Things are hard. It is the refrain of virtually every Nigerian, including the very rich. Ideally, the poor should predictably feel the brunt of the pervasive hardship in the country and are justified in using such the refrain. The monsters of hunger and deprivation always remind the most vulnerable of their proximity. And therefore, it is very understandable when people at this socioeconomic level refrain the hardship in the country. For the middle class, the difficulty in the country while truly challenging may not fully explain why they join in the “things are hard” refrain as they are better off. But Nigeria is a country where virtually every person wants to be among the ultra-wealthy class of people. While some believe that this is achievable through determined entrepreneurship, many others believe that some divine chance can make it occur. For the former, navigating through the challenging world of entrepreneurship to join the dream class of the rich makes things difficult. Many of the very rich, who merely defrauded the State to attain their status, however, need to continue in striving to maintain the newly attained enviable socio-economic class. The importance of trying to maintain the status quo heightens if the political regimes that made it possible for them to acquire such wealth are no longer in power. The struggle to maintain this newly attained position and status in society underscores their refrain of things being hard. That said, the good thing is that Nigerians typically do not allude to things as being hard with any air of defeat. On the contrary, the reference is more of a self-call to increased efforts to survive and to attain already defined goals.
This natural response to the recognition of things being hard is virtually in the DNA of every Nigerian. While many respond through varieties of acceptable business efforts, unacceptable, entrepreneurial responses to this situation are rebaptised as “hustling”. Hustling, therefore, is the recolouration of what ideally is intolerable under the law and societal norms so that it becomes somewhat acceptable. It may not be entirely wrong or out of place to argue that most Nigerians hustle. On one extreme, are the so-called men of the ecclesiastical realm who either obtain occultic powers with which they perform miracles or outrightly hire fake recipients of miracles to hoodwink and get more financial favours from their gullible adherents. Also, at a slightly benign level are members of the clergy that define multiple offering targets and may collect as many as five types of offerings in a single service. Such “men of God” needless to say, pontificate more on how to realise more money than how to get more of their members to pass through the narrow door into the kingdom of God. So, the hustling acts are well established in many Nigerian churches which are supposed to be the moral conscience of the people. At the other polar are the supposed custodians of traditional moral values and customs who rather than use their offices to build good societies, use same to anoint persons that have “hustled” themselves into riches with chieftaincy titles and positions of recognition in their cabinets. The tales are endless.
Regressing backwards to the origins of Nigeria’s hustling spirit reveals, on the one hand, the values that emerged as part of the post-war survival strategy of the Ibo ethnic group, and on the other side, the get-affluent-quick values system which also emerged from the political class of the 1979 – 83 period. By 1985, the creation of multi-millionaires out of fraudulently stolen publicly owned resources had gained strong roots and tentacles. The rape of the economy also started spiking the unemployment rates. Getting jobs were getting increasingly difficult. It also became increasingly challenging to honestly, work hard to earn a living while persons that just joined politics or were merely doing the bidding of politicians were suddenly becoming prosperous in their numbers without doing any other extraordinary thing. As the years went by, fewer persons related to the burgeoning population had access to this “opportunity”. Even some that had in the past enjoyed some measure of such ill-gotten luxury started to relapse into a lower socio-economic class. Faced with the challenges of widening the financial gap, by the late 1980s and early ’90s, many young Nigerians started leaving the country for greener pastures. Unfortunately, while some of the emigrating youths have educational certificates that would enable them to secure some jobs, many did not. For the latter, it would be double jeopardy to return to Nigeria empty-handed. So, some that got employment as drivers falsified ownership of the vehicles and started exporting them to Nigeria as second-hand cars. That created a new market for exports of automobiles that ordinarily would have been scrapped overseas to Nigeria and other African countries. Consequently, the “Tokunbo” car boom laid the foundations for the second and third tiers of overseas hustling.
The “jump of the Nigerian ship” and the “Tokunbo” trade created another stratum of the middle class who appear to be better off. The success of the people who do not necessarily possess strong academic qualifications encouraged the migration of girls to prostitute in foreign countries. But all these coincided and were in turn strengthened by the interests of the suddenly super-wealthy political class who wanted to get even more luxurious. The drug trade became an accessible route for that. “The boys”, some of whom have bumped into lucrative drug syndicates overseas seeking out younger persons that they can engage in their cross-country smuggling and sale came back home to recruit. And in addition to the recruitment, convinced many of the superrich politicians to invest in the drug business. That led to the massive influx of many young Nigerians into the drug business from the mid-1980s and reaching a crescendo mid-1990s. Consequently, while many girls from Edo State went massively into prostitution overseas and were using the proceeds to send Tokunbo cars for sale in Nigeria, many young Ibo boys went into the illicit albeit lucrative drug business.
With the foundation effectively laid, many otherwise reprehensible activities became mainstreamed as hustling entrepreneurship. Smuggling blossomed. So was internet fraud and every other illicit initiative to make money quickly. Religious radicalism and other forms of the insurgencies emerged mostly through the connivance with people in government to rip-off the system. Teachers in tertiary institutions abandoned scholarship and the associated publication expectations to make money through the sale of handouts. Accordingly, the purchase of lecturer’s hand-outs became more important to the teachers than the actual performance of the students. Making money was elevated by far higher than scholarship. Then came money or sex for grades. Female students had a licence to hustle with their bodies (prostitute) to raise money for instead. Their male counterparts indulged in other unacceptable illicit entrepreneurship to meet up too. Hustling was therefore effectively born and democratised. No one condemned it as hard as would have been expected. The law did not act against the perpetrators in order not to indict powerful political elements who operated behind the scenes. The parents seemingly kept mute and behaved as if they didn’t know what was going on as they enjoy the new realm of money and wealth.
In recent times, it has become increasingly clear that the shortcut economic booms orchestrated through hustling are not sustainable. On the contrary, the economy and society have been the greatest losers. The hustling spirit mainstreamed falsehood, greed, unpatriotic and disrespect for the rule of law, stealing, and so forth. It has given the political class, the opportunity to pocket the rest of the country and be above the law. It has given the student a misleading impression that education is not as important as it is presented to be. In effect, that what is most important is to make money at all cost. To the religious community, it has shifted their orientation to recognise prosperity as the core instead of spiritual life and divine worship. That means that success is indirectly the endorsement given by God for those who can afford to promptly pay their tithes, generously support of the religious body as well as take care of their leader. They have courageously relegated those traditional values and principles of obedience, truthfulness and honesty, respect for the law (of both constituted authorities and God) to the background. The traditional rulers and custodians of customs jettisoned their call to be good fathers to both the good and evil as well as the rich and poor but instead chose to favour those who have the money. Both the military and political leaders cannot take and implement decisions that will enable us to win the war against the insurgents. Customs and immigrations officials cannot effectively control our borders such that their total closure became an option. All around us, things are falling apart and spiralling off the centre.
Finally, here we are in a complicated mess brought about by an unbridled hustling spirit. Even the justice system that ought to control this trend when it was initially kicking off got sucked into it. Judges accept bribes as much as the policemen do. Court clerks and registrars, prison officials and the entire value chain of justice enforcement bathe in their hustling. And since the spirit of hustling requires the self-recognition of the violation of the law and being guilty need not cast the stone except under extraordinary circumstances. But we must recover our country. The solution lies on the one hand on firmly and effective policies and programmes that are both inclusive as well as elevates entrepreneurship and consequently banishing poverty. On the other hand, is the enthronement of the rule of law, such that there is an authentic level playing ground for those who genuinely want to succeed.