Guest Blog: Yemisi Ogbe on Nigeria and a culture of disrespect

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

A CULTURE OF DISRESPECT – Yemisi Ogbe

“…A governor in Lagos, is a governor in Sokoto, is a governor in Ebonyi and anywhere in Nigeria. He is entitled to the same courtesies and respect. Convoys are here with us for good or ill and reasonable people yield the way for a second to allow convoys and sirened vehicle right of way.” – Steve Osuji, Press Secretary to the Imo State governor.

IN 1935, an ambitious young man went to work for the Bata Shoe Company as an accounting clerk. It was a prestigious job. He had a head for figures, and was in fact quite precocious. He would work for Bata for some years, but he always had far-reaching plans, none of which, of course, included a slow climb in a Czechoslovakian company that was opening branches of shoe retail stores in Nigeria.

For many of his contemporaries, it might have been enough if one day they made Chief Clerk in Bata, or even Regional Manager. But times were changing. Nigerian Nationalism was gaining strength and as it did so, it was creating exciting possibilities for the Nigerian capitalist.

In 1948, he was sent on a training programme to Czechoslovakia. In 1949, Nnamdi Azikiwe gave a landmark speech on anti-colonial independence in Washington D.C. Owning the Bata shoe was a near-religious experience. It was a well-made shoe, not stylish, reliable, exclusive, sold in a store where the smell of leather and organised display, and professional sales-person gave the concrete impression of owning something very special.

The reality was that very few Nigerians could afford Bata shoes or the Bata experience, and this was especially clear to the enterprising young man who recognised his opportunity in the sale of second-hand shoes. It is alleged that it was through one major shipment of second hand shoes that his wealth was made, or shall we say, established.

Allegedly, once this shipment of second hand shoes had been successfully introduced to the Nigerian market, he gained the ability to reinvent his identity; an opportunity that only having the means could afford.

Choosing a public persona that made an impression was key. Like the monarch, the masquerade, the minister of the Roman Catholic or Anglican Church, he had not only to dress the part, but also harness the supernatural, to create the idea of something bigger than just a man, bigger than just a Mr. somebody.

He recreated his past, changed his last name; bought association to royalty; acquired titles and added appendages to his changed name. He married a White woman. He discarded the White woman, organised a rambling household with many superfluous servants and beautiful light skinned women.

He fathered many children. He promoted the image of the autonomous Nigerian; the New Nationalist, albeit a particularly flamboyant one, thumbing his nose at multi-national corporations and other small enterprises that were owned by foreigners, and had dominated the Black African economy for many years, and of course colonialism…a particularly aggressive Nigerian entrepreneur, able to define his own frontiers, rule his own people, choose his own moral boundaries. His timing seemed impeccable.

His wealth, his charisma, and his ambitions were employed at exactly the right time. He became a member of the first Nigerian National party, the NCNC. His contemporaries were Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mallam Aminu Kano, Herbert Macaulay, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Margaret Ekpo.

Basil Davidson notes that Nigerian Nationalists were not perfect. It is a superfluous observation. The critical thing was the body of ideas about self-governance and the future of a Nigeria that seemed held together by very loose threads.

So, this man was not perfect, but his flaws began to manifest themselves in the most dramatic ways, especially in the way that he dressed himself. His wrappers were 30 feet of cloth.

His hats were adorned with extravagant plumage. He wore black English bowler hats brushed till there was not a lint in sight; priceless corals and gold, and the ultimate finishing touch to the man of means wardrobe; the walking cane.

IT was problematic that he was a confirmed member of a political ruling class that had from the start been accused of elitism, and condescension, of thinking itself intellectually superior to the Nigerian people.

And now, here was this man with a god complex, a new nationalist, new royalty, whatever, with his wrapper tied around the commoner’s neck. What had changed? It was not what Nigerians had hoped for in their projections about the end of colonial rule, the indigenisation of foreign trading and manufacturing, the growth of home grown enterprise, and the emergence of the Nigerian capitalist.

