The un-Nigerian art of giving honour to whom it is due

This speech was delivered on Saturday, the 21st of July, 2018, at Ideacon Abuja.

My name is Adekunle Adebajo and I shall be speaking on the topic, the un-Nigerian art of giving honour to whom it is due.

But before I proceed, I would like to give honour to whom honour is due by saying good day Mr Chairman, panel of judges, members of the high table, my co-debaters, accurate timekeeper, and my ever-attentive audience.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I ask how many of us can relate to this introduction? … Marvelous! I am pretty sure this cliché is still widely used in many of our schools, especially public ones which people like me attended. We find students always greeting Mr Chairman, even if there is none at the event or the chairperson is a Mrs. We also find them giving their respect to members of the high table, even if there are only chairs in the auditorium.

We may laugh at him all we want, but many of us are really like this typical secondary school debater. Regardless of what event we find ourselves, regardless of the persons in attendance, regardless of our unique realities, we “give honour to whom it is due” like programmed, mechanical robots. And that is the issue I have come to draw our attention to.

We have heard people say countless times that the problem of Nigeria is the corruption of social values. Our problem is that Nigerians love money too much. People, in fact, suggest that Nigeria and corruption are synonyms and there is nothing we can do about it. One of our leaders said it is the goat and yam syndrome. Another one gave it an indigenous name; he called it “Iberiberism”.

Well, while my perspective can be said to be a subset of “the social value theory”, I do not agree Nigerians have corruption running through their veins. Neither do I think a people need necessarily to be morally upright in order to make progress — at least by worldly standards. The global human development index and the global GDP index do not care if a country is full of homosexuals or full of monks and nuns… All we need, to progress, is to know when to say yes and when to say no, when to say “thumbs up” and when to cry: “hey! what’s up?”

In journalism, there is something we call public interest. In essence, it means if it does not affect the people, then it does not concern the people. And if it does concern the people, why write about it? In the same vein, we must also learn to focus our moral lenses on the radar of public interest and public morality. In other words, this talk is not about your neighbour who is a chronic liar or your colleague, the kleptomaniac. It is about the governor who tells his citizen to “go and die”.

It is about the senator who has been in the house for eight years, but the only thing he has sponsored successfully is the education of his children in Ivy League universities. It is about the Special Adviser who says the masses are animals that are “raving mad”. It is about the public official who gives no hoot about public needs, but only cares about private greed. And it is, most of all, about the fact that you and I worship these people one way or the other, one place or the other — regardless of their many unforgivable sins.

We are like what Malcolm X called the house negro. He said:

During slavery you had two Negroes. You had the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negro usually lived close to his master. He dressed like his master. He wore his master’s second-hand clothes. He ate food that his master left on the table. And he lived in his master’s house — probably in the basement or the attic — but he still lived in the master’s house. So whenever that house Negro identified himself, he always identified himself in the same sense that his master identified himself. When his master said, “We have good food,” the house Negro would say, “Yes, we have plenty of good food.” “We” have plenty of good food. When the master said that “we have a fine home here,” the house Negro said, “Yes, we have a fine home here.” When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with his master he’d say, “What’s the matter boss, we sick?” His master’s pain was his pain. And it hurt him more for his master to be sick than for him to be sick himself. When the house started burning down, that type of Negro would fight harder to put the master’s house out than the master himself would.

This situation is perfectly captured by a concept known as the Stockholm syndrome, which I prefer to rather call the Stockholm paradox.

Let me tell you about my boss, the Executive Director of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting: Mr Dayo Aiyetan. Years ago when he was still a reporter like myself, he was at a governor’s house to conduct an interview. Now, his chair was placed several feet away from that of the governor. He thought this arrangement quite strange so he drew it much closer and placed it beside the governor. But the governor’s aides would have none of that sacrilege. They shouted at him and frantically asked that he create a wider gap, apparently because they thought of the governor as a sort of demi-god. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Nigeria.

The cause?

When we open our minds to question, what could be the cause of this baffling state of affairs, the easy answer would be poverty. Of course, we are right; except that it is not the poverty of the pockets but that of the mind.

Imagine that as I conclude this address, a top politician walks in and up to the high table, what will be the reaction of the audience? I’ll tell you. In most cases, though the person has come late, delay the participants for many hours without an apology, the people seated will actually feel blessed and not irritated. They will stand up and clap to welcome him. They will say, “Wow! The Senate President actually came? And I thought the organisers would not be able to pull it off.” They will not say, “We will not have it o!”, but “Ah! We thank God o.” In fact, the MC will probably interrupt the programme to “acknowledge the presence of so and so”, use four or five minutes to read his long profile, and thank him “for gracing the occasion”, when he is in fact disgracing the occasion.

That reaction is typical even though majority, if not all, of us in this room are well above the poverty line and can afford some luxuries of life. What then is the explanation? It is lies here, in our minds — our minds which tell us it is the way things are meant to be because it is the way things have always been.

