I believe it is time to ask to finally and conclusively tackle the question: who is a member of the Nigerian middle class? There are several definitions of “middle class”, many of them not valid for our peculiar context. Also, I don’t like all that jargon that economists use. I have therefore decided to explain what this thing called middle class is in Nigeria and which people fall into this category. Forget what foreign economists say. This is the real deal.
In Nigeria, a person who is able to purchase a generator for personal use and run said generator every time power goes off is a member of the middle class. Note that this is different from the group of lower class people who are able to save to buy generators for their small-scale business like hair or barbing salons. Middle class people own a generator at home.
In this category, lower middle class will be people whose generator cannot power all the appliances in the house and have to make crucial decisions like whether they will run the refrigerator or the air conditioner. The upper middle class are those whose generators can carry all the appliances they own and who don’t have to worry about the refrigerator being off when the generator is being turned on. So, in a lower middle class house, you will likely hear someone screaming as they try to turn on the noisy generator: "una don off evrytin?"
Mobile telephony is big in Nigeria. Often however, many in the lower classes have need to say that their “credit” ran out. Some times they send those “Please Call Me” messages. Members of Nigeria’s middle class however are those who never have to tell you “I could have called you but I don’t have credit.” They can afford to top up as soon as their credit runs out. In this category, lower middle class are those who can afford to top up almost immediately but sometimes have to tell the people they are calling: “Please let me go across the road to buy recharge card, I will call you back.” I know many lower class people use this line too. But the difference between a lower class person and a (lower) middle class person is that the middle class person often does go and buy the credit. The middle class person calls you back. The upper middle class person in this category is one who never runs out of credit, because they top up regularly without waiting for it to finish. That is the main difference: lower middle class waits until their credit finishes before running out to buy credit and upper middle class doesn’t need a reason to top up.
I know that we don’t have a big cinema culture, but at least in our major cities, this is one way to know persons who are in the middle class. Middle class Nigerians can afford movie tickets, often for themselves and their families or lovers as frequently as once every week. What differentiates the middle class from others is that they can also afford the overpriced popcorn that is traditionally part of the cinema experience. While lower class people can save and go to the cinema on special occasions like Eid, Easter or Christmas, the middle class person doesn’t need a special occasion to go to the cinema. In this category, the upper middle class people actually avoid the cinema on public holidays so as to avoid mixing with the lower class people who have saved to enjoy this experience.
A middle class Nigerian often has a car. If they do not have a car it is usually because they are saving to buy a really cool car and would rather take taxis than go through the stress of driving a problematic second-hand Japanese car. However, some lower class people happen upon some cash and buy cars like those who are able to save and buy taxis. There are cars and there are cars.
While a lower class person will often abandon their car as soon as fuel scarcity bites hard, the middle class person is often able, albeit through much complaining, to buy very expensive fuel from the black market to keep their car running. During periods of fuel scarcity, the difference between the upper and lower middle class becomes clear. The upper middle class person will experience no change in driving habits while the lower middle class person will do things like stop using the car air conditioner or turn off the engine in traffic or when they stop at traffic lights. On social networking sites like Twitter for example, you will find lower middle class people tweeting about their fuel woes and how much they bought a 10 litre gallon for. Or they will shamelessly put out an SOS asking who knows where they can get fuel. Upper middle class people never tweet photos of their fuel tank during fuel scarcity or celebrate when they find fuel. This is because (a) they are usually connected to someone who can provide them fuel and often never have to queue themselves and (b) they are afraid that if they confess they do have fuel, their lower middle class friends will beg them for some. And there are many in this lower middle class. You help one, they go and brag to all their friends and you find a dozen strangers begging you for fuel. Because yes, no one brags like lower middle class people. To avoid this kind of situation, it is not uncommon for upper middle class people to become hypocrites: join the rest of Nigeria in complaining about the fuel situation without providing any specifics.
Cable television is an important aspect of middle class life in Nigeria. DSTV is one defining characteristic of Nigeria’s middle class. Again, sometimes, a person from the lower class may happen upon some money and buy a DSTV satellite dish and decoder. But often the lower class person will go some months without a valid subscription. A middle class person always has a valid subscription and even when DSTV increases their charges, they will complain and create hashtags to protest the increase, but go ahead and pay. Because they cannot live without DSTV. The difference here between the upper and lower middle class is that the upper middle class person will never complain about subscriptions and will always have the premium bouquet. The lower middle class person changes bouquets depending on their finances. And they always complain.
