The video of presidential aspirant, Fela Durotoye, persuading a man at the airport to join a queue touched me in a way I did not expect. Yes, I understand that feeling of frustration with self-important Nigerians who will just not do the right thing. They drive one into a rage until one goes crazy trying to make them see the importance of acting proper. While I share a part of Durotoye’s enthusiasm that we can improve Nigerians’ attitude towards following necessary processes by reaching out to erring individuals, I think we still need a broader argument about the causes of our endemic social maladies. That way, we do not exhaust our energies trying to straighten a crooked society one man at a time.
First, part of the problem is that as a society, we lack courtesies. On the surface, that might appear too simple a diagnosis, but in truth, it is a major problem. Courtesy ranges from simple things like leaving the door open for others to acknowledging their humanity regardless of their situation in life or the power you have over them. Courtesy includes speech and the way we deploy it towards each other. If the measure of a civilised society is the value placed on human life and dignity, and human value can be indexed by the way fellow humans are addressed, then the Nigerian society can be deemed a pre-civilised one. The daily disrespect we manifest towards each other – in words and deeds – is a demonstration of the worth we collectively place on human life and dignity. That is why our society stinks in every conceivable sense.
Listen to the way we Nigerians talk to, talk back, and talk down at one another. Madams belittle their home helps and men talk down at their drivers; husbands gratuitously insult their wives, vice versa; bosses imperiously cut down their subordinates; policemen coarsely yell at people they are hired to serve and protect; nurses in hospital crudely bark at patients whose pain they are supposed to empathise with; government officials in public offices cannot bring themselves to say “please” and “thank you” when dealing with fellow Nigerians; political leaders and their aides like Femi Adesina, Lauretta Onochie, and Garba Shehu think presidential communication is “bolekaja” with Nigerians. All around us, there is indecorous communication, a people without a culture of politeness. Everybody goes around with their outsized ego looking for whom to cut down with their mouths and the disrespectful actions their speech enacts.
A society where people do not show respect for others’ dignity is one where people lack manners. They will not take turns because following stipulated processes will not allow them to demonstrate their self-importance. They will refuse to acknowledge the humanity of others, yet they want others to see theirs and even arrogate all deserving respect to them. The more they denigrate others, the hollower they become. When triggered, they start to yell, “Do you even know who I am?” When such people from following to leadership positions, they robe themselves in a toga of self-importance and oppress their fellow human with their rudeness. They dehumanise others; they steal fragments of others’ humanity to decorate theirs.
Part of the problem also has to do with the years of locust Nigerians suffered under the military and the culture power abuse they instituted. If today a Nigerian is cynical about the usefulness of staying in the queue and wants to cut others, it goes back to the times they saw instances of people who did not even join the line being served before them because someone had issued “orders from above.”
Civilised societies are calibrated on a balance of guarantees that if we follow processes, there will be specific outcomes. In Nigeria, from educational to job opportunities, benefits are shared among the privileged class leaving those who worked hard and followed the processes stranded and disillusioned. We have not yet developed a national culture where upward social mobility is based on meritocracy. What we have built so far rests on the prebendal foundation of man-know-man. In such a society, you cannot blame people for developing a “who queue ‘epp?” attitude. Jumping queues reflects their pessimism that nothing they do right will yield desirable results. Why not cut corners?
All these might even be construed as a symptom of another problem: our lack of modernity. We may use cellphones and have access to the Internet like the rest of the world, but we are not yet a modern society. The video of Durotoye with his efforts at the ethical conversion of that Nigerian queue-jumper was taken at the airport and in the background, one could see the rowdiness and disorganisation that are typical of Nigerian airports. One of the significant attributes of any modern society is organisation, and without it every effort they make towards becoming a corrupt-free and prosperous society will fall apart. Being organised is not an issue to be resolved by the body language of a charismatic leader, it is a process that entails counting and accounting; gathering data for planning and projection; the ability to measure things in mathematical detail and calculate what resources are needed to fulfil certain needs.
For instance, if Nigeria were a modern society and not one that treats figures as a dispensable bore, we would have projected the number of people who will be at the airport at specific times and estimated the personnel that would need to be at the airport to meet their needs. That way, we would effectively reduce the rate at which people perennially crowd our airports. Such statistical savviness might even entail revising the airport architecture to accommodate not only travellers, but our social rituals of farewells that turn the airport into Oyingbo markets. We should cut the queue-jumper some slack and understand that when people spend too much time in the queue, they invariably get restless and begin to look to cut corners. It is not enough to blame them without working to ease their misery by taking planning seriously. The disorder at our airport is a testimony to the unforgiving consequences of planlessness and ineptitude.
Finally, I acknowledge that what we are dealing with is also a problem of social values and to this extent, we also need an ethical reorientation. We need to be taught civility, respect for others and the environment, duty to the community, and overall, developing a social conscience. Societies that we term “developed” today were not born with their manners, they were socially programmed, and they are motivated to continue to perform their culture of development because they see the benefits of a well-organised society. Take away the adeptness with which things work in western societies and they will regress into a social jungle in an instant. Their intellectuals have invested brainpower to develop a national ethos that builds cohesion. They allude to that ethos as a psychological propellant for people can think of certain behaviours as beneath them.
This social re-programming is nothing like the “change begins with me” agenda that Information Minister, Lai Muhammed, once proposed. At the time of the launching, I opposed that project (and I still do) because I saw through the scam. What Muhammed offered – with his roadshows and other spectacularly loud parties – did not depart from the well-worn path trod by Shehu Shagari’s Ethical Revolution, Muhammadu Buhari’s WAI, Ibrahim Babangida’s MAMSER, Sani Abacha’s Not in Our Character, or the Heart of Africa and Rebranding agenda of Olusegun Obasanjo and Umaru Yar’Adua respectively. None of those programmes has reformed the social morals essentially because they were imposed by the political class whose ethics are far more questionable. The reform Nigeria needs should be comprehensive, imbricating our educational systems from the foundational level, and backed by our leaders’ principled character.