Just before exhaustion and a bad bout of malaria put yours truly and this column out of business about six weeks ago, I returned to Accra from Pretoria and decided to touch base by phone with a close friend of mine in Nigeria. I meant it to be the usual “how body?” and “how go dey go?” phone call but the tone of her voice told me that all was not well with her. She is an accomplished professional on the upper rungs of the social and economic ladder in Abuja. I asked her what was wrong and what she had to say gave me new insights into the Nigerian tragedy. Or should I say that her narrative added more nuance and angles to my exploration of the Nigerian psychology? You will recall that in my old essay, “Parable of the Shower Head”, I claimed that the psychology of the Nigerian, not corruption, is Nigeria’s deadliest enemy. That wrongly-wired mass psychology of ours produces all kinds of logic-defying, self-rationalizing national cultures and behaviours of which corruption is but a consequence.
My friend was out shopping in one of Abuja’s upscale shopping malls. She parked properly in the designated parking area and was about stepping out of her car when another car hit and scraped her rear bumper while trying to park behind her. The fellow driving the offending car had Abuja new money and newly manufactured featherweight big man written all over him. The man obviously belonged to Nigeria’s most prominent tribe: the “don’t you know who I am?” tribe. From north to south, east to west, this is a tribe of rich and stupid Nigerians above the law who can always count on the foolish ordinary Nigerians they oppress to support them on religious or ethnic grounds whenever they get into trouble. Our friend, the featherweight big man, stepped out of his car very importantly, assessed the damage he had wrecked on my friend’s car, shot out a flippant “sorry o madam”, and made to walk away after having determined that the minor scrape on my friend’s bumper was not worth any wahala.
My friend had other ideas. She called him back, boiling with rage, and told him that she was the one to determine whether the damage to her car was significant or not. As someone who likes mint cars, the scratch he made on her car would need to be repaired. What was he going to do about it? The man became hostile and they began to argue: the familiar Nigerian public argument. The man shot a glance at my friend’s most critical finger and, seeing no engagement or wedding ring on it, took the argument to a zone where the fate of many Nigeria women is sealed. “Madam, you see yourself now? Arguing with a man in public. No wonder you are not married. For your information, I have your type at home.” That sexist comment did it for my friend. She went ballistic. By now, passersby had gathered around them, some to watch, some to intervene. You know how those scenes go in Nigeria, don’t you?
On hearing their respective sides of the story, the self-appointed spectator-judges, male and female, began to reprimand the arrogant man and to plead with my friend to forget the matter as the damage to her car was really nothing: just a barely visible scratch on the bumper. My friend could not overlook the man’s arrogance and sexism. She is connected to some very senior and powerful policemen in Abuja. She made a call and police men arrived swiftly. On seeing the calibre of policemen sent to intervene and deal with him after just one phone call, the arrogant semi-big man had a change of heart and began to beg. The crowd also intensified the begging. A begging jamboree ensued. When the policemen noticed that the crowd and the offender were all begging my friend, they called her aside: “madam, although this man offend you true true o but with this level of begging wey we dey see for here so, please let bygones be bygones.”
My friend couldn’t believe what was going on. The police had joined the begging carnival! She refused to cooperate. Her car had been hit and the offender had added insult to injury by being a sexist pig. She stood her ground. The man must be made to repair her car. When the begging failed to work, the crowd and the policemen turned against her. “Dis woman sef! Too headstrong! Dem type no dey see husband marry. See as all of us dey beg am since morning and she no gree. Alaseju ni obinrin yi o. Shior.” One by one, the spectator-judges hissed, shiored, and left. The police withdrew, condemning her for being too headstrong, and the offender also left the scene, encouraged by the police and fellow Nigerians. My friend decided to respect herself by entering her car and driving off. When I phoned her, her impotent rage against Nigeria and our misogynistic culture had not abated.
Many Nigerian women, married or unmarried, would easily relate to the sexism that my friend experienced. It is an ever-present, constant threat to their civic experience in the Nigerian nation-space. Sometimes, it is benign; frequently it is open and brazen: “how can an ordinary woman challenge me?” Consciously, subconsciously, we make a culture of it. We disempower more than half of our population. I am a quiet student of this phenomenon on social media. I am privileged to have fantastic female citizens of Nigeria in my immediate social media family. Dogged fighters at the forefront of our struggle for Nigeria: Bamidele Ademola-Olateju, Petra Akintimehin Onyegbule, Gloria Agbaosi, Ijeoma Ogbulie Eugene, Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, Safiya Musa, Temidayo Ahanmisi and so many other wonderful citizens. Daily, they suffer the indignity of having to engage guys who invade their respective social media spaces from the “I have your type at home” perspective. I watch them go after such ill-bred guys with koboko with considerable pleasure. But I also regret the distraction: every minute that these brilliant citizens spend swatting sexism is a minute of distraction from the urgent task that has chosen them: the struggle for Nigeria.
As it goes for my aforementioned friends, so it goes Oby Ezekwesili. Ever since she got into the trenches for the Nigerian people, she has been the subject of all kinds of verbal violence from the spokesmen of the establishment. Her most virulent detractors come from the ranks of President Goodluck Jonathan’s irresponsible aides, notably Doyin Okupe and Pastor Wendell Simlin, also sometimes known as Reno Omokri. Compare how these presidential doofuses respond to the President’s imagined male enemies like Nasir El Rufai and Lai Mohammed and how they respond to Oby Ezekwesili and you’ll notice an added layer of condescension in the case of Ezekwesili. After all, they have her type at home! Even with their current station in life, Okupe, Omokri, and Abati do not qualify to clean Ezekwesili’s shoes. The tragedy of Nigeria allows them to go Facebook and Twitter and talk down at her because they come from an upside down world which constantly tells them that they have her type at home.
The second part of my friend’s problem is also a Nigerian epidemic: begging the victim into an untenable position. We suffer this self-imposed blackmail in every area of our sickening national life. It largely explains why we are where we are today as a society. The man who hit her car would have had to call his insurance in sane societies. He would have had to repair that car. In Nigeria, we gather around the victim and begin to beg. We beg and beg and beg. Insist on your right and we intimidate you. You become the archetypal Yoruba “alaseju”. We tell you that your own too much sef. We tell you that even God dey hear when we beg am. We force you to accept the irrational, the illogical, and the dysfunctional. We have begged all our institutions and values into the dustbin in Nigeria. Think of all the areas of your life in your daily transactions in which people beg you – the oppressed, the cheated, the aggrieved – to “accept am like that” because “nobody knows tomorrow”. “Madam, this man wey hit your car today fit help your pikin tomorrow o”. And we prevent the law, institutions, and normal civic processes from taking their normal course. Very soon, you will hear respected Nigerians begging the parents of the Chibok girls to move on. What else do you want the President to do now? He promised Malala that he would meet you and he met you. He wants to borrow one billion dollars to fight for you. He has even given you some money. Please, understand and bear with him. If the parents insist, we will tell them that dem own too much sef.
Until we begin the urgent task of working aggressively and collectively on the Nigerian psychology, we are wasting our time fighting on other fronts. It doesn’t matter who successfully rigs 2015. PDP ni o, APC ni o, we shall continue to beg ourselves to “understand”, to “bear with the President”. And those who insist on righteousness, justice, and fairness shall continue to be called “naysayers” and “haters” by Nigeria’s national union of beggars.
Prof. Adesanmi is a Professor of African Literatures and Cultures at Carleton University, Canada. He is a member of the Editorial Board of PREMIUM TIMES.