Features and Speeches of Nigeria

“The matriculation ceremony really isn’t about the students,” David said, and boy, was he right.  

The whole thing took around 3 hours and of that their part took about two and a half minutes.  They were referred to a few times in speeches, but only really to admonish them that there was no way they could live up expectations.  Then it was back to business as usual – self-congratulation and political backslapping.

Having now looked him up, he’s been accused of numerous human rights abuses

We’d been asked to arrive at 8.30am but I thought this was wildly unnecessary and so we rolled on to campus at about ten to nine.  Normally at this time the only things you’d see would be a security guard in his vest and a herd of gently masticating cattle outside the gate, but today the place was heaving.  Two vans full of the bomb squad, a whole range of men with guns and the ridiculous body language that tends to go with them, and a car park full of people and assorted fancy vehicles.  I was, frankly, a bit shocked, and when I got to the door to find a guy trying to search me and my bag I think I was a bit dismissive.  Still, being white and saying I worked there seemed to do the trick, and he let me in pretty sharpish.  Truth be told, for all the ostensible security a reasonably determined toddler could have broken in and bombed the place if they’d wanted to.  Again, appearances trumping actuality – the Vice-President of the nation was coming after all, and things had to look the part.

It was an impressive turn out.  Along with Sambo, the Vice President and guest of honour, we had two former heads of state, two emirs, assorted generals and ex-army chiefs, current governors and senators, retired governors and senators, bank CEOs and even the odd ambassador.  The students were ridiculously outnumbered by the crowd – in fact the people on the stage alone outnumbered the kids with room to spare.  And they’d clearly been told to sit in their places and not move a muscle for the whole time, because I’ve never seen them so quiet for so long.

Truth be told, for all the ostensible security a reasonably determined toddler could have broken in and bombed the place

Of the ex-heads of state, one was General Gowon, who was in charge at the time of the Biafran War, during which a reported one million people died (widely considered a conservative estimate).  Definitely a topic of conversation to avoid.  Peter tells me that Gowon was terribly statesmanlike about the whole thing, organising the peace and announcing “there are no victors and no vanquished in this war”, but as I have basically worked out that Peter is somewhere to the right of Thatcher on the political spectrum I tend to take his views with a pinch of salt.  

The other is Babangida, who was in charge from 85-93, and whom I knew very little about.  Still, the day before someone told me he was a “world-class thief”, so I was assuming he did pretty well for himself whilst he had the top job.  Not sure about any actual achievements, but that doesn’t seem to matter here so much as just having got there in the first place.  Having now looked him up, he’s been accused of numerous human rights abuses, including various assassinations, but as he refused to recognise the body set up to investigate it, and the appeal court backed him up, he’s never had to answer for himself.  Again, not something to raise over nibbles. 

Amidst this smattering of high society and top brass, stands I, dressed like an extra from Harry Potter.  The day before I thought I’d got away with them ordering a Sussex undergraduate robe, which whilst not exactly the last word in sartorial elegance was at least a pretty safe black and grey.  But no, I arrive to find that I do in fact have a PhD robe, although it’s one that is even more ridiculously gaudy than what I had to wear for my actual ceremony.  Red and blue.  Wonderful.  The good news is that the hat doesn’t fit (in fact it’s so small that it looks like a comedy hatinator on me) and so at least I am spared that indignity.

The students clearly find my get up hilarious, although Julius seems incredibly proud of me (he always gets excited when I dress smartly, I don’t know why), and all of the kids want their photo taken with me.  I just grit my teeth and try and hide as much as possible until it’s all over.  

Unfortunately, for the ceremony itself I get pulled up to the front and have to sit there throughout.  The world’s most out of tune brass band has been hired for the occasion, and every time something of even mild note happens they provide a flourish that sounds like a comedy circus troupe falling down a flight of stairs.  When I heard them starting up for the first time I honestly thought we’d got some kids in from a local school – ah bless, etc. – but no, these gentlemen are in fact the Nigerian Police Force band.  Or one of them anyway.  I was quite dismayed to find this out, because there are some amazing recordings of other police bands from the 60s and 70s.  Clearly corrruption has taken as much of a toll in the musical department of the forces of justice as it has every where else.

