The scene is sufficiently easy to visualize. Our hypothetical subject is a deprived urchin who has never known the pleasures of life. Perhaps he was raised in settings austere, harsh, and bucolic. Perhaps he grew up on roasted groundnuts, roasted yam, kulikuli, and boli. Something as ordinary as soup – egusi, ogbono, nsala, ila asepo (okro inundated with orisirisi) etc – belonged in the province of dreams and wild imagination during his formative years. You take this urchin suddenly and throw him into a magnificent palace. In the dining room of the palace, you set before him a sumptuous meal of pounded yam and ila asepo (okro inundated with orisirisi) and you leave him to his own devices.
You return twenty minutes later to check on our subject. What spectacle do you think you are going to behold? Once he overcomes the momentary trance occasioned by his contemplation of wealth and splendor once beyond his wildest dreams, once he overcomes the intimidation by his new environment, he is going to plunge into that meal with a vengeance. He is going to eat with both hands and gorge so hastily, so chaotically that each trip of his hands to his mouth will lead to the inevitable: the ghastly sight of palm-oil soaked okro soup running riot all over his hands and – wait for this – his chest. The first gorging, the first taste of soup at the master’s gilded table by a formerly deprived slave will inevitably lead to this scenario. Watch the slave’s chest closely and you will discover that, by the end of this first meal, this first taste of soup, he would have drenched his chest completely in palm oil. Allow me the luxury of claiming that the palm oil stains on his chest would have formed a pattern much like the bling bling of an African American homie in Chicago’s South Side.
Unlike their foolish, ill-reflected son, Reuben Abati’s ancestors imagined the scenario above eons before he was born. They imagined that a deprived, malnourished urchin suddenly exposed to wealth, glamour, and his first sumptuous meal would make a mess of the affair by wearing a palm oil bling bling on his chest. That is why Abati’s ancestors came up with the adage, “omo ai je obe ri ti on ja epo si aya” (the child who has never tasted soup will drench his chest in oil at the first attempt). This, as always, is a clumsy translation of an ancestral wisdom that the English language is too poor to carry. For the palm oil bling bling on the chest of this slave gourmandizing at the master’s table is a metaphor – ah, metaphor! – for much deeper things.
At the core of that proverb is the suggestion – always ultimately borne out by the facts – that the slave wearing a palm oil bling bling at his master’s table will eventually rub his bloated, satisfied belly, guffaw, belch, pick his nose and his teeth, preen his sweaty armpits, before challenging his chi to a wrestling match – apologies to the genius of our Igbo folks. If you look closely at the great Greek tragedies, you will understand that nothing predisposes to hubris like a full and satisfied stomach. It is therefore ironic that our subject is the one who introduced the self-indicting imagery of his consumption pattern at his master’s table. In fact, Rudolf Okonkwo is right to advise the master to fear this slave for he will also stain the master’s tablecloth with palm oil.
The allure of his first meal is sufficient to make him forget the paths he trod to the master’s table. From the master’s table, his chest drenched in oil, he will find it easy to thumb his nose at roads he once took. He will gloat about the master’s table and when he looks outside, all he sees are unintelligent hordes of “they”, collectively and contemptuously demonized as the “children of anger”. The “they” are of course the same “they” whose humanity humanized the roads he once took; the same “they” who read him religiously and hung onto his every word as he sold them hope and dared – pardon the cliché – to speak truth to power before he tragically entered into a Faustian pact with the Mephistopheles that is the Nigerian state.
The palm oil bling bling on his chest also ensures that his ears take flight and head for a new destination – his arms. This proverbial “omo aleti lapa” can no longer hear the “they” whose daily cries of anguish in a land plagued by the visionlessness of his master is what he once wove into the narratives and metaphors that got him noticed in the first place. Now, when they cry legitimately about unemployment, inflation, insecurity, hunger, disease, comatose infrastructure, runaway corruption under his master’s watch; when they scream that they are not satisfied with and will never accept the rickety Nigeria that his master is running and selling, he perceives all that patriotic discontent as a threat to his meal, to his palm oil bling bling. If he does not scream loud enough to demonize and delegitimize those who cope daily with the consequences of the Emperor’s nakedness, the Emperor just may hire an older and more seasoned attack dog and somebody’s position at the table may suddenly be on the line.
But the netizens – citizens of the net – that our hubristic slave insulted from the location of the master’s table must not be discouraged. They must not waver. If anything, they must see in those insults evidence of their newly acquired power to make power jittery. If power hires a so-called special assistant to the president on new media to sell lies to Nigerians on the internet and, not content with that, sends pottymouths like Senator David Mark and our subject in this treatise on errands of intimidation, Nigerian netizens must understand that what these merchants of darkness and civic illiteracy really fear is the power in the palm of the Nigerian and the civic sentience that comes with it.
