Monday, October 04, 2010

The master and the slave

The failure of leadership in Nigeria is so all pervasive and endemic it begs further analysis.  Why do Nigerian leaders fail their constituents or members so consistently, in politics, in commerce and elsewhere?  Why does almost every young hopeful end up being such a tawdry disappointment? It cannot simply be on account of a repetitious failure of personality, or a renewed shortfall of moral fibre. An individualistic explanation cannot suffice.  But why then is leadership in Nigeria such a seemingly insurmountable challenge?

Of the main routes into the seemingly impenetrable forest in search of the clearing of truth, one opportune path we might take is an examination of the master-slave relationship that is alive and well in Nigeria.

Lordship and bondage is the hidden seam running through all strata of Nigerian society. Of course, in the North, slavery has never entirely faded away; historically, the ‘abolition’ of the Saharan slave trade came much later (the early twentieth century in certain areas) than in the Bights of Benin and Biafra.  There were no British patrols of the Sahara equivalent to the ships that captured slaves setting out on the Middle Passage and dumped their cargo to fend for themselves in Sierra Leone. Indeed, some emirates still have what might considered as slaves who live in the Palace compound – an echo of the formalised and seemingly ineradicable inter-generational slavery among the hausa in the Niger Republic, where at least 8% of the population are slaves.  Outside of the North, slavery often takes a more concealed form.  To a foreigner, it can be distressing and embarrassing to glimpse.  The quickest way to witness it is by observing how domestic staff (maids, househelps, drivers etc.) are treated by their employers.  Apart from salaries, which, even when they are paid on time, guarantee a life of poverty, the verbal abuse can be so intense, it becomes a form of physical and psychological abuse.  Sometimes, those who help run the house are treated as untouchables.  They must eat from different plates, use separate cutlery and drink from separate glasses.  I have met house helps who are allotted one day’s holiday a year. I have witnessed meguards being kicked and beaten. It is reminiscent of the treatment of Philipinos domestic staff in Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

It seems to me that this state of affairs is often regarded as the natural order of things: some are born to own and control a household; others are born to clean it up in perpetuity.  The pampered children of the elite are brought up with a sense that there are lesser humans among them. Other children are brought up with little sense of a destiny beyond the bondage of a life Sisyphus would recognise: the forever undone task of keeping the compound starched and clean.

It is this entrenched view of how a society should run itself that ruins many organisations in Nigeria.  Those made to feel like underdogs will do their best to subvert the system and ensure it never quite works. How can those treated like house helps give their best?  The battle at the higher levels to come out on top is intense. As soon as one edges one pay- grade above one’s peers, the licence to disparage and abuse is granted.  In corporate Lagos, it is, of course, the ajebutters, with their often hastily acquired British (or sometimes American) accents, who return home to become the new Overlords and Overladies of Ikoyi.

There is little chance in this culture for models of inspirational participatory leadership to emerge.  The oga who rolls up his or her shirtsleeves to ensure the work gets done is laughed at.  Those on the shop floor unconsciously require a leader who plays to the feudal baron role as expected – a sort of organisational Stockholm syndrome.  This is how a society based on patronage and obsequiousness reproduces itself from generation to generation.

Until the ‘problem of leadership’ is unpacked, and trite formulations are discarded in favour of unflinchingly honest analysis, it’s hard to see how highly efficient and productive value-enhancing organisations can flourish in Nigeria; it’s also hard to imagine that Nigeria will get the political leadership it so badly needs.  The way those who work for us are treated is the form that leadership takes.


Anonymous,  11:05 pm  

The problem is the failure of the citizens to demand better leadership from there elected leaders. We don't protest at all, we hardly even vote. The same thing can hardly go on in other countries.

CodLiverOil 3:57 am  

Thank you Jeremy for pointing out a stark truth, no doubt there will be dissenters who will deny it, or question it’s relevance. No doubt, it will be ignored and the problem will continue until it is properly addressed (if ever), and people still keep asking the tired question “why is the leadership so f***** *p?”

You know my opinion about Nigeria as a society facing it’s truths.

It was good that you pointed out the problem was nationwide, so that those who would conveniently seek the easy way out, saying it’s a ‘northern’ or ‘southern’ thing can’t hide behind such a false pretext.

I had noted on my visits to Nigeria, why the poor put up with such ‘shit’. Even my own father (by Nigerian standards he wasn’t that bad either) would be criticising the way the driver was driving (in front of us too). I was thinking to myself, why doesn’t this guy, just hand-over the keys and walk out of the car? But to the guy’s credit he never did. (Which is a good thing for us at the time, as my Dad couldn’t drive, that didn’t curtail his treatment of the driver though). I noted one time, we left Lagos for some days, we stayed at relative’s home. The driver was given a mattress (it was more like a large sponge) to sleep on, on a concrete floor, outside. I thought that was pretty lousy, but he accepted as his lot.

I know in Britain, you can’t treat people like that. But in Nigeria, it seems anything goes (which is disheartening). It is a credit to those who are at the receiving end of such mistreatment, that they put up with it. Could this be partly related to why religion (now extreme) is so attractive there? They take solace in religion to counter the effect of an unrewarding daily existence?

Yes, people have to be respected regardless of background and privilege. Also standards and vetting must be put in place, to weed out the undesirables who aspire to leadership, and mechanism must be put in place to remove them from office, should they under perform or abuse the position of office.

