Thirty seven years ago, I read Peter Enahoro’s book, “How To Be A Nigerian”, for the first time. It was a most worrying read for a pre-teen; and leafing through its 88 pages, I was never too certain whether to laugh aloud or cry quietly. I didn’t read the book again.
Wednesday, last week, I was at a bookshop, where a re-print of this book was the first thing that caught my eye. I was uncertain how to react. I’d thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it had helped shape my sense of what remains a fitting response to the Nigerian challenge. Yet, I could not but recall that most of the cultural artifacts that I had partaken of growing up appear to have lost their resonance with the “modern mind”. At least in films, I find that my kids do not experience in those films I watched growing up, when I finally force them to sit through these, the frisson of excitement that memory still associates with first watching these.
I was then sure that it did not make sense to buy more than one copy of Peter Enahoro’s book. Good, if I was lucky to relive the experience three decades ago. Of course then I could buy more copies of the book later, gift these to friends and acquaintances in the hope that they would find it as rewarding as I once did. Better still, if it turned out a damp squib: for then I would have bought only one copy, and my loss would be a very private one. However, by evening that Wednesday, I was sure I had value for my money. First to read the book, was a young female colleague at work, who was as impressed by it as I was so many years back.
The problem for me has always been how to read the book. In it, Peter Enahoro is strongly persuaded that “in spite of the diversity of the country, a personality that was distinctly ‘Nigerian’ had emerged” a few years after the country obtained flag independence. If there was (or is) any truth to this, then much of the navel-gazing that has engaged the national imagination over the years is a waste of effort. All we have (or had) to do is (was) realise the full dimensions of this emergent “personality” and run with it.
But in truth, the canvass and broad brushstrokes of the Nigerian personality depicted in the book affronted my sensibilities back then. From our social ethos, through our etiquette, to our sense of humour, Enahoro’s Nigerian was nought but a lampoon.
Re-reading the book, I could not but marvel at how these traits have held up after so many years. Indeed, at the transmogrification of some of them. Take the “dash”, for instance. “Even when a Nigerian negotiates or demands a gift which is sure to influence his judgement, he does not accept the interpretation that this is a ‘bribe’. It is for him not corruption, but merely a fee or the price for doing you a favour.” Thus, Peter Enahoro on the “dash”!
How, may I ask, has the inability to tell the one from the other changed over the years? Not by much, if you ask me. We still have a lot to do telling “simple stealing” from “corruption”.
On the other hand, what in 1966, Peter Enahoro described under the rubric “Patience Aforethought” has become “African time”. I often cavil at family, friends, and colleagues who act like it is unfashionable to be on time. Well, it would seem that I am a couple of decades behind time. For, according to Enahoro, “The mistaken impression is abroad that the Nigerian is unambitious and that his cool reserve for Time is evidence of laziness. Wrong. It is simply a matter of letting Time race with time — with the Nigerian as an unperturbed bystander. As the Nigerian often says, ‘The clock did not invent man’. Give this thought. It is deeply philosophical.”
So what to do? Accept that this is the way we are. In which case we also agree that it is essentially “Nigerian” to drive in the wrong direction on roads designated “one-way”; to drive against traffic; and to use the left lane on a multi-lane highway as the one for slow moving cars, and the right lane for speedier ones; etc.
After all, what are these, but conventions that were bequeathed us by our colonial masters? And we have evidence that they were not an overly kindly lot. Why should their parting bestowals to us be kind, then? Why not re-write these gifts from first principles? Okay, why not re-invent the wheel along the way, too? Obviously, because the wheel does serve its purpose very well, and the effort and resources thus expended “reinventing” it are worthier of a better cause.
Sadly, this isn’t the only objection to the fact that 48 years after the book was written we have remained faithful to the character type it depicts. Of more weight is that these proclivities are worse than a burlesque. In the absence of strong remedial action, they are the millstone that would eventually drown our people.
Take the quaint notion of “African time”. Writing on the need to modernise the continent, Olufemi Táíwò (“Africa Must Be Modern) had suggested a link between our disdain for numbers, and our lackadaisical approach to punctuality. If indeed, “we experience numbers as a negative presence or value”, then our never being on time is a pathological state, rather than the expression of our successful conquest of “time”!
The sophistry that has attended the current government’s attempt to brush off charges that it may be one of the most corrupt administrations we have ever had ranks equally with this failing on time. The strong ethical and governance relationships without which few nations have made it beyond the pedestrian are clearly beyond us, if our leaders’ philosophies are a useful pointer.
What is to be done?
Mr. Uddin, an economic historian and finance expert, is a member of the editorial board of Premium Times and he writes from Lagos.