Pictures and the Stories They Tell, By Uddin Ifeanyi
You could argue…that given our general predilections, the conduct of our delegate to the U.N. was inevitable. Probably. Still, the sleep-besotted part of that picture raised further questions. For one, “How do we appoint people into positions of authority?”
Pictures tell a more compelling story — than plain words — we are told (and together a good picture, and a well-told narrative are some of the greatest company there is). In all of this, there is no story more fascinating than a layered one. It is for this reason that the picture, which made the rounds on social media last week of a meeting of the United Nations’ General Assembly (circa 1960s) with the Norwegian representative looking sardonically as his Nigerian opposite number cat-napped elicited so much response.
Now, there’s a chance that the picture has been tampered with — photoshopped in geek-speak — to make the Nigerian look that bad. But even then, in its immediacy, it speaks to certain disturbing realities in these parts. First, there is the question of why the gentleman was that deeply asleep — arguably the most paramount in the Norwegian’s mind. Possible answers to this there are plenty of. The kindest of which is that persuaded of the importance of the session that day, he had burnt the midnight candle at both ends preparing.
A passionate worker undone by the limits of his body? Unlikely! Even today, the Nigerian is more likely, on a trip abroad, to have combined three activities — delivering errands from home, shopping, and partying hard. We still do it. Summer is when the Caucasian looks to relief from inclement winter conditions. With enough means, s/he travels to the south of Europe. The more determined chase after the sun even further, reaching as far as the tropics. Of course, the holiday isn’t to every hot destination. Otherwise, places like ours would have had their fair share of tourists. It’s to places with a beach (which we have). Some history (most of which we have forgotten), and enough security (make your mind up on how much of that we still have).
This question, and sundry other assumptions, were underlined, again, last week, by the re-appointment of the central bank governor for a second five-year term. In these appointments, how much is “merit” a consideration? Or is “loyalty” the most important value?
Summer, too, is when the Nigerian reverses this logic, looking to relief from inclement tropical conditions. With more than enough means, s/he travels to the north of Europe — chasing after what’s left of the snow. Of course, the holiday isn’t to every cold “white” country. Otherwise, places like Crimea would have had their fair share of Nigerian tourists. It’s to places with huge shopping opportunities (explains why Oxford Street in the U.K. is the destination of choice). And more shopping.
You are more likely, therefore, to run into the Nigerian on his/her trip abroad heavy laden — with shopping bags, of course, not held down by his/her conscience — than going into or coming out of Madame Tussauds, The Tower of London, Highgate Cemetery, Hyde’s Park, Eiffel Tower, etc. It is such burden from the previous day’s exertion that our delegate to the U.N. most probably was paying for as the day’s session progressed — and that picture was taken.
You could argue from this vantage that given our general predilections, the conduct of our delegate to the U.N. was inevitable. Probably. Still, the sleep-besotted part of that picture raised further questions. For one, “How do we appoint people into positions of authority?” Behind this poser is the assumption that a more qualified appointee would have approached his or her duties with more diligence. This question, and sundry other assumptions, were underlined, again, last week, by the re-appointment of the central bank governor for a second five-year term. In these appointments, how much is “merit” a consideration? Or is “loyalty” the most important value?
How can we appoint people on merit, when the narratives in the public space for all shades of our compatriots are all positive — including, I believe it must once have been for our sleeping delegate?
I have had the misfortune of working with a boss (a lunatic who schooled in some of the best institutions abroad but was as disposed to defalcation as if he had attended the worst schools here) who describes in painstaking detail how “attitude” (read, loyalty to him) is more important a consideration for his subordinate than “aptitude” (including the capacity to do the job effortlessly). Apparently, in his universe, it’s a lot easier to teach a “loyal subordinate” to work well than to enforce loyalty on a “competent” one. Unfortunately, between the wide space described by these extremes lies a knackered delegate to a global conference; and the shattered and unravelling social space that he left behind.
Mulling these themes last week, I stumbled into a conversation from which I came off badly. “Given what we know about most of our public figures, how should we celebrate them publicly?” The question did look simple to me at first. Stripped of all its gradations, it boils down, in my opinion, to a choice between a biography and a hagiography. If merit is important in the choice of those who lead us, and if we all agree that we must cease and desist from the current practice of appointing people into office because they are loyal to us, or are our mother’s sister’s second cousin, thrice removed, then the public narrative around potential office holders must be as faithful to their character as possible. Or so, I think.
My interlocutor would not agree. For her, an individual is a panoply of multiple truths. Some savoury. Others less so. And when you’re friends with anyone person, the obligation to them, as you celebrate them, is to advertise the positives, while holding their feet to the fire privately. At first blush, it didn’t look too awful a formulation. That is before you think through what the implications are for public figures. How can we appoint people on merit, when the narratives in the public space for all shades of our compatriots are all positive — including, I believe it must once have been for our sleeping delegate?