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A culture of disrespect

“…A governor in Lagos, is a governor in Sokoto, is a governor in Ebonyi and anywhere in Nigeria.  He is entitled to the same courtesies and respect.  Convoys are here with us for good or ill and reasonable people yield the way for a second to allow convoys and sirened vehicle right of way.” – Steve Osuji, Press Secretary to the Imo State governor.

IN 1935, an ambitious young man went to work for the Bata Shoe Company as an accounting clerk.  It was a prestigious job.  He had a head for figures, and was in fact quite precocious.  He would work for Bata for some years, but he always had far-reaching plans, none of which, of course, included a slow climb in a Czechoslovakian company that was opening branches of shoe retail stores in Nigeria.

For many of his contemporaries, it might have been enough if one day they made Chief Clerk in Bata, or even Regional Manager.  But times were changing.  Nigerian Nationalism was gaining strength and as it did so, it was creating exciting possibilities for the Nigerian capitalist.

In 1948, he was sent on a training programme to Czechoslovakia.  In 1949, Nnamdi Azikiwe gave a landmark speech on anti-colonial independence in Washington D.C.  Owning the Bata shoe was a near-religious experience. It was a well-made shoe, not stylish, reliable, exclusive, sold in a store where the smell of leather and organised display, and professional sales-person gave the concrete impression of owning something very special.

The reality was that very few Nigerians could afford Bata shoes or the Bata experience, and this was especially clear to the enterprising young man who recognised his opportunity in the sale of second-hand shoes. It is alleged that it was through one major shipment of second hand shoes that his wealth was made, or shall we say, established.

Allegedly, once this shipment of second hand shoes had been successfully introduced to the Nigerian market, he gained the ability to reinvent his identity; an opportunity that only having the means could afford.

Choosing a public persona that made an impression was key.  Like the monarch, the masquerade, the minister of the Roman Catholic or Anglican Church, he had not only to dress the part, but also harness the supernatural, to create the idea of something bigger than just a man, bigger than just a Mr. somebody.

He recreated his past, changed his last name; bought association to royalty; acquired titles and added appendages to his changed name.  He married a White woman.  He discarded the White woman, organised a rambling household with many superfluous servants and beautiful light skinned women.

He fathered many children.  He promoted the image of the autonomous Nigerian; the New Nationalist, albeit a particularly flamboyant one, thumbing his nose at multi-national corporations and other small enterprises that were owned by foreigners, and had dominated the Black African economy for many years, and of course colonialism…a particularly aggressive Nigerian entrepreneur, able to define his own frontiers, rule his own people, choose his own moral boundaries.  His timing seemed impeccable.

His wealth, his charisma, and his ambitions were employed at exactly the right time. He became a member of the first Nigerian National party, the NCNC.  His contemporaries were Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mallam Aminu Kano, Herbert Macaulay, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Margaret Ekpo.

Basil Davidson notes that Nigerian Nationalists were not perfect.  It is a superfluous observation.  The critical thing was the body of ideas about self-governance and the future of a Nigeria that seemed held together by very loose threads.

So, this man was not perfect, but his flaws began to manifest themselves in the most dramatic ways, especially in the way that he dressed himself.  His wrappers were 30 feet of cloth.

His hats were adorned with extravagant plumage.  He wore black English bowler hats brushed till there was not a lint in sight; priceless corals and gold, and the ultimate finishing touch to the man of means wardrobe; the walking cane.

Ms. YEMISI OGBE, a  public affairs analyst, wrote from Lagos.


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