The Oga at the Top in us

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

One learns something new about Nigeria every day. Apparently there is a governmental outfit called the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), it sounds like a uniformed service; I am not sure that it knows what it does, not that you could tell from its website (www.nscdc.gov.ng) but more on that later. Well, so one Mr. Obafaiye Shem, Lagos State “Commandant” of the NCSDC decided to grant an interview to Channels TV, my favorite Nigerian TV station, one that gives me hope that things might change for the better in Nigeria (witness here, the stellar work they did in shocking the world with gory visual of a dilapidated Ikeja Police College).

oga at the top1

Well, it is now part of Nigerian folklore, the interview did not go well; actually it was an epic disaster. This video clip shows Shem trying to bluster his way through a seemingly simple question: “What is your website?” Every Nigerian on earth seems to have watched the clip so I won’t ask you to watch it. It was an awful interview and Shem blew it big time. A trained professional knows to simply say “Great question, I don’t have the answer to your question but I will be happy to provide the response later.” No, not this Nigerian civil servant, he hems and haws, claims that only his “Oga at the top” can authorize release of this super-secret website address and after relentless badgering by smirking, skeptical TV hosts, he blurts out a lie on national television: www.nscdc! And he ends with a flourish, ‘Dasall!” Yep, that’s all! That’s all!

And the rest is history; the ignorance of Shem the “Commandant” remains viral on social media, Oga at the Top! T-shirts are selling like hot cakes and several musical pieces have been birthed by creative Nigerian youths. This is a hilarious time for the Nigerian community online and on the ground. Shem was the visual embodiment of the pejorative that Nigeria is fast becoming: Here comes Nigeria, our masquerade, all decked out in the colors of borrowed plumage, of the ostrich. Fingers pointing here and jabbing there, feathers rising in protest to show her yansh, Nigeria, bullshit merchant. #MyOgaAtTheTop! Yep, faced with a looming immolation by young Turks, the hapless guy decided to bluff his way past the road block in a scene reminiscent of the confrontation between the leopard and the tortoise in that hilarious fable in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah:

Once upon a time the leopard who had been trying for a long time to catch the tortoise finally chanced upon him on a solitary road. ‘Aha,’ he said; at long last! Prepare to die.’ And the tortoise said: ’Can I ask one favour before you kill me?’ The leopard saw no harm in that and agreed. ‘Give me a few moments to prepare my mind,’ the tortoise said. Again the leopard saw no harm in that and granted it. But instead of standing still as the leopard had expected the tortoise went into strange action on the road, scratching with hands and feet and throwing sand furiously in all directions. ’ Why are you doing that?’ asked the puzzled leopard. The tortoise replied: ‘Because even after I am dead I would want anyone passing by this spot to say, yes, a fellow and his match struggled here.’” (pp. 117-118)

Let me concede that the video is quite simply hilarious. I have it on repeat and I keep watching and laughing and wondering about the chutzpah of our people. But lost in all that mirth is the unprofessional conduct of the journalists who served as hosts during the interview. What happened is just not done in respectable journalism; this was a gotcha, a high tech lynching. There is precedence for this. In 1988, George Will, the revered conservative American journalist, a bit peeved that America seemed to be taking the Reverend Jesse Jackson too seriously in his campaign for presidency decided (in my opinion and that of many) to embarrass him by asking him this technical question on television, “As president, would you support measures such as the G-7 measures of the Louvre Accords?” (The accords were technical agreements employed the previous year to stabilize exchange rates.) Of course Jesse Jackson did not know the answer and he looked pretty stupid on television. George Will suffered a backlash that endures to this day with many suggesting that his obtuse line of interviewing was racist (read one example here). The late African American journalist, William Raspberry asserted that Will seemed eager “to embarrass the candidate rather than to flesh out his policy position.”

Back to the Oga at the Top interview, both sides seemed unprepared for a substantive interview. Everything on that set smelled of mimicry, from the attitude of the hosts and guests to the faux set – the West is an asymptote. The attitude brays, This is how they do it in America, to be successful we must try to do it like them. The interview came across as a Nollywood comedy with Shem the guest as the best comedy actor of the lot with the hosts playing overwrought supporting bit parts. What happened here is also a conversation about generational disconnect, the older generation still has the power but is increasingly comically disconnected and long in the tooth when it comes to accountability and technological advances; the younger generation, on the other hand, long used to being ignored, abused even, has the new knowledge base.  They see the older generation as mostly bullshit artists, conmen who are busy running the country aground. The older generation in turn sees the young as smirking upstarts too quick to try to embarrass their elders. There is mutual disdain and disrespect between the flawed generations.

