Few years ago, I received correspondence from a group in Nigeria regarding helping them source for business partners in the United States. I noticed that every member of the group whose name appeared on the group’s letterhead had some kind of title before his or her name. Three members were “Drs.,” two were “Engineers,” one was “Barrister,” and another was “Geophysicist.”
But, most surprisingly, there was “Information Technologist so, so and so.” Included in the correspondence were the business cards of the signatories. On the business cards, in addition to the earlier mentioned titles in front of the names, there was a list of degrees and awards after the names. For instance, one “Dr.” had “B.Sc. (Hons), M.Sc., M.B.A., Ph.D., J.Dip.,” and the “Barrister” had “LLB (Hons), BL, LLM, SAN, OFR,” and underneath the name were “Barrister and Solicitor, and Senior Advocate of Nigeria.” Apart from the redundancy of some of these titles, the need to announce all of them through business cards was not obvious to me.
Then I attended an event that a fellow lawyer hosted in honor of some visiting Nigerian officials in Washington, D.C. Few weeks later, the same colleague hosted a send-off party in honor of a diplomat with the Nigerian Embassy in D.C. On October 1 of the same year, I attended the independence celebration both at the embassy and the ambassador’s house in D.C. On each of these occasions, the lip-service was the same -- obscenely gratuitous and sedative: “His Excellency” (referring to the ambassador on one occasion, to the sent-off lower-level diplomat on another occasion, and to even the military attaché at the October 1 celebrations), “the Honorable” to an embassy staffer without clarity as to his duties or why he was "honorable," “the Honorable Director-General,” “the Honorable Permanent Secretary,” “the Honorable Chairman” (but I could not even tell what he chaired), “the Honorable Barrister,” “the Esteemed Senior Advocate of Nigeria” (although one is already forced to believe that he was “esteemed” by being called a Senior Advocate of Nigeria), and even “the Honorable Minister of Finance” to the embassy’s accountant. Kai!
Along the same line, I remember visiting Lagos about a year ago and seeing a chauffeur-driven “big man” in a Hyundai Excel. As I turned to be amazed, my amazement turned into a knee-jerk amusement when I saw a chauffer-driven Volkswagen Bug/Beetle. Then the Nigeria that I knew and almost forgot came back to me. I remember thinking back to the end of terms in those days in secondary school -- the chauffer-driven but air-polluting two-door Toyota Daihatsu that picked up one of my classmates, who had the audacity to mock another classmate because his father (not a chauffer) picked him up in a 404 Peugeot. Then there was the order of pomposity according to the positions of the students’ fathers in government -- children of ministers snubbed children of permanent secretaries, children of judges looked down on children of magistrates, children of judges wanted to differentiate those with fathers on state high court from those with fathers on federal high court, and children of police commissioners revered those whose fathers were assistant inspector generals (AIGs). Oh no, forget about the few children of farmers! Their usefulness began and ended with whether they had superior knowledge of Add Maths or tough physics problems. My university was no different, except that there was a higher rate of “forgiveness” for “correct” students whose fathers were not affluent or government-connected.
I also remember visiting my hometown during one Christmas period. There was a luncheon to raise money for the village. All the rich people were there from their respective places of residence across the country, mostly from Lagos and Abuja, and mostly to show off their wealth and not for their feelings for the villagers. The village people spread the red carpet for everyone with money. The worship of mammon was exhaustive, the attention to material possessions detailed, and the lip-service almost embarrassing, as the praise-singing was deafening.
As we sat during the luncheon, my cousin who knew everything about everyone began giving me the backgrounds of the VIP. One VIP made his money through 419, and had two mansions in the village and a fleet of cars. Another VIP was rumored to be in the armed robbery “business,” and had several properties in the area, including a hotel where, it was also rumored, he gathered with his robbery buddies. The rumors were credible because he had dropped out of secondary school, did not have any trade or mainstream skills, but suddenly became rich and built a hotel. Then there was an aide to a former governor. The aide had bought cars for all his family members, had three wives (one was 40 years his junior), had a mansion in the village, one in Abuja, and a fleet of cars. There was a retired police inspector, who made about 15,000 naira (about $120) a month for years but managed to own a mansion in the village, one in his mother’s village, another in Lagos, and several vehicles. There was a retired navy commander. Simply put, he was rich! Even one VIP used to be a security guard at a governor’s personal house, and he was rich. One VIP worked for NNPC, although it was not clear what he did for them or how he got rich, yet he had a bachelors degree in history and the history of crude oil could not have been that valuable at NNPC. I could continue, but I believe you get the picture. They reminded me of what my favorite musician, Fela, said about such VIP -- "Vagabonds in Power."
Back in the U.S., meanwhile, I once attended a birthday party for the sister of an acquaintance. It was supposed to be a simple birthday party as I had been used to in the U.S. for over 20 years. Good company, food, drinks, music, the cake, and the annoying chorus of “happy birthday to you,” period. But I was in for a surprise. The party was in a rented hall -- a huge hall. It took me back to Nigeria. To begin with, everyone was late mostly because coming early meant you had nothing better to do and you were not important. The party was to begin at 6:00 p.m., but only a few people were there at 8:30 p.m. when I showed up, and I was rushing because I thought I was very late, as I left the courthouse late that day. In fact, the Nigerian D.J. was just setting up his gadgets when I got there. I forgot it was a Nigerian party! I had to go run some errands and come back.
When the party ultimately began at midnight, the display was definitely Nigerian and owambę. The attires were flamboyant and alive. There were flowing laces, artistic head ties, green shoes, red shoes, yellow shoes, even purple and gold shoes, dangling musical bracelets, long colorful and sometimes beaded earrings, and a strong, eye-watering riot of perfumes, colognes and sweat. Then there was an array of self-aggrandizing paraphernalia -- music CD in praises of the celebrant, mugs, paper towels, cups, and plates with a picture of the celebrant, you name it. The showmanship did not stop there.
