Social Structure

Nigeria Table of Contents

About 70 percent of all Nigerians were still living in farming villages in 1990, although the rural dwellers formed a shrinking proportion of the later force. It was among these people that ways of life remained deeply consistent with the past. People lived in small, modest households whose members farmed, sold some cash crops, and performed various kinds of nonfarm work for cash income. With the steady decline of export crop prices since the 1960s and the price rise in locally grown foods after the early 1970s, farmers shifted from export crops to local foods for their own subsistence and for sale to city consumers through middlemen. Most farmers used traditional hand tools in smallholdings outside the rural village. Houses in 1990 might have tin roofs instead of grass, and the village water supply might be a standpipe, or a hand pump. New practices included the widespread acceptance of fertilizers; a few new crops, especially corn; the use of rented tractors; the increased dependence on paid labor; and the development of larger commercial farms. Absentee city-based farmers also had started to buy up agricultural land.

Paved roads, better marketing procedures, and increased extension services in 1990 were producing a change in the rural areas that was missing during the first decades of independence. Surveys indicated that improved transportation (paved or dirt roads and cheap, private minibus services) was felt to be the most important change, bringing almost all rural areas into touch with nearby cities and larger market towns. Still, for most of the 70 to 80 percent of the people who remained involved in agriculture, life was hard, and income levels averaged among the lowest in the country.

Western-style education was a necessary, albeit not always sufficient, means to gain better income and rank. Under colonial rule, literacy and educational qualifications were required for access to more powerful, better paying jobs. Education in 1990 was one of the most widely accepted criteria for job recruitment. Older education systems, especially in the Islamic north, had always produced clerics and judges, and some training for the populace. Long years of Quranic learning continued to give high status in religious occupations; this remained the case in religious work, but to qualify for secular jobs in the upper salary scale required at least secondary and, increasingly, postsecondary schooling. Most rural families tried to get at least one child through six years of elementary school and into secondary school, if possible. In the cities, if a family had any stable income, all of the children attended school, tried for secondary level and even went on to university or other postsecondary education if the youngsters could successfully compete for places. For the wealthy, there were private preschools in all major cities that provided a head start in academic work, and private boarding schools that generally followed the British model.

By the 1980s, the education system was turning out an increasing surplus of graduates. Dozens of university graduates lined up for a single opening, and many more for less specialized positions. Under such conditions, nepotism, ethnic favoritism, and bribery flourished in employment decisions.

Education requirements for work were known and widely discussed. Job descriptions for government posts, commercial companies, and even factory work required set levels of schooling for applicants. Large factories and international corporations had training programs for future managers. In the 1980s, however, the vast majority of workers still learned their skills from the family or on the job. Outside the home, systems of apprenticeship produced cheap labor for the teacher and gave the trainee skills, along with a potential future network of customers or employers. Thus, truck drivers took on trainees, who worked as apprentice-assistants and general laborers for several years before they took a license test and hired out as drivers themselves. During that time, they learned about roads, maps, truck parks, markets, and vehicle servicing; they became acquainted with customers and vehicle owners, who in turn learned about their trustworthiness and efficiency.

In contemporary Nigeria as elsewhere, occupation differentiated people, incomes, and life-styles. In rural areas, smallholder farmers were the rule, but farmers often had a nonfarm occupation to produce income during the nongrowing season. The size of the farm was a function of family size, farming skills, inherited wealth, and nonfarm income to provide money for laborers. Some nonfarm work, such as trade, was prestigious; some, such as butchering, was less so. The most prestigious work in rural areas was that of public administration, either as local traditional headmen and chiefs or as rural representatives of government departments--such as teachers, district officers, veterinarians, extension workers, public works foremen, postal officials, and the like. Such offices required formal educational qualifications. The offices offered steady salaries; the possibility of government housing, or housing and vehicle allowances. Unlike farming, such work also meant protection against the vagaries of climate and economic conditions. This situation lasted well into the late 1980s until inflation, recession, and government cutbacks destroyed these advantages.

In 1990 a growing number of medium-sized towns (with more than 10,000 people) were spreading out across the country. They contained branch banks; branches of larger urban-based trading companies; smaller stores; and trade, building, and transport enterprises whose owner-managers formed a rural middle class of semiurbanized households. Often such individuals owned and operated nearby commercial farms as part of their diversified business interests. Their incomes were higher than those of usual farm families; their education level was quite low, ranging up to completion of primary school; and they were often active as local political party representatives with links to more important men and organizations in nearby cities.

In a number of special situations, government had invested in a rural area, creating peri-urban conditions surrounding a large town. Government involvement might result in a state university or a large irrigation project, for example, or on a smaller scale, where a secondary school had been sited with appropriate housing, electrification, and transportation links to a nearby urban center. In some instances, such as the Tiga Dam in Kano State or the massive irrigation project on Lake Chad, entire communities had sprung up to provide housing for the technical staff; new schools and markets also were built to meet the increased consumer needs of the farmers whose incomes rose as the project went into production.

Because of high inflation and sluggish salary increases throughout the 1980s and into 1990, rural officials were obliged to moonlight, usually by farming, to maintain real wage levels. Extension workers had been observed spending their days in a nearby city on a second job and carrying out visits to farmers in the evenings and on weekends. The wives of officials set up poultry sheds behind their houses and raised chickens and eggs for local and nearby city markets. By contrast, traditional chiefs, who had less formal education and often received much lower salaries than government representatives, were able to sell services, especially access to land purchases; to adjudicate disputes; and to keep a small portion of taxes. This shadowy income allowed them to maintain or even increase consumption levels more easily and set the pattern for the sale of public services that was quickly picked up by other officials living in rural areas. In the late 1980s, these well-established "corrupt" practices were viewed widely as essential for rural officials because real incomes had fallen so drastically.

