The Nigerian middle class and the second exodus


By Chris Akor

Before the second phase of military rule in Nigeria in the mid 1980s, Nigeria had a secured and flourishing middle class. Keith Richards, in an article in BusinessDay of 27th February 2016, presented the picture more eloquently:

“When I first visited Nigeria in 1981 there was still a fairly robust middle class. It had been impacted by the turmoil of the Civil War and subsequent military governments but was still visible, resident in places like Yaba, parts of Surulere, Palm Grove in Lagos and often in GRA’s around the country. Professionals were relatively financially secure. Doctors, teachers, professors were still respected. Their salaries, not yet decimated by the devaluation of the Naira in the mid 80’s, were generally paid on time. Universities had slipped from earlier standards but still offered a solid education. Government colleges were still functioning. Socially, there were cinemas in most cities, Lagos had a smattering of decent restaurants and social clubs were still prestigious and smart.”

But then the military struck on December 31, 1983 and things were never the same again. Although the Buhari government ended the corrupt Shagari government, it and the subsequent military regimes of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha were to inflict the greatest damage on the middle class. Starting with his ruinous and crude jack-boot economic policies, Buhari sucked the life out of the Nigeria’s economy and sent virtually all Nigerians, except connected military officers of course, queuing for days to buy mere sugar, milk and bread. For instance, his strategy of controlling inflation was to send out soldiers with koboko into the market to force traders to sell essential commodities at a fixed price regardless of costs.

Of course, prices fell in the first few weeks of the coup due to fear of the soldiers and producers and traders took on huge losses. However, as scarcity began to bite, prices went northwards, exceeding their levels before the coup. Unable to access forex to import raw materials and spare parts to keep factories working, industries closed down and unemployment became rife. What was more, wages of public sector workers were delayed for several months. This was in addition to the closure of the borders throughout his rein and his resort to trade by barter to solve the biting scarcity of forex to import essential commodities and machineries needed by the country.

It was therefore a thoroughly relieved nation that welcomed General Babangida when he put an end to the insufferable regime in August 1985. But Babangida sealed the fate of the middle class by devaluing the Naira leading to a collapse of their living standards.

But beyond economics alone, the destruction of the middle class was also psychological. In their bid to prevent intelligent debate and criticism, the military regimes with no exception, implemented policies to whittle down the autonomy of universities and economically disempower both staff and students, compromised the quality of the civil service and shackled civil society. The effect on the academia was particularly severe and it marked the collapse of the Nigerian university system. Professors and solid academics were knocked off their perch, struggling to survive like every poor Nigerian and unable to afford any of the luxuries they were used to. Most of the solid academics left for foreign universities leaving behind mostly the dregs of the system who could not hope to function outside of the dysfunctional Nigerian system.

As Richards attests, “Many of Nigeria’s best minds went onto exile. Gradually those who had the opportunity to move abroad, the professional middle class, did so. By the time democracy resumed some 68,000 Nigerian Doctors were practicing in the USA and the UK had 18,000 Nigerian health professionals in the NHS. The brightest of our students studied overseas and stayed to work and raise families.”

Continuing, Richards attest that unlike their colleagues that went on exile and were excelling, Nigerian professionals that remained at home suffered the effect of collapsed medical as well as educational infrastructure, losing “their valued position in society and their professional self respect and saw their income plummet.” He concluded that:

“By the late 1990’s those desired locations on Lagos Mainland or in GRA’s became run down and shabby, as the shadow of what middle class had not fled was fully demoralised. Following economic disenfranchisement the middle class lost its self-confidence and individuality.”

The rehabilitation of the middle class really began around 2003 when the Obasanjo administration realised it needed really knowledgeable and professional economic managers to reform the economy. By 2010, Nigeria had again a bubbling middle class driving the economy. What was more, many Nigerian organisations were actively recruiting Nigerians and foreigners abroad offering them competitive wages. Many of the professionals on exiles and their families started coming back to take opportunities emerging in the country.

Things were looking so bright for the middle class until 2015 when Buhari returned, this time, as a civilian president. Sadly, his coming coincided with the collapse of the Naira, economic depression and stagflation. In just a year, all the progress made by the middle class came crashing: the devaluation of the Naira and hyper-inflation had wiped away their earnings and all of a sudden, they are back to square one, scrambling for survival like everyone else. And just like in the 1980s and 90s, they are leaving in droves. Those with second passports, green cards and permanent residencies outside the country have checked out while those with the means are doing everything in their powers to check out as well.

· To be continued…

Christopher Akor

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