AND so perhaps the Nigerian culture of disrespect is not remarkable. Yet, the stories that mark our peculiar culture are unique and fascinating.
They suggest that the Nigerian is daily, excruciatingly demeaned on all levels in Nigeria, but somehow also, remains forever optimistic that his lot in life will change, things will improve; his psyche is rarely ever completely demeaned. It will be criminal of me not to note that a betterment of lot means that one day, one will also find someone to demean as a necessary accessory of becoming elevated.
The environment itself is peculiar. Everything, including all opportunities for advancement, seem to be touched with some measure of illegality or compromise of the person, or fluidity of values.
It is better not to be too virtuous in Nigeria, some people say. The man who is paid N10,000 by his employer for keeping a garden, who sometimes sells some diesel taken from his employer’s house does so with the highest sense of justification. His employer is a rich man, he can afford the loss of 50 litres of diesel every other week.
And really, he knows that his employer knows that no one can really live on just N10,000 a month. His employer knows he is stealing his diesel, but looks the other way.
The mentality is that everyone steals in Nigeria, so the aim is to hire the most considerate of thieves; the one that steals from you with the greatest “show” of modesty and skill, and always pay a salary that takes theft into consideration. The things that are left unsaid in this relationship are the most important.
Why doesn’t the employer pay the employee well? The question seems almost too relative. So maybe the employer is also paying his employee’s children’s tuition fees and providing a roof over his head, but those things cannot be taken for granted, and for that reason, they give the employer a sense of paternity, and the employee, one of the wayward child.
There is nothing nearing equality in their relationship; also rarely is there a real sense of pride in the employee and in carrying out his work. If the employee’s work were valued highly, then his pay should indicate that value…in an ideal world. Sometimes, the employee’s self esteem is boosted by stealing from his employer. When he comes in the morning, he greets his employer by bowing himself to the floor.
He adds “sir” to the end of every sentence, never looks his employer in the eye, and doesn’t speak unless he is spoken to. Sometimes, he endures berating or verbal abuses from his employer, as if he were a child, but if he can steal from him, then he has somehow outwitted him, and this employer is not so smart after all or so elevated.
Nigerians love the rungs of the ladder. Love the fact that people are compelled to know their place, compelled to earn their place by whatever means to suit the context.
The equality of all Nigerians would be a hard sell on any level in Nigeria. If we were all equal, then something very valuable would be lost. The rungs need to be kept intact so that the top can remain as excruciatingly enjoyable as possible. If anyone can use the same crockery as I use, then my fork becomes completely functional, and I will lose the enjoyment of its curves and its reflection of light, and craftsmanship.
A Nigerian diplomat in the ’80s visited a Nigerian monarch’s house in London. The monarch’s wife had recently died, and a delegation had been sent to commiserate with him. The diplomat’s first observation, or confusion on entering the house arose from the pictures on the wall.
They were mostly of the revered political leader, Obafemi Awolowo and his wife. The diplomat wondered why a person would adorn the totality of his walls with pictures of another man and his wife.
This was odd enough, but then they were showed into a living room in which the monarch was receiving guests, and there at the feet of the monarch, playing with his toes, was a former governor of a South-Western state in Nigeria. It seemed also, to be the most natural thing that these monarch’s toes were being massaged by this man.
The incongruity of the whole picture was lost in the fact that no one seemed uncomfortable in the room. The man playing with the monarch’s toes had not only been a former state governor, he was a professional man. He was at that time, managing director of a Nigerian newspaper.
He sat on the floor in his suit and shoes, and it was the most natural thing in the world. And there were the levels, the deference of the monarch to the man on his walls, and the deference of the man sitting on the floor to the one on the throne. All the progressive Nigerians in that room on that day understood perfectly the political connotations of the setting.
The Nigerian mentality is not so straightforward. If every Nigerian knows his place, and understands when to get on and massage a monarch’s toes, why is it that so many Nigerians scramble for the top? Why are we not more laid back, as we say, like the Ghanaians or Cameroonians? Why don’t we let the elites alone and not try to be one of them.
Why are there so many Nigerian big men? In the 1980s, the British government was compelled to make up its own list of which Nigerians were truly worthy of diplomatic recognition, and this was necessitated by the fact that they were inundated with calls from Nigeria requesting that Honourable So and So be picked up from the airport and looked after for the duration of his visit. Nigerians were said to have the longest list ever of VIPs.
The issue is that in order for the elite in society to truly survive, a large group of people must agree to be otherwise. In Nigeria, there is some serious crowding at the top, and the result is the creation of a nation of posers. In a country where wealth is so ostentatiously paraded, where the poor are doubly demeaned, it perhaps makes sense that everyone wants to be rich in Nigeria, as a guarantee against our scorching kind of disrespect.
Everyone needs must have a title of some sort in Nigeria. One’s name is either prefixed with one’s choice of career such as “Engineer” or “Architect” or by one’s religious beliefs; “Elder” in the church or “JP” for Jerusalem Pilgrim. Married women are compelled to insist on their complimentary cards that they are Mrs. Sombody.
The titles Nigerians adopt border on the ridiculous, and the theatrical; titles like Honourable, Excellency… The peculiarities do not end there. I once worked at a pre-school as an administrator. Parents were encouraged to send in gifts one day in the year to appreciate their teachers.
The parents called a meeting the previous year on doing something special for teachers, like getting them manicures or taking them out to lunch. One parent registered her surprise at the suggestion by saying it was analogous to giving a manicure to her maid!
Ms. YEMISI OGBE, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Lagos.