The Nigerian rich really needs to think seriously about turning some of their wealth into manure for society. They should realise that wherever they go to enjoy their wealth, it is because the wealthy of that land have contributed a part of their resources and vision to create an enjoyable and safe society for citizens and visitors alike.
I spent this past week in a writers’ residency programme in Southern Pines, North Carolina. The James Boyd house, now known as the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities, hosts writers who need a quiet environment to do their writing without distractions. It is a gorgeous house estate established in the early part of the twentieth century by James Boyd, a very wealthy magnate who made his money in steel and railroads. He came down to Southern Pines to build an aristocratic estate complete with stables, elegant gardens, and woods, where he and his friends fox hunted. Decades later, a grandson, also named James Boyd, a Princeton graduate and highly respected author in his time, turned the estate into a watering hole for the literati. American literary luminaries like Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and many others stayed there, writing and ruminating about their society and the human condition. Boyd died in mid-century but his widow, Katharine Boyd, outlived him by several decades. Her wish to make the estate a place of inspiration for writers, poets, and people engaged in literary endeavors guides the role and use of this estate that has now been bought by the Friends of Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities. It is maintained in pristine conditions and hosts numerous literary and musical events every year, which benefit the larger community of Southern Pines and beyond.
Another example of great philanthropy was Mrs. Brooke Astor, a New Yorker who died at the age of one hundred and five in 2007. She was married to Vincent Astor, a multi-millionaire who died in 1959 and left her his millions. During her lifetime, she gave away two hundred million dollars to many cultural and civic institutions in New York City. Some of the beneficiaries of her generosity include the New York Public Library, the Bronx Zoo, Apollo Theater in Harlem, and several museums. She also gave money to support homeless people, after-school programmes, and the every day needs of less fortunate New Yorkers. Mrs. Astor believed deeply that “money is like manure, it should be spread around.” What this means is that rich people should not hoard money, but spread it around to fertilise human development by supporting the needs that make us flourish individually and collectively. The wealthy in Nigeria society are yet to reach this level of enlightened self-interest, that renewing society with their wealth benefits them by creating a livable and humane society for everybody.
Great wealth in Nigeria is not old like in other societies. For centuries, the wealth of our land, our people, were carted away as enslaved labour to build the wealth that enriched places like Europe, United States, Brazil, Argentina, the Caribbean and Latin America. This obviously led to the destabilisation and serious impoverishment of the societies they left behind. Europe came back in the 19th century to colonise us and siphoned away the wealth of our societies, our natural resources, to fuel their industries, and our taxes to enrich their homeland. Between these two historical armageddon, we did not have the opportunities to accumulate great wealth. Consequently, most wealth in Nigeria is new and like new wealth everywhere, it is juvenile and sometimes garish in its display, and does not have much sense of civic responsibility. Our nouveau riche are still in the stage of showing off, to be seen, heard, and envied. They need the adoration of fellow citizens because they lack the self-confidence and security of old inter-generational and multi-generational wealth. It is why people drive expensive cars on dangerous, unpaved roads filled with pot holes, while the big man or woman is totally oblivious to the conditions. Gullies and nasty gutters do not concern this class of people, as long as the Baba ke, Madam, and Ranka dede from subordinates ring through the air, inflating their ego like helium.
Government cannot provide all the services we need to be a functioning and productive society. Yet, there does not seem to be a philosophy of giving among the rich in Nigeria. Apart from contributions to emergency medical bills or scholarships, most wealthy Nigerians are not investing in building the kind of societies they love to visit and enjoy abroad.
Part of the problem is that a lot of new wealth in Nigeria is not a product of labour and productivity. At the bottom of it is massive theft of public funds and mind-bending corruption. Multi-million naira inflated government contracts or contracts that were not executed at all, bribes, or outright looting from Nigerian public coffers form the foundation of a lot of wealth. The Nigerian military ruled Nigeria for most of its fifty-seven years. Even though they seized power each time proclaiming they wanted to correct the ills of society, they did more damage to the moral fabric of the nation than we can ever imagine. They ran the country to the ground with incompetence and stupendous corruption. Theirs was unchecked power. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. One fiendish General who ruled Nigeria for a long time and single-handedly nullified the most free and fair election in Nigeria, toothily explained to the Nigerian public that the grand scale of looting under him was “primitive accumulation”, misusing and bastardising that concept. Primitive accumulation, a Marxist idea, is not about looting public funds. Productive and hard-working Nigerians were not peasants, and the General and his friends were not overlords usurping the labour of Nigerians in a pre-capitalist economy. In fact, most of the wealth was from the sale of crude oil from the Niger Delta, and the military looters were nothing but lazy, corrupt and deadly parasites whose actions opened the Pandora box of corruption, letting out demons that continue to devour the country. Another General, a respected national leader for decades, overwhelmed by the billion-dollar windfall that recently fell on his laps from crude oil blocs lamented loudly about what to do with it. An unexpected billion dollars could truly flummox any man, even a General who fought valiantly in a civil war.
