Public holidays do not exist for self-employed people, so on Easter Monday, I found myself buying a takeaway lunch at a small restaurant near my office in Ogba. The sales attendant quipped about buying him a bottle of Sprite in the spirit of the season, and for whatever reason I decided to humour him. The next day, I came by to get some lunch again, and this time both attendants immediately starting dropping loud and unsubtle hints about repeating the previous day’s charity.
I unlooked and collected my food coolly, hoping they would take the hint. They did not. Over the next 3 days, they continued to hound me with increasingly frenzied gesticulation and comments, asking – demanding – that I spend money I did not plan to spend, for no reason whatsoever. Finally on Friday, one of them actually looked me dead in the eye, and told me while putting on an exaggerated impression of my accent:
“So you’re just gonna keep posting me sir? You’ve been posting me since Tuesday sir.”
I could go into what happened next, but this is not a story about how a tiny takeaway in Ogba permanently lost me as a customer. This is also not a story about how security guards and parking attendants at the bank and supermarket nearby literally raised their voices at me when I declined to tip them for the apparently charitable and extremely difficult service of directing me to a parking space.
The story I want to tell is that of a more fundamental societal issue that manifests itself across all strata of Nigerian society, from appallingly entitled service attendants in Ogba to professional buffoons in entertainment and high level politics in Abuja. I want to tell a story about the death of shame in Nigeria.
Aje Kun Iya Ni o Je
When I sent in my application to become a writer on The Other News back in February 2017, my sample script included what I thought was a killer gag about Senator Dino Melaye holding a borehole-commissioning ceremony which doubled as a listening party for his new single titled Aje Kun Iya Ni o Je – The Refix ft. Kanye West. The Americans who did the selection must have liked the gag as well, because I was then invited to submit another sample script, after which I became the first person to be offered a writing contract on the revolutionary political satire format.
As the team came together during the training period, something we initially said a lot to each other was, “There is so much material. The jokes practically write themselves!” This is true – Nigeria’s news cycle is never short of a story or three that seem to have great comedic potential. After a few episodes however, we ran into a problem – our audiences were not engaging like we wanted. It wasn’t that they were not watching, because viewership figures rarely dipped below our regular 2 million weekly viewers. It was that we weren’t getting the laughs we thought we deserved.
Naturally, we decided that we needed to improve our content because it was either our content wasn’t good enough or our audience wasn’t smart enough to get it. Bearing in mind that a lot of this audience also watched The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and they were able to understand even the most nuanced humour therein, the problem obviously was that our material wasn’t cutting it. So we doubled down on our writing efforts, drafting and re-drafting, pitching and researching, fighting and even exchanging fisticuffs inside the writers’ room on at least one occasion because we wanted our Trevor Noah-watching audience to laugh at our smart, intelligent, cutting jokes the same way they laughed at his.
Throughout my three seasons there, we never really achieved that goal, and it wasn’t until midway through the first season that I suddenly understood why. I walked into the studio one day during a typical Wednesday taping session, sulking and sleep-deprived after another intense period of last-minute rewrites and writers room cat fights. Patrick Obahiagbon was our guest that week, and our host Okey Bakassi took out a helmet to wear as a comedic prop, alluding to Hon. Obahiagbon’s expected barrage of grandiloquent nonsense.
True to form, Obahiagbon quickly launched into his usual multi-syllabic verbal spiel, to the delight of an increasingly excited audience. Not even my spoof movie trailer segment about President Buhari returning from the U.K., which took me two entire days to write, edit and produce, got an audience reaction as strong as that of a career buffoon verbalizing copious amounts of nothing in as many words as possible.
Looking at the audience of young, ‘woke’ Nigerians being tremendously titillated by a self-interested politician masquerading as an entertainer, I suddenly realised why we would never be Nigeria’s Daily Show – because the Nigerian audience did not expect the same things of us as it did from Trevor Noah.
On The Daily Show, Patrick Obahiagbon would be skewered and examined for what he is – a politician who uses a mixture of unnecessarily long words, onomatopoeia and utter gibberish to mask the fact that he has absolutely nothing to say. Trevor might possibly perform a comedic impression of his speaking pattern for the purpose of getting a few supplementary laughs to emphasize the fact that Obahiagbon is the punchline. On The Other News however, he was in on the joke, effectively taking control of the platform and misdirecting the humour to target nothing in particular.
Someone who sees a Daily Show episode where Trevor examines a politician comes away with something amidst the laughs. Someone who sees an episode of The Other News where a political figure is featured on the other hand, comes away with absolutely nothing except the vague feeling of having been ‘entertained’ somehow. In other words, while we were spending lots of time trying to get the audience to laugh at people like Hon. Patrick, he and his likes had long figured out that by discarding their capacity to feel shame, they could get audiences to laugh with them, which effectively makes them bulletproof.
Eventually we figured out that it no longer did us any good to write jokes about Dino Melaye’s continued singing exploits – because he was feeding on the publicity, instead of being embarrassed by it. In any case, nobody actually laughs at ‘Aje kun iya ni o je’ anymore, because instead of bringing derision, it helped him win an election. In Nigeria’s public space, attention is now the only thing, with a few people prepared to go to any lengths to secure it, and audiences willing to laugh enthusiastically along with any asshat who goes viral for doing something stupid.
