If Nigeria were a different country, a society that draws a moral line no one is allowed to cross, the Minister of Women Affairs, Uju Kennedy-Ohaneye, would be out of her job by now. For some unclear reasons, she intervened in the case of the embattled Dean of Law, University of Calabar, Prof. Cyril Osim Ndifo, who is being investigated for cases of sexual assault. Her interference, the subtle threats she made to the young women she called on the phone, and her stunning lack of understanding of what sexual assault entails, jointly disqualify Kennedy-Ohaneye from holding a “Women Affairs” ministerial position. She gave herself away as unworthy of representing women’s interests, and the right thing was for her to be replaced.
Worth comparing to her case is the kissgate scandal that sank the head of the Spanish Football Federation, Luis Rubiales. Amidst the euphoria of World Cup victory, Rubiales kissed midfielder Jennifer Hermoso on the lips. He said the kiss was consensual, but she insisted it was not. The case outraged many, made headlines internationally, and put Spain under the spotlight. Rubiales swore he would fight to the end but eventually capitulated to the value system of his country and resigned.
Unlike Rubiales, however, Kennedy-Ohaneye’s resignation (or sack) is not imminent for at least two reasons. One is that she was appointed by a leader with zero moral legitimacy. He would look quite hypocritical if he tried to enforce the standards he himself does not embody. Number two is significant because it speaks to the larger context of her survival—our society no longer has abominations. By that, I am not merely asserting that we no longer teach children not to whistle at night or jump over a pregnant woman’s outstretched legs. No, what I mean is that our society has let down moral standards so frequently that there are no longer boundaries. If you have the means, there is simply no border of behaviour you cannot cross. Anyhowness reigns.
One of the reasons I bring this up is connected to the incident with ex-president Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and his alleged disrespect for traditional rulers in Oyo State. In a society where public events—including those attended by high-ranking government officials—are hardly ever structured, it is unsurprising that the Obas disregarded the protocol requiring them to stand up to acknowledge the governor’s presence. Meanwhile, should all those norms not be part of the rites of their installation?
Since the video of Obasanjo talking down at the royal fathers over their disrespect for the state governor went viral, I have been almost entertained by how people construed his brashness as disrespectful of “our culture,” “our traditions,” and “our values.” The shock that attended that incident illustrates what I have come to see as the Nollywoodization of public consciousness. Nigerians have been so enamoured with the cinema portrayal of Obas as “kabiyesi” (the one who owes no one accountability) that an encounter with reality shocked them to their bone marrow.
Obas simply do not have much of the ascribed cultural or constitutional consequence under our modern political system. That they are allowed to exist as relics of the past is a political strategy that can be dissipated at any time and without serious repercussions. No traditional ruler in any part of Nigeria is too big to be sacked. In fact, it is easier to sack an Oba than to sack a regular civil servant. A governor can wake up from a drunken stupor, sack an Oba, and nothing will happen. Obasanjo could have handled the situation like an elder, but he was not entirely wrong to remind the Obas where they belong on the political food chain. Any Oba that thinks himself too big for the ìwòsí meted out to them should stay in his palace next time.
Anyway, what is more amusing about the outrage that attended the incident is how people jumped to defend the integrity of “culture” and “traditions” to the extent of questioning Obasanjo’s Yorubaness. Perhaps the most hilarious of all the public statements rashly released in the wake of that incident was the one written by the Oluwo of Iwo, Abdulrosheed Adewale, an Oba that still goes by the clownish title of “His Imperial Majesty.” His statement said Obasanjo should be made to apologise for the “desecration” of traditional institutions to prove he is truly a Yoruba man. His press release is a study in irony because if I stopped ten people on a Yoruba road and asked which so-called traditional ruler has contributed the most to the diminishing of the Obaship institution, nine out of them would mention the Oluwo. His public image is that of a lout, a mere boor who could not be ennobled by his so-called “revered stool.”
Unfortunately, he is not alone in thinking of culture/tradition in such reduced terms. People take the veneration of symbolic items as what is there to “culture,” and begin to demand what is akin to idolatrous reverence for them. Each time the issue of homosexuality arises, it has become customary that someone will justify the criminalisation of sexuality by making the “culture” and “tradition” defence. They will tritely claim that our African culture is somehow superior to that of the West that lets its queer population breathe. Such limited understanding of what constitutes culture is why they prioritise the promotion of provincial (and primordial) identities over its capacity as an ideology that, if appropriately fashioned out, enhances social flourishing.
Culture is powerful, and a society unmindful of its force will find itself weeping over the disgrace of an Oba while leaving aside its far more worthwhile potential to structure a people’s imagination. In primary school, we were given the elementary definition of culture as a people’s way of life. We can look at our society today and understand that culture is also how people make life. Culture matters because it determines thoughts and actions, the spectrum of ideas that people consider good, moral, and worth promoting. That is why what society considers “abominable” matters. They are the standards that condition how far society will go on any issue and how far it also will not.
Look at the whole architecture of governance in Nigeria and you will see that both the Obas that represent the “traditional” institution and the ones of the modern political system symbolise this abject lack of standards. Both join hands to desecrate our democratic potential, enrich themselves at the expense of the people, and have no interest in “culture” unless they can manipulate it to promote our subservience to their politics. So, yes, we know things are bad, but it is not the royal fathers who routinely commit ethical infractions that should school us on the “desecration” of culture/tradition.
That our leaders no longer set a baseline for public officers shows the extent of our cultural degradation. That we too lack the means of making them accountable shows that nothing has meaning anymore. Our culture, no longer retaining what it should ideally consider abominable, has become self-defeating and significantly contributes to our social and economic backwardness.