By Obi Nwakanma
A few years ago, an American friend of mine abandoned his thriving career as a lawyer, and retrained to be a nurse. He is not the first I know to do that. A female surgeon, got tired of thescalpel, and left her work as a surgeon, and retrained to be a Paediatric nurse. Another friend of mine, with a Masters degree in Politics from Harvard, chose to become a carpenter, and build things. He later volunteered with the Quakers to rebuild schools in Burundi. These are choices people make, at a certain stage of consciousness, when they realize that what we do, how we do it, and why we do it is all for “well-being.”
When I turned forty ten years ago – and time has flown – I began to take music lessons to play the Saxophone. My wife thought it was my mid-life crisis, and well, it could have been worse. Most men begin an affair, and cash their retirement and borrow atop to buy the Porsche. I wanted the saxophone, and so, for my fortieth birthday, she got me a fine tenor sax. But it was no midlife crisis. It was just the quest for a more satisfying life. I have, not long ago, started learning carpentry. I want to be a master carpenter. It is quite ironic, this turn-around.
In form three at the Government College Umuahia, we were required to take a class either in Wood works or Metal works or Technical Drawing. The wood workshop had a long history – equipped by the Germans for German Prisoners of War who spent the war quarantined in Umuahia during World War II. Even though much of the workshops had been looted during the war in Biafra, it was still quite something. But at Umuahia, we were receiving a very British education. We were being brought up as gentlemen. And gentlemen do not do handiwork. So we thought. And so, in spite of the requirement by the school that we must take a year of Metalwork or Woodwork, we did not take it all seriously. We had no use for it in the long-run. TD was of course taken more seriously because, it was a pathway for many of the boys headed towards Engineering and Architecture, and Umuahia had many of those. None was going to be a carpenter. Well, here I am, now learning carpentry, out of pure, and newly discovered interest in the shape of things. Well-being is the discovery, not only of desire, but of the simplest and most satisfying ways to fulfil desire.
Central to all economic life is desire: that gnawing want that settles between price and choice. I have just recently, returned to reading Dubner and Leavitt’s Freakonomics, and its exploration of the “hidden side of everything” from the price of sex to the price of a bowl of salad, and why we want them; indeed, why we must want them. It is pretty amazing to me that Nigerian policy makers are often unaware of the very factors that drive us towards social or material consumption, and how these factors shape and determine national economies. Great economies are defined by well-being: that sense that the world is a fruit basket from which you can pick whatever is your choice. Let me put it this way: the meaning of economic depression is when there is that absence of well-being.
When you have no work, you do not derive income; and if you have no income, you cannot spend money on your desires. You may desire a car, a nice, cozy apartment; an occasional bottle of good wine; Nkwobi now and then at that great shebeen owned by “Nwanyi-Umuahia,” and darn it, some mounds of alabaster to hold every now and then. It is called “ihe oma.” And the Oriental Brothers sang about it in the 1970s, and came to the very wise conclusion that, “odighi onye oso nso!” That is, there is no person in this world for whom a good thing – a desirable thing – is anathema. We all have desires. These desires are the very force on which the economic wheel turns.
Our sense of the world also fuels these desires. So, then, a melancholic nation is one in which there is fundamental repression of desire. It leads to depression – both mental and economic. So, here is Nigeria, where a huge number of people have no spending money because they have no jobs: the result is a landscape so repressed that all you can see at every corner is darkness, which leads to fear. Fear leads to superstition. Superstition leads to ignorance. Ignorance leads to religious fundamentalism, intolerance, hatred, and depression. Nigeria feels like a nation under corporal punishment. So, how can the economy function or thrive in a highly repressed social order, where there is too much stratification and “ogaism”?
Too much religion that preaches against desire – do not drink; do not have sex; do not eat on a Sabbath; do not go night-clubbing, do not wear fashionable clothes; do not visit restaurants or bars; or cinemas; or gambling dens, or that lovely street called “Ayilara”? In Nigeria, on every street, you have ten churches to one workshop. How would people get jobs? When the streets are unsafe, you cannot walk out of your house at 12 am to your neighborhood grocery.
In other societies, the economy is driven by young people – who party, create city culture, keep the pubs open, spend money on food, tobacco, clothes, vacations, gadgets, and who travel up and down to make friends and visit friends in the lengths of their nation. Factories are kept open to carter to their desires. If there are no such desires, factories close down. There will be no employment. No money to spend. Governments keep streets safe because they encourage people to travel; visit places.
Governments sell their countries as safe, and beautiful places to come. You go to great cities – Paris, New York, London, Rome, Berlin, etc to have “a great shopping experience” or to “enjoy the freedom and cuisine of our great city – our night life.” That’s how nations advertise themselves. They do not tell the world that their nation is a “zoo” or that it is dangerous and corrupt. They talk it up. They clean up the streets. They provide and maintain infrastructure that would aid life: electricity; efficient emergency services; clean hospitals; polite and professional services. They make their lands inviting to visitors, who come to buy, sell, spend money, and enrich government’s tax coffers. How can Nigeria not be economically depressed when even in a city like Lagos, everything closes down by 10 pm.
In a place like Owerri, everybody goes to bed by 7pm. The stores are closed. The streets are emptied. There is no life worth its name at play. In other places in the world, daily, the last call at bars are usually by 3:30 am, to allow the one hour before the next cycle of workers – the delivery vans making their rounds to supply the shops and offices begin again by 5 am, to begin another cycle. Young people work these shifts and make extra income which they spend.
There is a 24-hour economic cycle which is the only way to absorb the human energy afloat in search of work and income. A student of mine plays at a Jazz club at the weekend. That’s his weekend “gig.” Every Tuesday, he works for three hours cleaning a butchery. He drives one hour away for this. That’s the way he pays his bills and his tax. With a population of now 190 million people, the government of Nigeria cannot seriously be talking about being broke. 100 million people with taxable income is a solid tax base, and can reflate government’s coffers. So, it is either Nigeria’s population is a demographic fiction, or the Nigerian government has yet to understand how to collect tax, and the fact that employment of the citizen is not simply a favour to the citizen.
It is way for government to expand production and tax labour, and generate its own income. Without a working or engaged population, government cannot generate enough tax; and without tax, governments cannot function. The tax base provides the fiduciary architecture of all public spending. So, it is the economy, stupid! Desire is the economy: desire for those new shoes made in Aba, and circulating through the West African markets. A small vacation cottage in Jos, where you can spend your annual leave in the cooler months; or that NCR Leggera 1200 Titanium Special Motorbike for your annual road trip to that Hunting Lodge by the foot of the Mandara Mountains; or the small beach house in Oguta or Bonny with a small boat moored nearby.
Every hundred naira we spend weekly on “ngwo-ngwo”reflates the economy and puts money in government coffers. The economy is not borrowing from the IMF in order to pay off IMF loans. The economy is the activation and the organization of the means by which we create desire and fulfil them. It is borrowing from the national pension fund to guarantee loans to young entrepreneurs who would invest in our desires and make the returns to our economy. It is not “concessioning” our national infrastructure to “foreign investors.”It is activating a national workforce to build new infrastructure, and in doing that compensate them, and in compensating them derive tax that oils public spending.
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By Obi Nwakanma