The Ride of Their Lives

Ebenezer Obadare 600

More than a mere automobile, the sport utility vehicle (SUV) in Nigeria is rich in social meaning

Ebenezer Obadare

Many Nigerians and observers of Nigerian politics reacted with a mix of outrage and disbelief when, last November, it emerged that a supplementary budget by the Bola Tinubu administration had earmarked upward of one hundred million dollars for imported sport utility vehicles (SUVs) at a cost of more than $150,000 each for the country’s 460-odd lawmakers. Pressed to defend the costs at a time when a majority of Nigerians were struggling to put food on the table, some of the lawmakers argued, without any irony, that the vehicles were essential to the performance of their everyday jobs, citing “the ability of the SUVs to withstand the poor road conditions in Nigeria.”

The reference to poor road conditions is telling. Over the years, the state of Nigerian roads has emerged as a symbol of the crisis of infrastructure in the country, a sordid reminder of the inseverable connection between dilapidated roads and, politically and fiscally speaking, the road not taken. As the highway network across the country fell into disrepair in the 1990s, more Nigerians embraced SUVs designed, especially with their raised ground clearance, to cater to uneven terrains. Slowly, the need to fix and upgrade bad roads yielded to mounting social pressure to own and display an SUV as a symbol of “arrival.” Over time, the SUV displaced the Mercedes Benz as the “king of the road,” the boast that “My Mercedes is bigger than yours” surrendering to “My SUV is higher than yours.”

The shift from the Mercedes Benz to the SUV also signals more momentous changes in social mores. The first is the acceptance of bad roads, degraded infrastructure, and decay in general as an irreversible social fact. If the Mercedes Benz was for smooth roads in gentler times, the all-purpose SUV is the physical symbol of an ascendant cultural ruggedness, a mechanical encapsulation of fraying relations in communities gradually losing their social cohesion. Nor does the comparison stop there. Consistent with the foregoing observation, both the Mercedes Benz and the SUV are contrapuntal pointers to radically different historical moments, social tempers, and road cultures, the former to an era just before the oil boom when the national outlook was promising, and the latter to the morning after as the painful reality of wasted opportunity begins to set in. More than a mere transition from the age of “old money” to that of the parvenue, the Mercedes and the SUV are critical markers of a profound reshuffle in the basis of social relations.

A Prado SUV in Nigeria

If the Mercedes evokes an era of political and economic stability, nothing suggests contingency and unstoppable change more than the SUV. For one thing, it is the automobile of the NGO type, the laptop-facing aristocracy with key connections to horizontal networks of governmentality, and with a social and political identity delicately balanced between the external and internal worlds. In NGO circles, the SUV—almost always a white Toyota Prado—is a dual-utility object, one that allows the occupant to physically be in a place, while simultaneously not being of it; essential for the navigation of the development terrain on the one hand, and crucial for “escape” from it in case of an emergency. Evidently, the cultural meanings of the SUV transcend the Nigerian landscape.

Parked at the critical intersection between physical and social mobility, the SUV is also vividly demonstrative of a certain kind of Nigerian machismo. This centrality to the idea of male success must be viewed against the backdrop of the crisis of [male] becoming, a chronic freeze in social opportunity dramatically raising the pressure on young men to nail down a job, grow a family, and “make something” of their lives. To the extent that the purchase of an automobile is one way of announcing that one, finally, has “become somebody,” the SUV is the ultimate emblem of distinction, indisputable proof that the owner has broken ranks with the “oppressed” and become a certified member of the “oppressor” class. For the middle-aged “Aristo” eager to seal a liaison with a female sophomore, it is the only means of conveyance that will do.

The social benefits accruable from owning an SUV cannot be overestimated. In the first place, the SUV offers unparalleled protection from the indignities of everyday life in urban Nigeria, from nagging “Area Boys” and assorted social miscreants to importuning police constables. High up behind the wheel of the almighty Prado, the owner is God. At the checkpoint, a site where Nigeria’s manifold class contradictions play out, often tragically, reverence for the SUV means that the owner is quickly waved on, a recipient of the benefit of the doubt that is never extended to drivers/owners of less imposing models. The message here is clear: the amount of social deference you get is often directly correlated to the quality of your wheels.

Given the role of religion in the country’s social life, it is hardly surprising that the SUV is, furthermore, a focus of spiritual longing. Indeed, if church testimonies are anything to go by, the SUV is the ultimate ask for supplicants desperate for “divine favor” and the undeniable proof of concept for those who have received it. Inside the church, the SUV is a currency of exchange between pastors and their congregations. It is what an appreciative parish gives to its pastor as a token of gratitude, and what, in returning the favor, pastors donate to select parishioners.

The story of how the SUV became the ultimate object of vehicular adoration in Nigeria is, it goes without saying, an excerpt from a larger story about infra-structures and infrastructure, the sociology of consumption, status, rank, and the quest for distinction and prestige amid the ceaseless press of daily life.

Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.

*Professor Ebenezer Obadare is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy: