Let me start with a quote by Louis Brandeis: “If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable”. This is like a repackaging of the popular statement that the way one is dressed determines how one is addressed. While western societies may be somewhat lax about showing respect, especially to older persons, in Africa, respect is king. In some settings, an older person can never be wrong, and would talk down any unfortunate younger person who dares point out flaws in actions or words. This addiction to respect, is in my view, one of the reasons why Nigeria is underdeveloped.
A video by Sahara Reporters recently made waves, showing an encounter between the governor of Oyo State, Isiaka Abiola Ajimobi, and protesting students from the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH) Ogbomoso. The university is jointly owned by Oyo State and Osun State. In the short video, Ajimobi is seen telling the students to do their worst, basically daring them to risk the wrath of Nigeria’s nice security forces. The highlight of the video was his demand for respect, telling them that he is the “constituted authority” of Oyo State, and even if he does not pay salaries for months, he remains the constituted authority, and therefore should be respected. To add some perspective to this encounter, students of LAUTECH have been at home for about eight months since their school was shut down over financial issues.
When Nigeria’s social media army went on rampage, braying for Ajimobi’s blood, his aides released their version of the encounter. In this “official” version, Ajimobi is seen telling the students that he suspended his executive council meeting to address them, and so they owe him to listen to him, since part of the responsibilities of students is to show respect. In this version, he appeared conciliatory, and explained that his Osun State counterpart and him were working on getting the school reopened before the end of January.
Is this just a tale of two videos? If you watch just the official edited video, and you did not attend a school that suffered shutdowns, you would likely see the governor in a good light. However, if you watch the other short video, your conclusion would likely be different. In the first video, Ajimobi is heard saying that it is not a new thing for schools to be shut down. When a student talked back at him, he asked his police officers to get the student. Fortunately, other students prevented them from getting the concerned student. That person would have spent some time rethinking about his life.
Let me put this situation in some context. I read mechanical engineering at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. When I gained admission in November 2008, straight out of secondary school, I thought I would be through in five years. My mistake was thinking that five academic sessions equalled five years. In my first year, the school was shut down for a total of six months for a lecturers’ strike action and a bonus strike by non-academic staff. In my final year, the school was shut for another six months for a lecturers’ strike. In between these two major shutdowns, we had two short closures of about two months each plus a few one or two-week long appetizers. Somehow, the school authorities managed to shorten some sessions and I wrote my final exams in May 2014. That was six years for a degree programme in which I never failed a course. To top up the time wastage, my graduating class had to wait until May 2015 before starting the mandatory one-year national service.
Please pardon my digression in the previous paragraph. This article is not about me. I just wanted to paint a picture of what Nigerian students go through in government schools. Those who attend private universities, or travel outside Nigeria for their first degrees, do not get to enjoy this time wastage. You can now see why LAUTECH students were justifiably angry. How can students stay at home for eight months, and still be expected to act civilly to someone they feel is responsible for their predicament? Demanding respect from them is simply insensitive. In the first place, they did not come to the Government House to chitchat. They came to protest their continued stay at home while their colleagues in other schools go on with their studies.
When Governor Ajimobi demanded respect for constituted authority, he was standing on traditional protocol. The Yorubas in Nigeria’s southwest are famous for public displays of respect. So maybe Ajimobi expected that the students, no matter their grievances, would prostrate at his feet. That is why he could say that even if he does not pay salaries for months, he remains the constituted authority. To him, coming out to address them was a privilege for which they ought to grovel at his feet. Should we blame him? Even the president and most governors would likely act like Ajimobi if they were in the same shoes. It is a Nigerian thing, built through years of invoking respect instead of handling responsibility. If a gunman shoots some Americans somewhere and President Obama were to be on vacation, he would likely truncate his vacation and quickly release a statement featuring his own lips. In Nigeria, even if a thousand persons are killed, the best you can hope for is a statement released by a presidential spokesperson.
As I said earlier, the demand for respect is one of the reasons Nigeria remains underdeveloped. From the homes to the government level, people in authority believe they are to be respected regardless of their competence level. They wrongly mistake fear for respect. Most Nigerians don’t respect their leaders. They appear submissive for fear of being punished by vengeful leaders who cannot take criticism. This results in a culture of praise-singing, even when leaders are clearly clueless about their responsibilities. At the end, everyone (“ordinary people”) suffers because leaders fail to do their jobs. I do hope that LAUTECH gets reopened soon, and its students can return to school. While I understand the financial situation in Nigeria, those students do not deserve to be dumped at home, and for now, Nigerian authorities, whether properly constituted or rigged-into-office, should not demand any respect.
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