The true measure of a society or a civilization, goes an aphorism, lies in how she treats her weakest members. Between France, the United States, and Canada, I have lived continuously now for nearly 20 years in imperfect civilizations and cultures that are obsessed with the weak, the poor, the minority, and the excluded. Every waking day in such civilizations, human consciousness is haunted by the question: what is our society doing to be more responsive to the condition of the weak?
The answer they try to find to this question by constantly refining and recalibrating their social dynamics is the first guarantor of a place in 21st-century civilization for such societies. This is why it is inconceivable in such cultures and civilizations to erect public buildings that are not accessible to people in wheel chair. Or to put elevators in such buildings that cannot be used by the visually challenged. It is either the elevator buttons have braille or there is an audio voice prompt.
Recently, Canada’s Federal Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, was in the eye of the storm for what some newspapers here described as corruption and improper spending “worth thousands of dollars”. What did the Minister do? For twenty trips between Ottawa and Toronto, she raked up a bill of about $3,700 dollars. Much of that bill was for limousine services and shuttles in Toronto. The public outcry was deafening. The Minister apologized “to the Canadian people” and agreed to personally refund the $3,700 to the Canadian tax payer. The owner of the limousine service in Toronto also agreed to refund an additional $1,700 to the Canadian tax payer.
As I monitored that case, what detained my attention was not the fact that a Federal Minister nearly lost her job – and certainly had her reputation dented – because she spent less than $5000 dollars of public money on transportation for official duties – not private duties o. I was rather struck that one theme was consistent in the national outrage: what that money could have done for the common man, for the weak, for the poor. We are talking of less than $5000 spent by a Minister fa. It nearly brought down a civilization which felt that her responsibility to the weak had been betrayed.
A few months ago, I sat in a meeting of academic heads of unit in my University and listened, in considerable sadness, to a Dean announce to the Professors gathered in the room that academic units and departments in my University are no longer encouraged to organize conferences, seminars, lectures, talks, and other events that may attract members of the public without making ASL arrangements. ASL is American Sign Language.
We were told that the government of Ontario is encouraging her Universities to be forward thinking in terms of the accessibility of knowledge to the weakest members of the public. If you invite Wole Soyinka to address an audience of one thousand people and there is a single member of that audience who needs the Nobel Laureate’s lecture in sign language, you must make the provision. I said I was sad hearing all that. My sadness did not devolve from my contemplation of a culture that is constantly probing herself to be more responsible to the weak.
On the contrary, I was sad because my mind wandered, as it always does, to Nigeria where the measure of our own civilization lies in how we treat the strongest, richest, and most powerful members of our society. My mind wandered to Nigeria where the measure of our own civilization lies in how much national anger, rebellion, and revulsion we can summon at the first hint of inconvenience to the rich, the powerful, the strong, and, therefore, the sacrosanct.
Consider the ongoing saga of arrested judges. 180 million people became Professors of Constitutional Law overnight. Lawyers found themselves arguing law with lawyers. But lawyers also found themselves arguing law with brick layers and hair dressers. Should the judges have been touched at all? Was the invasion of their homes constitutional? Even if it was constitutional, does the Constitution allow a midnight invasion of private domains?
These, evidently, are very important questions and a government of change, led by a President with a military coup past, must always go the extra mile on the path of constitutional propriety and due process. However, I still couldn’t get past a considerable feeling of sadness occasioned by the fact that I kept wishing that 180 million Nigerians would argue law and the Constitution passionately for more than two weeks and 24/7 on account of the treatment of a shoemaker, a mechanic, a vulcanizer, a fisherman or a primary school teacher.
Nigeria is one of the most socio-economically and institutionally inhospitable places to the common man on earth. And in this day of social media democratization of the image, hardly a day passes without Nigerians witnessing the brutalization of the common man by institutions of state or the colossal unresponsiveness of Nigeria as a project to the plight of the common man. The Nigerian confronts this daily image of the victimization of the commoner with a grunt, a sigh, a shrug, an eeyah, and a recommendation of prayer and fasting to the victim.
However, at the first hint of inconvenience to his Senator, his Federal Rep, his state Governor, the Federal Minister from his constituency or judges, the lion in this docile Nigerian bursts out in full force. That is when he wears the danshiki of his ethnicity, the sokoto of his religion, and the fila of his political party and heads out to the trenches screaming war chants. What sort of culture, what sort of civilization comes close to social uprising only when the richest and the most powerful are at risk?
The measure of Nigeria’s civilization lies in how she treats the powerful and the rich. They must not be touched. This explains repeated acts of impunity. If judges turn their private domains to bureaux de change and do not deny the presence of the funds, there is a culture which measures herself by how best she is able to defend them. If Senator Dino Melaye loots and loots and loots and declares a personal dancing owambe in his hotel room, there is a culture which measures herself by how best she is able to defend him. This same culture will defend Dasuki and Patience Jonathan. This same culture will defend Goodluck Jonathan’s aptitude to spread wealth. This same culture has been defending Buratai and his snake-funded billions. This same culture has been defending Dambazzau, Abba Kyari, and President Buhari’s expanding clique of untouchables.
The brazenness of Nigeria’s rich and powerful is a direct consequence of the measure of Nigeria’s civilization. Minister Philpott has been keeping a very low profile here in Canada since she was accused of wrongfully spending $3,700 belonging to the Canadian tax payer. She is keeping a low profile because there is such a thing as social shaming in her culture. In Nigeria, the bigger your EFCC file, the more solicited you are by Nigerians.
Do not believe all the cursing and the noisemaking by Nigerians on social media. There is no politician ever indicted by the EFCC since its creation who isn’t walking around in Nigeria with his head held high as a VIP. The Nigerian cursing a politician for corruption on social media will rush for a selfie at the first chance he gets to meet the said politician.
Nigerians solicit indicted politicians as special guests of honour, chief launchers, etc. Nigerians will still stop in the middle of a wedding, funeral or such other social functions to “recognize the presence” of an EFCC indictee who has just arrived five hours late in a convoy. Dino Melaye is still heavily solicited for high table presence at functions in his constituency. Tafa Balogun, James Ibori, and Lucky Igbinedion are not social pariahs because Nigeria does not shame the rich and the powerful.
French peasants fought and beheaded Louis XVI because they had no bread. Nigerians would have defended Louis XVI and fought fellow Nigerians for expecting him to provide bread in the first place. If you did not become a Professor of Constitutional Law when you heard that an ordinary Nigerian was arrested for naming his dog Buhari but have now become a Professor Emeritus of Constitutional Law because some judges were arrested, pause, think, and ask yourself this question:
What is the measure of my civilization?