Africa’s most populated country and the world’s 26th largest economy is heading for a meltdown as a direct result of envy politics.
It was an election between a multimillionaire pro-business candidate seen as part of the establishment and a self-proclaimed hero of the masses who railed against corrupt elites and promised to fight for the little guy. While this may seem to be the story of pretty much every election nowadays since the shock victory of Donald Trump in 2016, the results of Nigeria’s recent elections contain a very important message from an imperiled country about the dangers of using socialist rhetoric and envy politics as a tool of governance.
It is a story that shows how the populist tactics deployed by Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have infected the global political discourse, becoming powerful tools for emerging dictatorships and incompetent governments to entrench themselves in power. Whether dressed up in right-wing clothes as in Trump’s case or presented as new age “socialism” as with AOC, the basic method is the same – the weaponization of envy and use of scapegoats to achieve political goals at the expense of good economics and common sense.
If the collapse of Venezuela got the world’s attention, the impending collapse of Nigeria, with six times the population of Venezuela, will be positively seismic. This is what happened, and here is how the world can learn from it.
Typically decided along ethnic and religious lines, these elections took on a decidedly economic posture, with the generally prosperous South voting as one for the first time in favour of Atiku Abubakar. This was an economically liberal challenger and successful businessman who promised to introduce comprehensive cryptocurrency regulation in his campaign manifesto after Nigerians were forced to become prolific crypto traders due to the woes of the naira, which fell over 85 percent between 2014 and 2016. The largely impoverished North, however, voted almost unanimously for the famously statist incumbent Muhammadu Buhari.
Following four years of woeful economic performance, including Nigeria’s first recession in a quarter of a century, Buhari’s campaign message was no longer that fighting corruption would grow the economy – which it clearly failed to do in his first term. The message was something altogether different – that Nigerians should learn to accept poverty as the price for “fighting corruption.”
While this message elicited stunned reactions from many voters, it turned out to be right on the money in terms of hitting the emotional lever of an even greater number of people.
Despite being far behind where it should be on a per capita basis, Nigeria’s $411 billion economy has a significant population of US Dollar billionaires and millionaires, in addition to a large population of middle class professionals in cities like Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Enugu and Ibadan – predominantly in the country’s South. This fact is often overshadowed by the preponderance of extreme poverty, particularly in the North.
The glaring economic divide between North and South has been used alongside ethnic and religious politics in the past, but this election was the first time that no attempt was made to promise economic growth to those in need of it. Instead, the message was that poverty in Nigeria is a sign of virtue because only the “corrupt” are able to live well. Like a certain social media sensation-cum-Congresswoman across the Atlantic, Buhari was the “man of the people,” campaigning with a message that their honest poverty is not their fault and is nothing to be ashamed of.
Like in the U.S., this approach worked brilliantly, with voters responding positively to a message that absolved them of responsibility and found a comfortable and suitably visible scapegoat. On the surface, AOC’s message is “billionaires and corporate money are distorting democracy,” but what voters are actually expected to hear and respond to is a class warfare dog whistle saying “rich people think they are better than you.” Similarly, the message Nigerian voters really got from the “live within your means” mantra was “those smug city people feel superior to you because they have some money which they probably stole.”
For Buhari’s campaign team, it meant avoiding discussions about real issues like Nigeria’s bloated, inefficient, and excessively powerful central government and the unsustainable nature of its welfarist federal budget.
To have such a discussion would mean explaining why amidst the naira’s 85 percent fall against the dollar in 2016, Buhari’s government chose to maintain an unrealistic official exchange rate which was used to subsidise religious pilgrims heading to Mecca for the Hajj.
Such conversations would include discussing the opposition’s stated plan to privatise NNPC, Nigeria’s state-owned oil firm that essentially functions as an independent country on its own, with no practical oversight by or accountability to government. Also included would be the federal government’s opaque and inefficient public contracting, procurement and funds disbursement process.
Rather than discuss a lack of investment in education and healthcare, extremely poor power generation and transport infrastructure, or the lack of proper separation of powers making the executive a law unto itself, the campaign was instead spent attacking the convenient fig leaves of “corrupt people”, “treasury looters,” and “arrogant elites”.
In the absence of reasoned debate or actual policies and achievements, a large vote-buying effort was also deployed, in what some have referred to as the “weaponization of poverty.”
Weaving together the anti-elitist appeal of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the bloviating news-magnetism of Donald Trump and the skilful sophistry of Nigel Farage, Buhari’s campaign painted a picture of a country held hostage by “corrupt” elites, “treasury looters” and their middle-class subalterns who wanted to vote in a pro-business candidate to preserve the corruption status quo.
In 2015, Buhari defeated an incumbent candidate with a Ph.D. who was perceived to be incompetent due to being an airy-fairy ivory tower resident. This time around, his challenger’s wealth was portrayed as a moral failure in a manner reminiscent of how Ocasio-Cortez has portrayed the existence of billionaires amidst poverty as morally unjust .
While the world of shouty Fox News anchors and social media-savvy Congressional freshmen may seem relatively tame in comparison to the literal life and death politics of Africa’s largest country, it is important to note that Nigeria itself was not always this way. The unfortunate sequence of military coups and poor economic decisions that saw the country lose an entire generation of talent to the developed world could not have taken place without popular support from the very people most affected.
