Opinion: Alhassan, ‘respect’, the culture of underdevelopment – By ABIMBOLA ADELAKUN
“Let me tell you today that if Baba said he is going to contest in 2019, I swear to Allah, I will go before him and kneel and tell him that, ‘Baba, I am grateful for the opportunity you gave me to serve your government as a minister but Baba, just like you know, I will support only Atiku because he is my godfather”
Much has been made of the comment by the Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Aisha Alhassan, who clarified in an interview with the BBC Hausa Servicethat if President Muhammadu Buhari were to contest in 2019, she would not support him. Instead, she would support former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, the man who has been waiting in the wings to be Nigeria’s president circa 1993. Since she granted that interview, she has been described via a spectrum of adjectives that range from “brave” to “disloyal” depending on what part of the continuum — rabid Buhari loyalists or boisterous antagonists — the labeller falls.
First, I do not see anything particularly brave or radical about jettisoning Buhari and moving to Atiku’s camp. Nigeria should be moving beyond these men, not recycling old cargoes. Personally, I think Atiku would have been a much better president than Buhari if he had won the All Progressives Congress primaries in 2014 and I based that on a comparison of the men’s campaigns. To me, then and till now, Atiku took his candidature seriously enough to have done his homework. Buhari’s candidature ran on the pillars of fundamentalism, mythmaking, and numerical vantage of the disaffection Dr. Goodluck Jonathan’s inept Presidency had bred.
For those who think Alhassan was disloyal to her boss, my cynical self thinks she did not have much to stake anyway. She holds a ministerial portfolio she could afford to risk. It would have been far much more impressive if a minister who holds the so-called “juicy portfolio” breaks ranks with the government they serve. Ministries like “Women Affairs” are sterile creations of government to pacify women by offering the bare perception that they care about issues that concern them. What should ordinarily be an ideological conception is thus made into a bureaucracy, merely increasing the number of women invited to serve in a government. The lack of regard for the underlying reason the ministry exists is illustrated recently by the indiscretions of Lagos State’s Women Affairs Commissioner, Mrs. Lola Akande. She blamed women for being the cause of the domestic violence in which they have been mostly victims. She kept her job. How does someone so divorced from the undercurrent of issues she manages be allowed to remain in that office if her employers were that passionate about “women’s issues”?
All those aside, let me get to the point that irks about Alhassan: she said she would kneel before Buhari to resign her job. I thought that was curious. Why does she need to kneel or even call the president “Baba” when he is not her father? Why should relationships in such an environment be so deferential and paternalistic? Now, before anyone accuses me of navel gazing, I argue that this point needs to be flagged if one wants to assess the effectiveness of administration in Nigeria. Those habits and rituals of respect such as calling the President “Baba” and kneeling before him are part of the informal economy of social exchange that impedes the degree of professional ethics government needs to run effectively.
If Alhassan and Buhari’s working relationship is based on such fatherly condescension, how does she do her job? Can anyone who will kneel before the President ever look him in the eye and disagree with him when he is uninformed on any issue? If Alhassan cannot walk away from her job while standing on her dignified feet, then how does she relate to him while working as a minister in his cabinet? Does she ever insist on the validity of her own point to “Baba” in policy debates with him? How does she maintain the formality, etiquette, and professionalism necessary for a vibrant and stimulating work environment when she is on her knees saying, “Daddy this and Daddy that”? For those who may want to argue that their age differences necessitate such level of “respect,” let me make it clear that there are many ways respect can be expressed in a formal relationship without people reducing themselves into foot mats for the “big man” to trample.
Alhassan’s kneeling on the floor signposts Nigeria’s culture of underdevelopment, pure and simple. That she could even say it on a radio programme being broadcast to the public shows she does not think that her attitude of submissiveness is a problem. It is tempting to think of the symbolism of such interaction is gender-based but that is not so. Over the years, I have studied visual images of politicians interacting with those in higher executive positions and I find the same level of obsequiousness variously expressed. Some of these politicians are so power struck that they are practically bowing to the ground in greeting. Some of them stare at the President with such veneration one would think they saw the statue of Virgin Mary.
The President may be a paternal figure, but he is no father to everybody at the same time. The symbolic investiture that empowers him to take decisions on our collective behalf is granted by the constitution, not some archaic theocratic laws. Why should “respect” for him be so conspicuously staged when it can be expressed with far more subtlety? When we bow before leaders like a bunch of serfs, do we not communicate to those who embody power and authority that their humanity is above ours and they are therefore, above accountability?
For those who are, once again, going to argue that “respect” is part of our culture and we would not be Africans if we are not falling to the ground before fellow men, they should consider how these social rituals percolate our public culture and hinder the democratic culture it supposedly serves. People can — of their own choices — kneel before their traditional rulers but such acts should be taken out of the spaces that are founded on democratic philosophies. Democracy should grant equality and dignity to everybody, not facilitate a dobale culture that guarantees political patronage for only those whose knees are not far from the floor.
Just one last point, on traditional rulers and “respect” too, shortly after the Oyo State Governor, Abiola Ajimobi, elevated some 32 warrant chiefs to the suspect position of a beaded “Oba”, we were told that the Olubadan would now be the “Imperial Majesty” while the new ones would use the title of “His Royal Majesty.” One wonders what it is about us that cries for respect to the point of vainglorious adulation. African leaders such as former The Gambia’s president, Jammeh Yahaya, to Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko once bedecked themselves with these empty titles too. In Nigeria, one can barely attend a public occasion without having to endure these wankers calling themselves by some high-sounding appellations that have neither cultural nor historical content. What is it about the Olubadan that is either “imperial” or “majestic,” and what is it about the 32 new chiefs created by a governor’s signature that is even “royal”? Where are the history, dynasty, empire, and the culture that validate the title?
The moniker “Imperial Majesty” was historically used by traditional rulers from imperial households in places like Japan and Britain. In modern times, these people have dropped the titles and embraced terms that do not promote false hierarchies. In 2017, Ibadan people are being asked to drag out outmoded colonial relics in the name of “culture.” Even Ajimobi, himself, recently said that Obas are beneath the level of a local government chairperson. If that is the way he sees them, is referring to the Olubadan as an “Imperial Majesty” then not utter cynicism?. Punch