In my view, the hosts were guilty of embarrassing their guest. It seems to me unusual and unethical to keep badgering a guest for information, especially when you have clearly made the point that the guest does not have the information. In any case, professional interviewers do their homework; for such an important agency, the website’s address should have been obtained beforehand and scrolled across the screen for viewers.  When it became clear the guest did not have the answer, the polite thing to do would have been to move on. You could see in the eyes of the hosts and in their body language that they were sure the man was full of shit. They saw blood and went for red meat. It bears repeating: That interview was a cringe-worthy exercise in unprofessional journalism. It was not a good moment for Channels TV.  This was a high tech lynching of a clueless Nigerian civil servant by smirking leaders of a younger generation only too happy to humiliate a visible symbol of all that they have grown up to hate.

oga at the top2And so, what is the website of the NSCDC? The man gave the wrong answer, half of the address: “www.nscdc. Dasall!” He was technically wrong. But there is a real sense in which he was right. Have you been to the NSCDC’s website? It is disgraceful; the website is awful, just awful. It should actually be pulled down until someone can come up with a professional site. Yes, the real scandal is the state of the website. The website www.nscdc.gov.ng is a riot of mediocrity loudly advertising the sad fact that Nigeria does not respect herself, does not take herself seriously. Grammatically challenged sentences jostle with each other for bragging rights in Grammar’s Hall of Shame. There is no doubt that this pretend website was built at great cost to Nigeria by a semi-literate relative of the”Oga at the top” of the NSCDC. Go over to the website and see for yourself, many of the links take you to sites that are “under construction” in addition to the occasional broken link. This is consistent with the shoddy websites of virtually every Nigerian public institution I have ever visited as I chronicled in the essay, Viewing Nigeria through a web of broken links. What is wrong with our people? A well-prepared journalist would have done the research first and confronted this guest with hard questions about the sorry state of the website. No, we like to embarrass ourselves before the world.

Like our government, the website is a lurid investment in pretend processes and structures, empty portals with no indication when, if they will ever be filled with substance. And the website is comical in its shoddiness. There are several pictures of a well-fed “officer” on “a peace-keeping mission” – in Italy of all places. Apparently, Italy is a hot bed of insurrection; he is dressed in battle fatigues posing in what looks to me like a shopping mall. Estacode! If Jon Gambrell of the AP writes a snarky story about this buffoonery, Nigerian intellectuals will come out with their sharp pens screaming racism, whine, whine, whine. If you don’t respect yourself, what do you expect foreigners to do?

Shem had no business knowing the address of the website, because like most things with the Nigerian government, it is a pretend structure, no one goes there, except to “share money”, there is nothing there for anyone who is serious about knowing whatever the NSCDC does. It is just another website aping what happens elsewhere. All the website says is that NSCDC is of questionable value to Nigeria and Nigerians. That may well be the truth. Yep, Nigeria has carved for itself a shameful reputation as a rogue nation governed by rogues and managed by rogue civil servants. Our rulers and civil servants are ruining Nigeria through management by mimicry, all sizzle and no suya.

Let me observe that there is something really perverse about ridiculing a man for mangling the address of a website in the same week that the president of our nation proudly conferred a presidential pardon on a convicted criminal wanted in pretty much every serious country outside our borders. We are not a serious people; our outrage melts into mirth because laughter is an easy medicine for managing our condition.  By the way, we should also learn to respect each other. If that guest was white, you would see all the hosts falling over themselves to ask soft-ball questions, fawning and showing all their white teeth in obsequious subservience. But then, to be fair, the white person would have come prepared to respond to soft questions. I tire sha.

oga at the top 3So why did we laugh so hard at the man’s discomfiture? Well, a few years ago, the most visual example of the caricature that Nigerian public education makes out of our beautiful children burst forth in the form of Rita, the kokolet of Koko Mansion. Rita managed to mangle every sentence that her lips uttered. Her video also went viral and the cruelty was something to behold. Many who laughed at Rita had managed to escape the gulag that was her lot in the public schools of Nigeria. Many who laughed at her were educated abroad from looted funds that were meant for the education of children in Nigeria’s public schools. Rita probably “graduated” from one of the public schools in this awful video documenting our decaying public schools, home only to the truly dispossessed.  We enjoy berating victims. As for this Oga at the Top video, we laughed because perhaps it helps us deny that the man in the mirror is us.  When we see Shem in that odious video, we see us, and like those young journalists, we recoil and shudder – with disgust and self-loathing. The cackle coming from us, the hoots of derision are for us, this is what we have become. Yes, for those of us who yell at Western journalists for only telling the single story about Africa, this is what they see, the mimicry that makes them mock us. This is what they see. We are who we are. I salute Nigeria. I salute “Commandant” Shem. I salute us.