Vanguard (Lagos)

7 August 2012

Nigeria: A Culture of Disrespect (V)

analysis

The code of conduct might have to be extended to all kinds of arena of Nigerian life. It might have to be a code of conduct on how to treat anything that resembles a human being.

It is interesting that a culture of disrespect might be confused for one of respect. One might hear Nigerians making general comparisons with other cultures on how our children are taught to kneel down and greet elders, or how we defer to those older than us by referring to them with titles, how we consider a person's name so sacred, that only those close to him, or equal to him can mention his name; how we say "Good morning" instead of "Hello".

How icons of authority remain sacrosanct in our society; how age is highly esteemed. In England, Gordon Brown is Gordon Brown, is at the most elevated Mr. Gordon Brown.

Here, he would be His Excellency. True comparisons perhaps, side by side, with the culture of determining a person's value by how much money they own, what they drive, how they speak, what sort of mobile phone they own, side by side with the culture of jumping queues and jumping red-lights and moving out of the way of convoys.

Again, the unexpressed things are the most profound. There are homes in which there are special drinking glasses for when the driver requests for a glass of water. The driver knows the glass is special, the lord of the home knows it, and the children know it.

In Calabar in 2007, Tahalia Barrett, a volunteer Business Development Advisor with the Cross River State government looked into the possibility of creating a Nigerian perspective on transatlantic slavery. The Calabar Slavery Museum was the perfect medium. It already owned a building, wax works depicting in oversimplified terms the journey of the slave from his home in Nigeria to the plantation in North America, and then on to emancipation.

The Calabar Slavery Museum in order to offer something more than all the thousands of slavery museums all over the world must have an original voice. Tahalia as an African-American, noted that the story of transatlantic slavery was one that was told and retold in her culture.

If she was standing on Nigerian soil, she could take it for granted that she would hear something new. The issue of reparations remain one of the hottest offshoots of discussions on transatlantic slavery. At the anti-racism conference in 2001, in Durban, then Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo declared that Nigeria

"...stood firmly behind the demand for an explicit apology. The wider international community has consistently failed to appreciate the reality that is particularly painful for us Africans...Apology must be extended by states which practiced and benefited from slavery, the slave trade or colonialism...For us in Africa, an apology is a deep feeling of remorse, expressed with the commitment that never again will such acts be practised".

Grand words that were somewhat shabbied by Abdoulaye Wade's declaration that his ancestors owned slaves. In creating an original script for the Calabar museum, word was put out to discover anyone who had ancestors carried away as slaves, but more importantly, anyone who had ancestors who had protested slavery, or died in protest or just stood up in protest.

The first batch of responses came back, and no one in the latter categories could be found. Instead it was offered that most of the old prestigious families in Calabar had traded in slaves.

It was a profound discovery, and one that was sure to create problems. Could one effectively run a museum from a city where one was alleging that its oldest most elevated members were slave traders or children of slave traders? What would be one's contribution to the dialogue on reparations and our demands for apologies?

One could argue that, yes Africans owned slaves from antiquity, but that we were always humane to them, but would the argument have integrity, especially in the light of our modern environment?

Again, the issue of the anatomy of the slap. For me it was important that Elizabeth Udoudo define what her feelings were in the clearest of terms. It had been months since the incident and there had been many commentaries on the internet and in newspapers about it; what did she hope to gain from keeping it alive in the press and talking about it? Did she want some form of financial compensation? Did she want her car repaired?

Why had she paid a lawyer to come up with formal terms of reference on the incident? What was the value of the apology if it were forced? I wanted to really understand what her motives were? Somehow I believed, possibly erroneously, that if money were the issue, then there was some loss of integrity.

I pushed Elizabeth, and she was clear that the physical slap meant little, but to term her an unknown woman...In her own words, it meant: "I don't have any value. I am not important. If we were to put it in the most accurate of terms, I don't exist. I am irrelevant".

This was the issue. If she were a nobody, then anything could be done to her without fear of repercussions. She had to show her children that you just didn't walk up to a woman, slap her in the face, and get away with it.

The apology would be landmark. It would mean that nobody has rights, and in turn no one has the right to whip people out of the way, even if he is the president of Nigeria. I was glad that I had met Elizabeth, unlike how the papers portrayed her, she was not a victim. She was clear that she had not acquiesced to carrying the end of anyone's wrapper.

Mrs. YEMISI OGBE, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Calabar, Cross River State.

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