The incorrigible

(By Paul Edor Obi (Jr.))

The Incorrigibles include those who, regardless of the various business, pleasure or family trips taken to developed nations, return to Nigeria and prevent the structural systems of better living influencing their own ways of life, saying lazily to themselves, “this is the way things work here,” or “it’s not like it’s affecting me.” The Incorrigibles include those who refuse to pay for the tollgate pass (which they can easily afford) but queue up at the shorter E pass queue expecting to be let through. They are those who would complain about the debilitating traffic at the international airport, yet do not object to parking at acute angles that block other cars or park at the airport for so long that other cars are unable drop their occupants off.

I WATCH, have watched and shall in all probability continue to watch quite a large number of movies, so it is practically impossible for me to pick my favourite (it may have not even been made yet). Nevertheless, were I asked to make a list of 10, there is little doubt in my mind that The Sound of Music would probably be the first I’d remember.

I’ve seen it (honestly) no fewer than 20 times so recalling lines from the movie is like remembering the name of an old dear friend. One such line implanted in my memory is that of the first exchange between Kurt Von Trapp and his new Governess, Maria. For those unfortunate fellows who haven’t seen The Sound of Music, Fraulein Maria is an effervescent yet undisciplined young nun, sent to the house of Captain Von Trapp, a curmudgeonly widower, to be the 12th governess of his children. In the scene in question, Maria introduces herself to all the seven Von Trapp children individually. On meeting 11- year-old Kurt, the following exchange occurs:

Kurt: “I’m Kurt, I’m 11, I’m incorrigible.”

Maria: “Congratulations. ”

Kurt: “What’s incorrigible? ”

Maria: “I think it means you want to be treated like a boy.”

Cute. Contextually, Kurt says he’s incorrigible because one of the previous 12 governesses must have furiously told him so. Also, he says it to be in line with his elder siblings, who were being intentionally difficult to make Maria feel unwelcome (15 -year old Freidrich described himself as impossible and 16-year old Liesl declared to Maria that she doesn’t need a governess). It is to Maria’s great credit, and the movie’s timeless appeal, that she won over this obdurate group of adolescents along with their father. But I digress.

It is indeed adorable ever so often to see children proving stubborn. It is, however, not a character trait that parents wish their children to carry on to maturity. As an adult, the word stubborn is only positive when it approvingly describes the character of an individual or group. For example, “he stubbornly refused to stop searching for his son” as opposed to “he stubbornly refuses to admit his flaws.” Having concluded the undesirable nature of an adult being stubborn in general, it is even worse for one to be described as incorrigible. To be incorrigible or a behaviour that is incorrigible is one that is bad and impossible to change or improve. A child described as incorrigible is unfortunate but, being an individual at the start of his/her life, there is more than enough time to outgrow the peculiarity. However, it is extremely frustrating to meet an incorrigible adult because we are aware that there is little to no chance of the said person changing.

Now, please, hold that thought. I was at home recently when I discovered what appeared to be a fight, outside my home in a private estate in Lagos. Upon further investigation, I discovered that the antagonists were both our drivers against another individual. It appeared that, disregarding the four “No Parking” signs outside our compound, the gentleman felt he was within his rights to park there to wait for his children to close from the school opposite. Irrespective of my assertions to the contrary and my calm requests that he park elsewhere, my arguments were ignored by his stating that he may park wherever he so pleases by virtue of being a resident of the same estate. Soon enough, this all became irrelevant as his children came out of the school, were picked up and driven away.

I sincerely hope this sounds as illogical as it seemed to me. What is most striking, however, is that nothing prevents the gentleman from returning the following day and doing the same. Thus, he becomes stuck with this illogical way of thinking, his stubbornness evolves into incorrigibility and he becomes incorrigible. Had this been an exception of an occurrence, it would have been bad enough but easier to stomach. Sadly it isn’t. A fortnight ago in the same estate, a woman held up traffic because she did not have the recently issued cards for resident entry in her or her driver’s person, yet refused to turn around and use the visitor entrance. She then decided to – against the run of traffic – enter the estate by the exit gate.

I could tell over 100 of such stories but I fear it would only serve the purpose of depressing us both. Note this, however: in both instances, the persons in question were not working class individuals who are hardened by their struggle to survive; or the extremely wealthy who are so out of touch (and mean that not as an insult) with their domestic affairs that they cannot in all fairness be held responsible for the actions of their staff; but they were those members of the Nigerian elite upper-middle who can afford to live in private estates and comfortably send their children to the best schools home and abroad.

Sadly, it is this category – a steadily expanding upper-middle class – to which the majority of educated Nigerians belong, that I identify as the title “Incorrigibles”, a class of persons waking up to an assumption that the absence of adequate law enforcement in Nigeria anoints them as laws unto themselves. I should once again emphasise the difference between this elite and the enormously wealthy individuals. The latter travel, live and generally exist in such a stylised system that their actions are genuinely independent of those working for them. The Incorrigibles include those who, regardless of the various business, pleasure or family trips taken to developed nations, return to Nigeria and prevent the structural systems of better living influencing their own ways of life, saying lazily to themselves, “this is the way things work here,” or “it’s not like it’s affecting me.” The Incorrigibles include those who refuse to pay for the tollgate pass (which they can easily afford) but queue up at the shorter E pass queue expecting to be let through. They are those who would complain about the debilitating traffic at the international airport, yet do not object to parking at acute angles that block other cars or park at the airport for so long that other cars are unable drop their occupants off.

