This is one question that has always frustrated me. I spent a lot of time, in my university days, attempting to explain to classmates that the question of whether African values are compatible with democracy is tinged with racism and eurocentrism because it wrongly supposes that democracy is uniquely Western and that no other people experimented with the idea, which is one of the myths about the matchless superiority of Western genius and originality we must all do away with.
However, a social media storm on Monday got me thinking about our values (or rather, what we believe to be tradition) and the idea that the norms a society chooses or enforces as its traditions are often only beneficial to a small elite.
Tonye Cole, one of the founders of Sahara Oil and Gas, created a social media "controversy" when he narrated an encounter he witnessed on a flight. According to him, Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, sat on a seat which belonged to another young gentleman who he criticized for not giving up his seat to Professor Soyinka, as if they were on a bus and seats were in short supply. Some commentators were scandalised, due to Soyinka's age and status, and the "disrespect" to African culture and values.
Cheekily, I asked the question, can we ever boast of a democratic society where all are equal if our so-called norms and values predicate special treatment for some at the expense of others, especially if the said special treatment is based on an individual's wealth, power or status? Let's cut to the chase: the pensioners and ex-public servants who die from heat stroke on long queues while attempting to collect their due are not afforded any special treatment by the Nigerian system. Aren't they "elders" too?
Many online "wannabe celebrities" hypocritical, false outrage is comical precisely because they don't bat an eyelid when ordinary Nigerians who do not have wealth or social status on their side are brutalised and denied their basic humanity. The mentality that demands the young man abandon his seat is the same one that ends up justifying civil servants kneeling to greet their governors, or any form of flattening oneself in the face of power and authority. Soyinka, in the minds of many, represents pro-democracy and civil rights struggles. He does not (or should not) represent entitlement based on class, power or status.
On every flight, passengers are allocated a specific seat, some even decide to pay extra to secure certain seats with more leg room, etc. The young man Tonye Cole attempted to disgrace by sharing his picture, got a window seat. A parody social media account satirising the situation, castigated Tonye Cole's meddling by imagining the pleasant chitchat between the young man and Soyinka who he believed would never be presumptuous enough to demand the young man abandons his seat.
In fact, Prof. Soyinka did return to the seat the airline assigned to him and there was no drama, outside of Mr. Cole's attempt to frame the young man as deviant and abnormal for asking to retain what was his. Perhaps the young man is strange in the eyes of the elite who are not used to young people standing up for themselves or their rights, after all the young man paid for that specific seat, it is his to give up or keep. This entire encounter is an interesting window into the mindset of a certain section of the Nigerian elite, many of whom see no problem with owing salaries or disrespecting the elderly on the street but believe that some people should be granted special privileges by virtue of who they are.
When people do that, they are not defending "African culture" or respect for elders, they are simply defending their own place in the system, as rich, entitled individuals who will one day become "elders" who should automatically be accorded reverence and basic self-respect which is not universally available to those outside a certain income bracket.
We must rethink what "African culture" really means and do away with the misleading idea that traditions are immutable and eternal. All traditions have origins in the socio-economic conditions of a particular time or place which they either serve to challenge, justify or enforce. Today, "respect" means "Liv Diezani Alone" posters, implying people of a certain class can't be questioned no matter the impropriety they are accused or suspected of. It's why rich men in Nigeria literally get away with murder, and why there are so few rape convictions in our society. The Nigerian elite only believes in democracy and the rule of law when their interests or comforts are threatened, then the courts are subverted, turned into a means to protect themselves through maddening, illogical "perpetual injunctions", rather than a means to ensure social justice.
Democracy is simply a fancy term the elite uses at Western, donor backed conferences; same as "youth empowerment" which most pretend to endorse without believing that young or poor people have the same rights as everyone in society, which is why corruption is rife and our economic system cheats the common man, rewards saboteurs while encouraging Nigerians to "work hard" in a country that doesn't reward it.
Deference suits the powerful: when Europeans encountered African societies' age grades and seniority, this form of social organisation proved a useful tool to control younger or lower status persons whose labour colonialists needed to command. However, unlike pre-colonial African societies where social status was dynamic not static (even a slave could benefit from social mobility and acquire wealth and fame), post-colonial societies don't offer individuals the same social progress.
Stereotypes and imbalances
The colonial state explicitly categorised gender and ethnicity, creating the stereotypes and imbalances at play today, labelling some individuals as problematic and others as naturally superior. Our stagnant, oppressive regulatory and governing mechanisms are legacies of colonial and military rule where to ensure their hold on society, authorities devised less lenient or open ways of ordering it, thus killing any sense of egalitarianism in the citizenry.
This all shows how anyone seen as second-class is stereotyped, censored and badgered into accepting submission based on "culture". Nigerians don't readily question government or religious leaders because of "seniority". Is that democracy, a system where some believe a "higher status" person has the right to take away what's yours? The late Prof. Sophie Oluwole often quoted a Yoruba maxim: "Agba meta l'on to ilu, agbaokunrin, agbaobirinatiagbaomode", meaning: "Three powers make a country, the power of men, women and children". "Respect" for elders was never meant to disenfranchise women or youth who in today's African culture have been marginalised by the modern hierarchies of our economic system.
THE Vice President recently said "social media tends to be hysterical about practically everything". He is right. "There are cases of kidnapping, no question at all about that, but the more dramatic stories you hear simply aren't true.
Every report of kidnapping we receive, we try to verify, and at the end of the day you find people just tell all sorts of stories," he said. Kidnapping isn't new to Nigeria.
It's the result of years of failed social policy, once education, healthcare and social mobility were no longer universally accessible.
A few weeks ago, a reverend in a Methodist church was found to belong to a kidnapping gang, but those who paint kidnapping as the work of "Muslims" or the "North" were silent, prioritizing false, ethnic readings over the economic realities at play.
The Vice-President introduced ranching, the livestock transformation plan to address herders/farmers conflict "so that people don't necessarily come down South in search for water and green pastures for their herds".
Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.