On Saturday morning, last week, in a conversation with friends on Facebook, I was reminded of Reverend Martin Niemoller’s famous 1937 statement – more about this later. Over the week leading up to this conversation, I had had problems with the (lack of) quality of after-sales service for my car (from one of the country’s leading car retailers). I complain a lot. And, unfortunately, there is plenty to complain about in this country. At work, I learnt (in response to my kvetch) that it was not just my car make that was prone to these terrible after-sales service standards. I heard complaints over just every car type that is sold in the country. Arguably the most piquant of these plaints were the ones involving a replacement of parts.
Apparently, all our big car retailers do not stock parts for the cars they sell, especially when these vehicles are new or top of their respective ranges. Instead, upon a customer bringing a car to them requiring a part to be replaced, they then place an order (to Japan, Korea, even the United States of America) for parts as ridiculously small as side mirrors. This order could take anything from a month to three months to fulfill. The more the injury to the car, though, the longer the turn-around period – of course, the customer pays for the order. Not just in terms of the cash disbursed, but in terms, too, of the associated inconveniences.
In one particular instance, a friend had to wait as each part (of her single order) came in separately – every other week, over a four-month period. A “danfo” had run into her car with extreme prejudice. The response of other recipients of my plaints (especially the conversation on Facebook), however, made me realise that it was not only the “danfo” driver’s running into my colleague’s car that was extreme or prejudicial. A great number of my compatriots had absolutely no sympathy for these cases. “Big man big moto, big moto, big trouble” was one of the more easier-sounding partialities.
All of which reminded me of an incident several years back, as the bus I was travelling in on my way to work neared the Ketu-Alapere node (in Lagos). Right before us, in heavy traffic, armed thieves (I suppose that is what they were, but the brutality of their operation suggested otherwise – “class warriors”, they may have been) had savaged the rear windscreen of this obviously new sedan, and were dragging (or attempting to forcibly evict the occupant of the back seat out through his side window). Eventually they got him out and forced him to his now open boot. Time stood still; long enough for our driver to eventually execute an evasive manouevre that saw us leave the back of this unfortunate vehicle.
Interestingly, while we were still behind the star-crossed vehicle much of the conversation was kindly. “How dare they break the windscreen like that?” “Look at how they are tugging at him. Are they not aware that he could be the head of a family?” “What is the country turning into that small boys get away with outrages like this unchallenged?” As soon as we managed to make our get away, though, the nature of the narrative changed. “If he (the victim, now) is not a thief, where did he get the money to buy such an expensive looking car, in a country where most of us could barely afford to pay the new bus fare?” Abruptly, the robbery incident underwent an apotheosis. Transfigured, it had become retribution for a “likely thief”. And so, for a good number of my friends, the service failure at the car place is just dessert for owning a “big car”.
And what to make of ATM failures at the retail end of the banking industry market? Equally just desserts for not having access to and use of private banking facilities? The point these, and similarly structured narratives miss (and a point on which our civil society fails), is that a non-negotiable condition for the unprejudiced consumption of each of our rights is that we all stand up against potential infringements of the rights of others. For no person’s rights are more justiciable than another’s.
Reverend Martin Niemoller put this case differently, but more forcefully. “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”