COVID-19 and the Age of Precarity, By Jibrin Ibrahim
There is a huge lie about what Nigerians say they are and what they really are. The reality is ugly and frightening. Life has become very precarious and ephemeral, and nothing holds the society together. Rural banditry, cattle rustling, kidnapping, militancy, widespread paganism and wanton killing characterise daily life. COVID-19 seals the circle.
One of the things the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed us to see very clearly is that we live in a new world order characterised by precarity. The United States that presented itself and was seen by many as the Eldorado of capitalism and opportunity is today fully exposed. Over half of jobs in the country are precarious. The U.S. bypassed the phase of the welfare state that Europe went through and within the next six-months, over half its work force could be in abject poverty, threatening not just the survival of the system, but of the country itself.
Its geek economy has shown itself to be a scam that has created the first generation, in a century, to be poorer than their parents. The taxi driver of a decade ago had a skill of taking people from point A to B to live on. The person was lower middle class but could pay a mortgage for a house and send his children to college. The Uber driver today has no skill and simply follows an App, which pays so little that they end up working over 12 hours a day just to feed and pay the rent. They have no job security, no paid leave and no health insurance, and therefore move from precariousness to misery and death with high speed.
In Africa, the people never saw the welfare and progress their forebears fought colonial regimes for. At independence, the new African ruling classes simply occupied the seats of the erstwhile colonial oppressors and stole their country’s resources until a significant percentage of the population became pauperised. With the coronavirus pandemic, the false narrative of Africa as the new frontier of capitalist expansion with consistently positive growth rates has been busted. Most Africans live precarious lives in urban slums, while the elite finds itself in its own mess; they have stolen their countries’ monies to go abroad for leisure, good health care and education for their children and now they are stuck in the mess they created. The elite and the masses will die together. We now know that the social contract in the West is broken but in Africa, we never even had one.
Precisely because Africans know that their governments never relate to their lived realities, they have moved themselves into the other world or religion, of cults, of witchcraft and of the underworld. Essentially, they cannot survive in the world of their leaders, so they seek refuge in a new confusing world. It is known from several surveys that Nigerians are firm believers in God.
As the West imposes social distancing on its population to stem the pandemic, African rulers have also demanded the same of the people. Every African now knows s/he must wash his/her hands with clean running water many times a day. The irony is that maybe over 70 per cent of Africans also know that they have no access to clean running water and that the message is obviously not meant for them, except as a sick joke. Social distancing requires that people are two metres apart from each other, although most Africans live in slums where as many as ten people might live in one small room and even more would share one toilet facility. Then the governments ordered Africans to stay in their houses in complete lockdown forgetting that most people can feed only on the basis of the income they have generated that same day in the informal jobs they do. The policy packages that African governments are proposing therefore have no relationship with the lived realities of the people. This has been the situation for decades.
Precisely because Africans know that their governments never relate to their lived realities, they have moved themselves into the other world or religion, of cults, of witchcraft and of the underworld. Essentially, they cannot survive in the world of their leaders, so they seek refuge in a new confusing world. It is known from several surveys that Nigerians are firm believers in God. Consistently, virtually all Nigerians affirm being believers in Christianity or Islam. There are no significant numbers of self-confessed adherents of traditional religions. In addition, Nigeria holds the world record in terms of time and money devoted to prayers and religious activities. The expectation would then be that Islam and Christianity, which are based on the precepts of love, honesty, good and moral conduct, respect for the other and for human life, would dictate the conduct of Nigerians. Read any newspaper and one is assailed by massive corruption, killing people to sell their organs to money makers, the raping of babies, massive stealing, including the theft of money collected for religious work and so on. There is a huge lie about what Nigerians say they are and what they really are. The reality is ugly and frightening. Life has become very precarious and ephemeral, and nothing holds the society together. Rural banditry, cattle rustling, kidnapping, militancy, widespread paganism and wanton killing characterise daily life. COVID-19 seals the circle.
Nigeria appears to be modernising. Cities have grown all over the country and today, over 50 per cent of Nigerians have abandoned their villages and moved to cities and towns. Since then, social life in Nigeria has been dictated by rapid urbanisation. The pattern of urbanisation has developed along corridors – Lagos-Ibadan, Port Harcourt-Enugu and Kaduna-Kano. Over and beyond these corridors of mega cities, the development of States and local governments have led to the development of over one thousand State capitals and provincial towns. As urbanisation has grown, the signifier of social trends has been the growth of informality at the level of the economy, society and above all in religion. Nigerian informality is located in poverty for the masses and obscene wealth for a vocal, crass minority.
I regret that even good pastors, imams and columnists will end up as victims of the precarity we have constructed our society on. The coming decades will be decided by popular responses to how globalisation transformed the search for prosperity into the imposition of the precariousness of life.
The most important contemporary problem for Nigeria is the lack of opportunity for the youth. We have developed a huge youth bulge that has been growing and is indeed galloping. This is happening at a time in which formal opportunities for employment are declining, and most industries have closed down. Having a job has become a minority experience for Nigerians and opportunities only exist in the informal sector. Nigeria’s youths have been seeking to negotiate with a society in which poverty is growing and the future looks bleak for the majority. Cartoonists are the only people who understand Nigeria and I have seen many of them present their analysis of the problematics of the day. Should I remain indoors and die of hunger or go out to look for food, and maybe die of COVID-19? At the end, the latter choice might be the most rational, and public policy would have to align with it or give way.
The reality is that opportunities for the majority exist only in the sphere of darkness, the underworld, the criminal networks and above all, in occult arenas where the devil can help the bold and needy. I experienced no surprise when many key religious leaders in Nigeria made their COVID-19 discoveries over the past two weeks. They agreed on one thing, COVID-19 does not exist as a disease. For some, it was a Zionist plot to stop Muslims from exercising their congregational prayers as directed by God. For others, it was the appearance of the Anti-Christ in the form of G5 technology to dissolve God’s Kingdom. What both sides realised was that the Devil is the problem that is using COVID-19 lockdown to stop the flow of cash from the faithful to their religious leaders. So, the Devil must be fought frontally and congregational prayer has today returned to Katsina State. Pressure is already mounting in other States.
Two days ago, Nigerians witnessed a titanic fight between the Senate president, House speaker and minister for Disaster Affairs on who should disburse the N500 billion social investment programme. There was no discussion on helping the poor cope with the misery imposed by the economic lockdown. The issue was who will do the sharing. Nigerians got the message, they were fighting on who will do the pocketing. The Devil is a liar, the people are not stupid, misery will force them come after all of us in an indiscriminate manner. I regret that even good pastors, imams and columnists will end up as victims of the precarity we have constructed our society on. The coming decades will be decided by popular responses to how globalisation transformed the search for prosperity into the imposition of the precariousness of life.