The ceremony itself starts almost miraculously on time (ie. only about 45 minutes after it’s supposed to), and this even after we find out that not only is Sambo not going to turn up until he’s sure that everyone else has arrived, he’s not even going to leave until everyone else has shown up.  I call that preciousness of the highest calibre, frankly.  He seems quite pleased to be here once he does arrive, however, even after an extra-long fanfare from the band, and the level of fawning over him is really quite remarkable.  If people treated Nick Clegg like this I think he’d die of shock.

Speeches.  This is what the ceremony consists of, for all but about 5 minutes.  Speeches and appalling master of ceremony work from our very own Mani, who, to be fair, doesn’t seem fazed by the fact that he stumbles over every sentence and gets things wrong all the time.  The Archbishop of Abuja gently corrects him over the protocol of opening prayers (quite amusingly) and then spends the rest of the time obviously asleep in the front row.  Gowon proves to be an amiable old goat and gives a funny speech, and then there’s an embarrassing hiatus before Sambo’s offering whilst the rostrum has to removed and a new portable Nigerian government branded one is assembled in its place.  This involves lots of dropping of microphones and general chaos, but no one, least of all Sambo, seems to mind.  This podium has clearly been modelled on the American presidential version, and I get the impression that Sambo never says a word unless he’s standing behind it.  All about the brand, baby.

The most unbearable thing about all of this is that before each speaker gets properly going, they are obliged to recognise every single honourable person who is in the room, with all their titles.  And Nigerians love titles.  If you’re entitled to one, you stick it in, no matter how many others you have.  The more the better.  Sambo is “His Excellency Architect…GCON PhD”, another has “Finance Minister (Retired)” in his, and another (who is the spitting image of Ving Rhames) is “Retired Lieutenant General Doctor…”.  After the third or fourth time through all this it was getting seriously tiring, not least because half the speakers were incredibly elderly and took so much time to remember who was present you’d lost the will to live by the time they’d got down to the lesser lights.  

All protocols observed, the matriculation oath is taken by the students, and delivered by David who does it in his best, ridiculously deep, Candyman voice so that when he says “so help you God” at the end, I believe him.  Last but not least we give out honorary certificates to various people who’ve established schools in Nigeria.  This is made a bit embarassing, for me, by the fact that the chap conducting this particular segment is, frankly, a bit senile and keeps losing his thread and saying things like “what, are they here…don’t read that” and generally acting like Prince Philip.

The good news is that the hat doesn’t fit (in fact it’s so small that it looks like a comedy hatinator on me) and so at least I am spared that indignity.

And for all the ridiculous sycophancy and scraping, there was also some (to my eyes) astonishing rudeness.  As always, a lot of this centred around mobile phone use.  The guy next to me had several loud conversations throughout proceedings, one during the matriculation oath itself that was so animated that he actually stopped David in his tracks.  Equally, other guests of honour on the main stage quite happily chatted away no matter what was going on around them, or just sat there and texted, making no effort to look anything other than bored.  It was almost like once they’d made their obeisances at the start, and as long as they clapped in the right places, everything else was allowed.

I think it’s fair to say I was glad when it finished.  Although the fact that mini-Cornish pasties were the main plank of the buffet added a nicely surreal edge, as they were clearly supposed to be a bit posh.

***

If the day wasn’t about students, it certainly wasn’t about lecturers either.  The last event, at 4pm, comprised two “inaugural lectures” delivered by a visiting professor from the UK (David’s elder brother) and the aforementioned retired general who looks, and sounds, like Ving Rhames.  I was slightly annoyed that these were described as “the first lectures” at the university, given that we’ve been teaching for 6 weeks, but I decided not to take it personally.

The first lecture was excellent, interesting and well delivered, even if it did go on for about twice as long as it was supposed to.  Ving’s offering, however, was appalling.  Delivered in a dull monotone and basically read out from a series of Powerpoint slides, it was one of the driest presentations I’ve ever seen.  But it was livened up at the end when Peter asked him if Nigeria should scrap the military budget and plough it into education and health care instead.  The answer took about 15 minutes, but I think it’s safe to say that the gist of it was “no”.

