Eleven years ago — to be specific, on July 7, 2008 — the title of my column was: “One Day, the People Will Rebel”. I warned that the extravagant lifestyles of our elite in the face of crippling poverty in the country would come back to bite all of us one day. At the time, kidnappings were a Niger Delta thing as militants agitated for resource control, but I was talking about what I called the “non-oil” kidnappings which I said would become the fad in the near future. I said the Nigerian elite must get the message that they could not continue in their ways and expect peace and safety. I warned that there was a lot of frustration, anger, bitterness and resentment in the land.I wrote that when “blood relations of wealthy people are being kidnapped in exchange for ransoms, that is a clear danger signal to the elite. You have a driver. You have a cook. You have a security guard. You have policemen guarding you. They are all human beings. They see things happening around them. They hear your phone conversations as you conduct your mindless transactions. They are hearing the mind-blowing figures. They see the movements of Ghana-Must-Go bags. In an attempt to ‘redistribute’ the loot, they will resort to kidnappings and demand ransoms. It is happening already. More are in the offing, I think.”
A reader was so angry with me that he sent me this SMS: “Simon, you are sowing evil ideas in the minds of our drivers and domestic staff. You are highly irresponsible. I will never read your column again.” Typical of me, I did not respond. I had realised early in my column-writing career that those who really want to engage in constructive debates normally use decent language. I hate street fights. As a kid, I was never involved in street fights. My grandmother (God bless her soul) was always proud to show me off to her friends as a “good boy”. I would be letting “Iya Kola” down in her grave if I engage in internet street fights. So I always let attacks and insults pass — with all pleasure.
However, I am always unhappy whenever I lose a reader because of my views. I feel I have lost a potential co-evangelist in my “leadership by example” approach to the building of a nation “where peace and justice shall reign”. That reader clearly misunderstood me: I was only forewarning on a disturbing development with the sole aim of gingering our leaders to act. Growing criminality is a product of our broken social system that deprives the majority of Nigerians the basics of life such as roads, water, healthcare, education, security and jobs. I was fighting for social justice. I was warning the elite that they were not safe in their fortresses no matter how many police escorts they have.
As a philosopher said, all I did was to hold up a mirror for the society to look at itself. Breaking the mirror — as that angry reader decided to do — would not change the picture. The inequality in Nigeria has been too much for too long. In a country where people lose their lives because they cannot afford drugs of N1,000, you have people buying private jets and flashy cars not from some hard work but by feeding on the commonwealth. Our hospitals are rejecting poor patients because there is no bed space. Pupils are sitting on the floor to learn chemistry and biology in schools the governor cannot allow his relatives to attend. Such a society cannot escape doom.
In that “offensive” article, I asked, sarcastically: “What is the way forward? More policemen? More bullet-proof SUVs? More private jets? More Banana Islands? More signs of ‘military zone, keep off’?” I then replied myself: “I don’t know, but I have a hunch that more equitable management of resources could be of help. I suspect that more jobs, more housing, more medicine, more books, better roads, and better power supply would be of use. I suspect that less looting, less waste of resources would go some way. But if things continue the way they are, there is no doubt about it: one day, the long-suffering people of this country will react. They will rebel. Mark my words.”
The rebellion seems to be in full motion today as Nigerians groan under the pandemic of kidnapping, banditry, terrorism, internet fraud and all kinds of criminality. Worse still, the security system cannot protect either the rich or the poor. We should ask ourselves how we got here. One of my favourite Yoruba proverbs, as oft-repeated by my late grandmother, says “when a child stumbles, he looks at his front; when an adult stumbles, he looks at his back”. Someone else would add: “Where did the rain begin to beat us?” If only we could retrace our footsteps, we will gain insight. We can then begin to sow a different seed today so that we can reap a different harvest tomorrow.
Last week, I watched as some members of the house of reps took turns to lament the state of insecurity in the country. One speaker after the other complained that they can no longer travel to or sleep in their villages because of insecurity. They are overwhelmed by the army of criminals. However, they just cannot see a link between their greed — their obscene allowances, their extortion-driven oversight activities as well as the padded budgets — and the poverty and insecurity in the land. That is the problem with Nigerian politicians: they think Nigeria is like this by mistake. They think if we are able to deploy more troops, kidnapping will stop. If only it were that simple!
Let me say this yet again: the Nigerian ruling elite need to have a meeting, perhaps a “meeting of minds”, and agree to change their ways. We cannot continue to run a system of an overfed elite minority and a malnourished majority and expect to keep travelling to the village in glittering SUVs without consequences. No. It won’t work. We cannot run a system where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and expect peace. We have been living a lie for too long. Commonsense tells us that inequality comes with a price. We cannot sustain a system that ruins the lives of the majority of 200 million Nigerians and hope to sleep and snore at night.
Although the economic downturn in the last five years and some of the policies of President Muhammadu Buhari are implicated in the current socio-political crises, the truth remains that for too long, we ignored the warning signals. For decades, the UNDP told us that 70 percent of Nigerians were living on less than $1 a day. What did we do to prevent the incoming disaster? It was all Greek to us. We spent our petrodollars as if there would be no tomorrow. Well, today is yesterday’s tomorrow. You don’t have to be a development expert to know that any country where the bulk of the youth are unemployed or unemployable is headed for chronic insecurity.
Don’t take my word for it. Check the poverty and unemployment rates of countries with the least incidence of crime and you will get a better idea of what I am driving at. When young men and young women wake up in the morning with nowhere to go, they are tempting the devil. He will give them something to do. Their energies will be misused and abused as they struggle to survive. No human being will sit down at home and die of hunger. Survival is a basic human instinct. The human being will survive by any means necessary — even if it is to steal, beg or borrow. The police and the army combined cannot contain crime when the factory producing criminals has not been closed.
Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. We have sown the wind and we are reaping the whirlwind. The teens and teenagers that we refused to care for yesterday have become our nemesis today. They are now in our neighbourhood and on the highway, making life unbearable for us. The security system we failed to overhaul and modernise for ages — despite security budgets in billions of dollars — is now unable to protect us. But if I may ask, what are we doing today to make sure our trouble does not double tomorrow? Are we investing properly in the future? Are we striving hard to make the country conducive in the future so that ordinary people can enjoy the basics of life? The elite must realise that it is in their own interest to make Nigeria habitable. This milking must subside.Until the elite across board reach a consensus to curtail their greed and put Nigeria first, we cannot begin to make meaningful progress as a nation. Our predatory system will continue to breed terrorists, kidnappers, ritual killers, yahoo boys and circumstantial sex workers. What we are witnessing today would be child’s play compared to what is ahead. Nobody is safe in Nigeria, including those who think they are covered by a convoy of armed escorts. It is just a matter of time. Until we begin to sow the good seeds at all levels — federal, state and local — our troubles will keep multiplying. Nigeria will not develop overnight, but if we fail to act decisively and intelligently today, we cannot hope to reap gainful jobs, lasting peace, security and national prosperity tomorrow.”