How Oil Rent Messed Up the Nigerian Brain and Work Ethic, By Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú
How did we get here? The impunity, corruption and mediocrity that has taken root in Nigeria is due to rent. In less than two generations, Nigeria has develop a rentier mentality that dismisses the imperative of work and efforts to make profit… A rentier economy produces a culture that kills development, innovation and destroys a nation’s social fabric…
How did we get here? I hear that question often when Nigerians discuss the state of the nation and the depth to which our values have sunk. In the 1950s and 1960s, Nigeria rose and its promise grew as it embraced agriculture and industry. Before and immediately after Independence, we had a social habit of effort-oriented ethics of labour, anchored on a growing production-based economy. The prestige of wealth was associated with effort, with sweat, honest labour and proven industry, which was vital to the secure and harmonious social fabric we had. With the extraction of oil, we lost the plot and grew accustomed to rent-seeking. We started changing the moment we commenced regarding labour in agriculture and industry as shameful, preferring the coziness of white collar jobs, contracting and brokerage.
How did we get here? We need not look too far! The answer to how we lost our way to greatness, lies in the way we make money. There are two ways of making money. The first is by doing what is called work. To work is to create something by tapping into our knowledge and know-how. Real work engages knowledge and requires human capital to create. It may be in the form of hammering away at metal to create jewelry, cultivating the land to produce yams, laying bricks to build a house or creating an app to change how we do things. There is also a second way to make money, by producing nothing but profiting from the exercise of control over something that exists, such as land, knowledge or some other form of capital. It is called deriving rent – making a living at other peoples’ expense by using an existing asset to claim economic benefit.
By every definition, Nigeria is a rentier state operating a rentier economy. We get substantial national revenue from the outside world on a regular basis from resource wealth like oil and other mineral deposits by renting it to foreign clients. This cheap money makes the state independent from its society and unaccountable to its citizens. As receipts from oil grew after the civil war, the country abandoned its rapidly developing agricultural and manufacturing base and Nigerians lost their traditional work ethics to a consuming rentier mentality. These are the causal factors which have adversely affected Nigeria’s economy, it’s development, long-term prospects and social fabric.
Unfortunately for Nigeria, religion compounded the woes. Rentier ethics of luck, divine provision and charity are deeply etched in our religion enabled cultural idioms and thought. In the largely Muslim North, religious sanction has been given to the cultural practice of Tsangaya, Almajrici and begging that plays on charity because Allah created the poor, as he created the rich.
The recent Paris Club refund demonstrates how the government acts as the initial force that sets the rentier economic machine in motion, with the redistribution of state revenues. The governors got millions of dollars parcelled to them like gifts. There wasn’t any definitive plan for utilising the money for long term benefit. The money was seen as a windfall and would definitely be spent like booty, without responsibility nor accountability. It is on record that previous disbursements achieved nothing of note. It went on consumption and into private pockets because rentier states deepen their roots by feeding tribal segmentary social structures, and state revenues are used to buy loyalties and favours.
How did we get here? The impunity, corruption and mediocrity that has taken root in Nigeria is due to rent. In less than two generations, Nigeria has develop a rentier mentality that dismisses the imperative of work and efforts to make profit. We deride the level to which our education has sunk, we lament the attitude of the youth to work, well that is how far we have come. We are getting results. A rentier economy produces a culture that kills development, innovation and destroys a nation’s social fabric because it sees to the reversal of the conventional ethics of labour based on effort and risk-taking. From the mid 1980s, our rent-seeking ways gained ascendancy and ruptured the causal relationship between work and earnings; the society started losing the ability to disdain questionable wealth. Nationally, welfare and development based on production and taxation are obfuscated in favour of oil money.
Unfortunately for Nigeria, religion compounded the woes. Rentier ethics of luck, divine provision and charity are deeply etched in our religion enabled cultural idioms and thought. In the largely Muslim North, religious sanction has been given to the cultural practice of Tsangaya, Almajrici and begging that plays on charity because Allah created the poor, as he created the rich. In the predominantly Christian South, the rise of Pentecostalism has bred prosperity without work. Throughout the country, local narratives have evolved to disregard personal effort and human agency. There is a growing wheel of fortune social identity where Baba God blesses anyone, anyhow. How can there be economic development and social change when night vigils for miracles and “next levels” and Tahajjud for sustenance are rated over work? How? Rent is how we got lazy, religion facilitated it and now we are in a deep hole. To get out, we have to value work, labour and honest earnings. How is that difficult?