Home Opinion Poverty of the mega-rich, By Osmund Agbo

Poverty of the mega-rich, By Osmund Agbo


It so happened that the loss of someone dear to his heart was what sent my friend George, cascading down the path of searching for life and its very meaning. At 22, his kid brother Kelvin was already a soccer phenom, brimming with high hopes and carrying big dreams. Described as affable and gregarious, the young chap was well on his way to landing a coveted spot in a Premier English club. But just like a light bulb, he flickered out so abruptly, while playing the very game that gave him so much joy and fame. “Kelvin’s short but rich life brought to me the importance of thinking about life and death. When we think about death, we also pause to think about life, and we then decide how we want to live”, my friend had said. Since we are living in times when there are many humans but not enough humanity, George seems to have come to his epiphany moment. That’s right, every single individual could use a little more time pondering about the whole essence of life and the inevitability of death.

Erik Prince, the former head of the infamous private security contractor-Blackwater, whose employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 in 2007, is in the news again. This time, according to a recent New York Times report, Mr. Prince, a retired Navy SEAL is under a United Nations investigation as a gun-runner. He is accused of violating a U.N arms embargo on Libya by sending weapons and deploying a force of foreign mercenaries in support of a military campaign attempting to overthrow the internationally backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The beneficiary of his effort is no other than Khalifa Haftar, the powerful militia commander believed to be responsible for the instability in the North African nation today. In fact, a Libya specialist and The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Senior Research Fellow, Alison Pargeter regarded Haftar as the “biggest single obstacle to peace in Libya.”

Recall that Libya began to fracture about a decade ago. Following the death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, whose violent ouster set in motion a spiral of political crisis, the country splintered into armed factions that have so far resulted in brutal murder of thousands of Libyans. Mr. Prince is being accused of actively promoting this carnage. If the charges prove to be true, the big question is how much happiness can one man buy with cash that he has to go that far?

Whether Eric Prince would be found guilty or not remains to be seen. What is indeed most unfortunate is that the world is never short of men who not only built a fortune but sustain their luxury and influence by engaging in actions that cause record human catastrophe. In this league are a long line of African dictators, the likes of the late Joseph Mobutu of Zaire, gun-runners fueling wars all over the world and blood merchants fighting to take control of the vast gold and diamond reserves across the whole continent of Africa. These soulless creatures live in outlandish opulence from proceeds of crime that directly cause heavy human toll. Thankfully, not everyone is interested in primitive acquisition.

Chuck Feeney is the founder of one of the largest private charitable foundations in the world. The American businessman who made his fortune as a co-founder of the Duty Free Shoppers Group is arguably one of the most genuine philanthropists you have never heard. 

He had thus far given away more than $8 billion of his personal fortune, choosing to remain anonymous until a business dispute in 1997 resulted in his identity being revealed.

Chuck is known for his legendary frugality. He does not own a car, lives in an apartment and wears a ten dollar Casio F-91W. According to a New York Times article  in 2017, “Until he was 75, he traveled only in coach, and carried reading materials in a plastic bag.”

At the Daily Journal annual meeting in Los Angeles recently, Charlie Munger, the billionaire best remembered as Warren Buffet’s long-time business partner was asked what his secret to a long and happy life is. His response; “easy, because it’s so simple.” Charlie, who is nearly a centenarian, rattled off a long list of commonsense prescriptions but summarised by asking us to stay cheerful no matter the situation.

Of course staying cheerful is a wise thing to do, except if your model of success is stealing millions meant to feed the poor and the vulnerable or better still, if you profit from wars that kill and maim thousands of human beings. In such case, one might have murdered sleep in the process and easy doesn’t do it.

We are all wired differently and so no one expects all billionaires to be a Chuck Fenney. It’s however, not unreasonable to question if Mobutu Sese Seko is created by the same God that made Chuck Feeney? I believe it’s also fair to ask if such is within the limit of rational behaviour to steal billions that one doesn’t need and watch your fellow citizens die while begging for food in the streets.

For certain individuals, the demand for the mundane is comparable to the compulsion of narcotics addiction. They are driven by the emotional needs to achieve something but are never satisfied because it’s the elusive attempt of measuring progress against an emotional need. Psychiatry calls it the Great Gatsby Syndrome a.k.a Wealth Accumulation Disorder. Framed differently, it seeks to suggest that the pursuit of happiness premised on material acquisition is a distant mirage. 

Yet people don’t even have to be rich to suffer this disorder. A morbid obsession to build wealth is all it takes.

Of course ambition and success are both good and necessary. Our society finds it compelling and very attractive. Too much emphasis however, pushes it to the realm of greed and makes it difficult to acknowledge how such an attitude and belief could be potentially catastrophic to all.

My colleague was consoled that even though his brother, Kelvin died young, he lived full and brought so much joy and laughter to so many. He wasn’t wealthy but he touched countless lives. Unfortunately, a good number of men suffer from the fatal attraction of Power, Wealth and Privilege and in the process, valuable life lessons that helps one live a rich and fulfilled life is lost. Sadly, greed and narcissism have their roots anchored in self-doubt and to paraphrase Patrick Meagher, the victims end up becoming so poor that all they have is money. They fail woefully in their understanding of life.

Dr. Agbo, a public affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]

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