The Infantilization of Nigerians
If there is one thing that has become abundantly clear from the legal and ethical controversies that have dogged political incumbents across the Nigeria, it is the fact that those saddled with the task of watching over our affairs have taken that charge quite literally and have proceeded to infantilize us. To put it quite simply, our current crop of leaders see us as children with malleable cognitive and perceptive propensities.
They consider us a blank slate upon which to write their desires and fantasies, upon which to inscribe the self-serving claims that they would have us believe. They consider us stupid by default, unable to evaluate even the most straightforward tapestry of events and issues, and unable to collate events and facts into a cohesive and logical body of conclusions and convictions. Like wise patriarchs, they are incorrigible in their conviction that the impressionable children under their care could be made to believe anything, no matter how nonsensical.
The relationship of our current leaders with the electorate is governed by the kind of psychological manipulation that characterizes a parent’s relationship to his/her child. When a father misbehaves and there is a chance that the child, clueless as he is, will ask questions and see the hypocrisy of his parent preaching one thing and doing another, the parent lies, deceives, misinforms, confuses the issues, muddies the waters, and distracts—all in order to steer the child’s mind off his moral failure. The patronizing attitude of our politicians towards Nigerians mirrors this classic parent-child relationship.
This is exactly how Nigerians are being treated by their leaders as evidence of the latter’s ethical violations and corrupt dealings come to light. We are told lies that will not stand the most elementary of scrutinies. When outright lies fail to cut it, the oldest trick in the political play book is adopted. Obfuscation and distraction become the twin weapons of self-exoneration for our leaders.
At no time in our political history has such weapons of mass distraction been deployed more than in the last one year. The leaders themselves would have to become infants to believe that Nigerians’ credulity has a threshold that accommodates their puerile deceptions. The joke would be on them if they were to actually believe that their rationalizations and explanations of misdeeds and corrupt acts enjoy friendly receptions in the public sphere. Since these leaders are obviously not fools or naïve infants, one must then assume that the only reason that they continue to invest their political faith in their inane explanations is that they serve to distract and confuse. The desire to strategically misinform, distract and confuse Nigerians has since replaced any prior pretensions to transparency and accountability on the part of our leaders. The priority is no longer that of offering cogent explanations about the conduct of government officials but that of planting enough doubt in the minds of Nigerians to make them question both the source and intent of allegations of impropriety facing their leaders.
In assuming that Nigerians can be easily confused and distracted from the egregious misconducts of their leaders, the leaders may be hoping that Nigerians have become so economically beleaguered that their adult faculties have been supplanted by a debilitating cocktail of infantilism and senility.
How else does one explain the recent spate of explanatory absurdities that have been inflicted on us by embattled and ethically challenged politicians on damage control missions? It all started with ex-governor Alameisegha, whose casual explanation for his mind-numbing loot was a patchwork of denial and evasion. He started the trend of underestimating the capacity of Nigerians to see through executive deceptions.
Mr Alameisegha's moment of spectacular farce was when he argued that the money found in his London home belonged to some obscure aide. But even Alams knew when a story was too silly to be plausible, for the value of any piece of misinformation is only as strong as its capacity to pass the plausibility test. So, Alams insinuated and left open the possibility that the money could have been planted by the British police—just enough misinformation to render complicated and ambiguous an unambiguous matter. Former Governor Dariye picked up the script from there, claiming in his own defense when 1 million pounds was found in his London home that he had no such money and that it must have been planted by the British police. Only those who see Nigerians as imbeciles would concoct such cock and bull stories and somehow get themselves to believe that we would not see through their unrefined lies.
Mr. Ayodele Fayose, the disowned political godson of Mr. Obasanjo, was more convinced of Nigerians’ propensity to be easily confused or deceived. When confronted with carefully documented and patently incontrovertible evidence of his malfeasance, Mr. Fayose compiled a delusional corpus of rhetorical questions designed for the sole purpose of diluting, not answering, the damaging charges thrown at him. The charade was elaborate. He pretended to be doing a point-by-point refutation of the EFCC’s painstakingly outlined allegations. What he actually did was to deny the allegations without supplying exculpatory evidence, and to spin rhetorical questions off the most insignificant elements of the allegations, doing enough, he must have thought, to cast doubt on the allegations’ veracity. Only a man who has infantilized his audience would invest his political survival on such a mendacious defensive enterprise.
The refusal of Bayelsans and Ekiti State indigenes to buy into these insulting compilations of absurd defenses was eloquently enunciated by the pressure for the removal of both Alams and Fayose and by the jubilations which trailed their removal. But rather than discourage other tainted politicians from invoking similar strategies of exculpation, politicians at all levels seem determined to succeed where Alams and Fayose failed. Put simply, this is the season of political and legal spin, and spin doctors of all types have invaded the political landscape, brazenly reinforcing the notion that Nigerians are children who would internalize any (mis)information or opinion splashed on their impressionable minds.
This is the context in which Mr. Obasanjo’s coterie of boisterous damage control experts has excelled in putting out explanations and rationalizations that could only be directed at children or at adults perceived as such. In the recent ethical mudslinging between Mr. Obasanjo and his estranged deputy, one recurring theme was the incongruous, contradictory, and shamelessly deceptive rhetoric traded between both camps. Mr. Obasanjo’s men must, however, take the trophy for the sheer absurdity of their illogical and untenable submissions, which would form the basis for a disqualification in a secondary school debating contest. We were told in one breath that Mr. Obasanjo was not a beneficiary of the 100 million naira ‘donation’ by now impeached Governor Joshua Dariye of Plateau State . When incontrovertible evidence was supplied to the contrary, we were urged to believe the ‘new’ truth of the matter: that Mr. Obasanjo paid back half of the 100 Million naira to help out Mr. Atiku, who was previously advertised by Mr. Obasanjo’s people as an offensively corrupt and rich politician. Only people who believe their audience to be children would disseminate such shamelessly packaged nonsense.
