In Okun land, my generation grew up to the story, often told, of a visit by a military governor to one of the towns in the region. We were then part of the old Kwara state. The townspeople rolled out the drums, as is always the case when big government people visit the countryside in Nigeria. People in power must be welcomed “with pomp and pageantry”. As soon as the governor stepped out of his car, Kabiyesi (the king) and his council of chiefs approached him for the traditional welcome formalities. The Governor and Kabiyesi shook hands and Kabiyesi burst out in a welcome declamation he had prepared for the occasion:
You are are a Gomina, I’m a kingi
This is my town
This is my people
This is my second calabash
I want ina (electricity)
I want omi (water)
I want electricity in my town
O s’okunkun biri biri (there is darkness everywhere)
I want a titi to Kabba (I want a road to Kabba)
For moto to be passing fiam fiam fiam
This poetic chant was the cause of a thousand bloodied noses during my primary and secondary school days. For it really depends on who was using it to ridicule any of the kabiyesis in the region. Being from Isanlu, for instance, I would claim that the kabiyesi in question was the king of Mopa, Ponyan, Ejiba, Odo Ere, Egbe, or Eruku depending on which of my playmates I wanted to taunt. Defending their respective towns, they too would claim that the Agbana of Isanlu was the culprit. We would fight and bloody our noses.
In the second stanza of this apocryphal welcome hymn, Kabiyesi introduced somebody to the Governor as his “second calabash”. He was translating literally from Yagba, the dialectal variant of the Yoruba language that we speak in my place of origin. “Igba keji” in Yagba or Yoruba means “second calabash” or “second plate.” Kabiyesi was simply introducing his deputy, the person among the ‘baales’ (high chiefs) who served as his second in command. A Vice President, a deputy governor, a vice principal, anybody who comes second to a higher authority, is an “igba keji” – a second calabash.
The metaphorical scope of that expression is much broader. Depending on context, it could also mean second class, second rate, lowly, or not important. In short, “second calabash” is a marker of inferiority: the worth of the citizenship of a Nigerian national in the eyes of the Nigerian state. Coming from a country where the state and her officials treat 150 million people as “the second calabash” is not an easy political reality to explain to outsiders. In America, in Canada, I try to explain that reality to my students in its sordid, humiliating concreteness. I tell them that, at my age, if you take my Canadian citizenship out of the picture and focus solely on the Nigerian, I have never experienced the psychological comfort of a citizenship considered sacred and inviolable by a state. I have never in my life gone to bed with the psychological comfort of knowing that a state’s got my back.
I tell them that the Canadian or the American flag mobilizes them because deeply ingrained in their subconscious is the absolute certainty that a state considers their citizenship to be sacred and supreme; that a state would mobilize all the resources and apparatuses at her disposal to defend just one citizen. For instance, the British Prime Minister recently attempted a rescue operation of one of his citizens in Nigeria. Prime Minster Cameron acted because every British citizen is a first calabash in the eyes of the British state. There is a feeling that comes with that kind of first calabash citizenship that Nigeria’s 150 million second calabashes do not know because they have never experienced it – unless they carry the passport of another responsible state as dual citizens. The Nigerian state would never do that for a Nigerian life in jeopardy.
I tell them that on August 4, 2008, a band of foolish Somalian pirates kidnapped the entire crew of a Nigerian tugboat in the coast of Somalia. The boat was returning to Nigeria from Singapore. After holding their Nigerian hostages for a total of 302 days, the Somalian pirates finally grew brains and realized how foolish it was for them to have kidnapped Nigerians. The Somalians broke the number one rule of international hostage taking – the life of your hostage must mean something to a particular state – because they believed that anybody in the rulership of Nigeria was even remotely interested in the lives of Nigerian citizens.
The pirates can be forgiven. Because they mostly kidnapped Americans and Europeans, they were not used to governments not fretting over the lives of their citizens. They extended that consideration to the Nigerian state and paid heavily for their error of judgment. Their Nigerian captives became an economic burden on them for they must be fed. After 302 days, the Somalians practically begged the Nigerian hostages to leave. They needed the space for hostages from serious countries that would worry about their citizens. Nobody in Abuja had bothered about our kidnapped compatriots. No, not one.
The second calabash treatment of the Nigerian citizen by the Nigerian state is, for me, the real source of our problems in Africa. The Nigerian state has spent much of her postcolonial existence investing heavily in Africa’s promise. Name any postcolonial continental struggle for human dignity, from Congo to South Africa via Sierra Leone and Liberia, and you will find Nigeria’s petrodollars and human resources at the forefront of such struggles. These considerable investments in the rest of Africa, often at the expense of the Nigerian people, are informed by the delusion of Nigeria’s political elite that we are the giant of Africa. Yet, whenever these African countries need foot mats, they go looking for Nigerians resident among them or in transit. Stories of contempt and indecent treatment by host African countries abound among Nigerian diasporans all over Africa. From Kenya to Tanzania, Ghana to Egypt, the story is the same. South Africa, a country I visit regularly, is of course the worst culprit.
Why is it so easy for African countries to benefit periodically from Nigeria’s financial beneficence and routinely treat her citizens with so much scorn and contempt? I have read several analyses, ranging from giant resentment to negative stereotypes of the Nigerian buried deep in the psyche of other African nationals. But this is merely scratching the surface. I believe that we underestimate the import of the Yoruba adage: as you treat your own calabash, so shall your neighbour treat it. If you treat your calabash like precious chinaware, your neighbour will treat it with love and care when you lend it to him. On the contrary, if you use your calabash to carry piss in your neighbour’s presence, he will use it to carry shit when you lend it to him.
Nigerians receive the sort of treatment they receive from African beneficiaries of their country’s Father Christmas career in Africa because those African countries know that the Nigerian citizen ain’t worth shit to the Nigerian state, her officials, and her bureaucracy. I have given that reality check to Nigerian nationals in the Diaspora every time I am privileged to address them in my travels. My submission is this: for every rude treatment or indignity you have received on account of your Nigerian passport at the airport in Accra, Nairobi, Johannesburg, and Kampala, you are most likely to have been treated much more shabbily at least once by Nigerian officials at Nigerian airports, who tend to treat foreigners more decently – especially if they are white – than Nigerians. As a Nigerian, your second calabash status begins the moment you tender your passport at immigration on arrival in Nigeria.
That the Nigerian state denies dignity to the Nigerian at home does not of course justify the shabby treatment of Nigerians abroad – especially in Africa – but it sure does explain it to a considerable extent. It is easier to maltreat the Nigerian if you believe that he has no state to stand up for him. Because they have gotten away with treating Nigerians shabbily since 1994 without any response from the Nigerian state, the South Africans must have been shocked by the Jonathan administration’s response during the last yellow fever incident. That uncharacteristic response by the Nigerian state and the consequent humbling of the South Africans proves the calabash thesis: if others know that you don’t mess around with your calabash…
But, alas, there is a catch even to that response that also proves the second calabash thesis. It is now common knowledge that a Nigerian Senator was affected by the transgression of the South Africans. It is therefore arguable that the National Assembly cried themselves hoarse over the incident because it affected one of theirs and not necessarily because it affected ordinary Nigerians. The timing of the noise making by the National Assembly over that matter is also instructive. Unknown to Nigerians, as they screamed and rained fire and thunder on South Africa, the Senators were quietly taking delivery of the brand new Prado Jeeps they had appropriated for themselves. What a welcome diversion the faceoff with South Africa was!
The purchase of the Prado Jeeps and the attempt to take delivery by stealth while pretending to be teaching South Africa a lesson in how to respect Nigerians is part of a long-established pattern of behavior by Nigeria’s political elite which speaks to the psychological component of the second calabash thesis. The treatment you receive from the police, at Government offices or at other sites of engagement with the bureaucracy of the Nigerian state in the daily civic process; when you are whipped off the road for the convoy of a Governor or a Minister; these are all physical manifestations of your second calabash condition. The psychological manifestation of it stems from the fact that the Nigerian state and her officials believe that you are dumb, hence they do not have to respect you; hence they do not believe that you have the capacity to rise up one day and demand that respect. This treatment saps your psyche and drains your humanity bit by bit.
Respect for the citizen is what makes all the difference between responsible and irresponsible states. President Obama knows that it is an insult to the American people to try and occupy his office while knowingly or unknowingly violating any of the provisions of the Constitution he swore to respect. To do that would be to believe that his people are dumb. To believe that his people are dumb is to treat them like the second calabash. Many have asked me why it is possible for President Goodluck Jonathan to knowingly violate the Constitution he swore to defend for the second year running by refusing to respect a clear and unambiguous provision of that document which makes it mandatory for him to declare his asset. How does he get to be in office, day to day, knowing that he is violating the Constitution and disrespecting that office?
We cannot explain this behavior in isolation. It has to be situated in the overall context of the behavior of his political ilk across ethnicities and religions. You do it because you are used to treating your people like the second calabash. You do it because you believe that they are dumb. This explains why an indicted Bukola Saraki gets to report to the police at his convenience; why Herman Hembe gets to determine whether he gets into the dock or not; why Arunmah Oteh is still in office and still gets to let the Nigerian people know that she is attending functions with the President; why David Mark would fly to Israel for medical treatment at our expense and return to an airport welcome jamboree organized by idle morons in the political class; why Babatunde Fashola would not deem it necessary to confirm or deny the news that he sent his Dad to the US for treatment while superintending the worst medical crisis in recent memory in Lagos state.
The list is endless but the point is the same: knowledge that you are a second calabash in your own country is psychologically sapping. However, are your traducers to blame? There is no member of the leadership currently treating Nigerians like the second calabash today who cannot bet on thousands of Nigerians coming to their defense if things go wrong for them. They know that Nigerians are often the first justifiers and rationalizers of their own oppression. All it takes is for the accused to come from your ethnic or religious background and criticism of them becomes taboo. I call it criticism haram.
Criticism Haram – i.e do not criticize my own – is the greatest obstacle to the liberation of Nigerians from their status as second calabash citizens of their own country. When a band of second calabash Kwarans from whom Bukola Saraki stole about N8 billion arrived in Lagos early in the morning, carrying drums and placards in his support, the criminal was still in bed in Abuja. In a subsequent interview, Saraki took exception to the suggestion that he rented that crowd and insisted that they went there to support him of their own volition. Sadly, I believe Bukola Saraki. In a land where the second calabash citizenry has been psychologically clobbered into a mass condition of Stockholm syndrome, the gentleman thief would indeed not have needed to rent a crowd.