Like Kurt Von Trapp who wished to be treated like a boy, different from the rest of his sisters, the Incorrigibles wish to be treated with a certain degree of respect because they earn a certain amount of money and are friends with (insert here powerful Nigerian) and (insert here other powerful Nigerian). Yet, like Kurt Von Trapp proudly declaring himself to be incorrigible without knowing what the word means, the Incorrigibles are blissfully unaware of the level of influence they hold in controlling the social and cultural mind-set in the country.

I can already hear the retorts: “You cannot compare Nigeria to any country because it is not like any other country.” Actually, I can, without denying that very few countries have ever been or are as linguistically, culturally and socially diverse as Nigeria is, whilst managing to survive and even thrive despite that diversity. However, some civilisations have been or are similar enough to make comparisons with Nigeria. In such states, the same upper-middle class (or a comparative class below the ruling class) has existed or does exist. The Roman Empire of antiquity once stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to modern day Azerbaijan, from the Scottish borders and to North Africa. I illustrate this to elucidate just how diverse it was. Despite this, the Roman Empire was and is a model of uniformity. In all its parts, regardless of how far from the centre of power, the same social structures were in place, the same legal framework established and the residents of said parts (regardless of social class) were made to obey the same rules.

Then there is United States of America. Although not as linguistically diverse as Nigeria or the Roman Empire (though the stark accentual differences would suggest otherwise!), Americans would chafe at the suggestion that the absence of linguistic variety suggests a monotony of cultures in their country, highlighting the differences between the W.A.S.Ps (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), the Latinos and the different races (a large number of whom arrived speaking languages that weren’t English of black, Asian and Native American peoples) to prove how tremendously diverse their country, in fact, is. These differences have not impeded Americans from creating a recognisable culture that demands that they be the best at everything.       Furthermore, they demonstrate a willingness to spread this American ideological uniformity in other parts of the world. This is evident in every multi-national company that originated in America. From McDonalds’ Big Macs in Medina, to Hilton hotels in Hanoi, to Apple stores in Amsterdam, there is an obvious and visible desire to maintain the standard, which the original American consumer was used to in these dissimilar corners of the world.

Do note that, in both the case of the Roman Empire and that of America, this uniformity is not validated by the Senators of Rome and American billionaires (the senators rarely left Rome and a billionaire would more likely rent a luxury apartment), or by the peasant Romans and the American extremely poor (who wouldn’t have the opportunity of such travel), but by those of the Equites class of Rome and the middle class American, both of whom are comparable to the Nigerian elite I have described. It is they who would leave for a province in Judea or to stay at a Best Western hotel in Brussels and expect the same standards to be just like home. If such illustrious diverse civilisations can maintain and exhibit such a laudatory way of life, why can’t our Incorrigibles?

“The working class and enormously wealthy people you exempt are just as bad so why not write about them?” On the one hand, this is a perfectly reasonable question. I for one was only too glad to learn that the use of “Okada” has been prohibited. My issues with them, objectively and from personal experience are voluminous enough to write another essay on. The impunity with which they ignore the rules of the road and endanger the lives of themselves and others suggests that it would be simply impossible to educate them otherwise. Equally, Nigerians of the upper class are too often so out of touch with those around them that they blissfully ignore any happenings in their environment. Theirs appears to be a belief that if one contributes substantially to the practice of job creation, governance or law making, it absolves them of concern for what daily happens around them. If one travels in a convoy and with ease, it is somewhat unlikely that they would care whether others without convoys travel with less ease.

Nevertheless, the two recently highlighted groups have much less influence on the social habits in our society than the Incorrigibles could. Whilst the middle class only makes up 23 per cent of the population (African Development Bank Data), the continuous desire for social advancement that is by nature at the heart of this subsection means that they have the most to gain from any cultural or social advancement in the country. Take for example the Nigerian GSM revolution. It stands to reason that the network providers would have aimed their services not at those of the Upper Class (who already had mobiles) or the working class (who couldn’t afford them). For MTN, Econet and later on Glo, their services focused on those of the citizenry who could afford a mobile phone, yet saw no previous reason to get one. Had this class of person not taken part in the GSM revolutions, the prevalence of mobile internet we often take for granted would be as much of a dream to us, as it once was.

I am merely a 25 year-old man with a lot of time on my hands and thus am not in any position to prescribe the cures to the woes caused by the Incorrigibles. However, it seems crystal to me that the most likely solutions to our behavioural problems shall come not from the top-down or from the bottom-up but from the middle out. Those wielding the maces of power in our society can only pass so many laws or create so many jobs and those disenfranchised members of our society can only rebel so much in acts of violence. In the recent U.S. elections, the term “middle-class” was amongst the most used terms by both the candidates and by their surrogates because that was the class of persons that had the most to gain or lose from any change in government. As such, the candidates tailored their message to appeal to them the most. If we, who have the most to gain from our society improving its attitude towards seemingly insignificant things as the rights of others, refuse to effect this change, then our incorrigibility will leave us all the worse off. Like Kurt Von Trapp, we shall remain proudly and obstinately incorrigible, without realising that we are the losers after all.

• Paul Edor Obi (Jr.) is an aspiring political satirist.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”

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