Such infantile explanations; the numerous strategic vacillations; the mixed signals and inconsistencies of policy and rhetoric; the deliberate misleading of Nigerians in the case of Mr. Obasanjo’s Transcorp shares; the hypocrisies of the so-called war on corruption; Mr. Obasanjo’s see-no-evil-hear-no-evil answers to his growing ethical problems; and the double standards that inhere in the current ethical posturing of the EFCC—all of these coalesce into an incredibly well-nurtured culture of disregard for the intelligence and discerning capacity of Nigerians.
One new addition to this pattern of absurd rationalizations of serious ethical and moral infractions is, as columnist Okey Ndibe has articulated, the trivialization of serious matters of state and national survival. Ndibe’s preoccupation in a recent article was to situate this cavalier approach to matters of ethics and accountability in Mr. Obasanjo’s legendary mental distance from the worsening socio-economic realities of the country. Mr. Obasanjo, we are told by his lawyer, laughs even at the most serious and evidenced allegation of corruption thrown his way. Dr. Ndibe was commenting on the pathetic attempt by Mr. Obasanjo’s lawyer, spokesmen, and media allies to dismiss, confuse, and dilute the currency smuggling scandal involving Mr. Andy Uba and Mr. Obasanjo’s farm.
I want to take Ndibe’s point further to suggest that this aspect of Mr. Obasanjo’s administrative temperament fits well into the typical Nigerian politician’s penchant for seeing those he leads as children. Mr. Obasanjo laughs at serious allegations of corruption not because he does not realize how serious these allegations are. He laughs because such presidential laughter is designed to confuse and sow doubt in the minds of his supposed children-followers about the seriousness and veracity of the allegations. The objective is simple: to show Mr. Obasanjo as being unperturbed, as being clear in his conscience, and to project the image of a president who is so ethically pure and so innocent of the publicized allegations that he casually laughs them off.
Such presidential laughter under ethical fire also trivializes the matter, with the hope that Nigerians, being the impressionable infants that they are theorized to be, would stop and think to themselves that a president who exudes such a fatherly aura in his domain of authority would not treat such allegations with a casual laughter if the allegations had any truth in them. To put it simply, if the president does not think there is anything to allegations which directly touch on him, then there couldn't be any truth to them. Mr. Obasanjo’s people routinely make such calculations because, in their political universe, the president embodies the cognitive abilities of Nigerians and indeed shapes how they perceive events and scandals. In other words, how the president behaves under these ethical clouds reveals, so they think, the truth of the situation.
The trivialization of scandal is designed to overwhelm indicting facts with anecdotal invocations which, in the mind of the superficial, reduce the significance of the scandal itself. That is exactly what Mr. Obasanjo’s lawyer was doing recently when he claimed that the $170,000 allegedly smuggled into the United States by Mr. Uba raises no ethical questions when situated in the context of Mr. Uba’s private wealth, and that the $45,000 spent out of the amount to purchase equipment for Mr. Obasanjo’s farm should be understood in the context of a farm business which generates millions of naira monthly.
Mr. Obasanjo is also reported to have claimed that his political enemies were out to tie him to the currency scandal. This is yet another attempt to both trivialize and complicate a simple issue requiring a simple executive answer. The aim is to make the allegations appear complicated so that they are not processed on their own straightforward merit but in the context of the familiar feuds between Mr. Obasanjo and his estranged allies. Only those who perceive the recipients of their misinformation as mental infants would use the clichéd they’re-after-me excuse to distract attention from serious allegations of ethical misconduct.
Ms Loretta Mabinton, Mr. Uba’s alleged mistress, is also reported to have claimed through her lawyer that the case in question was not between the US government and herself or Mr. Uba but between the US government and a Mercedes Benz! Of course, this is pure drivel, undeserving of serious attention. But the more important question is why Ms Mabinton would inflict such legal absurdity on Nigerians. It is because she and her handlers believe Nigerians to be infantile enough to actually devote some thought to such idiotic judicial distinctions.
The last component of this trivialization of the serious rests on an appeal to a base sense of escapism and on an instinctive reflex of self-exoneration. When caught with stolen or tainted property, the instinctive response of many people tends to be to plead ignorance about the source of the property and to deny soliciting the goods. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it is not. But these rhetorical enactments are banal elements in everyday relations. As exculpatory refuges, they work in non-political, non-legal circumstances. And that is precisely what makes them so appealing to Mr. Obasanjo and his spin doctors. Nigerians can relate to such explanations, or so Mr. Obasanjo’s people think. And so they seem to be advising the president in case after case to use the well-worn “unsolicited gift” alibi. It is not that this is seen as an adequate legal or rhetorical defense; its persistence as a presidential defensive staple rests rather on the belief that there are Nigerians infantile enough to buy into that sorry excuse and to thus help blunt the sharp edges of these damaging allegations of corrupt enrichment.
The heartening truth is that Nigerians are neither infantile nor stupid. And the tables are gradually being turned against politicians who assume them to be so.