The Madness of Competition Squid Game in the Nigerian Imagination

Much like Nigeria, in Squid Game, players emerge victorious not really due to their skills but due in large measure to cheating. Success is a matter of survival of the fittest but the fittest is the trickster.

‘Do you know what someone with no money has in common with someone with too much money? Living is no fun for them.’

— Oh II-nam, Squid Game

Squid Game―the South Korean survival drama―has taken the world by storm. In November 2021, the dystopian series became Netflix’s most-watched show of all time, garnering over 1.65 billion viewing hours following its premiere on September 17 and surpassing Shonda Rhimes’ Bridgerton: Season One. Squid Game boosted Netflix’s stock market value by $19 billion so that Netflix is on its way to becoming a trillion-dollar company. In a global system where wealth inequality is an axiomatic fact―about 2,000 billionaires wield more money and power than over 4.6 billion people―the grave-digging proclivities of capitalism is obviously the leitmotif that recurs throughout the series. So celebrated is Squid Game’s fight-to-the-death fantasy that viewers in over 94 countries have drawn many parallels between the show’s scintillating themes and myriad conundrums in their varied local contexts ranging from betrayal, misery, and exploitation, to competition, cooperation, and greed amidst economic adversities. Precisely because of the multidimensional nature of Squid Game’s themes which transcend genres and borders, it is quite unsurprising that it was the most-Googled show of 2021.

Comparisons between the show’s motifs and varied local realities are not uncommon amongst millions of viewers around the world. This is particularly the case in Nigeria where thousands have appropriated the show’s memes, outfits, and motifs not only to celebrate significant events in their lives but also to make sense of the lived experiences of the ordinary Nigerian. Dorathy Bachor―former Big Brother Naija housemate turned celebrity―celebrated her 26th birthday with a Squid Game party where invited guests donned green, white, and red outfits and played the game.

Further, viewers have drawn parallels between the players’ green and white attire and the colours of the Nigerian flag: player 419 and the notorious 419 scams; the guards’ red outfits and the red jackets worn by the staff of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC); the game’s logos―square, circle, and triangle―and the three shapes on 10, 20, and 50 naira notes; and player 001―the oldest contestant in the show who also happens to be a member of the bourgeois class that organized the gory horror game―and current Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.

With similarities emerging from these comparisons, some believe that Squid Game was specifically designed with Nigerians in mind―a sentiment that I unfortunately do not share given that the series’ illuminations cannot be confined to one nation’s economic, social, and political predicaments. The show is glocal, merging the imaginary and the ideal with the actual and real, critiquing our akratic animal spirits in contexts of uncertainty and volatility, and stimulating us to rethink human possibilities within the hegemonic veil of crass competition engendered by the wanton lust for money in the abyss of accumulation, dispossession, and consumerism. But beyond these caricatural, nay comical, comparisons how are the fictional characters of Squid Game indicative of the abjection and overall malaise of the Nigerian condition? To what extent are the fantasy show’s motifs reflective of the plights of ordinary people in Africa’s most populous country? We can look at three noteworthy issues: poverty; contradictions; and ungoverned spaces.

POVERTY AND SQUID GAME

Over two decades ago, the Indian economist, Amartya Sen, wrote his seminal book, Development as Freedom. In the book, Sen posits that poverty and freedom are intimately intertwined: the condition of poverty entails the lack of freedoms as it makes the underprivileged vulnerable to coercive relations and excludes them from economic and political choices. This insight is emblematic of Squid Game where the majority of 456 players are people from underprivileged backgrounds seeking ways to eke out a bare existence. Profiles of the characters lend significance to the ordinariness of the people: gambler (player 456), pickpocket (player 067), gangster (player 101), and, of course, an extremely intelligent but unemployed graduate (player 218), amongst many others. What unites these players is indebtedness which limits their ability to emancipate themselves from the inhumane treatments of debt collectors and mobsters.

