By Tochukwu Ezukanma
My father once sent me on an errand to a professor’s office. That day, I was in an exceptionally good mood because I was with a friend who had managed to get the car keys from his father. With a car at our disposal, we were to cruise around town, visiting friends and checking out girls. Secondly, I was attired in my best: a pair of dark green baggy trousers, a pair of brown dress boots and a light pink shirt. And I topped it all up with a cowboy-like hat.
On getting into the professor’s office, he was very harsh with me. He did not like my outfit, especially my hat. He scolded me for “dressing like a hooligan”. He ordered me to remove my hat. Dispirited and flustered, I obeyed. I delivered the message from my father, and left. But that my brief encounter with him spoilt my day. My mood changed and my spirit was damped. I could not even muster enough self confidence to put back on my hat.
About one year later, I arrived in the United States of America for a university education. I was pleasantly surprised by the disposition of the professors at my new school. They were not like the professors in Nigeria. They were not arrogant and intimidating. They did not pretend to be all knowing. They could hold a conversation with you and respect your opinion. And they could admit being wrong or not knowing.
I was impressed by how people dealt with even their subordinates, without disdain or condescension. The arrogance that pervades the behaviors of the haves and the educated towards the have-nots and the uneducated in Nigeria was none existent. That stifling feature of the Nigerian human environment that makes you, especially, if you are poor and uneducated, feel worthless, was not there. The American environment is free, enlivening and thrilling. It respected and accommodated everyone, both the rich and the poor.
For example, to get food in the university cafeteria, we lined up with trays and cutleries in hand. When served, you carried your food and drinks in the tray to a table. It was not unusual to see the president (the president combines the powers and roles of the chancellor and vice chancellor) of the university, with his own tray, line up with everybody else (students, professors and university staffs) and wait for his turn to be served. Like everyone else, he carried his own tray to any of the tables where he could be joined by students, professor, etc.
I met with the chairman of my department, Estate Management. He was a conservative man who thought that Africa was one vast jungle. Therefore, he could not understand why a student from Nigeria with plans to return home, after his studies, wants to study real estate. He was not sure that this impressionable 19 year old knew what he was doing. To give me an idea of what real estate was all about, he told me to go to the school library (Reserve Desk) and listen to a tape.
At the library, I met two female students and I asked for the tape. For about 30 minutes, they searched for it but could not find it. Repeatedly, they came back to me to ask me additional questions that will enable them find it. They kept apologizing and explaining that they were just students who work only in the evenings, after the main library staffs had gone. They suggested that I come back tomorrow morning when the librarian will be there. Up till that point in my entire life, nobody had ever given me so much attention. I had never seen anybody so committed to the service of others.
Why is the Whiteman, in his country, not stuck-up and insolent but in Nigeria, our “big men” and madams, in their attempt to be like the Whiteman are arrogant and treat people with lamentable contempt? Why is it that in Nigeria, officials in offices and other public places are bad-mannered and very unwilling to even answer simple questions? And paradoxically, they think that their incivility and insolence are attributes of modernity and enlightenment.
It is the cultural shocks of colonialism. The colonial masters successfully conquered, took possession and dominated that which was not theirs. “The justification for conquest”, wrote H.G. Creel “has always been an embarrassing business. It usually calls for a certain amount of mythology, washed down the throat of the people by means of propaganda”.
The colonialists’ propaganda extolled the superiority of the colonial masters and their ways of life and denigrated the indigenous people and their culture. To reinforce this falsehood of superiority and inferiority of races, they established in Nigeria rigidly stratified class-structure, a class-structure long discarded in Europe because it was cruel and retrogressive. This colonial imposed class structure promoted exclusivity for the Whites (the elite), and relegated the natives to second class citizenship in their own country.
After colonialism, the Nigerian power class stepped into the shoes of the departing colonial masters and became the new elite. They took over their prerogatives, delusion of grandeur and false feeling of importance. They adopted their attitude – deliberate scorn – towards the Nigerian masses. So, although the new power elite became Nigerians, their contempt for the people and their indifference to their suffering remained the same, exactly as it was when the ruling elite were the White colonizers.
Not surprisingly, a governor orders the shooting to death of university students on a peaceful demonstration because they were blocking the route of his motorcade. A number of the students were killed and stray bullets killed four children in a nearby nursery school. The governor showed no remorse, admitted no wrong and offered no apology. Another governor, in the name of urban renewal, empowers Kick against Indiscipline (KAI) officials to hound and brutalize indigent Nigerians, as though they are animals or slaves, for trying to eke a living by selling in the streets of Lagos. He remains scornfully indifferent to the fact that he is essentially ruining lives, frustrating hopes and consigning hapless families to hunger, homelessness and destitution.
Just as children unwittingly behave like their parents, the masses subconsciously behave like their rulers. So, taking a cue from the power elite, any Nigerian with any modicum of power and/or authority exercises it in disdain for the people.
The police shoot and kill the innocent over trivial issues. Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) officials beat drivers to death over minor traffic offenses. Nurses and doctors cause avoidable deaths of their patients, especially, impecunious patients. Landlords ignore the legal rights of their tenants, and with the aid of lawyers and estate surveyors intimidate and humiliate them. Employers treat their employees as dirty. Receptionists and public officials in public places disrespect and insult their clients. And so on and so forth.
Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria.
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