6 December 2012

Nigeria: Acting Hard and Saying Sorry in Nigeria

There are many misconceptions about Nigerians. First off, they are supposedly crooks. All of them. They introduced the infamous Nigerian 419 scams to the rest of the world and have since stolen billions from their fooled victims.

Second, Nigerians are supposedly loud. Extremely loud. And on top of that, rude. So what you get are extremely loud, rude 'businessmen' whose only business is in fact to extract as much money from you as possible.

Many Nigerians themselves seem to believe that the stereotypes are true. And their only way to defend themselves is to 'act hard'. Now, this is a concept I know of only from American rappers: they 'act hard on the streets' or 'act hard to get paid'. But acting hard while dealing with people on a daily basis? I had never heard of that - until my visit to Lagos.

"There is this belief that if you don't act hard, people will walk all over you," says D-Shack, a host at Radio UNILAG. "And if you don't act hard and you lose an argument, even when the other person is wrong, you will be blamed for not having acted hard enough."

So how do you go about acting hard, I wonder. "Well," D-Shack answers, "you try to scream louder than the other. And if one wants to act real hard - rock hard - you start arguing in a local language." D-Shack has learned this the hard way, after trying to reason with someone in English and getting accused of not acting hard enough.

But are Nigerians really that pushy and domineering? All day, everyday? On the surface maybe. But if you look closer, you'll find - you'll hear - a tiny element in everyday discourse that, no matter how hard a Nigerian may be, reveals another aspect of their character. That's the word 'sorry'.

Yes, it's common to say sorry when you bump into someone. Or to apologize when you are late for an appointment. But Nigerians seem to use this word for far more everyday occurrences.

Example #1: someone trips. People who around, even if they had nothing to do with the stumble, say they're sorry. Example #2: someone drops a pen on the floor. Immediately, two or three people say they're sorry. The list goes on.

So what does this say about society and about its politics, in particular? Are politicians in office being so vicious for the well-being of society, to fulfill people's expectations that they, too, must act hard?

In the short period I have been here, I've had many conversations about the current state of Nigeria. A couple things have so far really caught my attention.

First, society acts pretty hard on those who try to be very critical of the government. Take the example of the highly critical Nigerian newspaper NEXT that was eventually forced to pull the plug in 2011. As I came to understand from former employees, the reason given for the shut-down was that the paper had trouble getting ads. Not that government forced it to stop. Not that companies did not want to be associated with a news medium that 'acts hard' on government.

Second, there is corruption. It is something widespread and much talked about. "But the general feeling here is that if you steal, make sure you steal big," someone on the street confesses to me. "Steal billions of naira, so that you can pay the judges for your acquittal."

It is fascinating to see how Nigerians here act hard in daily life, yet also apologize a lot. That includes saying 'sorry' for the soft ways their government acts when it comes to real problems, like corruption.

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