Nigerians just like to trivialize issues unnecessarily. Frankly, it's annoying. Okay, I am annoyed. I don vex. Shey una happy now?
I have been following arguments on Ogbeni Ganduje's empowerment of the Mai Shai people in Kano. There has been some very powerful advocacy for the economy and the economics of Mai Shayism.
Those sympathetic to Ganduje's gesture have made seductive and persuasive submissions in favour of the legitimacy of the Mai Shai as a cornerstone of the informal and SME sectors, especially in the North.
I've been reading and following the arguments and wondering: who exactly is quarreling with any of these submissions? Who exactly is saying that Mai Shayism is not a legitimate pillar of the informal economy that should be encouraged? Who exactly is saying that the Mai Shai is not running an SME? Why do people like to set up a submission that nobody is making and spend two days demolishing it?
I even have a cultural stake in the Mai Shai stuff. I am a Professor of Literature and Culture. Think of what the barbershop represents in African American history and culture. The Mai Shai's stall is a cultural environment. It is a space of street culture and discourse. It is a space of critical agency for the people. It is not just about tea, bread, and eggs.
Here is the trouble with Ganduje. The next time you hear the word, "empowerment", from any Nigerian politician and his aides, line them up in public and crack coconuts on their empowerment heads.
Empowerment competes with another word, ultramodern, for the position of the most abused, most bastardized word in Nigeria's postcolonial history. Empowerment is what replaced another famous word, "miscellaneous", in Nigeria's infamous imaginary of corruption.
When I was growing up, "miscellaneous", was your father's house of many mansions inside which you dumped every imaginable and unimaginable corruption detail in a budget or in an invoice heading. The life of three generations of Nigerians was mortgaged under "miscellaneous" in budget items by the destroyers of Nigeria.
Then, the UN, NGOs and other international agencies began to "empower" all over the global south. We hijacked the word and the concept, completely ignorant of the meaning, and began to replace "miscellaneous" with "empowerment" in every actuation of corruption in our national life.
Funny enough, the global instances who donated that register to us are moving away from it. It is actually now a pejorative term which connotes arrogance on the part of the "empowerer" and denies the "empoweree" critical agency.
In Nigeria, it has stuck. Every Governor, every Minister, every Rep, every Senator - and their wives - will steal billions, spend a few thousands or millions buying food items or domestic appliances or ero alota or sewing machines, line up women and children and farmers and traders, line up journalists, cut a ribbon, and declare empowerment!
The sociological impact of this nonsense has been immense. Nigeria is paying an immense price. Empowerment is the opium of the people. It is the way we legitimize an ad hoc culture and philosophy in our national life. If you want to account for Nigeria's laziness and apathy to 21st-century solutions to anything, study the culture of empowerment. We reach out for ad hoc solutions every time to every imaginable problem. And we absolve the oppressor of his responsibilities while clapping for him.
No light in the villages? No problem. Mr Governor will buy a few generators and distribute as empowerment. We clap and absolve him of the need for 21st-century solutions.
No light in our police stations? No worries. While the Inspector-General is busy on the amorous front, Ambode will empower his boys in Lagos with I better pass my neighbour. We clap and move on.
No potable water in the villages? No problem. Mr Governor will dig a borehole. His wife will buy 3 million sachets of pure water and distribute to women and traders to empower them. We clap and absolve them of the need for 21st-century durable and sustainable solutions.
No health facilities and no health insurance and no drugs in the hospitals? No problem. The Governor or his wife will pay an unscheduled visit to a hospital tomorrow and pick up the medical bills of every patient on admission in order to empower them. We clap and absolve him of his responsibility to deliver 21st-century health facilities and healthcare delivery system.
Some say there are street vendors too in obodo oyibo. Absolutely! Especially hot dog vendors with street stalls. However, it would be crazy for the Premier of Ontario to go and buy patties, hot dogs, burger buns, and stalls, line up a few hundred street vendors, distribute the goodies and say she is empowering their business.
No, Madam Premier, you can't do that. That's not how we roll in civilization. Leave such an irresponsible approach to human capital development to the 17th-century folks in Nigeria. You and your administration must go and fashion out policies, sound economic policies, that would empower the businesses of these people. What, for instance, are you doing to guarantee their access to micro-credit and sundry micro-finance? That is one way to ensure that their capital base will be enhanced and you won't have to give them fish. Madam Premier, you can't just dig your hands into public funds, buy hot dogs, and distribute them to street hot dog vendors in Ottawa as empowerment.
Because we are an ad hoc people with an ad hoc mentality, we never think of what happens after empowerment. A few years ago, maybe one year into Ogbeni's tenure in Osun, I recall Semiu Okanlawon gleefully posting photos of his Oga's empowerment materials in one village. We clapped and moved on.
Up until last year, my broda, Baaroyin Kayode Odunaro, was inundating Facebook with photos of empowerment materials donated to constituents by his Senator boss till I took my irritated ass and went after him with koboko. After the ero alota and sewing machines, what next? We clap and absolve the Senator and the Governor of their responsibility to really empower people with durable and sustainable solutions.
Two years ago, Commonsense Tweetnator, Ben Murray-Bruce, made a show of riding okada to his constituency to distribute rice, Ajinomoto, exercise books, and other empowerment materials. What next? He has since retreated to Twitter and forgotten his constituents.
Once the Mai Shais of Kano are done with this largesse, I hope they do not think that Ganduje owes them any responsibility for social and economic policies that could really help them. He has provided an ad hoc solution.
By now, he has moved on. He is probably thinking of the next demographic to empower. What about the market porters in Kano? I won't be surprised to hear that he has sent a delegation to Samuel Ortom in Benue to study the immediate and remote strategies of distributing wheelbarrows to porters as empowerment.
He will steal N1 billion, spend an N100 million on wheelbarrows...
We move on.
Ad hoc people, ad hoc country.
Pius Adesanmi is a Professor of English and Director, Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He was previously an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University in the United States. He is the inaugural winner of the Penguin Prize for African Writing in the non-fiction category