The Nigerian culture that Runsewe does not know
The Director-General of the National Council for Arts and Culture, Segun Runsewe, has been on my mind lately, and not with admiration. He represents the typical policy dysfunction that is a trademark of our political system: one where people with the least understanding of a nuanced issue are given the task of directing it.
Incompetent governments in Africa have always misused the phrase ‘African culture’ to justify actions and policies that add no value to governance. Even so, their ideas of ‘African culture’ have little to do with the African cultural experience.
Often, they conflate the very real and continent-wide syncretism of colonial ideology, Abrahamic moral philosophy, and surviving aspects of traditional societies in our present-day with the existence of an identifiable, monolithic, prehistoric, and unchanging ‘African culture’. No such thing exists. If the Director-General had paused to discuss with historians and other academics, he would have understood the nuances: that there are several, diverse, and even conflicting, African cultures across time and space – and all have been significantly impacted by colonial culture.
Consider when, earlier in August, the Director-General went after the musician Tekno, and declared his intent to prosecute ‘proponents of…offensive sights and videos’, while warning that ‘nudity is not part of our culture’ – which is an untrue statement – ‘and should not be tolerated’. More recently, Runsewe attacked Bobrisky as an unworthy ambassador of African and Nigerian culture. Bobrisky may have flaws that make her ambassadorial ability questionable, but her dress sense is not one of them.
This relentless mischaracterisation and ignorant understanding of ‘our culture’ by Nigerian and African policymakers are problematic for two key reasons. First, it continues to sustain colonial legacy by demonising the African body and suppressing African sexualities. When the Europeans arrived in Africa, they saw our dances, the nudity of black people, and the sensual symbolism in our religions and they concluded that we were a heathen, primitive and savage people. This became their justification for launching a hundred years of colonial subjugation, aided by weaponry, and which resulted in the erosion of our identities. It is shameful that, almost sixty years after the end of colonial government in Nigeria, public policies in the most populous black nation in the world are still shaped by this kind of prejudiced colonial nonsense, and worse, confusing colonial legacy as our culture.
Second, the mischaracterisation of ‘African culture’ and our unrelenting fight against governance-neutral, or at worst ‘PG’, issues like sensual dancing and cross-dressing distracts social focus from the real dangers of our current social and political culture. Let us consider this.
Other than our culture of violence, if there is one cultural problem in Nigeria that ought to be addressed with urgency, it should be our culture of deceptive patronage that systemically runs through our socio-political system and eventually manifests in the kind of mass arrests of Nigerians abroad as we have seen on the news recently. Dealing with this culture of deceptive subservience is not about Nigeria’s image or international reputation. It is about how we are slowly eroding our own identity as a people and our self-worth as a society.
Let the world think what they will about Nigerians: that is not, and should not be a problem. What should worry us is how our people perceive themselves and the culture that motivates that perception. We should worry that many Nigerians see themselves as hustlers, scheming competitors for resources in a power hierarchy, deceitfully bowing to the person ahead of them and expecting full subservience from the person behind them while edging their equals out of the way. We should worry about the system that has led to this mindset: from the existence of an unproductive elite who hold power through state-capture to the deterioration of educational systems that– as the usual news of students suspended for voicing their opinions show–prioritise the mass production of hypocritically servile graduates over honesty and innovation.
We should worry about the fact that we have a culture where loyalty is valued above honesty, were being true to self is discouraged or punished without justification. We live in a society where honesty in expression is considered as disrespect; honesty in character is considered as arrogance; honesty in thought is considered as blasphemy, and honesty in politics is considered as treason. We should worry that we have a culture where flattery and superficial subservience are treated as virtues. A culture where we are rewarded and promoted for our ability to sing false praises to the willing ear.
A culture where, from an early age, we are perfected into expert fraudsters in our daily interaction with authority figures. In a culture where speaking one’s mind is discouraged, the people who are best at deception will always come first. When some Nigerians are exposed as international swindlers, we must understand that they learned their skills from the culture.
I would think these are the kind of cultural reforms that would keep the Director-General of the National Council for Arts and Culture awake but it seems this is a Nigerian culture that he is not aware of. Clearly, for him, Tekno and Bobrisky are more fundamental problems – and that is the tragedy of governance in Nigeria.