Having little or no option for survival, the players and their families resort to either the informal or illegal economy but can hardly make ends meet with their meagre income. When it seems like the deadly game gives players the option to leave through majority consensus, we see that―for the majority who returned after initially voting to quit―poverty is hell wherever it is found not least because it precludes one from living the eudemonic life. The players’ decision to return despite witnessing the horrors of the game might seem well-thought-out but it is profoundly symptomatic of ‘choiceless singularity’ à la Sen in circumstances of absolute deprivation. Poverty is violent―there is, in fact, an episode entitled ‘Hell’ in the show―because poverty is intrinsically antithetical to autarchy, autonomy, and choice.

The theme of poverty resonates with Squid Game’s Nigerian viewers some of whom compare the unfortunate situation of the players with the lives of millions of ordinary Nigerians. With the World Bank’s poverty threshold of $3.20 per day, Nigeria’s poverty rate is 71 per cent. Whilst pre-Covid, approximately 82 million Nigerians were classified as multidimensionally poor, the current prediction is that ‘with the economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis, the national poverty rate is instead forecast to jump from 40.1% in 2019 to 45.2% in 2022, implying that 100.9 million Nigerians will be living in poverty by 2022.’

With over 100 million people living in absolute poverty in 2022 Nigeria’s poor population surpasses the entire population of Ghana, Cameroon, Rwanda, Somalia, Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Lesotho, and São Tomé and Príncipe combined. Indeed, it is no longer news that Nigeria is the ‘poverty capital of the world’―a title it earned since 2018.

Nigeria’s staggering debt crisis amidst the worsening poverty is equally devastating. Nigeria’s total public debt as of March 2021 is $87.24 billion which was accumulated between 1999 and 2021. The World Bank ranks Nigeria fifth on the list of countries with the highest debt exposure with $11.7 billion debt exposure. Nigeria’s unemployment rate in 2020 was 33.3 per cent and youth unemployment was 53.4 per cent.The size of Nigeria’s informal sector is 65 per cent. All this suggests that the ordinary Nigerian faces not only economic setbacks but also the existential crisis of nihilism tinged with unsavoury bouts of frustration, aggression, and depression.

Like the players in Squid Game whose decisions to participate in the games are due in large measure to their having lost hope of becoming successful in the real world, the nihilism of the ordinary Nigerian―including the unemployed university graduate―is evident in the increasing resort to different forms of gambling―online sports betting, lottery, and slot machines―with the hope of making big returns. Of course, many resort to the informal economy―hairdressing, cooking, street vending, sewing, car and phone repairs and so on―but this is typically in consequence of necessity rather than choice.

Most Nigerians in the informal economy are one illness away from becoming financially bankrupt. This is precisely why the International Monetary Fund states that ‘85% of all informal workers are in precarious employment, not through choice but due to a lack of opportunities in the formal sector.’ The precarious socioeconomic condition of the masses has made docility to oppressive authorities coupled with occasional catharsis the modus operandi in Nigerian society. And, like the VIP spectators in the show, the elites revel in the servitude of the masses whose interests lie not so much in changing the rules of the game but in unreflective obeisance to diktats for purposes of survival. What emerges with the misalignment of interests between the elites and the masses are vicious cycles of poverty and dispossession. In a 2020 Republic essay, Joshua Segun-Lean captures this misalignment in the following ways:

By withholding access to welfare of even the most basic standard of living, the state succeeds not only in constructing a ‘good life’ as an aspirational ideal but well-being—humanity—as an individual, external and ultimate pursuit. To be accorded the dignity reserved for human beings, a Nigerian born outside the political class grows with the overwhelming desire to attain wealth and the power associated with it. A humanizing power. Yet, her pursuit of this power is closely monitored, intercepted and sabotaged at every stage by the state who must, to maintain the purity of the class, keep its masses dispossessed. The attacks arrayed against her, subtle and overt forms of violence, work to desensitize her to her own reality, to her sense of what is good, normal, and acceptable; to distort her sense of what is real. She, like many others, enters a state of passive absurdism.

