Sometimes in the seventies, I had reasons to visit Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, the first Nigerian Chief Justice of the Federation. As usual, the person I met was not anywhere near a famed man of royalty and power, his grandfather was the Alake of Egbaland.
I met a soft-spoken man who exuded so much simplicity. It was a late afternoon and the conversation probably dragged longer than he expected.
He realised he was running late for his next appointment. Could I drop him off? I was alarmed! ‘I came in a Volkswagen (Beetle) sir.’ I said somewhat apologetically. What’s wrong with a Beetle? It’s a good car’. He retorted. And so he crammed himself – he wasn’t a small man – in the passenger seat and we chatted away as I drove him to his next appointment.
The Beetle is a two-door, common man’s car with little room – literally –for any form of luxury. It had no air-conditioner yet this big man willingly sat by my side as he told me of his youthful days.
This gesture from a larger-than-life man made a huge impression on my young mind. About this time, I had another big man who was a fairly regular passenger in my Beetle. Uncle Sam Amuka was my boss at the Punch.
He was my Managing Director when I was just a Features Writer with several layers between us. Yet he thought nothing of going out with me on some Sundays for squash. And if he felt any discomfort or disdain for my Beetle, he never showed it. Except perhaps once.
He felt I was driving recklessly and he found himself pressing an imaginary brake. I asked him what he was doing and he said ‘I don’t want die in a Volks’. We laughed. If you knew Uncle Sam, then you would understand the comment. It had little to do with the car.
It is good to bring up memories like this in a country where cars have become a status symbol and certain people would not want to be seen dead or alive in what they considered low class cars.
We are in an era when a Senator can boast of his collection of choice cars unabashedly. We live in an age where children can tell their fathers not to pick them from school in a certain car because it was not air-conditioned. Some have been known to show open displeasure when drivers came for them in what they considered small cars.
We who walked to school while our parents – those who had cars- drove past us, have so indulged our children that they could influence what cars should take them to school under the ridiculous reason that their peers would laugh at them.
We concede to them – to our shame- probably because they learnt those values from us. We flaunt cars as exhibition rather than utility. We parade choice cars at public functions so people would know we arrived in style. Some girls now assess the car a guy takes to a party before agreeing on a date.
I had the best of fun with my Volks. Even when I eventually had another car, it was my ‘cruising car’. If cars could talk of escapades, my Beetle would write a book. But in today’s world, I probably would have been dateless. That’s how warped our values have become.
Our grandparents did not teach our parents to worship money. Neither did they teach us. Money was a god we discovered ourselves. Our grandparents bequeathed education, hard work and integrity to us. But this was before we discovered easy money through oil. Then we lost respect for anything that was not dominated in dollars and anyone who was not displaying affluence.
So Professionals and University Professors resigned to become contractors. And Import Licences made emergency millionaires out of dedicated Civil Servants and Manufacturers. The successful businessmen were not the produce farmers or the business owners but ‘fronts’ known as Manufacturers’ Representatives.
We got to a stage when the number of containers you had at the wharf became the topic at parties among a particular group of Nigerians. We gradually substituted intellect, professionalism and integrity for lucre.
We tried to buy respect instead of trying to earn it. In doing so, we tried to camouflage a deep-seated inferiority complex with open, uninhibited conversations around money; an inner emptiness with an outward display of wealth. And in our loud, sometimes vulgar display of wealth, we forget the saying that ‘an empty drum makes the most noise’.
What happened in Oba, a sleepy village in Anambra State a fortnight ago was a metaphor for the social malaise in the country. What Obi Cubana and his friends did was nothing new. Many Nigerians, including those you would think should know better have been going overboard to give their loved ones befitting burials.
Many have borrowed money to bury their dead. Some have sold properties. Pre-Covid weddings had become insanely exhibitionist with the rich going to lengths to out-do themselves. As we speak, it said that a high-level committee is allegedly being assembled for the wedding ceremony of the President’s son.
If true, you have to ask why the President’s son can‘t marry quietly given the situation and the mood in the country. At least, it was not said that Cubana used State funds in his distasteful display of money.
We cannot say the same thing of weddings and burials involving top politicians. So those who are criticising Cubana should ask themselves what they would have done if they had the money or if they had friends with money.
Those who have sold properties to ‘turn the side’ of their long dead mothers should look at the mirror. Those who have had destination weddings in three different exotic destinations should look at the mirror.
Those who think nothing of spraying bundles of Naira at parties should look at the mirror. Those who have graduated to spraying in dollars no matter how small the denomination should examine themselves. There is a potential Cubana in many of us.
Last Sunday was the first World Grandparents and Elders’ Day. It was an acknowledgement finally, of the role elders play in the society as custodians of history, traditions and values. All societies respect their elders. Many value their counsel.
It is often said that a people without elders is heading for chaos because they are a symbol of stability. We have to ask ourselves if this unhealthy and insane worship of money was something our elders handed down to us.
My experience was that it was not. And I was fortunate to have met quite a few of our founding fathers in the course of my work. One of them being the said Sir Adetokunbo Ademola.