As the promise of Nigerians governing Nigerians frayed, never mind if the expectations may have been overestimated, he began to look out of place, so much so that when 1966 came with all its violent disillusionment and strong tribal separations and the consequent coup d’etat, he was the only Minister murdered during the coup.

Again, it was alleged that he was bound up and put in a giant ant-hill in the evening of one day, and brought out dead the next morning. It was a particularly cruel and long-winded process of dying, and his screams were said to have been heard all night and into the early hours of the morning.

There are no official records of these allegations. The records show simply that he was shot. He died with foreign bank accounts bulging with money, rumours suggesting amounts far and above one hundred thousand pounds sterling in one account in the UK, and to this day, Nigerians express all the paradoxes of that time, and the life and myth of the man.

We say he died with “our” money in “his” bank account, that he was the only minister killed during that coup because he was greedy, and obscene in his flamboyance and in his elitism. Yet we never fully trusted these thoughts to the records. Our formal history of his life are ambiguous, his condescension is concrete only in our oral stories. It is as if we are still trying to decide for him, but we can’t completely fool ourselves.

Did he progress through hard work and shrewdness? Was he a true nationalist? Capitalist? Or was he just an opportunist? If we can agree on those questions, then the issue of the beautiful girl around whose neck his wrapper was tied may become irrelevant or be an indulgence we would readily forgive.

Where did I get my more interesting twists on this man’s history? Well, they were a gift from a septuagenarian living in Somerton, in 1999. He handed me a handful of Onini and with it, the story. We argued, and finally agreed to disagree. And it was right that I should be suspicious of him. He was a White man akin to White men whose land were seized in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

The times of which he spoke were unique; right and wrong had been successfully muddied. He was working for UAC Nigeria in the time of the new nationalists and so his history could not be impartial. If the story were true, the end of his ownership of Nigeria along with his kind had been heralded by the importation of second hand shoes. He was disdainful, a little too adamant about the genuineness of his twists.

The reader must decide for himself what he believes. I remain enduringly fascinated with the 30-foot train attached to the neck of a beautiful girl, and what the beautiful girl imagined her position in the world to be. Yoruba kings of antiquity were deified in the most extraordinary ways. The Yoruba king was required to keep a positional distance from his people in order to reinforce his authority and divinity.

It was the Yoruba kings who were accused of owning human spittoons. Reverend Samuel Johnson in The History of The Yorubas meticulously describes the institution of force necessary to give the Yoruba King’s authority a superlative quality: The human spittoon’s role was simple, yet profound. A king was too eminent to spit in an inanimate container, so the human spittoon was given a designated place in the kings court, daily, awaiting the king’s urge to spit.

Not only was the king not allowed to spit in any other container apart from the human container, he was also not allowed to purse his lips in preparation for spitting. So, the human spittoon would be informed that the king wished to spit, and then, he would be required to assist the king in pursing his lips, and then he would open his mouth to receive the king’s spittle. This role was one of honour.

The relevance of this historical accusation still referred to in present-day Yoruba adage… “O’n yo ayo fami l’ete tuto” might be that the girl tied to the end of a train of a man of great importance is important because he is important. The king’s spittle makes the commoner special.

I once saw the wife of a governor flick a complimentary card that she had been offered by someone, at his head. He picked up the card from the ground and walked away as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I wondered whether having a card rebound off his head was more acceptable than being ignored.

One of my first thoughts on a culture of disrespect was that all communities of the world own their own versions, and it may be taken for granted that wherever one finds anything elitist, it is built on the self-esteem of someone somewhere considered less important, less intelligent, less deserving of some exclusive toy.

AND so perhaps the Nigerian culture of disrespect is not remarkable. Yet, the stories that mark our peculiar culture are unique and fascinating.

They suggest that the Nigerian is daily, excruciatingly demeaned on all levels in Nigeria, but somehow also, remains forever optimistic that his lot in life will change, things will improve; his psyche is rarely ever completely demeaned. It will be criminal of me not to note that a betterment of lot means that one day, one will also find someone to demean as a necessary accessory of becoming elevated.