CONTRADICTIONS AND SQUID GAME

Squid Game demonstrates that capitalism is inherently laden with contradictions. First, capitalism postulates equality in competition, but the contestants are never equal: they possess different ages, genders, sexes, classes, intellectual prowess, and physical abilities all of which impact on players’ chances at winning. For instance, player 001 is significantly older than player 456 so that a physical combat between the two would likely see the latter win. Contestants in the supposedly equal competition do not share one background.

Similarly, in the pluralistic Nigerian society with over 300 ethnicities, 500 languages, varied geographical landscapes, classes, religions, educational backgrounds, and moral worldviews, people are extremely different. The madness of competition in the capitalist lifeworld is based on the absurd assumption that everyone is of the same stock so that one’s successes or failures depend on one’s innate talents and skills. This presupposition masks the inherent inequities that impede progress for the impoverished masses.

Second, players in the capitalist universe emerge victorious not so much in consequence of their skills but due in large measure to cheating. There is no fairness when trickery is part and parcel of the competition. Capitalism may be a matter of survival of the fittest but the fittest is the trickster. Squid Game’s nine episodes are riddled with multifarious instances of trickery: player 111, the doctor harvesting organs of dead players for the guards in exchange for life-saving information about the upcoming rounds; player 101 who, together with his team, murders other opponents after lights out in order to advance in the competition; player 218 tricking player 199 by swapping the latter’s marbles for rocks; player 212 cheating in the Dalgona challenge by smuggling in a lighter.

Player 456’s ultimate success in winning the 45.6-billion-won (roughly $38 million) prize money is not because he was smart but that he profited from his and others’ dishonesty throughout the game. This is why he suffers from the survivor guilt because he owes his successes and life to others’ failures and deaths. It is a zero-sum game. Like Squid Game, cheating in the Nigerian context comes in the form of elite and everyday corruption.

In 2020, Transparency International (TI) ranked Nigeria 149 out of 180 countries under the category of highly corrupt states. Whilst TI’s ranking reflects the private annexation of state resources, there are notable forms of everyday corruption in Nigeria including e-mail and text message scams, internet fraud, and agberos making billions of naira from extorting motorists at checkpoints. The prevalence of everyday deception leads Daniel Jordan Smith to speak of a ‘culture of corruption’ in Nigeria.

For the corrupt, dishonesty is the best policy because there is hardly any other legitimate way to engage in conspicuous consumption―showing off expensive cars and houses on social media, lavishing money on exorbitant wines, clothes, and wristwatches, going on ostentatious vacations and trips, sending children to pricey local private universities or foreign universities―without defrauding others. Cheating in Nigeria is perpetrated by elites against ordinary people, by ordinary people against elites, by elites against elites, and by ordinary people against ordinary people. It is chaos. To be fit for capitalist competition is to understand the rule of chicanery which, in fact, is that there is no rule: anything goes.

Third, capitalism talks opportunity but feeds on opportunism. When the competition gets intense―as it does in Squid Game―individuals circumvent cherished principles and unleash the darkest sides of human nature. Most players exhibit these animal instincts in the battle for survival as all of them were in one way or another involved in the murders of their counterparts. But so do the guards. The show’s harrowing tale of three guards conspiring with player 111 to harvest organs of dead players’ bodies which are then sold for thousands of dollars on the black market uncovers the harshest reality of capitalism. Devoid of opportunism, capitalism cannot function because it thrives on the commodification of anything and everything. Cadavers that should be treated with respect are, in the capitalist logic, mere commodities for exchange and capital accumulation.

