Your socioeconomic status, or what Nigerians call your “level”, plays a fundamental role in determining the Nigeria you experience. But for something that is so instrumental in everyday life, your ability to change it is limited. The result? Nigeria is amongst one of the most unequal countries in the world, and while policymakers quickly bundled together to address our low ease of business score, we are yet to see the same effort in tackling social immobility.
Nigeria's social hierarchy
Historically, what determined your social rank varied across the country, from caste systems based on your ancestry to structures where gender or age were your only social currencies. Varied as they were, most of Nigeria was a closed society which meant your status was often decided by factors outside of your control.
Fast forward to the latter years of colonialism and a rapidly urbanising Nigeria meant many people were leaving their villages for the city. A 1958 study on social stratification in Nigeria describes how this led to wealth overtaking common values in determining your place in society. Whatsmore, the author believed it would allow social mobility for hard-working Nigerians. Nice in theory, but today you need more than hard work to change your level.
Social mobility hasn't improved since independence, and arguably the most significant cause is family. Your opportunities as a child correlate with your family's level, and this is why the rich have stayed rich while the poor have remained poor. A recent World Bank study explained that in Nigeria, sons could expect to make 60-70% less than their friends if their father earns half of their friend's father's income.
But in addition to one's family, other factors like high levels of youth unemployment and unaffordable housing mean there is a gap between how hard you work and the possibility of upward social mobility. Unfortunately, possible or not, social mobility is still vital.
Why improving your level matters
Firstly, social mobility counters the impacts of inequality, but fairness aside, Nigeria needs social mobility to grow its middle class. A strong middle class can power economic growth through greater consumption of domestic goods and services.
Yet, social mobility is not just a macro issue; it can be a very micro one too. In Nigeria status is a major determinant of the respect you get. Some psychologists believe the respect of your peers is the real root of happiness, and in Nigeria, respect means this and more. Respect is a core part of Nigeria’s values, and the more you are respected, the easier life is for you. Although respect should be measured on merit, here social status is the preferred measure. This misalignment and inability to climb the social ladder can lead to depression. Another serious neglected problem.
For some, the frustration has led to leaving the country altogether- illegally by the Mediterranean or settling in Canada. For others, the inability to climb the ladder has led to a different route: packaging.
Packaging social mobility
“Do you know who I am?” is a common question posed in a Nigerian dispute where the laws of respect dictate that you shouldn’t challenge those above you. The person asking the question may expect you to know their level, but until you really know someone, you can only base their level on what you see. This is key to packaging because it opens the door for perceived upward mobility.
Packaging means dressing and behaving in a certain way to boost your perceived level. Because status is as much to do with the view of others as it is your bank account, if you get your package right you can create upward mobility for yourself.
Take Chike a driver, from a low-income family, and an engineering graduate who expected his level to change significantly after school. In reality, it hasn’t, but because he packages well you wouldn’t be able to tell when you see him. Equipped with replica clothes, confidence and a hint of a foreign accent, he receives the same respect that he would have received in a world where social mobility was possible.
As long as we continue to judge a book by its cover, packaging will be a tool Nigerians can use to unlock some of the benefits of social mobility. But packaging is a painkiller and not an antidote to Nigeria’s inequality problem.
One thing we cannot afford to package is the policies that tackle social immobility in Nigeria. Going into 2019 we need clear indications on what candidates are going to do to address social immobility. Until our politicians address the inequality and poverty issues, all na packaging.