Netizen, you and your blackberry are powerful and they fear it. They fear the power to say no and make the whole world hear it; the power to expose their fetid corruption to the whole world one tweet at a time; the power to show their corruptly-acquired mansions to the world one Facebook photo update at a time; the power to expose their contract scams one blog at a time; the power to upload pictures of dilapidated roads and other infrastructure they claim to have spent billions upgrading; the power to Flickr pictures of their bacchanals; the power to go after their children, maintained in expensive Euro-American schools at public expense; the power to reject their national cake version of Nigeria, designed exclusively as prebend for members of their one percent circuit of corrupt political patronage. They fear the power that you have now acquired. Even the sixty-year-old attack dog they have just hired has had a rude awakening. He now understands that the terrain has changed and things are not what they were during his first coming. With social media, with the power in your palm, Dr. Okupe is learning that he cannot pottymouth the Nigerian public into submission like he did during his first stint as presidential chihuahua. Ah, they fear the power in your palm!
Netizen, you and your blackberry are powerful and you have the numbers to remake Nigeria along lines not dictated by people whose sole legacy to you is corruption and one of the most dysfunctional countries on the face of the earth. Statistical sources are notorious for their disparities but most agree that more than 60% of the population of Nigeria is under the age of thirty-five. Some sources even put our youth at more than 70% of the country’s total population. That’s a very young population. Far too many of you than Nigeria’s visionless and incompetent rulers are comfortable with now have access to social media and you are using it to acquire education and to reclaim our country from the vultures by exposing them.
Netizenship by its very nature implies civic agency. I have written consistently that if you plan to rule Nigeria they way our rulers rule her, you need to maintain more than half the population in a condition of functional civic illiteracy. You need to create the conditions that would make it possible for morons like Andy Uba to wake up and start claiming the proceeds of crime – Ibori’s $15 million – in broad daylight; you need to create the conditions that would make it possible for openly corrupt people like Arunmah Oteh, Diezani Allison Madueke, and Alhaji Abdulahi Inde Dikko to remain in office.
To create these conditions, you destroy education - and with it civics. You make the most vital fragment of the population functionally illiterate, lacking sufficient civic agency and sentience to challenge you, expose your lies, and insist on a different version of society. When you make the youth unemployed and unemployable, chances are you could even end up making a good number of them fall in love with you – Stockholm’s Syndrome – and become instruments of their own oppression. This is nirvana, the ideal Nigeria of the oppressor. Social media is making it increasingly difficult for the oppressor to maintain this version of Nigeria. The civic sentience and agency he denies the youth by under-educating them or educating them in structures we still claim are Universities – Stalin’s gulags had better, more modern facilities – they now have in the palm of their hands.
Netizen, you are powerful and the people threatened by your power will necessarily fight back. They will fight back by insulting you and calling you names. Never mind if they say that you are children of anger. Your anger is legitimate and should not be derided or discountenanced by the overfed few among us. A hungry man is an angry man. You are lucky that you are still alive in the empire of insecurity they supervise but you are hungry, unemployed and unemployable because their policies have not created anything that would minimally guarantee your human dignity. All they sell you these days is the pure wind of thoughtless deadlines: they said Boko Haram would end in June and you would be secure thereafter; now they say the deadline for when you shall start praising them is 2013. And when you see through the wind they are selling, they say you are children of anger.
Netizen, you are powerful and he who no longer has a name to protect, he whose reputation is in tatters and forever tarnished, must protect the only things he has going forward: the master’s table, the morsels on his plate, and the palm oil bling bling on his chest. He must abuse you to protect these things but you must trudge on. You must not be deterred. You must not waver. You must always remember these words as you fight for the soul of Nigeria on social media: “there will always be some people whose personal, selfish interests are, in the short term at least, well served by the mismanagement and social iniquities. Naturally they will be extremely loud in their adulation of the country and its system and will be anxious to pass themselves off as patriots and to vilify those who disagree with them as trouble-makers or even traitors. But doomed is the nation which permits such people to define patriotism for it… Patriotism is an emotion of love directed by a critical intelligence. A true patriot will always demand the highest standards of his country and accept nothing but the best for and from his people. He will be outspoken in condemnation of their shortcomings”.
Netizen, if they ask you who said the wise words in the quotation above, tell them his name is Chinua Achebe. Tell them that Reuben Abati also insulted him by saying that one of Nigeria’s greatest sons is not conversant with realities on the ground in Nigeria. He once insulted Achebe. It is nothing new if he insults you. He will keep insulting people so long as that palm oil bling bling is on his chest and his ears are on his arms.