14 Oct Nigeria’s Chattering Classes: Poverty and Denial in Africa
By Remi Adekoya
During a recent trip spent travelling across Nigeria, a banker friend of mine advised me to “keep things positive” if I ever shared my observations in “western media”. I pointed out Nigeria is currently in dire economic straits; many civil servants haven’t received a salary this year, pensions are going unpaid, people are struggling to feed their families and children are actually starving to death in the country’s north-east. “Writing about it won’t help those people. And you know negative western media stories on Africa only make these white folk and others look down on us,” my friend replied. Over the years, I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed by numerous middle- and upper-class Nigerians. In fact, it is an attitude I’ve observed amongst better-off Africans in general.
When it comes to western media coverage of Africa, the continent’s privileged classes are usually more concerned with the perceptions created than with the realities depicted. They find images of suffering Africans annoying because these “perpetuate negative stereotypes” by “portraying Africa as a poor and backward continent.” The actual suffering being depicted rarely elicits as much outrage as the fact it is being exposed for the world to see.
Meanwhile, whenever I chatted with regular Nigerians, once they heard I’m a journalist (in Europe), they’d say something like: “Make sure people over there know we are suffering here,” or “Let them know how bad things are in Nigeria, someone needs to talk to our government.” The last worry on their mind was how Nigeria’s image might suffer in the process.
It is middle-class intellectuals and the political or business elite who love to complain about how Africa is “misrepresented” in western media, not the poor and oppressed who are the subject of that reporting. But the privileged classes resent seeing Africa’s widespread poverty on display. Instead, they demand “balanced media coverage”. That sounds perfectly reasonable, but what exactly do they mean?
For instance, 62.6% of Nigerians currently live in poverty, compared to 27.2% in 1980. Yet for some Nigerians, “balanced media coverage” amounts to talking up the latest individual success story as evidence “not all Africans are poor and suffering” and that the country is “making progress”. But what kind of progress sees the percentage of people living in poverty more than double since 1980? It is countries like China, India or Brazil who have reduced poverty levels significantly in recent decades that have the right to speak of progress, yet some Nigerians will insist media show the “positives” in a country where poverty has ballooned in the same period.
A 2015 Pew Research survey revealed sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has made the least progress among all developing regions toward reducing extreme poverty since 1990. The percentage of people living on less than $1.25 a day in the region currently stands at 41%, more than twice as high as any other region in the world (Southern Asia comes next at 17%). Of course, inconvenient statistics can always be brushed aside.
In 2014 the World Bank reported that Nigeria had the third highest number of poor people in the world. The then president Goodluck Jonathan bristled at the suggestion, saying: “If you talk about ownership of private jets, Nigeria will be among the first 10 countries, yet they are saying that Nigeria is among the five poorest countries.” Furthermore he pointed out Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian businessman, “was recently classified among the 25 richest people in the world”. Wasn’t this proof Nigerian poverty is grossly exaggerated?
Jonathan’s ludicrous response aptly illustrates the prevalent attitude within the privileged classes. It is a combination of denial bordering on the delusional coupled with a post-colonial complex – emotional responses which attempt to shout down unpleasant statistics and imply that whenever the western world talks of African poverty, the aim is to paint the continent in a bad light.
A recent favourite is to question the veracity of poverty statistics on Africa. I’ve had heated debates with well-educated Africans who, when confronted with the unflattering numbers, reply: “But how exactly did they come about those statistics? Why is the poverty line calculated in dollars and not in local currencies?” The problem is not in asking critical questions, the problem is they are being asked in a tone suggesting the poverty figures are being exaggerated on purpose.
What makes Jonathan’s response to the World Bank figures particularly fascinating is that he was born into poverty himself, as were many others in Nigeria’s political elite. While campaigning for president in 2011, Jonathan won much sympathy among Nigeria’s overwhelmingly-poor electorate by recalling how, as a child, he used to walk to school barefoot because his parents couldn’t afford shoes. Thanks to this, he was affectionately dubbed the “shoeless president.” This begs the question why someone with real-life experience of Nigerian poverty would try to downplay it with such absurd arguments.
