One of the festival books of the just concluded Lagos Book and Arts Festival was Joseph E. Stiglitz’s The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do about Them. I had gone to the Freedom Park, Lagos Island, venue of the Festival over the weekend with the intention of only attending the Cassava Republic Press organised session featuring Toni Kan reading from his new work, Carnivorous City. But then I sauntered by chance into another session where a discussion on Stiglitz’s book was ongoing, one which I found very interesting especially for its implications for Nigeria, and the emerging new world order following Brexit and the election of Trump in the United States.
The book, published earlier this year is a gathering of Stiglitz’s essays and articles in various popular channels, written over the past seven years and is summarised under three major themes. Stiglitz put the blame for the 2008 financial crisis squarely on President George W. Bush, bankers, deregulation and inequality. Secondly, he highlighted the very wide income divide in America, and thirdly, he opined that he, Stiglitz had answers for the world’s problems and the world would be well, if he could run it.
I was new to the book, but not to the author who was the former World Bank chief economist and an Economic advisor to former president Clinton. I was also familiar with one of his recent and very popular books The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. From what I could gather immediately from the discussion and from my personal readings since, Stiglitz in this new book expanded on his thoughts around inequality. He goes into detail about ineffective and poorly thought out policies such as deregulation, tax cuts especially for the top 1 percent and the bailout of the rich after the economic crises which has left many Americans behind and is fast eroding anything that is left of the proverbial American dream.
Perhaps the result of the recent elections is a vindication of Stiglitz’s thoughts. The division in America which has largely been glossed over and ignored by the media was brought to the fore. This divide is not necessarily a race thing or conservative/liberal parallel, it is simply an Economic Divide, a big rift between the haves and the have nots with the latter staging some kind of revolt to make their voice heard and by extension advancing anti trade and anti-globalization ideologies which have varying consequence for the world as a whole.
The solution according to Stiglitz includes: increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy; offering more help to the children of the poor; investing in education, science, and infrastructure; helping out homeowners instead of banks; and, most importantly, doing more to restore the economy to full employment.
I cannot think of any other country that needs to take Stiglitz’s advice more than Nigeria, for nowhere else is inequality more glaring than around here. Stiglitz talks about a 1% in America, we have ours too but while theirs is made up of individuals and corporations who care about their image and go to great lengths to smoothen the narrative, ours is made up of persons (and corporations or maybe cults) who are happy to puke and fart on the remaining 99% with impunity. Indeed it is the goal of this group to continue by whatever means possible to advance the gulf between them and the rest of us and the easiest way of advancing such an agenda is to take away access to opportunities that could help us and our children climb out of where they would rather we remain.
For example, while in America the cost of education is expensive and puts a ceiling on the educational attainment of many; a way of keeping the great divide in place, here our own 1% have ensured education is simply nonexistent. A few days ago the Academic Staff Union of Universities served notice of a strike action which will commence on Wednesday 16 November, effectively taking life out of what is a comatose system. The bone of contention is a 2009 agreement which remains unimplemented. The implication is the advancement of the inequality with the dreams of the children of the 99%, deferred for longer.
This is just one example of many. We see this inequality in every facet of our national life. From access to health care, affordable housing, multiple taxation, absence of incentives for SMEs, to insecurity and the likes. Economic inequality is the bane of the Nigerian society and one we must begin to treat as the political and moral issue that it is.
The challenge however is that while America has scholars like Stiglitz, who are actively advancing thoughts and economic theories, constantly questioning their systems in order to refine it, persistently holding those in power accountable and keeping a robust conversation alive, here in Nigeria, the conversation hasn’t even started. There is a complete disconnect between the political leadership, the economic bigwigs, the knowledge base and the masses. Everything is simply ‘under alarm’ with no control in sight. Everyone is so preoccupied with keeping ‘Food on the table’ today, that we don’t bother to wonder if there will be any for us to eat tomorrow.
I must end by commending the Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA), organisers of the Lagos Book and Art Festival, for the hard work and commitment to promoting literature, arts and scholarship in Nigeria. In a country where good thing don’t last, it is uplifting to see that they have carried on with this laudable annual event for 18 years now and by the evidence of the just concluded festival, they do not seem to be losing any steam. Well done!