by Chude Jideonwo
Let me tell you about my driver of seven years.
The first sign of trouble when he was recommended was the fact that he didn’t have a job at the time. But he came highly recommended and so I asked to meet him.
First question I asked him: Why wasn’t he presently employed?
He had been fired from his last position, he told me without hesitation. They had been owed for three months. They had demanded for their pay. He had rallies his colleagues and led a protest against his employers. They came for the ringleader; and so he had been out of work for the one month since.
Fair enough. I liked his spirit. I was in the process of organizing my first national protest with the EnoughisEnough rallies. This appeared to be the hand of God.
So I negotiated with him: N40,000. That’s what many people who were earning a lot more than me in 2010 were paying their drivers, in addition to corporate organisations. But this man – with no job, no income, no degree, a wife and daughter – rejected it. He said no. To make a good living, he explained to me in Pidgin English, and to do his job effectively, he called an amount higher than that that he considered a basic minimum. He wouldn’t go lower than that.
I didn’t hide my shock. How could he reject a paying job, especially one that was industry standard, when he had nothing else at this time?
He insisted, still. I referred him to the finance manager, who was a good negotiator. He held firm. I assumed he was bluffing, and called it. He politely thanked me for my time, excused himself and left the office. I assumed he would call back in a few days to accept the officer. We all assumed he would.
But one week after, I never heard from him. He never called back. He didn’t settle for less. He had maintained his stand – the amount he called was the minimum he thought a driver deserved to be paid in an economy such as ours.
I was impressed. I called him back. I offered him the job.
He has been my personal driver to this day. I have never suspected him of theft or duplicity or caught him in a lie. He has been straight and committed and, for the most, part professional, ever since.
That decision paid off.
But it was what drove that decision that concerns us today. It is simple, really. I saw something I have hardly seen, even in managers at top multinationals, or hustling businessmen and women who will do something, anything, just to make any buck available: I saw dignity.
What he makes is not a lot of money by any standards, but to him it doesn’t really matter. He has a healthy dose of respect for himself, respect for his own person, the willingness to draw boundaries at what he considers unacceptable, and the dignity of his labour. He is, therefore he deserves to be respected.
You can see that story in either of two ways: It can be an ego-boost telling you how good I am as a person, or it can tell you how personal this theme is for me, how important I take it that I would put my money where my mouth is.
I recalled this story this morning as I drove into my street.
A truck-pusher was in front of me as I sought to turn in. He was most likely illiterate, he was covered in dirt, and he couldn’t speak English. I sounded my horn gently.
He turned back and looked at me, with no anger, and none of the typical Lagos under-the-sun frustration: ‘Oga wait, make the person wey dey my front go’, and he calmly returned to his business.
The person in front of him, whom I hadn’t previously noticed was blocking him, finally moved, this truck-pusher moved efficiently to the right of the world, turned to look at me, and held my gaze. I nodded, reflexively, in respect. He went on with his business. Me, with mine.
This is possibly an insignificant social transaction to many. But in a country suffused with oppression, it contains significant themes. This is not the typical reflex of truck pushers in Lagos. They often react with apprehension, with apologies, or, on the other hand, they mask their embarrassment with disproportionate anger, or try to match the disdain with which they are regarded.
They don’t react as equals, speaking to a person who just has more than they do. This man was different. This man reacted to me with the equanimity of dignity.
Unfortunately, this spirit is deeply rare in our country. And there is good reason for this: our country doesn’t create the framework for people to respect the pother person as human beings.
In the dog-eat-dog world that has been created by action and inaction, everyone believes that the regard with which you should be treated depends on the tangibles that you have – money, power, networks.
There is a reason “Do you know who I am?” is the refrain that defines the powerful and mighty in our society. It is supposed to distinguish those who deserve to be treated as human from those who are not.
The wealthy oppress those who have nothing. Those who have a little look with disdain at those who have less. Mistakenly flag a car on the road as if it were a taxi and see the violence of anger with which the driver will respond to you: “Do I look like a driver to you?!” Pray, how does a driver look? And if indeed you look like a driver, why is being mistaken for another human being such a thing that should make you take offence?
Because we judge our humanity, and the dignity that should attend our humanity based on a base bottom-line – how far away from poverty we have escaped.
This madness is brought to us courtesy of our government. Leadership always role models the behaviours that filters down to citizens. People behave like they see their representatives behave. People react based on how they are treated from the top of the power chain.
Successive governments have robbed us blind, disregarded the service of civil servants, belittled the contributions of professionals, corrupted the idea of value, belittled the essence of hard work, elevated the craft of theft, and replaced the human penchant for respectability and contentment with the crass obscenity of acquisition and waste.
They slowly, steadily inverted our national priorities.
Who can forget the humiliation of the university lecturer in Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Americanah’, the one who lost his job because he wouldn’t call the governor’s wife ‘mummy’? That was Nigeria in one disheartening, depressing, distressful snapshot.
That’s why the average Nigerian is beaten, surrendered, and obsequious – constantly in a position of ‘abeg’, ‘I hail’, ‘anything for the boys’, and for those that run business, ‘hustling’. We have become a nation of hustlers. We don’t build anymore, we snatch and grab. We don’t grow, we slash and burn.
