It’s time we stopped romancing “Respect” in Nigeria

By Dominic Ayegba Okoliko

I recently had a conversation with a friend who mentioned to me a saying that got me thinking about recent events in Nigeria. I cannot remember precisely what it was that we were discussing, but I remember my friend, James Azam, a Ghanaian, saying to me: “Any man who must say, ‘I am the king’, is no true king”.

If you have watched ‘Game of Thrones’, you would have realised that my friend got that line from a character called Lord Tywin Lannister, the patriarch of the House of Lannister of Casterly Rock

I have no interest in boring you with the details of the character or a review of the movie which, I believe, has had deserving attention. Instead, I want to direct your attention to how the occasions that warranted Lord Lannister’s words mirror some of the recent happenings in Nigeria that I think deserve our collective reflection.

Let me begin with this: “Who do you think you are talking to?” The infamous line is a direct quote from Femi Fani-Kayode (FFK), who lashed out at a DailyTrust’s reporter in a press briefing last year. The latter had innocently asked him to furnish the media with information regarding how the former minister was financing his tour around PDP-governed states.

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Rather than taking the question in good faith and attempt to sell the goodwill he claimed to possess towards the course he was set on, FFK felt irked and lost it on the reporter. We might need to distance his outburst from the reporter a little bit, and this is in no way an attempt to underrate the harm done to the journalist in question. No one deserves to be treated the way he was treated.

However, I would argue that FFK’s reaction is really against what he perceived to be a threat to the power he has appropriated as a political leader. I will stretch it further to say that FFK’s outburst has everything to do with a culture of ‘respect’ in Nigeria which we have wrongfully exalted beyond what is necessary.

Our society has a long history of “bigmanism” or what others regard as a big man syndrome. I will describe bigmanism as a state of unchallenged power. Those who suffer from the syndrome believe that they are not just powerful but exist outside the spheres where power is shared. For them, “respect” is equated with getting others to do their bidding unreservedly. When they are in your face, be sure that they would remind you of their status, and by throwing it to your face, they wish to force you into obedience.

While bigmanism is largely associated with autocratic regimes in Political Science, a closer look at our society will convince any critical mind that the syndrome lives and breathes in the different spheres of our lives.

If we are to take a census of how many of us have been told or have used these words: “Do you know who I am?”, you would be surprised that many Nigerians have had a fair share of the usage. When used, the intention is always to compel respect.

We see it in the ways our traditional leaders cut off their subjects from questioning how they appropriate the powers which come with their stool of office. Bigmanism is also in religious circles: Our pastors demand unquestionable respect, and our Imams’ words always carry a tone of finality.

Do not get me wrong: I am not an advocate of disrespect. Respect is an excellent social trait to be encouraged. But looking the other way because the one who did wrong is an elder is no respect.

Operating under a self-given standard because you are a leader while your subjects walk the tight rope of the rule of law is not respect. Driving against traffic because you are a Major in the Armed Forces is not respect. Having armed men to escort you about with their penchant for torturing other citizens in the name of clearing a path for you is not respect. In short, being ‘Oga’ as we know it in Nigeria is not the same as respect.

Before I tell you why, let me return to Lord Lannister that I introduced earlier. His words were addressed to his grandson, Joffrey Baratheon, a young, crowned king of Westeros. The king, in the movie, is known as an amoral sadist with no interest in governance.

On the occasion in question, he was about his usual tantrum and perceiving a disrespectful comment from his uncle, Lord Tyrion Lannister. The king then turned to the only weapon he thought was best used to command respect: “I am the king”. Lord Tywin Lannister had to remind him; if he truly was one, no one needed a reminder.

Our big men are as empty as King Baratheon; hence, they always feel the need to go about announcing themselves with a loud cry. Their emptiness also makes them fear scrutiny. Recall that recently, President Muhammadu Buhari was invited to address the National Assembly on his stewardship regarding security in Nigeria. The administration initially honoured the invitation but later cancelled it.

I would like you to pay attention to the actions of the APC governors which preceded the cancellation. They were the first to prevail on the president to cancel the planned visit. Their arguments were: 1) That such an occasion would set a precedent for state assemblies to follow and 2) that the president would risk exposure to crossfire from the lawmakers in the opposition party.

Both reasons highlight one thing: Our leaders fear accountability. Our big men in power have no interest in transparency. And when we look at how much we lose because those who lead often want to go about our affairs unaccountable, we must agree with Fela that “Bigmanism [has] spoil[ed our] government”.

Yet, if the big men in Nigeria have been so successful with their impositions, it is primarily because we, the people, often grant them the freedom to do so. At every turn when the occasion presents itself for a public leader (in the circular, religious, or traditional circles) to account for a phase of their lives that the public demands to scrutinise, one is immediately reminded by loyalists that such leaders are untouchable.

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You will start hearing words like: “Touch not my anointed”, or when it has to do with political leaders, “you are a bitter hater”. It is under this guise that the civic space which is fast receding must be understood. Any voice or group that rises to demand accountability is immediately matched by another voice or group shielding the big men.

And while the two camps fight, they are the true losers. It is the ordinary people, not the big men, that suffer when essential services such as education, health, and infrastructures are lacking.

Nigerians should heed Fela’s advice:

“We the people must understand as citizens

We are part of government

And as citizens, we the people give government officials empowerment

When government officials start to think that they better pass we the citizens

Bigmanism done enter the equation, government done start to lose their common sense” (Taken from Fela’s track, Na Bigmanism Spoil Government).

Therefore, when next big men remind us that they are big men, we must tell them, we too have respect.

Dominic is studying towards a doctoral degree at the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

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