The answer lies in the psychological roots underlying the irritation of Africa’s better-off at Western coverage of the continent. It is the privileged classes who come into contact with foreigners in international settings. They are the ones who attend global conferences, send their children to western universities and conduct business abroad. They understandably want to be treated as equals by those they encounter in such settings. So they get peeved when they see news stories on starving children or violence in Africa because they know this helps shape the manner in which their countries and – more importantly – they themselves will be perceived abroad. Images of African poverty affect their personal image, hence they resent them.
Then there is the irritation stemming from the knowledge that the constant reports about violence, famine or dysfunctional governments, however well-intentioned, help nurture the racist-colonialist narrative that Africans are generally incapable of efficient self-rule. This is at once extremely frustrating and worrisome, especially for well-educated Africans who, as individuals, feel no less capable than their European or Asian counterparts. Yet the tragic news never seems to end.
I’ve experienced such feelings, and they are not easy to deal with. They force you to grapple with some uncomfortable questions to which there are no easy answers. For instance, why is it that half a century after independence, one is hard put to name an indisputable African success story (save perhaps 2-million strong Botswana which has been under de-facto one-party rule since independence)? Such disturbing realities can easily make one overly defensive in reactions to outside portrayals of Africa. The defensive-aggressive posture is a coping mechanism.
It is also a very deliberate tactic employed to make white people back down from asking tough questions about Africa. In private, educated Africans readily admit to each other that Africa has by and large been a messy failure, bar the odd pocket of prosperity and stability. But when the white man is listening, we mustn’t admit this, because – so the logic goes – that would be tantamount to acknowledging that those who claimed we are an inferior people were right all along. That must never happen. So, even though the reality of the vast majority of Africans is a miserable existence under corrupt, inefficient and oppressive regimes, the articulate classes prefer to put up a front in a misguided effort at defending the “dignity” of the black race in the court of world opinion. Of course, in order to sound reasonable, whenever Africa’s problems are pointed out, the privileged classes rarely deny them outright, instead they will respond with answers like: “Yes, we know we have many challenges, but…”
After the “but” usually comes a long list of all the possibilities and potential mentioned in association with Africa over the years, even though the continent as a whole is no closer to realizing that potential today than it was half-a-century ago. Furthermore, deep down, many educated Africans have long stopped really believing all the much-vaunted potential is ever going to be realized. It’s mostly a charade to keep face in front of the white man. I know the “Yes, we have many challenges, but….” line well enough as it used to be my standard response whenever white people asked annoying questions I didn’t want to answer like: “So how is life for people in Nigeria?”
In the effort not to be called out on Africa’s reality, the privileged classes, most particularly intellectuals and other cultural elites, regularly employ a form of verbal tyranny to shut down debate by throwing emotionally-charged accusations of “racism” and “stereotyping” at anyone who suggests there is a fundamental problem with the way Africa is doing things. This tactic has the dual advantage of putting whites on the defensive as well as rallying other Africans to join in repelling such “racist” assertions. Any Africans who challenge this tactic will promptly be referred to as “brainwashed” by the white man, or even worse, as sell-outs who in an effort to reap the rewards of pandering to white prejudice, are condoning “ahistorical” arguments which ignore the legacies of slavery, colonialism and institutionalized racism.
Fact is, this highly emotive discursive strategy will continue to be a crowd-pleaser in Africa for a while to come precisely because slavery, colonialism and institutionalized racism were very real phenomena not so terribly long ago. Moreover, there are a significant number of mostly well-meaning influential white liberals in Western media and academia, who, feeling an instinctive solidarity with disadvantaged groups, often jump in to aid the African elites trying to “counter racist narratives and stereotypes.” They also habitually employ the: “Yes, Africa has its challenges, but…..” line. Due to the disproportional influence of Western media and academia in global discourse, these white liberals are de-facto the most important allies Africa’s privileged classes have in their battles to shut down or shout down uncomfortable debate about Africa. Question is, who is all this helping?
