A long-standing (but perhaps unnecessary) debate in the field of human rights is that of economic security versus political freedom. States that stress collectivism such as China and some Islamic states, argue on the global stage that without financial security, political freedom is meaningless. They see sound economic conditions as a precondition for the enjoyment of political freedom. What good is the vote if the people have no shoes in which to walk to polling stations? Conversely, advocates of the latter argue that individuals can use free speech and their own autonomy to create the conditions that lead to economic prosperity for themselves and society as a whole. This notion is highly compatible with laissez-faire free markets and cultures of self-sufficiency, e.g. Western European countries and the U.S. It is far better that some people walk barefoot to polling stations on voting day than not have a voting day at all.

Although my interview subjects in rural Nigeria have not heard of this debate, they struggle with it all the same, just framing it in different terms. I asked them a series of questions about how the oppressive military rule of the 1990s, namely that under General Sani Abacha, compares to today’s democratic administration, albeit a less-than-flourishing one. It was in the 1990s that many of the most notorious human rights abuses were committed in Nigeria, and Ogonis in particular suffered some of the worst. During this decade Nigerian dissidents were killed, tortured, disappeared by state agents, women were raped as a means of asserting political power, and there was virtually no free speech. Today, endemic corruption debilitates government and for the majority of citizens, Nigeria continues to be a really…unfair place to live. However, political freedom is vastly improved from what it was 15-20 years ago. Surely Nigeria must be a better place for Niger Deltans now than it was then, right?

From the perspective of most of my respondents, it isn’t. All but three of my interview subjects said that either there is no change at all now from how the government was under military rule, or even more surprisingly, almost half of them told me that things were better in the 1990s. There are several explanations for this. They may have wanted to make their current conditions seem as dire as possible because they hoped for money after the interview, or because they viewed me as representative of some Western power that could help them. Some research indicates that people tend to remember the “good ol’ days” while their current difficulties seem more salient. For my middle-aged research subjects, they may not have had the adult responsibilities or political consciousness to view the state in the same way then that they do currently. For example, a 20-year-old may not think about the importance of fair taxation in the way that that same 40-year-old supporting a family later on thinks about it.

Of those who told me that life was better in the 1990s, there were two types of answers. One smaller group said that society was less chaotic then and the public sphere was more orderly. The strong arm of Abacha ensured that petty thievery was minimized and that economic transactions were regulated. Women described markets where they sold goods as being more organized and predictable. They said they could plan out their family diets better because they knew how much goods would cost in coming weeks and months.

A more common answer though was simply that things were cheaper in 1990s relative to their income. That’s it. The women I talked to wanted food, medicine, clothing, and housing to be affordable. They viewed inflation and unstable prices today as infringing on their well-being more than the threat of village pogroms and extrajudicial killings of family members. They care about fair elections far less than they care about the availability of zinc roofing. They care about the number of independent media sources far less than the amount of cassava their naira can buy. Although I think their responses are a reflection of political marginalization of Nigerian women and the widespread notion that politics are a male realm, they also indicate that their current economic conditions are so precarious that they are willing to living under tyranny to be able to purchase more than a day’s worth of food at a time.

I haven’t done the background reading on this finding yet, and I am sure other research out there has found the same in the global south. It makes me wonder how vastly different human rights deliberations at the EU would be if they weren’t dominated by rich men and had a few rural African women present.

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Women roasting cassava for gari.

8 thoughts on “Daily bread v. liberty

  1. Very interesting post. I liked your comment about the difference in perception of a twenty something year old and a forty year old.

    Having said that, in many ways, things were better for the poor then than they are now. Since you live in the Niger Delta, I assume you know what “pure water” is. As a fall out from the partial removal of fuel subsidy, a satchet of pure water now costs ten naira as opposed to five naira. That means that a major source of clean drinking water for much of the urban poor is now beyond the reach of many of them. (My Hausa gate man can no longer afford to buy it).

    Are public health outcomes better, is healthcare more accessible to the poor? A colleague of mine found the queues to get immunisation unbearable and the cost of privately immunising her baby (N250,000) was beyond her reach. If a middle class professional working in a leading international accounting firm has so much trouble in immunising her baby, what problems are the poor likely to face?

    While democracy has led to an increased profile and more “foreign direct investment flows”, has it resulted in better access public goods? The short answer is No. I lived in Nigeria in the nineties and I will be the first to tell you that generators were more of a novelty then because although the electricity situation was bad, it was not as terrible as it is today. When was the last time government launched a public water project? If you cannot afford a water pump, how on earth are you supposed to access potable drinking water?