Democracy brought a cadre of leaders who seem to be working hard to catch up with their military predecessors in the looting business. They are developing their own techniques and tricks to transfer huge public funds from the treasury to their private pockets. One method is to brazenly legislate it by paying themselves obscene salaries and benefits under the pretence of governing the country. Roads, airports, rail lines, universities, hospitals, schools, public libraries, recreational facilities and markets are in a state of collapse. Investigations of financial criminality in Nigeria reveal a very sick and demented dimension to stealing in Nigeria. Stash of cash, including foreign currency, had been found buried in the ground, hidden under beds, in large pots, bathrobes, rafters, cupboards and of course in Western banks and real estate. Nigeria, according to some sources, has lost about four hundred billion dollars from theft by public and military officials, and their hanger-ons, since the country started exporting crude oil.
Evidently the spreading of manure is of least concern to many rich Nigerians. There is no doubt that some wealthy people in Nigeria work very hard to build their wealth by manufacturing goods and providing services that benefit society. This small population of the wealthy deserves our admiration, given the country’s weak infrastructural and regulatory support.
Rich Nigerians, instead of just banking their money abroad where Western people use it to renew their own societies, should think of investing some of it in our nation’s institutions, formal and informal. Creating a sense of civic pride and an environment where human life thrives is a goal wealthy Nigerians could help achieve.
One thing is now clear. Government cannot provide all the services we need to be a functioning and productive society. Yet, there does not seem to be a philosophy of giving among the rich in Nigeria. Apart from contributions to emergency medical bills or scholarships, most wealthy Nigerians are not investing in building the kind of societies they love to visit and enjoy abroad. It also seems many of their children are inheriting this wealth without any sense of civic responsibility. If you own a house in New York, and you enjoy that city with all its offerings, are you aware that contributions from rich people like Mrs. Astor make New York the world-class city it is? How long does the pleasure of staying in Waldorf Astoria last if you return to Nigeria to see swathes of your city in darkness? What is the purpose of splurging on diamond and gold in the most expensive Parisian stores when you get back home to lock it up because of armed robbery? The Nigerian rich really needs to think seriously about turning some of their wealth into manure for society. They should realise that wherever they go to enjoy their wealth, it is because the wealthy of that land have contributed a part of their resources and vision to create an enjoyable and safe society for citizens and visitors alike. In cities and towns across Nigeria, we need tarred roads, clean markets, museums, libraries, recreational facilities, theatres, and other cultural institutions. Rich Nigerians, instead of just banking their money abroad where Western people use it to renew their own societies, should think of investing some of it in our nation’s institutions, formal and informal. Creating a sense of civic pride and an environment where human life thrives is a goal wealthy Nigerians could help achieve. The government should encourage philanthropic giving through generous tax policies.
Wealth transfer from one generation to another is also a problem in Nigeria. Once the original wealth builder dies, the wealth hardly outlasts him. One daughter of a late wealthy Nigerian industrialist identified some of the reasons why this is so. She thinks that wealthy Nigerians do not train their children early about managing money and they do not involve the children in running the businesses, so their participation is marginal. This is detrimental to succession after the father dies. Professor Doyin Soyibo, emeritus professor of Economics at the University of Ibadan, thinks polygamy is a big factor. He said “polygamy is a major discouragement to wealth transfer in Nigeria and the struggle between the wives and their children could at times be lethal.” Splitting the wealth into many parts with life-and-death struggles and long years of litigation decimate it and ruin the business that created the wealth in the first place. While some may argue that it is not necessary to leave so much wealth to one’s children because it might make them unproductive to society, it is however valuable to society to have businesses that have been in existence for generations. They are a part of a society’s identity and heritage. For example, LG, Samsung, and Hyundai are Korean family conglomerates. They are a stable source of jobs and income for people, and each generation adds new skills and ideas to preserve and promote their health. Perhaps if family businesses are allowed to succeed over many generations, and people can build legitimate wealth, it will reduce the insane looting of public coffers which does enormous damage to our growth, safety and development.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Writer and Culture Advocate. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org