It is certainly not helping the hundreds of millions of impoverished Africans who are not invited to talk about their lives at international conferences on poverty. Instead, they are supposedly represented by their well-fed more articulate countrymen who, more often than not, feel impelled to blah blah the world about how things are not that bad in Africa “despite what Western media tries to portray.”
Africa’s privileged classes, especially us intellectuals, must liberate ourselves from the shackles of our post-colonial complexes which limit what we think we are allowed to say about Africa in front of a foreign audience. Our discourse must be with the world of today, not the world of the 1800s. It’s like we are constantly shadow-boxing the ghosts of Cecil Rhodes, Lord Lugard and other die-hard colonialists. As a result, we have erected discursive barriers to protect our egos, forgetting what poverty and oppression is doing to the egos of our fellow Africans.
Some will argue African writers who talk about the “negatives” in Africa in foreign media discourage much-needed foreign investment from venturing there, de-facto helping perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Everyone else talks up their country’s brand to woo investors, why should we be any different, I often hear. While this sounds like a reasonable argument, it is somewhat ridiculous to pretend the musings of African intellectuals could discourage foreign investors from going to Africa if the numbers add up for them. Besides, while it may be the role of governments to put a positive spin on their countries in the international arena, that is most certainly not the role of the intellectuals who are there to question, criticize, irritate, prod and push society forward as best they can. Most importantly, the role of the [progressive] intellectual is to articulate the pain of the majority who are never handed the microphone. The lives of the many must be more important than the emotional comfort of the few.
Nigeria, my country of birth and Africa’s most populous nation, remains its greatest potential. But the country’s privileged classes must first stop trying to downplay the extent of Nigerian poverty just because it makes us look bad. This is not just selfish, it is dangerous, for the poor are not going anywhere. Add to this a ballooning youth unemployment rate and the 350 million illicit handguns the UN says are circulating in the country, and you have a ticking time-bomb.
It’s time the well-off in society stopped trying to sugar-coat Nigeria’s harsh reality and expect the status quo to continue undisturbed. Otherwise, that reality could soon explode with a vengeance. By then, western media coverage would be the least of every Nigerian’s problems.
Remi Adekoya is the former political editor of the Warsaw Business Journal. He has provided socio-political commentary and analysis for BBC, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Stratfor, Geopolitical Intelligence Services and Radio France International among others. Remi is currently conducting PhD research in politics at the University of Sheffield. Twitter handle: @RemiAdekoya1
Feature photograph: Lagos, Broad Street 2007
Civil servants not receiving salaries: http://www.vanguardngr.com/2016/05/bleak-may-day-26-states-workers-owed-salaries/
Children starving in north-east Nigeria: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-nigeria-security-msf-idUSKCN107135
62.6% of Nigerians currently living in poverty: http://www.ng.undp.org/content/nigeria/en/home/library/poverty/national-human-development-report-2016.html
Nigerian poverty figures from 1980: http://www.ng.undp.org/content/nigeria/en/home/library/poverty/national-human-development-report-2016.html
2015 Pew Research on poverty in sub-Saharan Africa: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/09/24/sub-saharan-africa-makes-progress-against-poverty-but-has-long-way-to-go/
World Bank figures on Nigeria having 3rd highest number of poor people in the world: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2014/04/10/ending-poverty-requires-more-than-growth-says-wbg
Jonathan response to Nigerian poverty figures: http://www.vanguardngr.com/2014/05/nigeria-poor-nation-says-jonathan/
Nigerian youth unemployment rate (some other reports have it much higher than this (at over 50%) and are closer to the truth, but these are formal figures so I used them: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/nigeria/youth-unemployment-rate
Illicit handguns circulating in Nigeria: http://www.vanguardngr.com/2016/08/nigeria-accounts-70-illicit-weapons-wafrica/
A shorter version of this piece was published in The Guardian on August 11, 2016.