Throughout the two and a half hours that this went on, people drifted in and out almost constantly, making no effort to apologise or stay quiet as they did so.  As some of them are royalty, I guess it’s partly understandable, but it does make me laugh when the same people then stand up to hold forth to the students on how well behaved, respectful and hard-working they must be.  I am just genuinely trying not to fall asleep by the end, and also thanking god that I didn’t allow myself to be bullied into chairing the whole thing, which is what Mani tried to arrange about 2 hours before it started.  Life in Nigeria is making me much better at using the word “no”.

nigeria

All that was left for me to negotiate were two evenings of official dinners, both pretty painful in different ways.  The first was always going to be problematic when I was informed (after I arrived) that the whole thing was dry.  Never a good start.  When the speeches started up again I was ready to go outside and find some petrol to drink, because this round made the efforts earlier in the day seem like sparkling oratory.  Basically, it was two hours of the most appalling hagiography, with Debare being described in terms that made him sound like a cross between Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and someone who’s just discovered the cure for cancer.  I am ill-disposed towards this sort of thing at the best of times, but without beer it’s frankly unbearable.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not denigrating his achievements.  Establishing a university in Nigeria is no easy business, and Debare is clearly committed to some good causes.  But having found out that day that he is the son of a sheikh and one of 32 children, all of who seem to be incredibly successful and influential (or married to someone successful and influential if they’re female) makes me feel like he hasn’t exactly dragged himself up by his bootstraps.  The cast list for matriculation alone shows the pulling power he has, and whilst there’s always the insistence that he’s not an oga, I think that is, frankly, a lie. 

The whole thing is not helped by the fact that I’m sitting next to Joy at the meal, who is in the grips of a full scale Pretty Woman moment from the second we get there.  She is, literally, unable to say a word, and seems so intimidated by the whole thing that I desperately want to put her at her ease but have no idea how.  When I offer her a bread roll she takes it, but then goes into crisis because she’s not sure which knife she should use to butter it, or whether she’s allowed to eat it.  At that point I give up as I’m clearly just making things worse.  By the end of the evening, though, she seems to have had a great time and insists on buying (well, getting me to buy) a copy of a photo of me, her and Julius.  The photographers (apparently uninvited) are clearly making a fortune out of this improvised affair where they pap you and then print out on site, but apart from humouring Joy, I’m having none of it.

The next night is a much smaller affair, with about 10 of us, all of whom are rich, powerful, Nigerians.  Except me and Peter.  As always at these things, the talk is all of corruption and the ridiculousness of Nigeria, and when Peter points out that we are laughing at these stories when we should be getting angry, everyone pauses for about 5 seconds. And then carries on.  At one point someone says that the military leaders should be reappraised as they were not as bad as some of the people who have followed since democracy was reinstalled.  I counter that the failures of democratically elected leaders are no excuse for the failures of the military leaders, but as it’s Ving Rhames I’m saying this to, I don’t pursue the argument too far.

At least at this dinner I’m allowed to drink.  Although I was supposed to spend the evening with Kenneth, the site electrician, at a palm wine bar in Gwarimpa.  I really wish I had, and if I’d said that to the people round the table they probably would have thought I was mental.  The only saving grace of the whole drab affair is an amusing and avuncular guy who owns a fortune’s worth of property in Dubai.  He seems like a good laugh, but unfortunately I don’t really get a chance to talk to him.

***

One more note on appearances vs. reality.  Part of a rolling video being shown in the background during matriculation proudly advertised that we have a “biometric system” to measure student attendance.  And we do – it’s on the wall, I’ve seen it.  It’s supposed to take the students’ thumbprint and so on and let us know when they arrive on campus and leave.  What, of course, we don’t say, is that it’s not plugged in, we don’t have the software, and no one but me has even been taking a register since we started.   But hey, don’t get mired in the details.

Still no clocks. 

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