The Gift Economy By Okechukwu Nwafor

A gift is not politically innocent. The romantic idealization of gift is a practice we all need to dismantle as intellectuals. There is also an urgent need for us to enact a law on gift in Nigeria to forestall order, decorum and decency.

As a social critic, it is part of my mission to point out ill practices and suggest ways of improving our system. Gift giving is a topic that has become widely explored by many scholars and as part of the areas I investigated in my PhD dissertation I believe I hold the authority to examine the immediate and remote implications of certain gift exchanges in our system.

The simplest example to start with is a wedding gift. We all know that a wedding gift is not a gift but something given to anyone who attended wedding and offered the celebrant a ‘present’ in the form of money or a package. This person receives a ‘gift’ in return. There is a mutual understanding that if you offer one a wedding present then one offers you a return ‘gift’. But this defeats the logic of the dictionary definition of a ‘gift. ’ It offers us a semantic ambiguity when we read gift from its simple dictionary definition as “something given voluntarily without payment in return.” Even within its nuanced exegesis, one does not discover any situation where this meaning has been supplanted with a contrary view. It is against this apparent straightforwardness that we all must interrogate the notion of the gift as offered during election times in Nigeria. We see various forms of gift-giving happening everywhere in Nigeria as elections draw nearer.

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Most politicians (both amature and professional) begin to donate and offer various kinds of gift to Nigerians ranging from cars to bags of rice and motorcycles to wrist watches, among others. We have even seen it happening now in our own Anambra State elections and other similar elections elsewhere. Election campaigns have gradually dissolved into a system of reciprocal transaction between some electorates and certain contestants with gifts and votes as two contingent fragments of such transactions. I offer you my ‘gift’ and you give me your vote. That is the unfortunate degeneration of Nigeria’s electoral process in all ramifications of its manifestation. Once the winner ascends that enviable position the gift ceases to flow.

In our system which is Nigeria, gifts are not offered as “gifts” but as a form of reciprocal gesture. The underlying contradiction here is that the quest for gift giving during elections in Nigeria has literally destabilized the notion of innocent or genuine campaigns.

Campaigns have now become compromised as a matter of external sponsorship by moneybags who expect to recoup from wherever office those they sponsored enter. And this portends a dangerous precedent that might no longer be controlled if allowed to continue.

Do we have a free gift? The church might argue against this logic by saying that certain gifts offered to the less privileged in the context of the church are altruistic and genuine. That may be true. It may not also be true because some of those who offer those ‘gifts’ look up to divine benefits in the hereafter. They believe that an accompanying reciprocal blessing must be divinely apportioned to them for such ‘altruistic’ gesture. We can accept that there are a few genuine gifts that do not expect anything in return but my argument here is that most often gifts offered during elections times in Nigeria are not genuine. Gift offered during elections transcends its purported gesture of generosity, perhaps in line with Marcel Mauss’s own contention that “although gifts are fundamental to friendship connections, they are informed by a sense of obligation and economic self-interests”. In this theoretical invocation of the “logic of gift,” I can argue that expectations of a return (conscious or unconscious) underlie every gift offered during election times in Nigeria.

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The gift betrays multiple threads that weave social fabric together. It becomes a “total social fact” that, in the case of election times in Nigeria, challenges individual and collective conceptions of familial brotherhood and altruism. While it is established that gifts essentially contribute to solidarity, it is also recorded that increased familiarity, according to Marcel Mauss, heightens expectations of reciprocity. In fact, in reality, gifts conform to a basic moral dictum that is premised on repayment.

Marcel Mauss refutes any established practicality in voluntary gift exchanges; rather he argues that just as (pure) gifts are not freely given, they are also not really disinterested and mainly represent total counter-services that aim at repayment and profitable alliance, one that cannot be rejected. “It is one that is both mystical and practical.”

A rational extension of kindness and generosity must not start during election times. In fact, it is important that we must have a law that will halt such purported extension of generosity during election times. In most parts of the Western world there is a maximum amount of gift, in cash or asset, you can give to an individual and the government will tax you. There are contexts in which gifts and donations are offered and accepted. And those contexts are in tandem with the laws establishing charities and donations.

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There is a strict law that guides charitable donations such that certain individuals who donate do so with the aim of filing tax deductions. In the long run even charitable donations are not without certain selfish intentions. Again when someone is seen as an interested party in certain contests the person is not allowed to donate or gift to a system.

In some western universities, a student cannot gift a lecturer a gift that is worth more than 10 dollars, which in many instances is the value of a small card or a pen. Same with different categories of staff. That ensures that the university’s moral and institutional sanity is maintained at all times. It ensures that the system functions on strong ethical, equitable and responsible standards. What do we find in our own system in Nigeria? Your guess is as good as mine. In Igbo we say ọma akwa asa ahụ mara onwe ya.

What are your thoughts?

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