When Nkem Nwankwo published his novel, My Mercedes Is Bigger than Yours, in 1975, he must have thought that in Nigeria, Mercedes was the height of ostentation. If he were alive today, he would have noticed with sadness how anachronistic his novel had been rendered, for the competition is no longer on who owns the biggest Mercedes Benz, but who owns the biggest private jet and the largest fleet of jets. We are indeed making progress! We are indeed going places!What is fuelling Nigerians’ obsession with flamboyance and ostentation? Why do we love to flaunt wealth to the point of disgust?Given the ostentatious lifestyle of Nigerians, it is difficult to believe the report that about 70 per cent of Nigerians live below the poverty line of one dollar per day. A dollar exchanges for about N160, which about the price of one of the lowest available telephone recharge cards. This ostentatious lifestyle cuts across all sectors of the economy and cadres of Nigerians in the urban and rural areas: politicians, civil servants, clergy, professionals, traders, lecturers, students, the unemployed, men, women, youths, adults, etc.
Modesty has become abominable in our land, even among the clergy, which used to be known for modesty, humility, simplicity and selflessness. On the contrary, the fashionable thrust of religious preaching these days is financial success and a life without problems, while the I-am-not-serving-a-poor-God lifestyle reigns among the faithful.
In the political class, it used to be against the Federal Government policy for a civil servant or political office holder to use an SUV as an official car. The official car in the 1980s, when the ruling political party, the National Party of Nigerians, was accused of profligacy was Peugeot 504 saloon. Later, it was upgraded to 505 saloon, especially for some senior officials. Except perhaps for the office of the head of state/president, Mercedes Benz saloon was not allowed as an official car, even if the holder of that office was using a Mercedes before his election or appointment, because a Mercedes was seen as a sign of opulence and ostentation.
Today, however, the regular official car for political office holders is an SUV of a special class. From that Olympian height, the official can literally look down on the people he or she is meant to serve. This cuts across the federal, state or local government levels. An elected or appointed political office holder is the boss of the people, not their steward. He is privileged and favoured. He has been exalted. Others pray and hope that one day their time will come to be like such a political office holder. If a political office holder uses a saloon car, it must be such whose price will put fear into the hearts of the common people.
For example, last week, the Ministry of Aviation confirmed that indeed two bulletproof cars worth N255m were purchased for the Minister of Aviation by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority. Not only that, it was alleged that the NCAA used the amount that should be enough to buy about five cars of such class to buy two. If other ministers are investigated, it will be found out that all of them or most of them have such outrageously expensive cars in a country that cannot provide good health care for its citizens. The same goes for the Senate President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the state governors, most of whom have private jets and fleet of luxurious cars. These days, every government official uses insecurity to justify this unacceptable lifestyle.
In the corporate world, religious and private circles, it is seen as demeaning for a top executive of a company, the pastor of a church (unless the church is very poor), or a well-to-do individual in private business to be using a saloon car, unless it is a top-of-the-range saloon car that is more expensive and more prestigious than most SUVs. Even regular individuals, in employment or self-employment, ensure that they have an SUV in their fleet of cars, no matter how old the SUV is. The fact that it is an SUV, which elevates him literally and figuratively above other drivers and road users, has an irresistible feel-good sensation in it.
Consequently, in the home of a regular Nigerian who does his private business or receives a salary, you will see about three or four cars: one an SUV that is used for special events like church services, weddings, parties, Christmas-New Year travels to hometowns; a saloon car like a Toyota Camry, Toyota Avalon, or a Mercedes to be alternated with the SUV once in a while; a regular car like a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic for daily usage; and maybe, another regular car for school runs and other matters.
Even the unemployed and students are not left out of this show-off. Your unemployed relative who asks you for financial support uses a smartphone and a BlackBerry, which are more expensive than your phones. His shoes and shirts are more expensive than yours. Yet, he needs your help. You then wonder: Who should assist the other financially?
Then, there are the different types of parties (birthdays, weddings, burials, child-naming, house-warming, graduation, “freedom,” (by apprentices), thanksgiving, etc), used to make a statement of success and affluence. Many borrow money to host these parties and ensure that they are memorable for the community or nation to talk about for a long time.
Add to that the myriad of overseas holidays, conferences and parties, and you get a good picture of the new Nigerian.
The danger in our ever-rising materialism and flamboyance is that it encourages crime and erodes our social values. The rise in embezzlement of public funds, bribery, drug-trafficking, armed robbery, kidnapping and internet fraud is a sign that more people desperately want to get their own wealth, show it off and be seen to have “arrived”. Questions are no longer asked about the source of wealth, even within the family circles or religious circles, both of which used to be the bastions of moral values. As long as money flows, the person making it happen is celebrated and honoured for his “philanthropy”, and becomes a reference point. The young man who sees this everyday wants also to be celebrated, respected and honoured with titles and awards in his community – social, religious, or national. Having seen that nobody asked questions or cared about the source of wealth of the “big man”, the young man strives to make his own money by any means possible, knowing that nobody will bother to ask questions of him too.
That becomes a vicious cycle that runs ceaselessly and eats into the soul of our nation, destroying the essence of the nation and making it lag behind in all human indexes.
Wealth is good. Money can save life. Money provides food, water, shelter, education, roads and the good things of life. Without money, it is almost impossible to build anything. But placing too much emphasis on wealth is dangerous to any society. Even many of the richest men on earth are not flamboyant or ostentatious.
Our political leaders and religious leaders have the critical task of pulling us back from this precipice with a change of focus, message and lifestyle. We cannot continue to flaunt products made by other nations when we produce nothing. Those who make these products we flaunt don’t even flaunt them the way we do.
Let’s start flaunting our ideas, skills, self-made products and services, as well as our contributions to nation-building rather than our private jets, cars and jewelry. That is what will advance our nation and make other nations respect us.