Matriculation has been and gone, in a mercifully painless fashion, all things considered.
The ceremony was reasonably brief, the speeches not too mind-numbing and I managed to escape the evening dinner by pleading a prior engagement.
I got away with that because, as usual, the academic staff had been given absolutely no information about anything that was going to occur on the day. This was summed up by the fact that when I sat down in the (newly finished) auditorium just after the ceremony had begun, Mani turned to me and said:
“Are you going to read out the citations?”
“No.” I didn’t even bother to ask what these citations were, or why he would think I should be reading them out – if there’s one lesson I’ve learnt here it’s to get your refusal in early and stick to it no matter what.
“But I was told that you were going to read them.”
“I haven’t heard anything about this, and I’m not going to do it.”
“But I was told in a meeting on Monday that you had written them and that you would read them out.”
“Well I didn’t and I’m not going to.”
Fifteen minutes later I had pretty much the same conversation with David. But I did not relent. And I was damn glad I didn’t, because, of course, reading out these citations would have meant me trying to pronounce hugely long and complicated Nigerian names with no preparation. Even David stumbled over most of them, so I felt pretty vindicated on that score.
This minor blip aside, I was able to hide in the background, apart from standing up to recognise an embarrassingly loud (and high-pitched) cheer when I was introduced at the beginning, and posing in the blazing sun with George afterwards whilst a seemingly endless queue of students had their photos taken with us and our ridiculous gowns (red bordered with blue corduroy in my case – I’m not sure where they got the design from, but it bore precious little relation to the gown I actually graduated in).
The rest of the day passed with little trouble, until we got to the guest lectures in the late afternoon. The first of these was delivered in a dull monotone that was scarcely audible, and even less intelligible, and started over half an hour late because of assorted technical issues that involved various staff members standing around looking gormless. An area in which many of them are supremely over-qualified.
The second presentation was fairly interesting, and on the topic of our students needing to transform themselves into “full members of society”. The speaker elaborated on the idea that the ancient Greeks defined people as either being “citizens” (ie. those that took an active interest in public affairs and participated accordingly) or “idiots”, ie. those that took no interest in anything outside their own private lives.
Nigeria, a country that was always all about potential and never about achievement, she argued, needed students such as ours to step up and take on the mantle of citizens rather than allowing themselves to drift through life simply as idiots.
It was an interesting speech, and one which I thought was really useful for our students to hear. So, when questions were requested, I asked her what she thought the barriers to citizenship were in Nigeria, and how major an obstacle, for example, inequality was in blocking the path to full participation. As an example I asked about the Nigerian equivalent of the class system and how the notion of the “number 1 citizen” etc. seemed to me to be inherently against the idea of “citizenship” she was proposing.
I was hoping for an interesting answer to this question, as I genuinely think there’s a lot there to discuss. Unfortunately, the answer I got was effectively a paean to the Nigerian character, a suggestion that I basically just didn’t understand what I was talking about because I hadn’t been here very long, and an assertion that I didn’t understand that underneath the traditional systems of patronage and protocol lurked a flinty republican heart that wouldn’t brook any nonsense.
She also insisted that Nigeria had the most open democracy anywhere (yes, anywhere) in terms of offering people the potential to participate directly in politics, and that even under military rule, Nigeria had a “freer” press than many nations, which was fully capable of taking potshots at those in power.
I was a bit gobsmacked by this. Firstly, it was delivered in a very condescending fashion, and in a way that seemed calculated to make me look as if I was at best ignorant and at worst racist or neo-colonial. Secondly, most of it was just extremely hard to believe.
Unfortunately, I really wasn’t in a position to answer back, mostly because this was a guest lecturer at my university on matriculation day and getting into a ruck with her probably wouldn’t have made me look too good, but also because I knew that I had a dinner and friends awaiting me elsewhere, and the more talking there was, the longer I would have to wait until my first beer.
So I swallowed my pride and contented myself with a smile and a nod as if to say, thank you, you have cleared that up for me and in future I shall attempt not to be so stupid. This attitude of meek acceptance is not one that I adopt easily. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever done it before, so at least it was good practise.
I even managed not to take it personally, although the more I thought about her reply, the more nonsensical it became. Firstly, I totally agreed with the main thrust of her argument in the presentation – that Nigeria was a country “endlessly in a state of potentiality”, that needed a transformation in attitude if it was ever to achieve any of that undoubted promise. Forming citizens who were as aware of and committed to their duties as they were to their rights was a vital part of this “transformation”, exactly as she had argued.