Our elders are always right, we must grovel at their feet. The younger ones are always clueless, we must gag them — or, at worst, pretend to listen them. The Senior Advocate is always respectable. The shoemaker is always ignorant and lazy. And, of course, politicians have always been gods, we must worship them — except they are from a party we don’t like. It is these generalisations our minds feed often us; and it is these generalisations we must get rid of.

Way forward

As this problem is essentially behavioural, the solutions must stem from a change in behaviour. On this occasion, I shall propose two of such solutions that are within our grasp. The first is knowledge. But this I shall subdivide into two: one is the knowledge of right and wrong, and two is the knowledge of who is right and who isn’t.

We must all arm ourselves with knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. It may sound elementary, but interacting with Nigerians on various levels and in various places shows many of us either do not know or are not willing to admit what is right and what is wrong. Many cannot fathom why it is wrong to litter the streets. Many sincerely do not know it is wrong to jump a queue or request someone at the front to assist you. And there are those who, in all truth, see nothing wrong in a little embezzling of money or, say, forging of an NYSC certificate. To people in this category, the thieving politician is only helping himself and the genocidal Chief of Army Staff is only defending himself.

Yet again, we must seek knowledge not only of ethics but of people — people in power. We should not only know the fact that they are in power and in what capacity they are in power, but how they have either used or abused that power. It is only with this knowledge we can engage them critically and challenge how they manage public resources. To the average mind, OBJ is just a former president of Nigeria and perhaps even a respected statesman. But to the knowledgeable mind, he is more. He does not only have answers to questions of politics, he also has questions to answer on politics.

Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump visited the United Kingdom, and almost everywhere he went, people demonstrated. When CNN interviewed some of the protesters and asked why they left their homes for the demonstration, they said they are against his style of leadership, his position on immigrants, his position on childbirth*, and especially his position on climate change. Therefore, they would not have been on the streets if they were not knowledgeable about the issues, not only of national significance but global concern.

Let Trump come to Nigeria, I am certain thousands will scamper to have a look at and wave at him; and hundreds will fall by his sides in attempt to take a selfie with him to show off on Instagram.

Remember the words of Harriet Tubman:

I freed a thousand slaves, but I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.

Finally, we also need the blade of courage wrapped with the handle of integrity. Without courage, you will be unable to stand out from the bandwagon against the powers-that-be. But if you the blade of courage will cut your hands if you wield it without the harmless handle of integrity. So not only should we have the courage to deploy the knowledge we have gathered, we must have the discipline to act right by others at all times.

Concluding remarks …

The question that must be hovering above many of our minds since this talk started must be: what is the point of all this anyway. Why do we need to be critical of public officers? Why do we need to question their official actions and inactions? Why should we be careful whom we honour and whom we respect?

I have no answer to this. Or rather, I have no better answer than was provided five years ago by Rotimi Amaechi, now Minister for Transportation… What did he say?

“If you see a thief and you allow him to be stealing, what have you done? You have stoned nobody; that is why we are stealing. Who have you stoned? … If you don’t take your destiny in your hands, we will go and other leaders will come and continue stealing.”

Many of these politicians live far away from the reality of suffering that besets the people. Living in their government reserved areas and highly walled mansions, driving in their black tinted cars or flying miles above the people, listening to the sugar-coated lies of sycophants on a daily basis… they don’t really know.

Even when the President eventually paid visits to the Chibok community, they made sure the ground was rid of red blood and covered with red carpet, just to create an illusion of magnificence and perfection. So, we must remind them each time we get the opportunity of the true state of things. We must not allow ourselves to be continuously taken for granted.

If you think you are leading and turn around to see no one following, then you are just taking a walk — Benjamin Hooks.

Remember Bamidele Aturu, of blessed memory, who in 1988 triggered national consciousness by refusing to be awarded the best corps member of the year. He refused to shake the hands of the then military governor of Niger state as a protest against military.

Remember Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer, among other conscientious objectors, who refused to be enlisted to wage war in Vietnam. Both Aturu and Ali knew they could not significantly stop military rule or the Indo-China war, so they at least refused to participate an individuals in those processes.

They did not say, like most Nigerians: “If you cannot beat them, join them”. No. Instead, they believed: If you cannot beat them, at least do not assist them… and just maybe, that will in the end lead to their defeat.

I am not saying we should all become activists. I am not saying we should all become rebels like Peter the Rock or Sowore the Disruptor. But we must always, always exercise care in where we invest our honour, and with whom we make deposits of our respect.

When next you come across that Senator or business mogul, first ask yourself: does this man or woman have an appreciable level of integrity, an appreciable level of decency, an appreciable level of social and emotional intelligence, that he may deserve my respect, my adoration, that he may deserve that I bow as I shake his hand, or that he may deserve that I even shake him at all.

When we glimmer with respect for others, we must let that light shine forth from the depth of our souls and the recesses of our reasoning… and not from mere impulse or the bottomless pit of our bellies.

… Ladies and gentlemen, if you would permit me to once again flash back to my days as a secondary school public speaker: with these “few” points of mine, I hope I have been to convince and not confuse you.

Thank you for listening.

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