    Democracy will die in Africa because it is incapable of providing public goods. It will be replaced by some form of benevolent dictatorship – mark my words.


    1. Agreed on all fronts, Chike. Your last two sentences were poignant–I have often seen that because the Nigerian state is unable or just too apathetic to provide social services and public goods, people peg their hopes on institutions that have far less capacity to deliver such things than a government would, e.g. fledgling non-profit organizations or worse, roadside mini-churches with suspiciously rich pastors. I feel like many people, although they complain and realize that governments have a responsibility to provide these things, have kind of given up on their leaders because it seems futile.

      An observation I have made about the relationship between rural Nigerians and the state is that I would describe Nigerians as perceiving the state as responsible for ensuring their “positive rights.” By this I mean that Nigerians see the state as having the burden of giving them goods and services, e.g. schools, roads, hospitals, etc. In contrast, I would describe Americans and many Western Europeans as expecting these things a bit, but more wanting “negative rights,” or expecting the state to protect citizens from undue interference in their affairs. The problem is that positive rights, or entitlements, require the government to be highly functional and truly democratic. Using your term, any benevolent dictatorship could indeed very easily exploit this need for positive rights fulfillment.

      As an aside about Pure Water satchels, foreigners are advised not to drink them because different companies have different processing standards. Yet, when I visited the shell of a village hospital built by the Italian oil company, ENI, in Ikebiri, Bayelsa, families of patients had to buy their own Pure Water for doctors to use in surgeries. Pure Water is a luxury for many families, even for pregnant women and babies taking powdered formula, yet they are admittedly not clean enough for bekee. Nigeria leaves most of its citizens with really difficult decisions to make on a daily basis.

      Thank you for your input.


      1. This is slightly tangential, but helps you understand where Nigeria is heading. Did you know that seventy percent of schools in Lagos are privately owned? That suggests that more than a million kids attend private schools in Lagos.


        Did you also know that more than fifty percent of all Sub-Saharan Africans obtain health care from private providers? So the future of health care delivery, no matter how impoverished the community is, is likely to be private, not public.

        What does it tell us? We should encourage more private participation and send government out of the way. There is little motivation or capacity in government to deliver education or health care. Will that lead to a weaker, more unstable and more unequal state? Probably, but given the current crop of politicians are there any alternatives?


      2. It’s not tangential at all, and certainly indicative of state capacity here. I didn’t know the private sector was taking over so many services that are public in other countries. Thanks for pointing this out and I will pay closer attention to private schools and hospitals now. This is worrisome because the people’s expectations of getting such services from the state are part of creating accountability in government. Without such expectations, I think the gap between government and citizens may grow, weakening accountability even more and leaving government to just go sell oil on its own while people continue seeking state-like provisions from private providers. I can’t figure out how to solve the accountability problem with any other way besides a stronger tax base.


      3. Please read this report by McKinsey about private healthcare delivery in Africa. My background is business consulting, so I may be partial to private sector involvement. However, studies show that government funded social services are less efficient (government teachers are paid more than private school teachers, but private schools produce better outcomes – reading and writing skills, better school hygiene and better punctuality).



  2. You underestimate the appeal of these churches. People have physical as well as emotional needs. We don’t have counsellors, psychiatrists or psychologists in rural communities and churches fulfill that important role.

    Can religious organisations provide the public goods that government fails to provide? Not yet, but there is a lot of activity in Lagos (where I live) towards fulfilling that role.

    Have you also noticed the growth of private schools? More than fifty percent of all primary school children attend private schools here and many of those schools are supported by religious organisations. The next area will be healthcare delivery and given the incompetence of government in that field I can only predict that private organisations and churches will exploit those gaps in the medium term.


  3. This is really interesting – I was similarly surprised by how unanimously fondly folks in Tajikistan remembered the USSR, or even my own family remembering the King of Afghanistan’s reign (or even the communists of the 1980s for that matter). In Nicaragua, I think the reaction was more mixed when I asked about the Sandinistas. The trauma of the war and the last five years of sanctions seemed to weigh too heavily in people’s minds. Another key difference, of course, is that the Nicaraguan people voluntarily and popularly changed their government in 1990. The USSR collapsed, taking Tajiks for a ride and Afghanistan experienced internal coups.

    I think a lot of it did come down to simple economics for Tajiks – that’s by far what everyone said. But they also talked about the USSR as a time when things were less abhorrently unequal and there was much more security. They complained about their lack of negative rights, but far less than longing for their positive rights. I wrote about this here: http://anotherworldishappening.wordpress.com/2011/07/10/alternate-takes-on-history-soviet-surprise/


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