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Last Wednesday 1 May was Labour Day. I have great esteem for working people. Every day, as early as 7.00 am, as I saunter out of my shower to grab a cup of tea, I often see across the distant horizon that labourers in the building sites are already at work. As early as 5.00 am millions are huddled in buses heading for work in our cities and towns. As the rainy season returns, throughout the wide expanses of the primeval savannah and forests, you will find peasant farmers busy at work with their wives and families from dawn to dusk. I grew up in a village and I have an idea of how gruelling and back-breaking farm work can be.
Like most young undergraduates of my time at university, I had a romance with Marxism. But mine was rather brief. In the Samaru campus of Ahmadu Bello University of those days, the communist cells used to meet on Sunday mornings. Perhaps it was deliberate to ensure that anyone who held strong Christian beliefs would technically be excluded. But that was not what did it for me. A thesis was once being debated about “the inescapability and necessity of violence as the only means of successful revolution”. Marx and Fanon were the cited authorities. I had the audacity to articulate a nonviolent counter-motion, on the authority of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. If I recall correctly, Muazzam and Raufu ordered for me to be thrown out immediately! I did not leave Marxism; rather, Marxism left me.
Over the years, I have realised that Marxists have only falsely claimed monopoly over the right to speak for working people. My social consciousness owes not only to Marx but also to a long line of social thinkers and activists such as theologian Walter Rauschenbusch; the Japanese Christian social worker Toyohiko Kagawa; the Harvard social psychiatrist Robert Coles; and Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz.
Mine is a humble family origin. I know what suffering is. And I know what poverty is. Something always pricks at my conscience when I drive by in my air-conditioned car while watching the unwashed masses baking in the blistering African sun.
Writing this article on May Day provokes me to think more deeply about the human condition of the poor in our country today. The statistics are now familiar: 88 million destitute poor; 22 million unemployed youths; and 13 million children out of school. But the figures do not tell the whole story. Nigerians are probably the most traumatised people in the world today. We have the dubious prize of being not only the kidnap capital of the world but also the poverty heartland of planet earth. India has 70 million poor while we have 88 million. But you can better place it in perspective when you realise that India’s 70 million poor are out of a total population of 1.3 billion (18 percent), as against Nigeria’s 88 million out of 200 million, which amounts to 45 percent. In the northern part of our country, the situation is dire. The percent of the poor hovers around the 70 percentage mark.
Added to it is a murderous insurgency which has taken its toll on entire communities. There is also the challenge of rural banditry in such places as Zamfara, Birnin Gwari and the vast expanses of the ancient Savannah of my birth in the Middle Belt. Today, a silent genocide is ongoing in Kajuru in Southern Kaduna.
A little-reported incident during Easter was of strange gunmen who opened fire on a Boys Brigade group in Gombe, killing 10 and injuring over a dozen more. It led to serious tension in a normally peaceful state. As a patron of Boys Brigade, I felt the pain deeply. A few years ago, a madman driving a truck in Barkin Ladi, Plateau State, rammed into a team of marching Boys Brigade; killing 18 of them and injuring many more. Such deliberate acts of carnage motivated by hatred and wickedness have become a part of the moral fabric of our benighted country. In most parts of the Middle Belt, militia herdsmen have gone gung-ho on a killing spree, with no one to stop them.
There are more than 3 million of our people huddled up in ramshackle IDPs. Social capital that was built over centuries has been destroyed, not to talk of livelihoods and the spiritual moorings that hold communities together. Hunger, disease and unemployment have become the grim realities for the vast majority of our people.
While we commend the Buhari administration for assenting to the minimum wage bill, I humbly submit that N30,000 is hardly a living wage in today’s Nigeria. Consider a typical household of couple and four children. You should expect their rent to be at least N5,000 monthly. Feeding should take at least N10,000; transportation N5,000; fees and school expenses another N10,000. What happens when a child falls sick or when another unforeseen emergency crops up?
My own humble opinion is that the N30,000 is only the beginning of the discussion. It is not really a living wage. Someone pointed out on social media that when the minimum wage was raised to N18,000 during the regime of Goodluck Jonathan, it amounted to US$100, given that the exchange rate was N180/US$1 at the time. Today, N30,000 amounts to only US$88, given that the exchange rate has fallen to N360/US$1.
The issues facing the working class are deeper than just issues of a minimum wage. The poor need access to quality education for their children; they need access to healthcare; and they need access to housing and sanitation and affordable public transport systems. The poor also need a comprehensive social transfer on a means-tested basis. We need a social development policy that structures intervention measures to help the poorest of the poor. We need to understand that economic development is not a zero-sum game. When we help the poor it does not make the rich poorer. Lifting the poor from destitution actually lifts up the status of our society as a whole. A literate, healthy, happy and well-fed population conduces to the happiness of all.
One of the worst aspects of social and economic life in our country is the fact that inequalities are actually deepening. The elites live in choice areas of our cities, many of them in gated and well secured communities. They send their children to private schools and they go to college abroad. When they are sick they are attended to ion posh hospitals, some of which look more like five-star hotels. Those who can afford it perform the obligatory medical pilgrimage to India. The huddled masses are cramped into hovels barely tolerable for beasts. Most have no access to electricity, running water or sanitation. Their children attend government schools where teachers no longer teach anything. Many die of preventable diseases because of the lack of access to decent healthcare. When their children graduate they have no access to jobs. By contrast, as soon as the children of the rich graduate and complete national service, plum jobs are waiting for them.
Even with a first class honours degree, the chances of the daughter or son of a peasant securing a good job are virtually zero. For the children of the elites, the world is their oyster. Every day I get heartbreaking pleas from parents and their wards, looking for jobs. Gone are the days when civil service recruitments were based on merit.
A new social structure is emerging, based on intergenerational self-reproduction. The elites are recreating their own kind while the children of the poor are being condemned to the status of their parents. This iron law of oligarchy is bound, sooner or later, to sow the seeds of violence, upheaval and revolution.