In Nigeria, money answers all things. With nearly 400 tribes and 500 languages, we have one common tongue: money.
In a country where everything has a price, everything is for sale. There is no ideal, possession, or even life that the Nigerian man counts above the ritual of financial exchange. And because of this, it is better to be rich in Nigeria than anywhere else. It is not that wealth does not translate into power in other countries, instead, Nigeria is a place that actively endorses the philosophy that one can access the most exclusive rights and luxuries life has to offer, provided she has enough money.
In this way, Nigeria, which doubles as a backwater of economic disappointment, has become a dystopian image of free-market ideals; a place where every soul, protocol, and process can be bought or bought off.
Interestingly, this culture actually exposes the moral limits of markets: we buy what should not be bought and sell what should not be sold. This is what makes Nigeria such a corrupt country; because once a privilege is put on sale, to be acquired without due process, we have corrupted it. Putting another way, in your position of power, once your decision is swayed by factors you should not consider, you are corrupt.
Stealing is not corruption
Although President Jonathan received deserved ridicule for declaring that “stealing is not corruption”, he put a spotlight on our collective misunderstanding of what corruption is or is not. Corruption is not just stealing. We recognise corruption when government contracts are sold to the highest, but not the best bidder, or when students pay professors and institutions to falsify their qualifications.
Are we aware of this corruption when we grease palms to skip queues, be they physical ones leading to fuel pumps or virtual ones for our passports? We all know that to accept a bribe from you to favour your contract bid would be corrupt but are some of us aware that we are just as corrupt when we pay the police to arrest a neighbour or 'enemy' instead of using due process?
In both cases, we substitute the correct way to value – by the economic merit of your bid, or legal grounds for an arrest – with a process that is accelerated or slowed down by cash in hand. This arises because money is the primary measure of all things Nigerian. When everything has a price, everything can be sold, whether it ought to be or not.
Beyond corruption, there is a more significant price paid for our attitude towards money; poverty becomes much harder, inequality far more harmful.
When everything is tradeable, your inability to participate in the market economy is more pronounced. Your poverty does not just exclude you from material goods, but from everything else – political power, healthcare, justice. Those who can afford to, will buy their access to these rights, those that can’t, get no rights.
It is no surprise that we often declare that the only real crime in Nigeria is poverty; to be poor is to be ignored by the government, to be forced into defending against constant attacks on your existence. Worse, it means being subject to the whims and fancies of the rich, those who can bend the systems and rules to their will.
When money answers all things, those without it have no voice. If you are a poor student at a Nigerian university, you understand that your ability to graduate rests not just on your intellect, discipline, and work ethic – as it should – but also on your willingness and capacity to pay for the needful – department levies, lecture, you name it.
Once we understand this, we see why we are where we are. It is not just that we are an unequal society, it is that in our society, the costs of inequality are ridiculously high. Poverty is infinitely less tolerable when it is necessarily accompanied by the lack of political power; because everything is inherently political. The only real escape is money itself.
So, for the poor, wealth is revered and exalted, and chased with reckless abandon. And so, money becomes the centrepiece of the Nigerian dream, all roads leading to the accumulation of wealth. If our people have no money, they have no power; and they will do anything to change this – they will sell anything.
When everything has a price, money becomes everything. In Nigeria, without money, you are nothing.
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