Law News
Baltimore riots: Parallels between institutionalised injustice in Nigeria and America

As we sit and watch our leaders bicker over cabinet positions and appointments, in other climes, more fundamental issues are being argued. The idea of institutionalised racism and the plight of African-Americans in a society built on prejudice and white supremacy is not a new one.

Police brutality, the criminalisation of an entire population, has led to protests and increasingly violent riots, most recently in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. The idea that in industrialised, modern societies apparently built on ideals of justice and freedom, some citizens still feel marginalised or are considered by others as “second-class” is interesting for us operating in a society where rather than race we use ethnicity and poverty as a tool to discriminate, disenfranchise and oppress entire segments of our population.

Equity and Justice for all in the United States are principles enshrined in the US Constitution. In fact, its preamble speaks of the “general welfare” and ensuring “the blessings of liberty” which is ironic because at the time, slavery was still thriving and black people were only regarded as “three-fifths” of a person.

Many of the Founding Fathers of America (e.g. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both brilliant men) were slave owners, the Constitution was therefore not written with black rights in mind.

But they existed in a different time that allowed discrimination, our time does not or rather, should not continue to allow the unjustified shooting and killing of innocent black men by police officers. But, no matter how much I sympathise with those who suffer injustice of any kind, I am not an American, my attention is required elsewhere as there are still too many basic and fundamental injustices to attend to here in Nigeria.

Fundamental injustices

But the situation in America offers an apt comparison. Both societies are obsessed with race/ethnicity: our Constitution makes grand statements about peace and “consolidating the unity of our people” hence why it is mandatory in Nigeria for cabinet positions to reflect “federal character” by including one representative for each state, allowing bloated, inefficient governments rather than promoting competence which would give the people the true representation, through development, they deserve.

It is easier to find cosmetic solutions to ethno-religious diversity than to deal with the complexity of inclusively balancing such variety and in America, the post-racial society is revealing itself to be a myth. Certain people have wealth and others do not: it is perhaps the way of the world. But when the have-nots also happen to be of a particular ethnicity or religion (which is sometimes different from the majority), as we have seen with insurgency in Nigeria, trouble is never far away. The global economy has pushed our social preferences towards allocating resources based on individualistic, competitive rather than cooperative outcomes where we hope not only to ensure our personal success but to also diminish the prospects of others.

In both Nigeria and the US, the middle class is in sharp decline whereas the “super rich” have never been richer. In America, wages have stagnated over the past 40 years.

It is not easy to get up to date statistics for Nigeria but I would be surprised if ordinary Nigerians were getting richer. In fact, like in America, ordinary people are working much more and much harder but getting paid less (the exchange rate and current value of the Naira should support this theory).

Like in America, our government and financial system adore and embrace passive assets, or “unearned income”, not attributable to labour but rather to ownership and monopolisation which do not create wealth for the majority: real estate, stocks, private jets, oil wealth, have not been allowed to work for the greater number of people. Policymakers in America, the IMF and the World Bank Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and the like are so enamoured with, are recipients and agents of such a system which favours primarily rich, White interests.

So it is no surprise that this self-serving ideology has created nightmarish scenarios all around: the global financial collapse in 2007 and systemic social violence against minorities, trapped in cycles of poverty. In our country, the consequences of blindly copying America are much more dire: we are trapped (in a way, much like ordinary Americans) feeling like we are doing better (Nigeria has successfully done three democratic hand overs, our economy is the largest in Africa) whereas the deep structural imbalances keeping us from lasting peace and prosperity remain. Nigeria and in some ways, America, is rich on paper: the rich get their money through passive incomes (political appointments and contracts for us, stocks and asset management for them) and ironically, government spends less on lower-income earners than it does on those who can afford to stand on their own two feet.

Why does the Nigerian government sponsor people to go on pilgrimages then claim it cannot afford scholarships? Why is the Nigerian presidential fleet so large if there are over 10 million children out of school?

Political representation

If the American story is one of race, class and neglect as the New York Times called it, ours is simply one of plunder. But in both cases, alienation and poverty are at the root of the problems currently encountered. Political representation in America has ceased to create upward mobility and wealth for those at the bottom.

In Nigeria, I wonder if it ever did. Much like America, it is not simply private individuals who take advantage of the poor, it is the state itself, federal policy that strips the poor of their prospects. Violence in Nigeria and America is a fact citizens live with and I am sickened by our collective lack of response: what has been our response to the ordeal of the women the military rescued from Boko Haram?

We are born into a system where we surrender everything to those who already have it all. Baba, this change must not be just on paper: Nigerians are ready to assist our leaders to do right by us. That is, those who earn money from wages not connections. We are ready to take it back from the rent-collectors and profiteers.

Buhari’s alleged AIT ban

We Nigerians never seem to plan for the future or realise that our actions (especially wrong-doings) might have repercussions: the impunity we have accepted from our leaders also extends to the private values and morals we no longer expect from each other.

So, General Muhammadu Buhari has been urged to forget the “hate campaigns” from the presidential elections which were carried out by both state-owned and private media, who operated as if all truly is fair in love and war (it is not, there are rules, laws which guide modern day warfare, in the interest of all and even the game of love has family courts to protect the innocent).

Going into politics does not mean one surrenders the right to privacy or humane treatment but the system itself, in Nigeria, allows and encourages people to act without common decency. Where are the bodies in charge of regulating the media and communications? Where is the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria, APCON, responsible for ethical advertising practice?

Will they check or fine anyone guilty of misleading statements and exaggerations, as is their mandate? What about the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC? Hate speech is intolerable, especially from journalists whose impartial reports mould opinion and no amount of money from politicians should compromise this. Media ethics are something the new ministers for information and communication should focus on to save some Nigerians from themselves.

Osinbajo’s reforms

The Vice-President-  elect, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, says wealthy Nigerians will be made to declare and reveal the source of their wealth.

I hope the APC is ready to put serious, well-meaning Nigerians in charge of the National Orientation Agency so that these welcome social reforms will have lasting consequences: it is not just politicians who must change their attitude to wealth, ordinary Nigerians must also be re-acquainted with the values of hard work, honesty and contentment.


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