There was a historical speech about the celebrant, which was full of praises and a list of her accomplishments. The husband and children were displayed for us to appreciate. We found out that the son majored in Engineering and had a 4.0 GPA in Georgia Tech. As the celebrant was from a household related to an oba (it was not clear which oba it was), the family members were introduced as “Prince this and Princess that.” Of course, she was “Princess this.” Then it happened -- the signature sprinkle! Yes, the Nigerian money-sprinkle! The celebrant danced (I believe it was Lagbaja or some music like that), and the people sprinkled money all over her. Some members of the audience clapped, a lot danced around her, and others scrutinized the dollar bills to see if the bills were one-dollar bills or ten-dollar-bills. Why not hundred? After all, she was a princess. My American-born Colombian companion asked me why the sprinkle, and I told her that "it was a long story" after she failed to comprehend my statement that “it was our culture” -- and, mind you, Colombians appreciate culture.
During lunch one day in my law office, I encountered a heated discussion about age. There were two other Nigerians beside me, a Jamaican, a Black American, and a Caucasian couple. The discussion began with the Nigerian woman demanding respect from the other Nigerian because she was older than him by two months. No one but the Nigerians understood what she meant, and even I was taken aback because I never really believed in that custom. She wanted the other Nigerian not to address her by her first name, but to use “madame.” Not that I did not believe in respecting elders, but they must be truly elders; they must also earn my respect, not demand it. The Americans were amused because the idea of calling someone “madame,” instead of her name, reminded them of a stiff butler in a wealthy British household. Meanwhile, both the younger Nigerian and I had lived in the U.S. for over 20 years, and were used to calling people by their first names. He refused to use “madame,” and I could not blame him. I suggested a compromise -- “Mrs. whatever the woman’s last name was.” So World War III was averted in my law office.
These stories and figments epitomize the psyche of our Nigerian nation. In Nigeria, titles and demands for respect, not individual achievements, define us, and titles do not necessarily come from individual achievements. Titles and respects are fungible -- they are common commodities. They are not the symbols of meritocracy, but the mark of a truly empty vessel. Individual achievement itself is defined loosely -- actually single-mindedly -- it means "money," whether earned or stolen. In most cases, titles bring achievements, as the demand for respect is the marking of territories for future gains. A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), for instance, is not necessarily a senior advocate because he has advocated in a senior way -- he advocates in a senior way because he is a senior advocate.
Psychologists have long believed that narcissism is a cover for, or a function of, low self-esteem. The belief is that those who are truly empty are preemptory in their demands for respect to ward off those who might otherwise discover the emptiness. It is in the same spirit that "the empty vessel makes the loudest noise." The only difference in Nigeria, however, is that the noise of the empty vessel attracts the quick filling of the vessel. Even those who hitherto are reluctant to parade their accomplishments in the U.S. are forced to do so in Nigeria because they could not achieve anything in Nigeria without their titles. Why should we care about all these? Because it is that national psyche that drives corruption in Nigeria.
I have always said that the primary reason why a Nigerian governor would steal so much money and use the state's funds to buy a private jet is showmanship -- the idea of outdoing his colleagues, the idea of demanding respect, and the titles of demarcation (from the common man) that come with the show of wealth. You see, it is the same psyche that makes Nigerian "leaders" think of themselves as gods, not servants. To them, the people of the country are their servants, instead of the leaders being the people's servants (or, at the very least, the stewards of democracy). The average Nigerian official is a fool for the red carpet. Whether in a military or civilian administration, Nigerian "leaders" rule, not lead. Why? Because they suffer from low self-esteem, paranoia, delusion, and narcissistic personality disorder -- what I call "the political syndrome of low self-esteem," and others call "the Napoleon or Napoleonic complex."
They succeed, however, because average Nigerians have fallen deep into the worship of mammon, yet they cannot worship God and mammon at the same time. Whether our worship of mammon came from the British system in colonial times of appointing Nigerian clerks and convincing those clerks to see themselves as better than other Nigerians, or it is an animalistic complex that is compounded by years of deprivation and the new-found access to Western comfort, we are afflicted with the showman syndrome, which is not far from the syndrome of premature gratification. As the showman syndrome and the syndrome of premature gratification mean short cuts to wealth, we Nigerians are corrupt because the shortest cuts to wealth are criminal activities either in government or in private domain.
The ordinary Nigerian is a co-dependent and/or an accomplice. Until it begins to matter in our towns and villages where our sons and daughters acquired their riches, instead of celebrating those riches without discrimination, we cannot stop corruption in government. Until we begin to disrespect ill-gotten gains and shame those who acquire them, we cannot stop corruption in government. Until we stop referring to every Tom, Dick and Harry as "honorable" (without regard to the lack of honor in them) or "his or her Excellency" (notwithstanding not being excellent in anything), we cannot stop corruption in government. Until we stop answering our fathers "sir," instead of "dad," we cannot bridge the gap of servitude that wards off our question of authority in government. Until we demand the basis of respect for our leaders, we cannot hang them for no leadership. Until we stop using words like "rulers" to refer to our supposed "leaders," we cannot complain that we are being "ruled." You see, the psyche of wealth worship and showmanship is what creates the rule of men. The rule of law -- our desperate need in Nigeria -- is no respecter of wealth and certainly does not bow to showmanship. But that rule must begin with a change in national psyche. The psyche of showmanship has not worked for our country.
Theo I. Ogune practices law in Maryland, U.S.A.