Nigerians. These are the questions I also struggle with whenever I come across the CRNs. Their inflated superiority complex, monumental arrogance and chronic disdain for, as well as gratuitous mistreatment of, ordinary Nigerians is very alarming. This is perhaps because they have religiously bought into the logic of neoliberal competition, meritocracy, and industry as determinants of wealth-making. Hence, they convince themselves that their wealth is well-deserved and that inequality in the country is contingent on individual financial choices.
But, we all know that that is not completely true. If Nigerian politicians are abrasively corrupt, then the CRNs are sophisticatedly corrupt. While some of them (the CRNs) climbed the social ladder precisely because of their economic dalliance with the government, others benefited from economic policies of privatization and monopolization. While some were initiated into affluence under the influence of leftover colonial privileges, others rose to economic eminence through the compromised Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) of the 1980s and the shady deals of the oil boom era. Also, many CRNs collaborate with predatory multinational companies in the plundering of Nigeria’s resources. Today, if you ask any progressive economist, they will tell you that it is the CRNs who benefit mostly from Nigeria’s rising economic inequality. Many CRNs benefit from dubious tax waivers, they slave-drive their workers, and are often more concerned about the maintenance of their elite position than ameliorating the poverty that ravages the country. More importantly, the CRNs seem to have successfully diverted attention from themselves as one of the main problems of Nigeria. I should add that many ordinary Nigerians seem to be oblivious of the complicity of the CRNs in the perpetuation of a systematic unequal distribution of wealth in the country. In fact, judging from most of the social media responses to the aforementioned billionaire’s ice cream trip to Italy, I am convinced that even working-class Nigerians have been propangadized into embracing the logic of neoliberalism and industry. Nigerians are the most hardworking people I know, but unfortunately for many, their annual income is never commensurate with their labor. According to the 2019 World Poverty Survey over 91 million Nigerians live in extreme poverty. Although one might be tempted to dismiss these (sometimes) problematic Western surveys, as a Nigerian myself, I have seen poverty up-close and I can safely conclude that it is currently an epidemic in the country.
Why would a country with the largest economy in Africa have such a staggering number of the have-nots? Yes, the politicians (who sometimes—but not always—double as the CRNs) siphon our resources, but that is not the whole story. The five richest Nigerians, whose combined wealth is more than the GDP of many countries, are not politicians—at least not openly. In that regard, it is pertinent to indicate that this essay is not about wealth-shaming, it is about the moral essence of individual wealth accumulation in a country plagued by poverty. In other words, the CRNs do not need to feel guilty about their “hard-earned” money but they need to develop a moral obligation that may contribute to the alleviation of poverty and economic inequality in Nigeria. They must have empathy for the less privileged and develop a sense of responsibility towards giving back to the country that made them. They must become conscientized and stop thinking that Nigeria owes them when, in actual fact, they owe Nigeria.
Don’t get me wrong, not all the CRNs are bad people. Not all of them are arrogant. Many CRNs are very generous. But the point is not about drawing distinctions between scrupulous and unscrupulous CRNs, it is about overhauling structural disadvantages that make the poor poorer. It is about envisioning an economic system that is no respecter of class, and ensuring that Nigeria’s wealth is distributed more fairly. It is about exorcising the hegemonic system that allows a few people to amass wealth while the majority suffers. The CRNs undoubtedly have a huge role to play in this. They must be willing to selflessly support policies of economic redistribution. They must refrain from using their economic power to obstruct the introduction of luxury taxes and the dismantling of unofficial oligarchy in Nigeria.
To be wealthy is, in and of itself, not a sin. But the morality of wealth is dependent on its source, as well as the attitude of its owner. However, in the Nigerian context I am aware that the argument about economic equality transcends the question of morality, because there are those who have amassed their wealth through questionable means, such as money rituals, drug trafficking, and internet scams. To expect a moral obligation from this category of the wealthy is counter-intuitive. Instead, I believe the focus should be on those CRNs who got their relatively legitimate power to make wealth through the colonial and postcolonial project called Nigeria.