from Africa in Transition

Guest Post: Nigeria and the United States: “Ribbon of Hardship, Ribbon of Darkness”

July 17, 2012

Blog Post

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Sub-Saharan Africa

Nigeria

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

United States

Development

This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

In this recent expose, Esme E. Deprez documents an area of high economic inequality in the U.S.: namely, the Bridgeport, Connecticut metro area. There, Interstate 95 is likened to "a ribbon of hardship," in contrast to the prosperous communities of Greenwich and Westport. She says, "The area’s history of institutional corruption and ineffectual management has only added to its problems." Deprez cites a source as stating: "When difficult decisions need to be made, the already diminishing resources for individuals at the bottom are the first to go." As a result, economic mobility suffers.

Mobility is largely a function of families, which bestow advantages; the labor market, i.e., availability of secure jobs; and the ability of public policy to level the playing field, Deprez cites Miles Corak of the University of Ottawa as explaining. Economists use the Gini coefficient to gauge income inequality. A value of zero means all money is evenly distributed; a value of one means one person holds it all.

With a Gini coefficient of .467 in 2010, the United States is among the most unequal and least mobile of wealthy countries. Success is largely dependent on family background. In a "ribbon of hardship" such as Bridgeport, a person’s talents do not necessarily help him or her up the economic ladder. A Yale-educated woman that Deprez interviewed thus "finds herself working two jobs to afford her mortgage and subsidize the care of her elderly mother."

Sources vary, but Nigeria’s Gini coefficient is reportedly  .488, and "the gap between the rich and the poor is widening on a daily basis," according to Bismark Rewane of the Lagos Business School.

What does economic inequality and lack of mobility look like in Nigeria?

Several years ago, a U.S. consultant who recently returned from Nigeria related that college graduates worked as hawkers and guards. His steward had an M.A. in business. Many who do work cannot live on their pay, and cannot get their kids into school. Stewards, drivers, and guards travel hours to get to such jobs. "Classes are starting to separate out," he observed. "Ribbon of darkness" is a term ordinary Nigerians use to refer to the upper echelon of government, which in their view is a place where no one knows anything. Still, the consultant did not expect a popular rebellion. "People are scared of government," they are scared of "going away."

Yet Boko Haram appears to be composed of people who are not scared. Analysis of the insurgent group now tends to stress possible foreign terrorist connections, even while its origins are likely deeply rooted in long-term structural inequity--untouchable via counter-terrorism programs and negotiations. American policymakers are right to be concerned about developments in Nigeria. They might also want look in a mirror.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Nigeria

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

United States

Development

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