This opportunism hits close to home, for it is decipherable in the ritual murders―the so-called ‘money rituals’―that are quite pervasive throughout Nigeria. Due to the embedded cultural belief in the potency of the occult, some Nigerians resort to killing and harvesting the internal organs of others. In Nigeria, Dakuku Peterside has reported, ‘[r]itualists search for human parts at the request of voodoo practitioners, who require these to make sacrifices or prepare various magical potions to give power and wealth to an individual. Some people engage in ritual killings to obtain charms that would make them invincible and protect them from business failure, illness, accidents, and spiritual attacks.’ Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff have argued that occult economies in postcolonial societies are a by-product of the diffusion of millennial capitalism in the postcolony. With the conviction that they can quickly amass wealth that would enable them tap into the vagaries of a consumerist capitalist culture, some, therefore, see the bodies of co-nationals as commodities that could be exchanged for money in the black market. The result is mundane disappearance, grief, and anguish for some families who will never know what happened to their own.

UNGOVERNED SPACES AND SQUID GAME

How is it possible that such a gory horror game―with all its display of lawless executions and savagery―is organized on an island without the state being aware of it? From the search for the intruder who infiltrates the island―the police officer, Hwang Jun-ho―by the game organizers, one could clearly see that everything about the game is illegal and should not happen in a strong state.

Despite its illegality, the game is sufficiently concealed from the authorities so that Jun-ho could neither send messages to the police department about his whereabouts nor about the extent of barbarity perpetrated on the island. What this means is that, in the absence of state regulations, competition, violence, and anarchy go awry. Capitalism and society without some form of state regulation is sheer barbarism. Or, to put it schematically via the words of Thomas Hobbes, it is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. And the fact that the fictional South Korean state could not govern in the sense of monopolizing violence on the island suggests that such barbarism has no terminal point. I was not surprised to see―at the very end of the show―that Gi-hun observed the gentleman who introduced him (Gi-hun) to the game initiating someone else. The cycle of brutalism is endlessly reproduced.

The idea of ‘ungoverned spaces’ is not a misnomer in the lived experiences of Nigerians who frequently witness savagery of sorts in everyday life: cultist massacres; armed banditry; kidnapping and ransom payment; piracy; terrorism; farmer-herder conflicts; assassinations; street robbery, and so on. All these forms of barbarism are connected not only to the perpetrators’ quest to accumulate wealth for conspicuous consumption but also to the state’s failure to regulate the rules of social, economic, and political life. Indeed, the pervasiveness of ungoverned spaces such that the state’s presence is minimal or non-existent in multifarious localities shows that ours is a failed state. It is therefore quite unsurprising that Nigeria has been classified as a failed state. As Robert I. Rotberg and John Campbell put it last year, ‘Nigeria now confronts six or more internal insurrections and the inability of the Nigerian state to provide peace and stability to its people has tipped a hitherto very weak state into failure.’ Whether the Nigerian state recovers from its malaise or not depends on how the political class address its fragility.

LESSONS FOR NIGERIAN VIEWERS?

From the foregoing discussions, one could lucidly see why Squid Game resonates with Nigerian viewers. However, what is often neglected in the comparisons between the show and the Nigerian condition is the message of episode six entitled ‘Gganbu’, which literally means ‘friends or neighbours that cooperate to achieve common goals.’ This gesture of friendship, nay solidarity, is demonstrated by player 001 who hands over his final marble to Gi-hun. Amidst the poverty, diversity, greed, opportunism, corruption, and gross inequality that Nigerians share, things can change for the better only if Nigerians begin to regard themselves as friends rather than foes. Nigerians are excessively divided by the tripartite woes―all products of colonial rule―of ethnicity, religion, and region, which in turn provoke ethnic, religious, and regional solidarities, respectively.

Whilst these affinities are significant, the friendship that we need to ameliorate the deplorable socioeconomic condition of the impoverished is class solidarity, which is founded on class consciousness. Nigerians must liaise with one another on the basis of class―that is, on the basis of common exploitation―in spite of ethnic, religious, and regional differences in order to subvert and ultimately extirpate the madness of competition that has rendered society virtually unliveable. This, as I see it, is the message from Squid Game for Nigerians thinking about charting a novel path for themselves in circumstances of state neglect, atavism and oppression

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