Last week Sunday, my husband and I decided to brave the queue at the filling station. Armed with our bottles of water, me with my novel, him with his phone, we went out in our respective cars and joined the long, winding queue from the very end. The wait did not seem so long, especially as I was consumed by my book ‘The madhouse’ by T.J. Benson, but it did provide me with the opportunity to reflect on the various economic classes of Nigerians.
In his book ‘Becoming Nigerian’, Elnathan John writes about the three classes of Nigerians and their subgroups: The lower class, the middle class who are divided into the lower middle class and the higher middle class and then of course, the top 1%. The crème de la crème of the society.
- FG threatens to prosecute Nigerians bribing immigration officers for passports
- Amidst fuel scarcity, Nigerians decry widespread power outage
The filling station had 24 pumps, however, only 6 were dispensing fuel. Two pumps were dedicated to the tricycles, popularly called keke and motorcycles. Three pumps were designated to serve cars, depending on which side your fuel tank was situated, while the last pump was reserved for only those who had ties with the manager of the fuel station. The station also had only two entry points, of which only one was opened. The gate that was closed was occasionally opened from time to time for some state-of-the-art car to manoeuvre its way to THE fuel pump reserved only for them. From where I was sitting, I watched as the manager or whoever was in charge barked orders for the upper class to be served promptly. Never mind that it was probably their drivers, what mattered most was that those cars represented power and wealth. Therefore, no queues for them. When it was my turn to be served, I asked the attendant jokingly about the ‘special pump’. He laughed and narrated to me what had occurred the previous day.
Apparently, one rich Alhaji was told by his drivers that all the cars in his garage were low on fuel. Prior to that, the man did not even know that the queues were back at the fuel station. Alarmed at the information, he promptly placed a call to his friend who owned a popular chain of fuel stations across the country. They explained pleasantries and the Alhaji asked where he could get fuel. The owner of the station then asked ‘Where do you want to fuel your cars?’ to which the Alhaji mentioned the station closest to his house. Arrangements were then made.
Meanwhile, at the agreed station, the manager received a call from his Oga informing him of the development. Mr Manager promptly placed a call to the nearest police station and asked for assistance. Before you could say ‘Muhammad Buhari travels again’, police had arrived and dispersed the queue at the fuel station. Everyone was told to find their square root. The attendant said he had never in his life seen such a display of power. Shortly after, the Alhaji’s cars began to arrive, all twenty-six of them. The attendants used all the pumps to serve them. When they were through, the head driver paid Mr Manager and added an extra N200,000 for him to buy ‘sweets for his children’. Manager pocketed 100k and shared the other 100k among the attendants. Every employee went home happy that day.
This is a true depiction of the upper class. Wealth and Power. Add corruption to the mix.
Voila! Big boys club.
Then of course you have the middle class or whatever nomenclature you would like to throw at us. Here again, I noticed an obvious difference.
On the queue next to mine was a woman driving a beat-up 2002 Toyota corolla. Her fuel tank was completely empty and so good samaritans had to help push the car forward whenever it was time to move. The woman looked to be in her forties and had four children in the car. I looked from her sweat stained face to the tired and hungry looking children and was overwhelmed by pity. Classic lower middle-class. Rich enough to own a car, but not rich enough to maintain it. Probably a civil servant like me. The type Elnathan described in his book as living in a rented three bedroom flat or if they are lucky, have acquired those FHA houses in Gwarinpa or Kubwa; the type of families that own a petrol generator when, before it is switched on, you will hear someone screaming ‘Una don off everything?’
This category of people who are just one government policy or catastrophe away from falling below the poverty line. The lower middle-class is a dangerous class to belong to. Barely above poverty, yet not comfortable enough to be described as rich. Perpetually hustling.
Then there is the upper middle class: Nicer cars, newer models of Toyotas, Hondas and Hyundai’s. A sprinkle of Mercedes and Lexus. These ones live mostly in rented nice apartments or own their houses. Three square meals and the occasional trip abroad. Children in good schools, some abroad. Struggling to pay horrendous school fees and rent. Most are content, comfortable and have a few millions stashed away in the bank somewhere. For a lot of us, this is the highest we can aspire to. The upper class is a lofty dream.
The last two pumps were reserved for the majority- the lower class. I noticed how sluggishly their line moved. These men, driving their tricycles, buses and motorcycles all crammed together in a single file like a cruel joke. Some kekes and buses contained passengers, struggling to eke out a living, and I wondered how much more hardship Nigeria wants us to endure? Is it not enough that people are besieged by a high cost of living, why add fuel scarcity into the mix? This scarcity has translated into a hike in transport fares and so many have resorted to trekking instead. Everyday, I notice an increase in the number of students and commuters on their way to work or school because they are unable to afford one form of public transportation or the other.
What struck me as funny was the way attendants who are most likely lower class themselves, treated the motorcycle drivers. They appeared disenchanted and some were downright rude. I wanted to laugh out loud and say- ‘Are you well at all? Shebi is it not Keke you will use to go home?’
Instead, I kept my mouth shut and watched as a fuel queue clearly demonstrated the social stratification of Nigerians. I filled my car and said a prayer of gratitude. Gratitude for a being able to afford a full tank. In Nigeria, we are grateful for everything.
On my way out, I muttered another prayer. Dear God, please let this fuel last me for the next two weeks. Ameen.