John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Guest Post: Nigeria and the United States: “Ribbon of Hardship, Ribbon of Darkness”

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
July 17, 2012

Children play at a slum in Ijegun Egba, a suburb of Nigeria's commercial capital of Lagos, July 2, 2008. (George Esiri/Courtesy Reuters) Children play at a slum in Ijegun Egba, a suburb of Nigeria's commercial capital of Lagos, July 2, 2008. (George Esiri/Courtesy Reuters)

This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

In this recent expose, Esme E. Deprez documents an area of high economic inequality in the U.S.: namely, the Bridgeport, Connecticut metro area. There, Interstate 95 is likened to “a ribbon of hardship,” in contrast to the prosperous communities of Greenwich and Westport. She says, “The area’s history of institutional corruption and ineffectual management has only added to its problems.” Deprez cites a source as stating: “When difficult decisions need to be made, the already diminishing resources for individuals at the bottom are the first to go.” As a result, economic mobility suffers.

Mobility is largely a function of families, which bestow advantages; the labor market, i.e., availability of secure jobs; and the ability of public policy to level the playing field, Deprez cites Miles Corak of the University of Ottawa as explaining. Economists use the Gini coefficient to gauge income inequality. A value of zero means all money is evenly distributed; a value of one means one person holds it all.

With a Gini coefficient of .467 in 2010, the United States is among the most unequal and least mobile of wealthy countries. Success is largely dependent on family background. In a “ribbon of hardship” such as Bridgeport, a person’s talents do not necessarily help him or her up the economic ladder. A Yale-educated woman that Deprez interviewed thus “finds herself working two jobs to afford her mortgage and subsidize the care of her elderly mother.”

Sources vary, but Nigeria’s Gini coefficient is reportedly  .488, and “the gap between the rich and the poor is widening on a daily basis,” according to Bismark Rewane of the Lagos Business School.

What does economic inequality and lack of mobility look like in Nigeria?

Several years ago, a U.S. consultant who recently returned from Nigeria related that college graduates worked as hawkers and guards. His steward had an M.A. in business. Many who do work cannot live on their pay, and cannot get their kids into school. Stewards, drivers, and guards travel hours to get to such jobs. “Classes are starting to separate out,” he observed. “Ribbon of darkness” is a term ordinary Nigerians use to refer to the upper echelon of government, which in their view is a place where no one knows anything. Still, the consultant did not expect a popular rebellion. “People are scared of government,” they are scared of “going away.”

Yet Boko Haram appears to be composed of people who are not scared. Analysis of the insurgent group now tends to stress possible foreign terrorist connections, even while its origins are likely deeply rooted in long-term structural inequity–untouchable via counter-terrorism programs and negotiations. American policymakers are right to be concerned about developments in Nigeria. They might also want look in a mirror.

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  • Posted by Truthism

    John Cambell, you got it wrong. Nigeria will not break up in 2015, unfortunately the ball has rolled swiftly downhill, situation is now the country is about to implode, the final catalyst of a major religious strike will lead to total breakdown of order. Boko Haram is only a pawn of a nation were the system has collapsed. The international community should be prepared to deal with the effect of ethnic \ religious strife or face the humanitarian consequences. There are certain eventualities that can not be forestalled, unfortunately Nigeria will have to go through this upheaval before it can rise again.

  • Posted by Chike Chukudebelu

    This article is largely true, but I need to add a few words.

    Boko Haram comes from a region of Nigeria so different from the South it is almost like another country. While the most dynamic religious movement in the North may be Fundamentalist Islam, in the South it is Evangelical Christianity.

    Even though, poverty has led to crime in the South, Evangelical Christianity has led to an aspirational class who look to God, not government to solve their problems. And this World view of this class
    is independent of their material circumstances.

    Is this class likely to challenge government? No.

    Boko Haram would have “made sense”, if it was fighting a popular fight, not indiscriminately murdering innocents and had logical aims.

    Boko Haram will be crushed sooner than later, but when it is crushed it might have succeeded in setting the cause of the poor back by at least twenty years.

  • Posted by Cory

    The US really has no equivalent of the grievances of poverty, religion, and violence that have galvanized Boko Haram. Similar Gini coefficients do not entail broader societal parallels.

  • Posted by John Ojeah

    Another way of looking at poor and elite in the North and South is that in the South (especially Niger Delta and Southeast) the elite class and top govt officials are dynamic. One can be in govt today and within a short time find yourself at the receiving end.

    But in the North, the elite is constant. Been born into a particular family almost seals your fate for generations. Its more like the Russian and French societies before their respective revolution. A modern day feudal system.

  • Posted by Chike Chukudebelu

    Ambassador Campbell / Jim Sanders,

    Eventually both of you are going to throw you hands up in the air, exasperated.

    Nigeria defies logic. There is no neat characterisation or theory that can adequately capture the complexity of Nigeria.

    By every imaginable metric, Nigeria should have collapsed a long time ago, but it still goes on, in some form or shape. People still wake up in the morning to chase their dreams. Money is still made, businesses still grow.

    Nigerians are more resilient and are made of sterner stuff than Americans. You cannot understand Nigeria without understanding the Nigerian spirit and while both of you have a deep intellectual knowledge of Nigeria – there is one thing lacking from your experience; none of you have ever lived in Nigeria as a “Nigerian”.

    You’ve never had to draw water from a well or seek encouragement from members of your Church/Mosque when you’ve lost a job. You’ve never spent sleepless nights because you couldn’t fuel your generator – you’ve never needed or sought support from a community of people who are experiencing exactly the same problems as you were.

    You’ve never had cause to share your experiences of suffering with others, and learn how sharing burdens can ease them.

    That is why those of us who live in Nigeria understand that the simple things, the desire to just wake up every morning and create a better future for our children have always overcome our most destructive tendencies.

    Everyone morning, millions in Lagos wake up as early as 4:00 am and travel hours to get to their offices. Some don’t return until home 12:00 midnight – and they take in their stride.

    They are building something and they are taking ownership of something.

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