The environment itself is peculiar. Everything, including all opportunities for advancement, seem to be touched with some measure of illegality or compromise of the person, or fluidity of values.

It is better not to be too virtuous in Nigeria, some people say. The man who is paid N10,000 by his employer for keeping a garden, who sometimes sells some diesel taken from his employer’s house does so with the highest sense of justification. His employer is a rich man, he can afford the loss of 50 litres of diesel every other week.

And really, he knows that his employer knows that no one can really live on just N10,000 a month. His employer knows he is stealing his diesel, but looks the other way.

The mentality is that everyone steals in Nigeria, so the aim is to hire the most considerate of thieves; the one that steals from you with the greatest “show” of modesty and skill, and always pay a salary that takes theft into consideration. The things that are left unsaid in this relationship are the most important.

Why doesn’t the employer pay the employee well? The question seems almost too relative. So maybe the employer is also paying his employee’s children’s tuition fees and providing a roof over his head, but those things cannot be taken for granted, and for that reason, they give the employer a sense of paternity, and the employee, one of the wayward child.

There is nothing nearing equality in their relationship; also rarely is there a real sense of pride in the employee and in carrying out his work. If the employee’s work were valued highly, then his pay should indicate that value… in an ideal world. Sometimes, the employee’s self esteem is boosted by stealing from his employer. When he comes in the morning, he greets his employer by bowing himself to the floor.

He adds “sir” to the end of every sentence, never looks his employer in the eye, and doesn’t speak unless he is spoken to. Sometimes, he endures berating or verbal abuses from his employer, as if he were a child, but if he can steal from him, then he has somehow outwitted him, and this employer is not so smart after all or so elevated.

Nigerians love the rungs of the ladder. Love the fact that people are compelled to know their place, compelled to earn their place by whatever means to suit the context.

The equality of all Nigerians would be a hard sell on any level in Nigeria. If we were all equal, then something very valuable would be lost. The rungs need to be kept intact so that the top can remain as excruciatingly enjoyable as possible. If anyone can use the same crockery as I use, then my fork becomes completely functional, and I will lose the enjoyment of its curves and its reflection of light, and craftsmanship.

A Nigerian diplomat in the ’80s visited a Nigerian monarch’s house in London. The monarch’s wife had recently died, and a delegation had been sent to commiserate with him. The diplomat’s first observation, or confusion on entering the house arose from the pictures on the wall.

They were mostly of the revered political leader, Obafemi Awolowo and his wife. The diplomat wondered why a person would adorn the totality of his walls with pictures of another man and his wife.

This was odd enough, but then they were showed into a living room in which the monarch was receiving guests, and there at the feet of the monarch, playing with his toes, was a former governor of a South-Western state in Nigeria. It seemed also, to be the most natural thing that these monarch’s toes were being massaged by this man.

The incongruity of the whole picture was lost in the fact that no one seemed uncomfortable in the room. The man playing with the monarch’s toes had not only been a former state governor, he was a professional man. He was at that time, managing director of a Nigerian newspaper.

He sat on the floor in his suit and shoes, and it was the most natural thing in the world. And there were the levels, the deference of the monarch to the man on his walls, and the deference of the man sitting on the floor to the one on the throne. All the progressive Nigerians in that room on that day understood perfectly the political connotations of the setting.

The Nigerian mentality is not so straightforward. If every Nigerian knows his place, and understands when to get on and massage a monarch’s toes, why is it that so many Nigerians scramble for the top? Why are we not more laid back, as we say, like the Ghanaians or Cameroonians? Why don’t we let the elites alone and not try to be one of them.

Why are there so many Nigerian big men? In the 1980s, the British government was compelled to make up its own list of which Nigerians were truly worthy of diplomatic recognition, and this was necessitated by the fact that they were inundated with calls from Nigeria requesting that Honourable So and So be picked up from the airport and looked after for the duration of his visit. Nigerians were said to have the longest list ever of VIPs.