It may be difficult to picture Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Donald Trump leading the U.S. into a dystopian future where middle-class professionals are disparaged as the “enemy”, and widespread poverty is held up as a virtue, but such situations can take decades to incubate. The incubation takes place in three stages that often overlap – an anger and dissatisfaction phase, a demonization phase, and then the catastrophe.
The first phase is already well underway across most of the developed and developing world. From Bangalore to Baltimore, everyone is united in anger about something. Regardless of the wide disparity of living experiences around the world, the general mood is that things are worse than they have ever been, and something or someone must be held to account for it. Politicians eagerly feed the narrative that something has gone terribly wrong, and they will fix it.
The second phase is also underway across much of the world. During this phase, scapegoats must be identified and separated from the assumed ‘virtuous masses’. In Nigeria, the scapegoats are “elites”, which translates practically to “anyone who is not poor.” Anyone with a university-level education and a stable source of income is an “elite” who is collaborating with “corrupt treasury looters.” Across the developed world, the scapegoats may vary from immigrants to Blacks, to Muslims, to “the 1 percent.”
To the impoverished and angry Nigerian voter, their predicament is down to “people who are stealing Nigeria’s money,” regardless of how easily that argument falls down when challenged by the most cursory analysis. Their world is a zero-sum game, where if someone eats three times a day, lives in a comfortable modern residence and drives a car, they must have those things because they “stole” them, or they work for someone who stole them.
However intellectually redundant such a viewpoint is, it has a powerful emotional resonance that is often amplified by lack of education and existing ethnoreligious divisions between North and South.
To the angry voter across much of the developed world, their discontent is caused by immigrants coming over and being given all the jobs and housing, or it is down to the Muslims and refugees being allowed to come into the country and create their own laws and live outside the constitution unlike the long-suffering, salt-of-the-earth natives whom nobody ever listens to.
Perhaps it is the Blacks who are committing all the crimes and nobody can criticise them for fear of being called racist, or most recently, it is the 1 Percent (or even the 0.1 Percent) – the globalist plutocrat oligarchs who pay fewer taxes than everyone, and who have taken away all the jobs and healthcare and placed everyone in debt.
For most of the world, the catastrophe phase is not underway yet, so perhaps a look at Nigeria, where it is well and truly underway will be instructive. A poor economy dependent on a single export resource looks set to continue on its self-imposed implosion, driven by generous subsidy regimes, ridiculously unsustainable social intervention programs , rapidly ballooning foreign debt and a growing annual recurrent expenditure bill that it cannot hope to afford.
In a wrong-headed attempt to plug this funding shortfall, the government has embarked on a high-handed tax collection effort, repeatedly violating the law by unilaterally freezing bank accounts belonging to small businesses and private individuals in the absence of valid court orders or even demand notices. Understandably, this has spooked investors and accelerated the outward flow of investment, which is conveniently labeled as “corrupt money” leaving the country, as against a policy failure driven by envy and fuelled by incompetence.
Alongside this is the growing spectre of oil losing its value, as the world’s biggest oil buyers including China and Europe switch to renewable sources over the next couple of decades, which will effectively render Nigeria’s government penniless overnight. Amidst all this, due to a populist aversion to promoting family planning, Nigeria’s impoverished population over the next decade will add another 137 million to its numbers – the biggest growth of any country on earth excluding India.
Already, tens of thousands of middle-class Nigerians are upping sticks and moving to destinations like Canada, Germany, Australia and the U.S. in preparation for the impending crisis. An entire generation of highly skilled labour including doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, nurses, pilots, accountants, entrepreneurs, artists, programmers, artisans, academics and management personnel is being lost to the developed world, leaving behind an exploding population of people living in extreme poverty .
The Sahara desert meanwhile, is also claiming an estimated 3,500 sq. km of arable land from Nigeria every year, which is a contributing factor to the presence of Boko Haram and the Fulani herdsmen – two of the world’s deadliest terror groups responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, maimings, and abductions over the past decade.
Through all of this, a class of anti-intellectual populists in Abuja continue to raise clenched fists before adoring crowds, admonishing them to “live within their means” while demonizing economic ambition and wealth. They have achieved great political success by weaponizing the economic envy of a large, impoverished population, publicly glorifying poverty as a virtue while collecting the world’s most generous compensation packages for political office holders.
Outside in the real world, however, following the news of Buhari’s re-election, the Nigerian Stock Exchange lost 196 billion naira (about $542 million), as the investment outlook continues to dim on Africa’s largest economy. The net result of years of envy politics and demonizing wealth and intelligence is a country that has hit the metaphorical iceberg, and continues to cheer while the band plays as the ship sinks.
The next time a politician – be it AOC or Donald Trump or Viktor Orban or Nigel Farage – tells you that your life is terrible because of this or that group of people, it would do you some good to think about whether this is what you want your future to look like, before giving in to your base instincts.
The unfolding lesson from this part of the world is very clear – the politics of populism and envy may be very good at winning elections, but they clearly are not good at running successful economies.