You raised this observation of a negative side of human behaviour in Nigeria, which is good. But how can it be overcome, when people use the excuse of ‘culture’ to justify it’s perpetuation? Others use ‘religion’, to say to the victims, that in the after-life they will be rewarded for their suffering in the present life.

The thing is it can’t be isolated to the one strata of society, you need to make the change pervasive. As things stand now, if you were to switch roles of the oppressor and oppressed, the oppressed wouldn’t behave any better than their former oppressors.

Chielozona Eze 4:34 am  

Insightful analysis. Perhaps another way to see it, though these postcolonial watchdogs would growl, is that most part of Nigeria, in fact, the Nigerian psyche has not yet been touched by modernity, or the elementary principles of enlightenment which unquestionably shoved Europe many centuries ahead of the rest of the world.

Anonymous,  11:55 am  

I have heard people argue that the master and slave mentality is just a legacy of colonialism.

I'm not entirely sure. It's something I ve thought of quite often. I will one day get down to the root of it and make up my mind what I think.

Peter Odili's administration brought it to a fine point in Port-Harcourt.

My friends call me 'Chairman!' and I hail them'Your Excellency!'. Then I touch the ground with one hand and tell them I won't stand up till they touch my head. When they do I tell everyone who has spoken ill of them 'six feet deep, no controversy' We would do this on the streets of Port Harcourt and no one would notice; it wouldn't be parody.

A girl I knew from Uni called a house help 'You beast of burden!'. She was angry about something I can't remember.

The househelp was her cousin actually, she later told me. They brought her from the village to help her.

Anonymous,  11:55 am  

This is so spot on. Jeremy, do you have a day time job?

Anonymous,  1:28 pm  

@CodLiverOil, don't let the naysayers worry you. Dissenting opinion should always be welcome cos from out of it one may find wisdom, reasons to entrench oneself in a position or an opportunity to educate another. Other shades of opinion may provide a truth (sometimes hidden within a whole load of ignorance) that may be a part of the bits that become the solution.

Bose,  3:02 pm  

Ok, i have a problem with your analysis and no, this is not a knee jerk post-colonial response to anything putting Nigeria in a bad light.

I think your analysis is a bit simplistic as I believe this form of 'slavery' is not endemic to Nigeria but has been a feature of almost every modern society at a point in its history.

I think it would be more useful if we look back at why these injustices happened in those societies and how they were able to transition from a society where the lower classes were indentured to the upper classes to a modern society. Be it through revolution, the fight for universal suffrage or something as random as a war bringing about the reallocation of resources across classes in society.

Only then will your analysis be complete and only then can we draw from these experiences to fast-track Nigeria's transition.

CodLiverOil 3:29 pm  

@ Anonymous 1.28PM
Thank you for your words of wisdom, what you say is true.

The nitty-gritty tales of a housewife 4:36 pm  

So true!.....poverty is just the ROOT of the problem, fertilized with corruption perpetuated by our so-called leaders! IT HURTS ME TO SEE KIDS WHO OUGHT TO BE IN SCHOOL BEING MAIDS.....what can i do when i am an unemployed full-time housewife just managing which was not by choice i tell you.... *sigh!*

Anonymous,  5:12 pm  

I hate going to my sister's place. The housekeepers are simply slaves. I hate the way she speaks to them even though she pays them well.

Abiola Sanusi,  5:51 pm  

This status quo has stifled growth, creativity and progress. How can we dismantle it? People appear to have reconciled with their various position(s) and are unwilling/unable to challenge the system. Very frustrating especially when you try to defend those who are vulnerable and they tell you to butt out!!!

Anonymous,  7:05 pm  

Loved this article, because I was thinking about the same thing over the weekend after a discussion with a friend. I put it down to the oga/madam (big boy/big girl) mentality that a lot of Nigerians aspire to.

How can you challenge a person who you address or view as oga? which simply interpretes as master. If I had my way those two words (oga and madam) will be banned from use in Nigeria (at least in the civil service for starters.

Myne Whitman 7:31 pm  

Great analysis and I do think it comes from the colonial history. That said, it has gone on for longer than it should due to a self perpertuating prophesy. The annoying thing is that no one speaks up. NO ONE!

Funke,  5:44 pm  

This is why I love your blog Jeremy. You say what a lot of us think, but never mention or do anything about. It is a shame that this form of treatment of other humans is tolerated and encouraged. I remember my Mum slapping me right across my face when i called our nanny the 'house girl'. My Mum (who is white) said ' Don't you ever call someone your House anything, do you think you are better than her or any member of staff in this house?
I was 7 years old. Yes a bit harsh, but trust me, I never thought of our staff as less than equal ever again.
Maybe that's what the rich, spoiled Nigerians need - a dirty, open handed slap from my Liverpool Mum...

culturesoup 11:36 pm  

This is a great post that touches on a sore spot for me. Hierarchy and respect can be good but when it exists in a culture that immunises certain categories of people from criticism, it can have horrible consequences. One of the things i struggle with is how Nigerian culture is used to silence people: women, children, people lower in the rank e.t.c.

Your example of an oga that gets their hands dirty being mocked is right on. It's like people are so used to being abused by authority, they expect to be treated that way and any other example of leadership is not taken seriously.

If you don't mind i would like to link to this post on my blog.

About This Blog

  © Blogger templates Psi by 2008

Back to TOP