The issue is that in order for the elite in society to truly survive, a large group of people must agree to be otherwise. In Nigeria, there is some serious crowding at the top, and the result is the creation of a nation of posers. In a country where wealth is so ostentatiously paraded, where the poor are doubly demeaned, it perhaps makes sense that everyone wants to be rich in Nigeria, as a guarantee against our scorching kind of disrespect.

Everyone needs must have a title of some sort in Nigeria. One’s name is either prefixed with one’s choice of career such as “Engineer” or “Architect” or by one’s religious beliefs; “Elder” in the church or “JP” for Jerusalem Pilgrim. Married women are compelled to insist on their complimentary cards that they are Mrs. Sombody.

The titles Nigerians adopt border on the ridiculous, and the theatrical; titles like Honourable, Excellency… The peculiarities do not end there. I once worked at a pre-school as an administrator. Parents were encouraged to send in gifts one day in the year to appreciate their teachers.

The parents called a meeting the previous year on doing something special for teachers, like getting them manicures or taking them out to lunch. One parent registered her surprise at the suggestion by saying it was analogous to giving a manicure to her maid!

THE statement was bottomless: What was wrong with her maid getting a manicure? How demeaned is the role of a house maid? In comparison to that, how demeaned is that of a school teacher? How can one of the most important jobs in the world be even demeaned at all?

The job of teaching in Nigeria is undeniably one of the least esteemed. That of a maid or housegirl is not even worthy of discussion. Children are shushed if they even breathe the idea of becoming teachers when they grow up and choose a career path.

The gap between the rich and poor is eroding quickly and gnawing at people’s feet, so our response is always one of desperation. I went to that part of Lagos reverentially termed “Old Ikoyi” and stood in a penthouse apartment, looking down into manicured lawns, tennis courts, shimmering swimming pools and the lagoon. I was told that I was standing in rented premises, and that the rent had just been paid for two years: N34,000,000.

My mouth dropped to the floor, and I thought of our staff at home, who sometimes needed a loan to pay a yearly rent of N120,000. It was a shock to the system. How could one not help defining people by such discrepancies in rented accommodation?

There is the story of two women, friends, who would go for walks in the estate referred to as Lekki Peninsula phase I, along the Lagoon. One woman began to excuse herself from going on those walks. The other woman was puzzled but didn’t dwell on it.

She went on the walks by herself. Another friend later confided in the friend who still went on her walks, that the other lady had lost interest because she was a Northern aristocrat and did not like the way her friend greeted everyone they encountered on their walks; security guards, hawkers, building site workers, just any human being really…one had to show some restraint after all, some class consciousness, for God’s sake.

In Lagos especially, that model nucleus of posers, the elites are a pretty close set, and one is either in or out by virtue of such things as having a name, being a member of a family with old money, having one’s own money, having charisma and money and beautiful things, speaking well, living in the right place, owning prime property, etc. The fundamental requirement is having money and some taste and driving and dressing the part.

The layers of snobbery ensure that having money alone can never be enough, one has to speak the lingo, understand the passing of the trends, learn to both wave, and backup by pretending that one is swatting a fly. In 2007, when the elite in Lagos grew tired of being robbed of their watches, they declared swatch watches of necessity, fashionable.

Elizabeth Udoudo was on her way to church on a Sunday morning. Her sons were in the back of the car. It was 9:30 a.m. and the roads were clear of traffic. The Imo State governor’s convoy came up behind her car as she drove up the Falomo Bridge.

The convoy of cars might have driven behind her car for a few minutes and then deciding that she wasn’t moving fast enough, the driver of the lead car motioned for her to get off the road. In response, she said she changed lanes to make way for the cars. They were descending the bridge and coming up to the turning off Kingsway Road, known as Rumens Road.

