What’s a Nigerian Worth?

by Okey Ndibe

In a sense, the debate over the minimum wage for Nigerian workers raises a more fundamental question: What’s a Nigerian worth? And since there are different kinds of Nigerians, one ought to clarify that the question, at the deepest level, has to do with the least privileged of Nigerians. In other words, what value do we ascribe to the lowliest among us – those that are often, if erroneously, called “ordinary” Nigerians (as if there’s a category of extraordinary citizens), or the downtrodden?

There’s something deeply ludicrous in the fact that government officials in Nigeria are arguing that the pegging of the country’s minimum wage at N18,000 – less than $120 a month – constitutes an untenable burden. It’s also sad that the country’s trade union leaders have, on the whole, waffled away a great opportunity to, a, demand a more human wage for workers and, b, expose the scandalous formula that informs the dispensation of Nigeria’s revenues.

Truth be told, a monthly wage of N18,000 is far too low to enable its recipient to maintain a recognizably human existence. Those who run Nigeria – as president, governors, ministers or legislators – know this to be true. They know all the things N18,000 cannot buy. The sum can’t buy a flight ticket from Lagos to many Nigerian cities. It can’t pay for one bottle of the brands of champagne privileged Nigerians quaff at their parties. It’s not enough for one of the several items that make up the sartorial get-up of many a privileged Nigerian male: a pair of shoes, a wristwatch, cologne, agbada, a dress shirt. Few male Nigerian government officials would offer their girlfriends N18,000 as taxi fare; that amount would portray a man as ridiculously cheap.

Given the cost of living in Nigeria, I dare say that any worker who gets by on the proposed minimum wage must be a magician or a fraudster – or both. How does one stretch N18,000 to eat, pay rent, clothe oneself, commute, and (often) to pay wards’ school fees as well as take care of numerous dependents? It’s practically impossible.

My suspicion is that the average minimum wage recipient in Nigeria already takes home twice the proposed minimum wage – or more. Part of that extra income comes, I believe, from a variety of illicit sources – for example, the bribes police and customs officers collect at ubiquitous roadblocks, the fees levied by civil servants before handing out forms for passports, drivers licenses, or jobs. Some of that additional income derives from perpetual borrowing from friends and relatives. And then there’s the portion of extra income that’s the product of self-demeaning begging.

Odds are that any traveler who’s ever used a toilet at a Nigerian airport – whether for a domestic or international flight – has encountered that unctuous janitor standing in a corner with a roll of tissue paper. The minimum-waged janitor is an expert in the spoken and unspoken acts of wheedling and cajoling. He (or she) bows deeply while handing you a small roll of tissue, and then utters a prayer that God may lead you safely to your destination. Your way of saying “Amen!” to this prayer – and not many travelers would risk discounting an entreaty to God for a safe trip – the best “Amen!” is to drop some money in the janitor’s expectant palm.

We deceive ourselves, then, if we insist that human existence can be sustained at N18,000 a month. It can’t – and it isn’t. The least paid workers in Nigeria take in quite a bit more from other sources, mostly undocumented. Even so, they still lead squalid lives. They are beset by diseases and ravaged by the worst forms of unhygienic conditions. They share their residences with rodents, flies and mosquitoes. They have little or no access to good healthcare. Their children attend schools that are two or three centuries behind time. Safe for sex, alcohol and cigarettes, they hardly participate in any leisure activities. Their lives, in short, are indexed on terms that should belong only to animals.

A friend of mine likes to argue that most Nigerian workers are unproductive or unskilled, and should not even be talking about wage increase of any sort. He’d tell you that many civil servants hold sinecures, doze in their offices (when they bother to show up), or spend much of their official time outside, eating banana and groundnut if not drinking beer. That unflattering depiction is not altogether unfair nor is it too exaggerated. Even so, I insist that my friend’s argument belongs in a different category. I am for demanding productivity, commitment and diligence from workers. I would support sacking delinquents or laggards. I am also for paying workers enough to enable them to live like human beings.

This past June I had an illuminating conversation in a Lagos bar with Chuma Nwokolo, a writer-lawyer, and Victor Ehikhamenor of Next newspaper. Chuma made the point – so perceptive and cogent that its logic is frequently lost on those who misrule Nigeria – that a nation’s mettle lies in what kinds of minimal standards and goals it sets for every sector of its life. A vibrant nation, he explained, is one that decides that every child, whatever his or her socio-economic background, can count on receiving a measure of decent education. Instead, Nigeria has slipped into a vast landscape of educational dysfunction interrupted by a sprinkling of excellent private schools where the rich send their children.

A nation that treats the vast majority of its citizens as if they were animals is bound, in the end, to become a veritable zoo. And that’s part of the tragedy of today’s Nigeria. Too many Nigerians at all levels have embraced the rat race that’s the going ethic. In their manic glee, they forget that – as some anonymous sage proposed – the winner of a rat race is still a rat!

To dehumanize those Nigerians who earn the minimum wage is to degrade our collective lives. When we don’t pay people wages that would sustain them as fellow humans, we end up paying for it. Sometimes our comeuppance is in the form of those irritating police blocks that compound delays and congestions on our highways. Sometimes, the price is in the ascendant cottage industries of kidnapping, armed robbery, and terrorism that turn the nation into a nightmare-space.

Here’s a (modest) proposal. Nigerian labor should demand – and governments at all levels should accede – to have the minimum wage increased to twice the proposed level of N18,000. How to pay for it? By drastically curbing the massive allocation that’s gobbled up by do-little politicians. There’s no reason why, every quarter of the year, Nigerian senators (as well as members of the House) should cart away so-called constituency allowances that amount to three times the annual salary of President Barack Obama. That’s absurd.

Besides, labor leaders should deconstruct the grand fraud called security vote. The gargantuan sums handed to the Nigerian president, governors and local government chairmen in the name of “security vote” should be recognized for what they are – an avenue for stealing public funds. Each month, many state governors draw at least three hundred million naira – and don’t ever have to account for it. Only ostriches would not acknowledge that most – and often all – of that stupendous cash is “securely voted” into private bank accounts.

Labor leaders should compel state and national lawmakers to legislate the erasure of this notorious scam. If there must be a budgetary item called security vote, then the funds should be given to agencies like the State Security Service, the police, and the intelligence wing of the military – and certainly not to an individual w

ho accounts to nobody about its disbursement.

The most vociferous protests against paying a minimum wage of N18,000 have come from some state governors. Labor leaders should be willing to debate these men – most of them derelicts – who believe they’re entitled to splurge on hundreds of millions of naira each month, even as Nigerian workers are reduced to sub-human existence.

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