“Nigeria is a true democracy. Anyone can do anything, anywhere, at any time…” These words were repeated by Freddy, a friend and restauranter in Calabar, as he was telling a group of us a hilarious but poignant story of an American on his first visit to Nigeria.
The man was being driven along a rural highway and asked his companions to stop at the next public toilet or anywhere that he could relieve himself. They agreed but somehow kept driving. Eventually, he realised that no such facility would materialise in the near future and he modified his request, based on the urgency of the moment. They stopped immediately and the man peed in the bushes by the roadside. Suitably relieved, he climbed into the vehicle and they resumed the journey. For quite a while, he was silent, reflecting on what had just happened. Finally, he spoke.
“Could I do that in Calabar?” he asked.
“Of course,” came the reply.
“Like, right in the middle of a city street?”
“What if a policeman saw me?” he continued.
“Maybe he would join you,” his amused host replied.
“Wow. Where I come from, you would get a ticket – you know, a fine.”
Raucous laughter followed. “Don’t worry, my friend, here you are free!”
More silence, then a solemn declaration: “All my life, I thought I understood freedom, but the USA is far from free. There are rules and regulations around everything. Nigeria is a true democracy. Anyone can do anything, anywhere, at any time and no one will stop you.” Apparently, the man extended his trip to savour true freedom a while longer.
I recalled this story earlier today, as I watched two men butchering a bloated, beheaded carcass of a cow, on the concrete sidewalk directly across the street from my apartment building. I live in Lekki, a posh suburb of Lagos, where a plot of land costs $500,000 and larger houses are valued at over $1 million. Cars and pedestrians, adults and children alike, passed by without pausing; while I stared, wavering between horror, amusement and disbelief. They were at it all day – shaving, chopping, hacking and slicing, as if it was the most normal activity to carry out on a suburban street.
I know it’s Eid el-Maulud (birth of the Prophet) but, really? I asked Chef Godwin if there was any chance that the police, a city official or a concerned citizen might question the two butchers. He peeped through the blinds and shook his head ruefully. “No one will say anything. Even if they do, these men will just give them a share of the meat and that will end the matter.”
It’s an all-too-familiar story. You can do almost anything you want and get away with it. Laws are rarely enforced, unless the agency concerned is on a revenue drive and offenders are being coerced to pay a bribe to escape prosecution. If you are one of the unlucky few who end up in court, you can always bribe the judge. Well, you can do almost anything. It’s not advisable to commit petty theft – pickpocketing, mugging and the like – especially in crowded places. If alerted, the crowd will beat you to a pulp. It’s much safer to commit fraud and steal in large amounts – billions is best – because it’s highly unlikely that you will end up in jail. You will have more than enough money to buy your way out, gain notoriety and be feted as the newest ‘oga’ on the block.
A couple of years ago, Nigerian lawmakers made homosexuality punishable by 10 years in prison, sending international human rights bodies into a frenzy and prompting condemnation from the US and UK. Records show that the bill was signed by members of the Senate and House of Representatives unanimously. Although the law is a genuine threat to poor gays, I had to smile when a good friend in the fashion industry told me about a couple of her very fragrant male colleagues who date senators that were party to the bill. These guys are not in the closet, they are very visible media personalities. In other words, you can do anything, anytime and with anyone – even if you made a law against the very thing you are doing.
Also, you can sell just about anything. A few weeks ago, as I was on my way to work, I saw a huge billboard advertising ‘filled milk’ powder. It’s a product I see in the supermarket and have always wondered why I’ve never seen it anywhere else. With time on my hands, I decided to ask Google. In case you’re wondering, it’s a milk substitute made cheaply by adding a variety of fats to milk solids. Not only does it not sound appetising, but it’s been banned from sale in the USA by the Fedreral Drug Administration since the 1950s.
All of this makes Nigeria a fascinating place to observe life at its most contradictory. From the outside, it appears poverty-stricken but holds unimaginable riches. It’s intensely bureaucratic, with never-ending layers of regulation that can vanish at the introduction of a well-stuffed envelope. Religion is front and centre of national life, holding out the promise of prosperity-by-prayer, for 80% of a population that remains desperately poor. It is one of the world’s top producers of oil, the world’s main energy source, yet electricity is epileptic and petrol, diesel and aviation fuel are always in short supply. On the surface, it’s an intensely conservative society; but somewhere below, money buys a hedonistic lifestyle that few can imagine and even fewer will ever admit to.
Life should be miserable here and yet it isn’t. It can be challenging and chaotic, but never boring. Nigerians find joy in all of the positive things – Africa’s best music and movies; hundreds of affordable, tasty dishes you’ve never heard of; inexpensive tailors who can copy any designer style in just a couple of days; lavish, colourful weddings, no matter the budget; amazing entrepreneurial drive, in the face of endless obstacles; close family ties that make everyone your aunt or uncle; boundless creativity to deal with life’s challenges; and a spirit that refuses to say ‘die’. And, yes, the freedom to do whatever you want, even if you don’t.
For all my critique and analysis, these are the things that make Naija-living worthwhile. While I’m here, I will treasure them and when I leave eventually, I will miss them.
“Everyone living under the social contract we call democracy has a duty to act responsibly, to obey the laws, and to abandon certain types of self-interested behaviours that conflict with the general good.” – Simon Manwairing
“Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” – George Bernard Shaw