Recently, I narrated the going-through-thick-and-thin phase of life together in Vancouver, Canada, with my brother from the heartland of Ijesha country, Emmanuel Bayo Aregbesola. The focus of that treatise was how Western Union taught us to be more philosophical about our frequent remittances to Nigeria as diasporans.
We were in our prime as graduate students at the University of British Columbia. We graduated. I took my PhD in French Studies and headed south across the border to teach at Penn State University in the United States. Bayo took his Masters in Library and Archival Studies and headed to Europe, landing at The Hague where he was hired as Archivist and Librarian by the World Court.
At the end of his contract with the World Court, Bayo returned to Canada and joined the Federal civil service. In 2006, I left the United States and returned to Canada, to Ottawa. One year later, Bayo phoned me from Vancouver. He had just been transferred to Ottawa. Our joint Canadian Odyssey in one city was going to continue. Just shy of two years into his work in a Federal Ministry in Ottawa, Bayo phoned to announce that there was a job opening in Canada’s parliament and he was going to apply for it.
As it were, parliament was looking for a senior librarian and archivist. Bayo was sure that having been a librarian at the World Court, he stood a good chance. He was right. The Canadian parliament jumped at his UN resume. That is how a Nigerian came to preside over the organisation and acquisition of knowledge by members of Parliament in Canada.
Oh boy, did we celebrate that job! Bayo was now in a position where Canada’s Senators and Reps would be consulting him daily for sources and references. For us, this was a biggie. A few months into the job, I started to notice the first signs of discomfort and restlessness in Bayo. As Nigeria always does to her sons and daughters in the diaspora, the inescapable burden of comparison had caught up with Bayo in his new station in life, leaving a terrible taste in his mouth and making it impossible for him to enjoy his new job.
Bayo’s first problem was the ordinariness of power all around him. He would phone me from work, moaning and groaning that nearly 90 percent of the Senators and Reps took public transport to Parliament. In the summer, many rode bicycles or trekked. No airs. No convoys. No expensive SUV purchases every two years, no useless appurtenances of power. His mind would travel to Abuja and picture Nigeria’s Senators and Reps and that would be the end of his happiness for the day.
Then came his job description as librarian and archivist. Lawmakers and their aides trooped daily to the library. He had to organise a daily deluge of research sources and materials for the lawmakers and their aides. Before every intervention, every speech on the floor of Parliament, a lawmaker would read and read and read and dig and dig and dig and research and research and research. Bayo would supply books and files and sources and references, all the while thinking dejectedly about our own indolent and irresponsible Senators and Reps in Nigeria. He would phone me and ruin my day. His agony was always contagious. He would be doing the weeping on Parliament Hill. I would be doing the gnashing of teeth at Carleton University. Two Nigerians united in ibanuje because of the work ethos of Canadian parliamentarians.
The pabambari of it all was when Bayo discovered that every trip to their riding (constituency in Nigeria) was also preceded by a lot of research. Whenever they went back to their ridings to meet and interact with the constituents who voted for them and sent them to Ottawa, they had to be prepared, they had to be armed with research and knowledge, for the constituents would expect quality feedback from them. You don’t just jump in your car and go back home to meet with your constituents without being prepared to be grilled in a qualitative manner on your thought, your vision, and your legislative agenda. The people need to know that you are intellectually applied in the manner in which you are representing them.
What Bayo and I were witnessing was a supreme sign of respect for one’s electorate in a democracy. They sent me to Ottawa to work for them in the context of a global knowledge economy and whenever I return home to meet them, I must be prepared to show evidence of constant personal and intellectual development.
Bayo did not stay long on that job. It was too emotionally draining, too psychologically damaging for he could not escape the constant spectre of Nigeria. As I told him, the only way a Nigerian could enjoy such a job was to undergo some form of surgical memory erasure where Nigeria and her politicians and government officials would be forever banished from one’s consciousness. Bayo returned to the civil service and is now a Manager in one of the Ministries – that is what you call Director in Nigeria.
There is, of course, something they call a library at the National Assembly. It even surprisingly has books in it. However, it is a largely useless space because you do not need a qualitative mind constantly fed and replenished by knowledge to represent Nigerians in a political office. The only purpose of the Library in Nigeria’s National Assembly is that it is a vital source of recurrent expenditure in the annual budget. Since 1999, they have been claiming to be buying books and replenishing that Library. It is a source of stomach infrastructure for them.
Can you close your eyes and picture Dino Melaye in a library, reading, because he needs to be accountable in a cerebral way to his constituents? Can you picture Senator Godswill Akpabio reading a book? Exactly which one of them can you picture within a ten-kilometre radius of knowledge? I can think only of my friend, Senator Sola Adeyeye but that is because he is a professor and was a university lecturer in America for years before returning home to contest for office. Sometimes I pity the cerebral Professor Adeyeye because he has to share that space with the imbecilic Dino and his ilk in the majority.
Even the cosmopolitan commonsense Tweetnator from Bayelsa – can you picture him in an atmosphere of research and knowledge acquisition for the sake of his constituents? I can’t. Yet, he is one of the most urbane and sophisticated minds in NASS, despite his warts. Because he does not need to read and research anything for the sake of his constituents, that explains why he rants about issues on Twitter, only to get to the Senate and keep quiet whenever the floor opens for the same issues he rants about. I’ve hardly ever seen or heard him make a qualitative intervention.
Why are your Senators and Reps able to establish an ethos of cerebral emptiness – which has become the standard identity of NASS since 1999? I’m afraid they are only partly to blame. The bulk of the blame falls on you. You are their principal alibi for the way they do things. You are their principal alibi for doing the things they do. The Canadian lawmaker spends hours preparing for every trip home to meet his constituents because he expects to be grilled in a certain way.
Today is Christmas Eve. Your Senators and Reps are already at home with you in the countryside. How and what did they have to prepare for this trip back home from Abuja? What did they have to prepare to meet you, their constituents? Sacks of rice. Salt. Ororo. Ajinomoto. Lacasera. And lots of envelopes, each containing about ten thousand naira.
The most painful part for me is that you hardly even get to see them on these trips home. You would have to be especially privileged to even make it to their proper living rooms. The way they construct their mansions, there is always that anteroom where they receive you in cohorts. Their domestic staff will serve you rice and drinks while you watch Arsenal versus Chelsea. Then Madam will come from za oza room in the mansion and greet you all and deliver a little speech on behalf of Chief who is resting upstairs and cannot come and see you. Madam will ask if you need more food and drinks. She will then distribute the envelopes. You will hail and hail and hail and sing and sing and sing. And the next cohort will arrive.
This is the scene that will be enacted ad nauseam in every nook and cranny of Nigeria from today till January 2, 2017. When Madam gives you that envelope and tells you that Chief is sleeping upstairs, do you think it is possible for you as a group to insist on seeing him to ask pertinent questions about his manner of representing you in NASS?
If you see yourself being able to do this and you do it – even if you don’t get the desired answer – then Nigeria has some hope of a mental and paradigm shift in a very distant future.
If all you do is eat rice, take your envelope, hail and leave, then we are doomed.
Pius Adesanmi, a professor of English, is Director of the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Canada.