In the cities, occupations were highly differentiated. Unskilled traditional work was more common in the northern cities but not yet extinct in southern areas. Such workers included water carriers, servants, women and young girls selling cooked foods on the streets, and hawkers of all kinds linked to patrons who supplied them and took part of the proceeds. The move to cities involved vast numbers of unemployed, who sought any type of work. In the modern sector, the unskilled were taken on by manufacturing plants, wholesale or retail establishments, hotels, and government departments. Such people lived in crowded rented rooms, often several families in a room with a curtain down the middle. They cooked in a common courtyard and used a latrine that might serve a number of families; the compound might or might not have a source of water. They barely managed even when their wives and children also sought work daily.

Lower-level skilled workers in the traditional sector were employed in house building, and a variety of crafts from pottery to iron and brass smithing, leather work, tanning, and butchery. They generally had better incomes, lived in several rooms or even a small house or compound, practiced their craft in the household itself, and sent children to school. Their counterparts in the modern sector were clerks, store attendants, mechanics, carpenters, and factory workers who had some schooling and had managed to get into the lower levels of the wage system. The two groups often lived in the same neighborhoods, although the education of those in the modern sector set them somewhat apart. Their incomes, however, provided them with similar amenities: a standpipe for household water; electricity; a latrine or even a flush toilet; a bicycle or motor scooter, or a motorcycle for the slightly better off; a radio; and, for a few, a small black and white television set, and a bank account. Such households often had an extra kin member or two from the country who had come to seek their fortunes.

The middle-level income groups in traditional jobs consisted of higher-level skilled workers and entrepreneurs. They included dye pit owners with a small work force, middlemen who with financing from larger traders bought food and export crops in rural areas for sale and storage in the cities, and wholesalers and retailers of traditional goods and services, as well as transporters of such items as kola nuts, craft goods, specialty crops, and cattle for sale in southern markets. This group was larger in the north than the south because of the larger traditional economic sector in the region. Modern-sector skilled jobs ranged from machine operators and skilled craftsmen to accountants; teachers; lower-level managers of service stations; small to medium-sized storekeepers, who owned or rented and operated a canteen; owners of a truck or two, or of a small minibus used as transport for people and goods; and the middle ranks of the vast public services that, until the shrinkage of the 1980s, made up more than half of the salaried jobs in Nigeria.

This group lived in small to medium-sized houses with Western-style furniture, a refrigerator, and electronic receivers; the better-off had color television sets. Housing was sometimes owned by the worker but more often rented. Younger members had motorcycles; more mature ones, cars; and entrepreneurs, a pickup truck. Modern-sector middle-level people generally had some secondary education, which allowed them to spend time filling out applications and to dream of someday attending a university or other postsecondary institution to qualify for higher paid jobs.

At the middle-income level, a number of factors began to separate traditional and modern households. Traditional work did not demand literacy in English, but most jobs at the modern middle level did. The amount of Western-style education and acculturation to more international tastes affected the life- styles of modern-sector workers, although ethnicity, kin, and possible patrons in the more traditional sector meant that connections were not severed. At the same time, both groups had connections upward and downward in both the city and rural areas. For members of the traditional middle group, this meant the possibility of someday becoming wealthier and diversifying their economic activities; for members of the modern group, it most often meant more education, better jobs, and, ideally, entry into the elite level of society in either the public or the private sector. By the late 1980s, a number of middle-income workers and small businessmen in both north and south were putting greater effort into farming in natal or nearby villages, as food prices escalated in the cities and as government policies favored the private acquisition of land and provided farm credits to would-be commercial farmers.

Above the middle rank were the elites. Traditional chiefs in the south had been losing power to business and government leaders for decades. In 1990 they still received respect and officiated at ceremonial occasions, but unless they had taken positions in business or government, their status declined. This situation was less true in the north, where emirs and other titled officials continued to have considerable power and authority. Even there, however, the modern sector produced city and township governments that were eroding the power of local officials. State governments were becoming more important as centralized federal functions carried out by parastatals were being sold off to the private business sector during the 1980s. In the rural areas of the north, however, traditional district and village chiefs remained influential. In the modern sector, public service jobs and incoming top management in corporations required university degrees. Wealthy business leaders might lack formal education, although more and more business leaders, especially in the south, were university graduates. Entry-level salaries for elite jobs were fifteen to twenty times those of the bottom salary scale (compared with two to three times in more developed economies). Added to the basic salary was hidden income in the form of car loans and allowances, often with housing subsidized to such an extent that only 7 percent of salary was charged for rents, and maintenance was free. Housing for holders of elite jobs was generally of the standard of the middle class in a developed country, ranging up to huge mansions in exclusive housing estates for the very rich.

In the late 1980s, inflation and wage controls had drastically eroded the incomes of the salaried elites and, in most cases, they had to moonlight in the private sector through farming, trade, consultancy, or business. It was not unusual to find a professor's campus garage used as a warehouse for his trucks and the equipment in his construction business, and behind the house pens, where his wife conducted a poultry business. Others sought to emigrate, especially highly skilled people, such as doctors, lawyers, and professors, who realized they could do much better abroad. The sudden decline in the income of the elites resulted from Nigeria's belt-tightening policies. Business people, especially those in trade, were less affected by inflation, but the recessionary effects of the SAP had cut into their incomes as well, by lowering demand or by controlling imports and exports more tightly. By the late 1980s, however, many of the elite and even the middle classes were being obliged to adjust to a lower standard of living.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress