Suddenly, Nigerians are talking about simplicity, following Mark Zuckerberg’s visit to the country last week. For clarity purpose, Zuckerberg is chief executive officer of Facebook, that virtual village with citizens numbering about 1.7 billion humans. His visit had the trappings of simplicity. Without prior notice, we just started seeing news feeds of Zuckerberg in Lagos and photos of the man moving about and engaging with regular Nigerians, without pomp.
Then, we saw this photo of him walking down streets in the Yaba neighbourhood of Lagos as he went about meeting different groups of techies and you may wish to add fellow nerds like him. There were reports of Zuckerberg jogging and of him eating jollof rice. Many Nigerians celebrated that eating as an “endorsement” that we have the best jollof rice in West Africa (and the world), in an attempt to give Ghana the bloody nose in our ever-running jollof rice superiority war. As an aside, I always wonder how the original owners of jollof rice (the Wolof ethnic group of Senegal and The Gambia) feel seeing two different countries fight over the “originality” of their own food.
Well, Zuckerberg left Nigeria for Kenya, where he was pictured eating their local delicacy of ugali with fish, using bare hands (without cutlery). On Friday, he made another stop in Nigeria, this time at the Presidential Villa in Abuja where he met with President Muhammadu Buhari and some high level government officials. He also attended an event where the government presented 30 start-up businesses with financial support.
Obviously, the Facebook CEO’s visits were purely business, as he met with the community members involved with information technology, mainly the young people. But the one thing that many talked about was his sense of simplicity. Known more for wearing grey T-shirt and dark trousers or denim jeans, Zuckerberg did the same while on the trip, except for the visit to the Nigerian Presidential Villa where he dressed up in suit. The simplicity did not escape Nigerian government officials to the extent that President Buhari told the guest: “I am impressed by your simplicity in sharing your knowledge and wealth with those with less income.” He added that Zuckerberg’s simplicity “challenged the culture of lavish wealth display and impulsive spending that had become peculiar to Nigerians.” President Buhari then said, “We are not used to seeing successful people jogging and sweating in the streets.”
I disagree that this impulsive lifestyle is “peculiar” to Nigerians. To be “peculiar” means to “belong exclusively to” a people. No doubt, Nigerians have a huge dose of this attitude, but that doesn’t make it peculiar to us. It is interesting that our own president had to say that. It is equally curious for me that it took the visit of a foreigner for the president to voice that out. It was as if Nigerians have not observed and complained enough about the ostentatious lifestyles of public figures, including government officials whose sense of importance is but ephemeral and resultant from their occupation of public offices. I call it the “Big Man Syndrome” or “bigmanism”.
I have written about this a few times in the past. This is seen where public officials walk into and out of meeting rooms without as much as carrying their files. Some other staff has the specific responsibility to carry those files before and after the officials enter or leave the meeting. Our officials cannot be caught carrying the speeches they are going to read. Sometimes they may even not carry their reading glasses. Some big women do not also carry their handbags, even though the handbag is an accessory to the dressing. You are also unlikely to see our big men and women carry or allowed to carry the umbrella when they are out in the rain or sun. An aide has to do so even if it means the aide therefore stays outside of the umbrella.
I have seen an orderly of a public official clutch heavy files and bags in both arms while the boss merely strolled ahead casually. And I thought the duty of the orderly included providing some form of security to the official. Pray, how would the orderly do so in an emergency if he has his hands clutched to the boss’ personal effects? I have also seen a police orderly to a pubic officer use a hand fan to fan her principal at a public event.
It is equally unusual for the big man or woman to line up to take their meals at buffet during a business meeting, not even to pick up their tea at such events. So, their aides have to run around like ants to arrange all those for them. I am always bemused at such sights. Nor can I fathom the pastor who is too big to carry his/her Bible while entering or exiting the church or pulpit even when the Bible is the tool of their preaching.
By the way, much of the lavish lifestyles and attempts at stratification of society come from the ruling class and it behooves the members of that class, starting with the president to consciously take steps to reverse that. Many examples abound in government offices where undue segregation is placed on access to certain facilities. In the National Assembly, there are some lifts reserved exclusively for members of the House of Representatives and Senators. On them you would see the silly sign: “For Honourables (sic) and Distinguished (sic) only”.
Now, consider that there are only 469 persons qualified to use those ‘exclusive’ lifts in an office complex that has thousands of admin and support staff as well as visitors traversing on a daily basis and you would understand the foolishness in keeping down some lifts for the exclusive use of the federal legislators. What the attitude simply says is that they the privileged citizens, whom the rest of the citizens put into offices, cannot condescend to sharing space with the rest of society. It creates something of lords and commoners dichotomy.
It is the same attitude that allows state officials to beat traffic lights, race against traffic speed limits, blare sirens and shove other road users off the road, drive against traffic, be exempted from paying tolls at the airport etc.
If this tendency is going to change, it must start from the top. I am one of those who have been disappointed with how the president has missed several opportunities to reverse the years of dichotomy between the leaders and the led as well as the flamboyance of public officers or the high cost of oiling the apparatuses of government. One of the areas many of us called on the president early enough to curb is in the number of aircraft in the presidential fleet or the number of aides and vehicles attached to public officers.
As if the crowd of personnel and vehicles in state events are not large enough, I equally see some level of undue flamboyance. And this takes me to the pomp that I see around the presidential movements. I have been taken aback a few times I have seen how lavish the airport reception at Abuja Airport has been when the President returned from foreign trips. Suddenly, we now see the Nigerian Army band, decked in Scottish kilt, playing the bagpipes and staging a reception parade for the president at the airport. Pray, what does that add to the quality of governance?
There is no reason for government officials, nay VIPs to throw their weights around, much like a tiger needs not assert its tigritude, for them to be the VIPs they are. We can still accomplish much without discarding simplicity.