The lead car of the convoy made as if to overtake hers, drove beside her, the window came down, and a gun came out motioning for her to either stop or get off the road. By this point, the process was confused and she was sandwiched between the lead car, slightly ahead, and the rest of the convoy. The second car, an SUV was a hair breath away from her, nudging her off the road.

A third car ran into her rear passenger side. She swerved sharply and ran clean into the side of another car in the convoy. Everyone, of necessity came to a stop. She attempted to get out her seat-belt. A man in a face cap, grey pants and a white shirt was the first to step out of one of the cars. He came out with his hand on the gun holder on his side.

He drew out his pistol and came towards Elizabeth’s car. Before he got to her, one of the other men was already by her side, and as she was stepping out of the car, and at the same time attempting to ask why she was being harassed, the man slapped her across the face.

She stood between her door and the driver’s seat. There was a saloon car in the convoy that had about four men in the backseat. About six to seven men in total had disembarked from the cars in the convoy. The man that slapped her, slammed her car door against her as she was attempting to step out from behind it. Her sons watched from the back of the car.

One of the mobile policemen kicked in the passenger door on the other side of the car. Another mobile policeman standing behind the man who slapped her, brought down the butt of his gun on her side mirror. The governor’s car drove parallel to hers.

She described it as owning tinted windows and a Nigerian flag. The back window came down momentarily, and she saw a head-rest with a cloth embroidered with the Nigerian coat of arms. She attempted to direct her protest at someone sitting with his back to that headrest, but the window went up quickly after the man addressed the men standing around.

The man’s words seemed to be an order that the men return to their cars. They got back into their cars and continued their journey.

I asked Elizabeth what it felt like to be slapped across the face; if she was humiliated? What was the anatomy of the slap? How much force was used?

The most concrete answer I received was that she was grateful that it was just “a” slap. It is common for people to be beaten, whipped and physically injured by men protecting dignitaries riding in convoys. She felt she had got off lightly by being slapped just once. She believed that if she were a man, it would have fared much worse for her.

Most people go home and nurse their bruises. Elizabeth sent an account of her experience to the Guardian Newspaper. It was written with the help of a friend, and they both thought it judicious to write the account under the name of a “Lateef Gbadamosi”.

The article was titled “Imo State convoy of death”. Then came the most interesting part of the whole affair: the Imo State Governor’s Press Secretary’s response to the Guardian article.

The Press Secretary reference to the incidence began:

“…We are surprised because the incident under reference which happened on the morning of Sunday February 10, 2008 along Alfred Rewane Road, Ikoyi between the convoy of His Excellency, Governor Ikedi Ohakim of Imo State and an unknown woman is better left unrecounted and out of the public arena because it paints a shameful picture of motherhood; of womanhood.”

He described the affair as a security breach, and then went on to clarify the motives of those men who had slapped Elizabeth, and vandalized her car:

“It was indeed a case of a woman feeling too big and couldn’t give a damn whether it was a governor or a god who was going in a convoy and raising all hoopla”.The thing that seemed to have brought out the worst in the men against a five foot two security breach was the fact that she felt too big to get out of the way of the governor’s convoy. She didn’t know her place.

This letter has become one of the most incredible admissions of guilt in recent years. Elizabeth’s incidence as well as others, brought up the necessity of drawing up a code of conduct for “Nigerian big men’s” convoys.

THE code of conduct might have to be extended to all kinds of arena of Nigerian life. It might have to be a code of conduct on how to treat anything that resembles a human being.

It is interesting that a culture of disrespect might be confused for one of respect. One might hear Nigerians making general comparisons with other cultures on how our children are taught to kneel down and greet elders, or how we defer to those older than us by referring to them with titles, how we consider a person’s name so sacred, that only those close to him, or equal to him can mention his name; how we say “Good morning” instead of “Hello”.

How icons of authority remain sacrosanct in our society; how age is highly esteemed. In England, Gordon Brown is Gordon Brown, is at the most elevated Mr. Gordon Brown.