If she had given her defense of the average Nigerian citizen and gone on to elucidate some of the challenges that faced the country in terms of how to fully and fairly involve all its people I would have been absolutely satisfied, even if I still would have felt slightly misunderstood.
However, according to her reply, there was no transformation needed, because the great Nigerian people were already there, with the republican spirit burning inside them. That was the first thing that didn’t make any sense to me – why say you need a transformation and then argue in the next moment that one is not needed?
I was also highly dubious of the “freedom of the press” argument, as attempts were made to bring Babangida to justice for, amongst other things, the high profile assassination of a journalist in the 1980s, and other instances of violence and intimidation were fairly common throughout military rule. There’s also the fact that it doesn’t matter what the papers are printing if most of the country can’t or don’t read it – but more on that in a second.
As for this democracy that was “most open” to people participating… where to begin? Firstly with the fact that Nigeria is only 13 years into democratic rule after 3 decades of military dominance which many are still nostalgic for. Secondly, it has not yet managed to hold an election that is anywhere near “free and fair”. Even if the last one was the best yet, it was still riddled with actual and alleged electoral malpractice, and of course inefficiency, violence and death.
I would suggest that the fear of violent reprisal, or the knowledge that casting your vote made no difference because the seat had already been bought would lead some to conclude that they were not able to fully involve themselves in the political society of the nation.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, in order to participate meaningfully in any democratic society a certain level of education is essential. Reading the UNESCO reports on the state of education in Nigeria does not lead one to think that the vast majority of the people here have the requisite level of information or expertise to meaningfully take part in the decisions that govern their lives.
It is widely accepted, for example, that improving the education of young women will have a huge impact on birth and infant mortality rates, and this is considered of high importance by international aid agencies here, particularly in the north, where many girls never attend school beyond the age of 12, and where fertility, infant mortality and illiteracy rates are astonishingly high.
Those same agencies also highlight the huge swathes of the population, both male and female, that are effectively disenfranchised in Nigeria, because they lack the basic educational levels to meaningfully participate.
If you cannot read, then it does not matter what the papers say, and how critical they may or may not be. If you have to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week to survive, then you don’t have time to participate meaningfully or take on any extra “duties”, and I doubt you feel like you have many rights either.
If you have never been shown or taught what it is that participating in a democracy actually means (beyond just voting) then how are you going to know what you can do, what your power is, and how you can exercise it?
Equally, when it comes to inequality, I was not criticising the Nigerian class system per se, or arguing that it could not co-exist with the notion of democratic citizenship being espoused. The same questions raised by inequality are relevant throughout the world – including the UK, where you could argue it was a major factor in last year’s riots, and is certainly a much discussed topic in the media at the moment.
The fact that the pay of the Barclay’s CEO has increased 5,000% since 1980 whilst the salary of the average worker in the country has gone up threefold in the same period is just one oft-quoted statistic that shows that this is a real issue even in the country that likes to style itself as the cradle of democracy.
And the same applies here. If you were existing on N18,000 a month (and there are many here who live on a lot less), then would you feel you had the same rights and privileges as someone who was able to go shoe-shopping to Dubai whenever they fancied it? Would you feel inclined to “participate” or take more “responsibility”? I would, but only in the direction of violent revolution.
It is also deeply disingenuous not to note that it takes a huge amount of money to get elected here. To be fair, the speaker did touch on this, but she brushed over it very quickly, implying that it didn’t really matter.
Again, this is an issue not just in Nigeria but across the world. If only a select few can ever actually achieve the position of “representative” than that severely undermines the notion of representative democracy itself. As does the severe corruption of those that achieve power here. It stuck in my craw that an exhortation to the common man to “take part” was not accompanied by an equal insistence on the need for those at the top to accept their duties and responsibilities as well as their rights.
The Iboris, the Abachas, the British and US educated elite that drive around in Chelsea tractors and sports cars and spend more on one bottle of spirits in a night club than most of the citizens of their country earn in a month – surely these are the people that need to recognise society requires something of them beyond taking everything they can get?
I could go on, but I won’t. What do I know anyway? Just another johnny-come-lately oyibo.