My lowest point as a writer on the show was when one of the suits higher up suggested inviting one MC Tagwaye – a sort of Muhammadu Buhari voice impressionist-cum-praise singer – onto the show as a guest, because all that mattered now was audience engagement, and not impactful content.
At that point, I realised that amidst all our highly-paid, American-trained, internationally acclaimed finery, we had actually become the punchline – a political satire show that did not satirise politicians, but instead gave them a platform to perform for their audiences and feed their ego. None of this was my fault or that of any of my wonderful colleagues, who were one and all, earnest young people trying to make a difference in Nigeria. As Elnathan John once famously remarked however, satire does not work in Nigeria because its key requirement is the ability to feel shame.
As we found out on The Other News, Nigerians – from the sales attendant in Ogba to the senator in Abuja – have collectively disposed of the ability to feel shame, which utterly defeats the entire purpose of satire.
The Importance of Shame
The point is regularly made that Nigeria has the highest paid legislature in the world, with Nigerian senators taking home a generous compensation package far exceeding what their colleagues in Europe, North America and Australia earn. When juxtaposed with Nigeria’s increasingly precarious fiscal situation and the fact that this country now hosts the world’s largest population of extremely poor people, it is very evident even to a casual observer that the cost of government – and the legislature in particular – needs to be trimmed severely.
In this situation, when serving senators with no other source of income make a habit of flaunting luxury vehicles and expensive possessions on their Instagram pages like 25 year-old brand influencers, the clear message this sends to the Nigerian people is “screw you, we’ve got ours.”
More importantly, it shows that at the top level of governance, there is a total absence of shame. Everyone in Nigeria and around the world can clearly see that Nigerian leaders have no problem with being the proverbial one-eyed kings in the land of the blind, showing off their wealth amidst literal filth, poverty and squalor.
This lack of self-awareness and shame inevitably passes down the chain until it becomes the street-level norm. Something highly placed Nigerians consistently fail to understand is that the purpose of the “elite” in any successful society is to provide something for the rest of the population to aspire to. An “elite” is not supposed to be merely someone with a few more zeros on their bank balance than most. In Nigeria, where the elite do not understand their role and typically behave like lottery winners, the general idea is that the only criterion for admission to the elite is money.
Whatever you do to acquire the money is unimportant (nobody really wants to know), so you could even broadcast yourself live on social media admitting to being an internet fraudster and nobody will bat an eyelid. When the EFCC arrests you, you might even get a hashtag urging them to #FreeSelfConfessedInternetFraudster. Anything goes, after all.
In the land of the pathologically shameless, anything goes, be it fraud, extortion and kidnapping, embezzlement, or selling discarded expired drinks from a dump truck to roadside hawkers looking for a few extra thousand naira at the expense of lives.
Absolutely anything goes.
The Thing With Lack of Shame is… You’re Doing Yourself
When life becomes all about gaining an advantage over the next person by any means and with no regard for consequences, it becomes a race to the bottom, often involving fraud, robbery, violence, plagiarism, embezzlement and base tribalism. It is no coincidence that supposedly elite Nigerians have no problem living like prisoners of war, driving over bomb crater-sized potholes in Ikoyi and Victoria Island inside their expensive SUVs, while using the shockingly primitive and environmentally injurious diesel generator to power their homes.
Lack of shame makes it such that despite regularly travelling abroad and seeing what real high end neighbourhoods are actually supposed to look like, the minute they touch down in Lagos, they are completely at ease with words like “borehole,” “septic tank,” “pothole” and “generator.” When you have an entire society built on the absence of shame, it does not occur to anyone that it is utterly absurd to pose for Gram in front of your N150 million Lekki house, which is built along a literal earth road that can only be navigated by an SUV, and which disappears two feet underwater whenever it rains.
The lack of shame even manifests itself internationally, such as when Nigerian athletes heading to the Olympics are forced to carry out fundraising campaigns on social media a week to the event because somewhere between the sports ministry and the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN), something has happened to the money that should have been used for that purpose. For bonus shamelessness points, the AFN is currently toying with a ban after failing to refund an overpayment from the IAAF. After receiving the overpayment and being instructed to refund it, the federation offered to refund less than half the said amount, which will sound familiar to anyone who has ever had to collect funds from a Nigerian government entity.
None of this of course, seems out of place to the Nigerian psyche, because it has been trained to accept indignity and outrage as the norm, and to view avoidable suffering as a medal of honour. The burning sense of shame that should be felt as a result of Nigeria’s culture of proud and brazen shamelessness is only felt by a small minority of people. We spend most of our time in a constant state of frustration and outrage, because apparently no one else sees the picture we are seeing.
Like I stood scowling and rolling my eyes two years ago inside the Channels TV studio, we can only watch Nigerians laughing with the Obahiagbons of this world, completely unaware that ultimately, the joke is on all of us.