This piece is unabashedly ethically solipsistic. It is based on one person’s experience of social reality. Unscientific, untested yet indicative of a slice of reality.
My first thesis is that if the coming elections do not reflect the people’s will, there will be no Nigerian Spring anytime soon. Therefore, the Nigerian elites have nothing to fear from the people. The strategy is simple: learn to invoke the name of God or Allah, build a few hotels, eat with the masses or provide food once in a while during Christmas or Salah. Nigerians are resilient people, but that resilience is now part of the problem. It is time to stop suffering in silence. The intelligentsia perhaps need to start speaking directly to the people. Critiquing the elite is a dialogue with the deaf. The system is working for them: why would they want to change it? It is one of the little wonders of the world that any project gets completed. No one would notice any malfeasance that is not world class. Someone told me that I was a few years away from really feeling the pain of the failure of the state as my cohort would continue the mismanagement of Nigeria. I sincerely hope not. My research has led me to meet some members of the Nigerian elite. They are often easy-going when you interact with them one on one. But remember that slave owners were family men and women; as well as church-going Christians. They were also sometimes kind to their slaves. Besides, Nigerian elites may complain about the system they have produced but they relish its consequences with gusto: exclusivity, class, symbolism and guilty pleasure.
My second thesis is that those who spent eternity in higher education are beginning to look like “mumu” in the Nigerian system. While I complain about my widow’s mite sent via Western Union every month, someone who went into politics and looted state funds uses the money to build a mansion for his mother; establishes a few hotels, and hence, employs several people. Therefore, such a person becomes a hero in the eyes of the people with chieftaincy titles and other perks in Nigeria’s prebendal system. How do you explain to fellow Nigerians that the house you bought in North America is not fully paid for and you will spend the next 25 years paying your mortgage, hence you truly have no money to “spread”? The situation is similar to what Friedrich Nietzsche calls “transvaluation of values”.
The significance of accent is my third thesis: Accent is everything in Nigeria. There is such a thing as Nigerian Acquired Accent. I watched a TV show last year while in Nigeria and observed the anchor speaking with an obviously fake American accent. I did not understand most of what he said. I doubted that he understood himself. But the audience adored his strange accent. People respond to accents — any accent so long it is not from any ethnic group — in Nigeria. Avoid sounding Yorubaish or Igbotic in Nigeria by all means, even if you must fake an accent. A Nigerian in North America was once rejected by a UK-based Nigerian lady because she was disappointed that after over two decades of living overseas, he still sounded like an Ekiti man. Of course, our friend did not know he needed to shed his Ekitiness to be eligible for a relationship.
My fourth thesis is that privileging of the foreign is pathological in our society. People seem to invest the best of emotions and sentiments on foreign lands. One research participant in a study in Abuja mentioned how his aunt’s marriage, which had been floundering, became strong and the couple madly in love when they moved overseas. The young man’s argument was rather paradoxical and confounding: his aunt’s marriage got saved because they moved where the divorce rate was about 40% of first marriages. I had an interesting experience in 2012 at a major hotel in Lagos. The hotel had a designated smoking area for foreigners just across the lobby. All Nigerians were routinely asked to vacate the spot; at least we were asked to during my visit. I demanded to speak with the manager about the risks of allowing people to smoke indoors and the problematic of chasing away their fellow citizens in their home country. “They like to smoke without being disturbed and take coffee” was the response from one of the staff. Most of the guests were flight attendants with major foreign airlines. I told the man “you are asking us to vacate our seats for people without any reasonable excuse” (or in my case people who could well take my undergraduate classes. Grade 12 or high school certificate is the requirement for such jobs around here). This was a particularly annoying episode of discrimination by a fellow citizen. I considered legal action but soons that as I was merely there to meet a friend and had not lodged or patronised them in some way, I had limited grounds for any law suit. Colonial mentality; we hail thee.
My fifth thesis focuses on the rumour mill in Nigeria: Nigeria’s rumour mill is detrimental to national development. The spread of Ebola a few months ago led to the fabrication of various metaphysical ways of preventing the disease. One of these was having a bath with salt and drinking salt-filled water. I was surprised to learn that people, including educated members of society, took such a ridiculous “precaution” with disastrous consequences.
Sixth, the masses have invented an intricate belief system that suggests they have given up on Nigeria. The discourse is becoming a dangerous one that negates human agency. The otherworldly belief system that somehow construes looters as divinely appointed and positioned is one manifestation. Jean Francois Bayart was correct in that regard. It is a belief system that is fundamentally fatalistic and praxiologically paralysing. It appears some of those least favoured by the system assume that those looting state funds have been put there by God. People seem to rationalise the actions of corrupt leaders. “Na dem time. Oga, if na you wetin you go do?” is a common rhetoric. People forget that such opportunities never go round. It is not in the nature of such state of affairs that everyone gets their share no matter how long they wait.
Coping strategies such as petty pilfering and routine bribes have been devised. Some cleaners at the airport would request for bribe for using the loo via aggressive panhandling, for example. The system is an entertaining one if you are in a good mood. You may boil with rage or have a good time laughing and later realise it was not really funny. I chose somewhere in the middle.
Nigerians know this too well: human life is cheap in Nigeria. The permeation of popular discourse with jokes about bombs, kidnapping or ‘kidnappability’, accidents, missing limbs (short sleeve versus long sleeve), etc. is one example. I heard gun shots around 4:42 pm on August 12, 2014 at Gwagwalada Motor Park, just outside Abuja city centre. We thought there might be a robbery somewhere or a Boko Haram onslaught but we did not have to wonder for too long. Those shooting in the air were in police uniforms and on board a trademark truck. They laughed as they drove by. They were having fun.
‘Tope Oriola is assistant professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, Canada. He is author of Criminal Resistance? The Politics of Kidnapping Oil Workers.