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Changing Lifestyles : The Case of Nigeria's Vanishing Middle Class : There's plenty of money in the oil-rich African nation. But average citizens no longer see much of it.

January 11, 1994|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGOS, Nigeria — Like so many millions here, Lizy Ute used to have new kitchen appliances. Her kids wore new clothes, and the family drove the latest-model car. But those days are long gone for her and the rest of Nigeria's middle class, once the largest in Africa.

"I used to consider myself middle class, but now there is only high and low," said Ute, pausing from hard-nosed negotiations with a shoe salesman at a Lagos market the other day.

After securing the $2 discount she demanded, Ute put an arm on the shoulders of her 12-year-old and added: "Just to get this gentleman dressed from head to toe costs 3,000 naira (about $140). It used to be less than 500 naira ($25)."

Nigeria's middle class, born in the oil boom of the 1970s, has all but disappeared amid 65% annual inflation and nearly a decade of rampant government corruption. While a dwindling few continue to binge conspicuously on the finest of everything, most of Nigeria's 90 million people struggle in poverty.

But the widening gulf between rich and poor, and the political upheaval of recent months, have had a curious side effect in Nigeria. For the first time, there is growing revulsion for the corruption that has long been a central and accepted feature of this society.

The middle class may have lost its cherished lifestyle, but in the process it has embraced at least one middle-class value--deep anger at the government cheats who have looted the country's treasury and the unscrupulous business people who have damaged the nation's image.

That disquiet, fed by Nigerians' finely honed penchant for self-criticism, has become evident on the letters pages of dozens of newspapers and magazines, in the offices of lawyers and accountants, and even, increasingly, in the dimly lit offices of corrupt government officials themselves.

"We are fraudulent, corrupt, dishonest, selfish and hate the truth, to mention a few of our innumerable vices," wrote Babs Ologundudu in a recent letter to the Punch, a Lagos daily newspaper. "Right from home, the Nigerian is self-centered and selfish to the core."

Just a decade ago, most middle-class Nigerians were so worried about clinging to their lifestyles, then among the best in Africa, that they ignored allegations of high-level corruption. And the ability to get rich quickly, by whatever means, was a symbol more of status than of disdain.

"But we are more angry about it now," said Olisa Agbakoba, a lawyer and chairman of the Civil Liberties Organization in Lagos. "And we're focusing better."

Indeed, the new obsession with corruption has been felt at the highest levels of government. Within days of taking power in a bloodless coup d'etat on Nov. 17, Gen. Sani Abacha announced a "war on corruption and indiscipline" and promised to begin with government itself.

"Corruption is giving us a bad image abroad, which is unfair," explained Abacha's minister of information, Jerry Gana. "Basically, Nigerians are good. But this small group wanting to make money in a hurry is giving us a bad name."

Unfortunately, many believe Abacha is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. After all, Abacha helped lead coups in 1983 and 1985, the latter of which brought Gen. Ibrahim Babangida to power. And Gana acknowledges that the government does not intend to "waste our time with interminable probes into the past."

Bribes have become a permanent feature of life in Nigeria, and "dashing" or "settling" everyone from the lowest clerk to the biggest boss has become a permanent supplement to poor wages.

Government departments are often forced to bribe each other to transact government business. Police officers--who earn less than $200 monthly when they're paid, and who haven't been for the past three months--routinely must be "settled" by people reporting crimes and, later, by the suspects arrested for those crimes.

Clerks expect money to arrange appointments with their superiors or to locate a file. Their bosses collect a percentage on contracts with business people. Students bribe their way into college and then pay handsome "tips" to pass their exams. Telephone repair workers expect a tip to fix a customer's phone, and gasoline station attendants demand to be "settled" before they will open the pump.

Travelers at the Lagos airport are asked at least a dozen times, on arrival or departure, for bribes by customs officials and police. The airport, ironically, is named for Gen. Murtala Mohammed, the last head of state to openly condemn corruption. He was assassinated in 1976 after a two-year rule.

In his eight years in power, Babangida amassed untold millions, most of which he stashed in European banks, civil rights groups say. Before he stepped down in August, under pressure from Abacha, Babangida rewarded each of 3,000 loyal officers with a $21,000 automobile--equivalent to five years' pay for a former member of the middle class.

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