The Nigerian citizen is beaten down and hollowed out.
When they have no money, they expect no regard. When they know nobody, they demand no respect.
You don’t see that in countries where the dignity of the human person is primary. You don’t see it in Europe or the United Arab Emirates or in America, where taxi drivers walk with the swagger of ‘I pay your wages’ when they speak to their congressmen, where policemen are not fazed by businessmen wielding wads of cash. It doesn’t mean that the art of the suck-up doesn’t exist; wherever they are humans, there are power dynamics. What I am saying is, humiliation isn’t part of the essential national character.
There is a reason the Average American Joe is often depicted as tough-taking, able to stand up for self, able to give as good as she gets, able to find the words to attack or to attend herself, because she lives in a country of laws, where whatever happens, there is at least the pretense for respect for you just because you, too, are human.
Nigerians certainly used to have that sense of respect. We see it reflected in the ‘Are you the one feeding me?’ sentiment, but these days that sentiment is scarce to find, and the spirit almost non-existent.
We treat those who have less as if they are not human, because our governments treat us as if we are not human. They intimidate musicians trying to protest, they demean journalists asking them questions, they disregard teachers whose salaries are owed, and they ignore doctors stuck in a system they despise.
And we in turn do it to the next person. We cover our disdain for the existence of ‘okada-men’ by claiming we are offended by the lack of caution, but in fact if you see the way drivers treat bike riders on the roads, you know that it is disdain for these pests that litter streets that belong to the car owner.
While treating them as vermin, we self-righteously preach down to beggars, asking why they cannot get a job, as if we are unaware that jobs are scarce, a national safety net does not exist, and the vast, vast majority of our people, in their entire cycle of their lifetimes, will live below the poverty line.
And that attitude goes through the line, on each rung of the social and economic ladder. We are grateful that we move from one rung to the other – testimonies in church loudly declaring how God moved us from Oshodi to Lekki, as if those who live in Oshodi are not human – and then proceed to oppress and delegitimize those who are not as lucky as we are.
We treat each other very badly.
The other day, my cousin, a Second Class Upper graduate from Nigeria’s most respected private university informed me that his boss, who runs one of Nigeria’s biggest online platforms, showed up in the office and informed them that, apropos of nothing, he would not pay their full salary for the month. He paid half.
Why? He told them, “I have been too nice to all of you, you need to sit up.” Nice? With their salary? The money they earned? Just like that. And three weeks after he unilaterally, and illegally, withheld their pay, he still has not paid them, or apologized. Because “he is too nice”, and he can get away with it. Because he has more money than they do – therefore he can play fancy free and footloose with his obligations and with their entitlements.
And there are many employers of course who do this. Who treat the paying of monthly salaries like a favour, who find any excuse to shortchange those that work for them.
We pay mechanics and plumbers so little, ruthlessly beating down cost to satisfy ourselves, then wonder why they steal and cut corners with our work. We refuse to get standard rates from informal workers, lie to taxi-drivers about our distance on trips and are quick to call them ‘ole’ when they point to the unfairness of it, and the turns and twists of the route that they were unprepared for, and demand that you pay your due. We treat support workers in companies as if they are not part of the company because they did not go to school or their collar isn’t blue, as if education is the standard for humanity.
“I have more – money, education, power, networks – than you, therefore I am more human than you.”
Our governments role model this to us. We in turn do it to ourselves everyday. And thus we elect more of ourselves to go into government and perpetuate this vicious cycle.
This is the reason, for instance behind the repeated disdain with which the elitist governors of Lagos have treated the weakest of its citizens since democracy’s return. It is why Akinwunmi Ambode can, in flagrant disrespect of court orders, dislocate the lives of the people of Otobo Gbame, demolishing houses and business, just because they can.
Because these are mere ‘fishermen’, a nuisance to the big vision of a cosmopolitan Lagos to which they do not belong. The government is impatient with their demands to be treated like people, like human beings with lives and stories. They were evicted on the 17th of this month, ruthlessly and violently, one of them caught muttering ”We don’t care about court orders. Take it to the governor.”
The all-powerful governor. The one who was voted to secure their humanity, but who will not even pause to regard it. 5,000 people rendered homeless in one fell swoop, and the country continues to move on.
How do we proceed from here?
I don’t have the answers to this particular one. I don’t have answers for how we can begin to rebuild the fabric of our basic dignity.
But perhaps we can start with the questions – each to ourselves, when we sit alone in our rooms, and when we splash water on passersby without remorse, and without stopping our cars to apologise.
We can ask ourselves daily, one to another, citizen to citizen: ”am I treating this one simply as a human being, whatever their disadvantage or their circumstance?”
Do we treat ourselves as Nigerians with the simple self-possession that existence alone demands?
We have to recover our basic dignity. And with it our humanity. One to each other, then systems that make it so. Structures and laws, and rules, and processes and court judgements and simple symbolisms that make it clear that we know what matters.
Life is not worth living without dignity. Nations are not worth having if they cannot ensure it.
*Jideonwo is co-founder and managing partner of RED (www.redafrica.xyz), which brands including Y!/YNaija.com and governance communication firm, StateCraft Inc. Office of the Citizen (OOTC) is his latest essay series.