Here, he would be His Excellency. True comparisons perhaps, side by side, with the culture of determining a person’s value by how much money they own, what they drive, how they speak, what sort of mobile phone they own, side by side with the culture of jumping queues and jumping red-lights and moving out of the way of convoys.

Again, the unexpressed things are the most profound. There are homes in which there are special drinking glasses for when the driver requests for a glass of water. The driver knows the glass is special, the lord of the home knows it, and the children know it.

In Calabar in 2007, Tahalia Barrett, a volunteer Business Development Advisor with the Cross River State government looked into the possibility of creating a Nigerian perspective on transatlantic slavery. The Calabar Slavery Museum was the perfect medium. It already owned a building, wax works depicting in oversimplified terms the journey of the slave from his home in Nigeria to the plantation in North America, and then on to emancipation.

The Calabar Slavery Museum in order to offer something more than all the thousands of slavery museums all over the world must have an original voice. Tahalia as an African-American, noted that the story of transatlantic slavery was one that was told and retold in her culture.

If she was standing on Nigerian soil, she could take it for granted that she would hear something new. The issue of reparations remain one of the hottest offshoots of discussions on transatlantic slavery. At the anti-racism conference in 2001, in Durban, then Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo declared that Nigeria

“…stood firmly behind the demand for an explicit apology. The wider international community has consistently failed to appreciate the reality that is particularly painful for us Africans…Apology must be extended by states which practiced and benefited from slavery, the slave trade or colonialism…For us in Africa, an apology is a deep feeling of remorse, expressed with the commitment that never again will such acts be practised”.

Grand words that were somewhat shabbied by Abdoulaye Wade’s declaration that his ancestors owned slaves. In creating an original script for the Calabar museum, word was put out to discover anyone who had ancestors carried away as slaves, but more importantly, anyone who had ancestors who had protested slavery, or died in protest or just stood up in protest.

The first batch of responses came back, and no one in the latter categories could be found. Instead it was offered that most of the old prestigious families in Calabar had traded in slaves.

It was a profound discovery, and one that was sure to create problems. Could one effectively run a museum from a city where one was alleging that its oldest most elevated members were slave traders or children of slave traders? What would be one’s contribution to the dialogue on reparations and our demands for apologies?

One could argue that, yes Africans owned slaves from antiquity, but that we were always humane to them, but would the argument have integrity, especially in the light of our modern environment?

Again, the issue of the anatomy of the slap. For me it was important that Elizabeth Udoudo define what her feelings were in the clearest of terms. It had been months since the incident and there had been many commentaries on the internet and in newspapers about it; what did she hope to gain from keeping it alive in the press and talking about it? Did she want some form of financial compensation? Did she want her car repaired?

Why had she paid a lawyer to come up with formal terms of reference on the incident? What was the value of the apology if it were forced? I wanted to really understand what her motives were? Somehow I believed, possibly erroneously, that if money were the issue, then there was some loss of integrity.

I pushed Elizabeth, and she was clear that the physical slap meant little, but to term her an unknown woman…In her own words, it meant: “I don’t have any value. I am not important. If we were to put it in the most accurate of terms, I don’t exist. I am irrelevant”.

This was the issue. If she were a nobody, then anything could be done to her without fear of repercussions. She had to show her children that you just didn’t walk up to a woman, slap her in the face, and get away with it.

The apology would be landmark. It would mean that nobody has rights, and in turn no one has the right to whip people out of the way, even if he is the president of Nigeria. I was glad that I had met Elizabeth, unlike how the papers portrayed her, she was not a victim. She was clear that she had not acquiesced to carrying the end of anyone’s wrapper.

NOTE: Yemisi Ogbe, a former columnist at Next Newspapers and one of Nigeria’s finest writers maintains her own blog, a delectable offering appropriately called The Longthroat Memoirs that will make you hungry for authentic Nigerian cuisine – and her lovely prose poetry. She is on Twitter as herself @yemisiogbe. Follow her. Google her; you will be smitten.