Nigeria’s obsession with respectability politics

When Nigeria gained its independence, most of the military governors who governed the states under the successive military regimes were under the age of 30 years, according to Wole Soyinka. Those who struggled for our national independence: Awolowo (37), Akintola (36), Ahmadu Bello (36), Balewa (34), Okotie-Eboh (27), and Enahoro (27) were all young people like Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was only 42! But in these current times, a lack of trust in the ability of young people and women in Nigeria has been doing major damage. Everything from the smallest gestures, to the availability of major opportunities, to who is acknowledged, who goes first, who is attended to, who receives the best customer service, etc are all almost hinged on age and gender!

Nigeria’s battle with respectability politics can be hurting the nation more than helping it by denying some of its best and brightest of the everyday recognition they deserve, withholding rewards for their talents and motivating them to stay and build this great nation all because they happen to be young, a woman or from a minority ethnic group. When does vetting cross the lines of acceptability? We have to start addressing things more critically.

There is a decent place for seniority respect in our culture, however in a professional setting it must be managed critically. As discussed among some of my fellow returnees, when placed in senior level positions, our abilities are initially questioned due to our young age despite our vast experiences. However without the trust and support of the team, those abilities may not reach its full potential to benefit the entire team, i.e. everyone loses. Where a newly hired young woman has been given the position as Director, and her staff may have expected a 50+ woman with grand children to hold the position, there Nigeria’s obsession with respectability politics begins to rear its ugly head. The demands of a senior level position requires the all-hands-on-deck mentality from staff and also requires the assistance of light and heavy lifting of various tasks for productivity to reach a desirable level. In a situation where staff refuse to assist a senior staff because of her age and youthfulness, cracks begin to form in the establishment and again, everyone loses. If young leaders go after the positions needed to impact true change and are not held back or undervalued, there is no doubt that Nigeria would move forward.

Mark Zuckerburg, is CEO and founder of Facebook, a revolutionary social media site, and one of the youngest billionaires. In his recent trip to Nigeria Zuckerberg walked unaccompanied at times on the streets of Yaba and jogged Ikoyi bridge without escort. He wears casual attire- the same grey t-shirt and slacks everyday. This is said to minimize his distraction about attire and to eliminate the extra stress in making clothing choices everyday, however the attire donned by Zuckerberg would cause the average Nigeria not to look twice or even offer him decent service if they didn’t know who he was. Therein lies our problem. We expect a specific look or image to equate to a person’s worth or determine if they are deserving of basic respect and it holds us back as people.

I recently entered a boutique in Opebi, Lagos and when I requested their tailor, he was called to assist me. When he arrived he was pointed in my direction, he walked pass me three times, greeting everyone else around me assuming they were who he was called for. I then realized, I was the only who had come straight from the gym, rocking my trainers and sweats. That outfit didn’t signify to him that I was a potential client. Needless to say, I refused to take his services.

Bill Gates, who is currently the richest man in the world, spots casual attire as well and modest dressing- does this make his net worth decrease one penny less? No. Therefore the average Nigerian should not use dressing, appearance or clothing, age or gender to value or devalue their fellow Nigerian or make any assumptions of a person’s abilities based on superficial outward appearance, it’s truly holding us back and honestly how people are fooled into believing flashy deceivers everyday.

As Nigerians, we must start to take a deeper look into how we treat one another in the realms of the politics of respect and basic recognition. Opportunities of engaging with brilliant minds and building our greatness are lost everyday by the hyper-judgmental eyes of the citizenry towards certain age groups, genders, appearances, etc. It’s time to come out of that for the nation to move forward, we have too much at stake as the largest black nation in the world to not value each and every citizen as someone who brings something to the table and who owns their own agency. We must start to trust the abilities and capabilities of the youth and our women more for this great nation to progress.



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