Many Nigerians try to better their lives, but often, in the absence of real power, they leave matters to God. The middle class, while still cherishing the immense power of God, know the truth in the saying: God helps those who help themselves. A middle class Nigerian is one who knows a person in government or authority who can change the course of events in their favor. It can be admission into university for their children, contracts or the fast tracking of an application or other process or even buying bread which is in high demand from a crowded supermarket. A middle class person prays and then looks for someone who can write them a note that can work wonders. What differentiates the upper middle class Nigerian from the lower middle class are the degrees of separation between them and the person(s) with real power. So, for example, while a lower middle class person may have to go to their uncle who knows an ex local government chairman who knows one of the members of the governing council of a university who can speak to the vice chancellor for their child’s admission, an upper middle class person may have been classmates with the Governor’s wife and can beg her directly to include their child’s name on the list the Governor sends to the vice chancellor for admission.
Nigerians of all social classes love to travel. Yes, they may all be travelling for different reasons, but they all at least try to travel. While many in the lower class may not be able to afford to travel or meet visa requirements, a few do, either smuggling their way to Europe and finding a way to stay illegally or taking the dangerous trip by sea or desert. Middle class Nigerians, however take pride in their travels. They invest in their travels. They talk about where they have been and show off items they bought from abroad.
In this category, one difference between the lower and upper middle class Nigerian is that the lower middle class Nigerian is more noisy about their travels, from the visa application process to talking about the bags and shoes they bought in Dubai. For every visa a lower middle class person has, they have applied for four. They are relentless and throw dignity to the wind until they get the visa they need to travel. If they couldn't get the US or UK visa they will try Malaysia. If they don't get that they will try Dubai or South Africa. And they will keep coming back until the US or UK sees the dozen Asian visas on their passport and gives them that visa. Often, a conversation between two lower middle class persons will consist of sharing tales about visa application or asking each other what visas they have and how long it took them to finally get it. A visa is life for the lower middle class Nigerian. An upper middle class Nigerian however, might have already schooled abroad. Yes, maybe in Cyprus or Ukraine, but to most Nigerians schooling abroad is schooling abroad. So they have gotten the visa panic out of their system. They travel noiselessly and probably post pictures of their vacations just so their friends can keep up with them. The lower middle class Nigerian will turn on their internet location as soon as they leave the plane so that no one on Twitter will doubt their travels or their middle class status. No one fears losing their status like the lower middle class Nigerian. No one brags like the lower middle class Nigerian.
Lower middle class Nigerian conversations typically begin with phrases like:
When I was in London (or Hoostun Tezas [Houston, Texas] or Atlanta or Dubai or Chicago [pronounced Tchicago] or Europe...)
That's not how they do it in London (or Hoostun Tezas [Houston, Texas] or Atlanta or Dubai or Chicago [pronounced Tchicago] or Europe...)
I could go on and on. If you belong to one of these categories and have not previously considered yourself a middle class Nigerian because of some silly criteria from some foreign economist, I urge you to claim it. Claim it and celebrate it. And if you are in the lower middle class, I pray that God blesses you and lifts you into the upper middle class. Because, trust me, there is nothing that the Nigerian God cannot do. He can make one of your friends get into power and help you get contracts that will instantly take you from a used Honda to a brand new Kia or Hyundai. And from that point to real riches, it is only a matter of time, greed and loyalty. God bless your hustle.
Ps. I know this is difficult, but if God does bless your hustle and you move from lower to upper middle class, try; try to respect yourself and leave lower middle class behaviour behind. Like bragging. Or talking about your visas. Or how many times you went for "summer". Or how they do it in London (or Hoostun Tezas or Atlanta or Dubai or Tchicago or Europe...).
Pps. I know it seems like I have bad mouthed lower middle class people. But here is one great side of the lower middle class Nigerian: they are the most generous. Perhaps because of fear of becoming poor or desperation to reach upper middle class, the lower middle class person regularly gives money to beggars, especially those who beg in God's name. They tithe regularly. They will not risk losing any chance to have their hustle blessed by God. Every donation is an investment in securing their position in the middle class and possibly bettering it. God bless lower middle class people.