Let me tell you about my driver of seven years.
The first sign of trouble when he was recommended was
the fact that he didn’t have a job at the time. But he
came highly recommended and so I asked to meet him.
First question I asked him: Why wasn’t he presently
He had been fired from his last position, he told me
without hesitation. They had been owed for three
months. They had demanded for their pay. He had rallies
his colleagues and led a protest against his employers.
They came for the ringleader; and so he had been out of
work for the one month since.
Fair enough. I liked his spirit. I was in the process of
organizing my first national protest with the
EnoughisEnough rallies. This appeared to be the hand of
So I negotiated with him: N40,000. That’s what many
people who were earning a lot more than me in 2010
were paying their drivers, in addition to corporate
organisations. But this man – with no job, no income, no
degree, a wife and daughter – rejected it. He said no. To
make a good living, he explained to me in Pidgin English,
and to do his job effectively, he called an amount higher
than that that he considered a basic minimum. He
wouldn’t go lower than that.
I didn’t hide my shock. How could he reject a paying job,
especially one that was industry standard, when he had
nothing else at this time?
He insisted, still. I referred him to the finance manager,
who was a good negotiator. He held firm. I assumed he
was bluffing, and called it. He politely thanked me for
my time, excused himself and left the office. I assumed
he would call back in a few days to accept the officer.
We all assumed he would.
But one week after, I never heard from him. He never
called back. He didn’t settle for less. He had maintained
his stand – the amount he called was the minimum he
thought a driver deserved to be paid in an economy such
I was impressed. I called him back. I offered him the job.
He has been my personal driver to this day. I have never
suspected him of theft or duplicity or caught him in a
lie. He has been straight and committed and, for the
most, part professional, ever since.
That decision paid off.
But it was what drove that decision that concerns us
today. It is simple, really. I saw something I have hardly
seen, even in managers at top multinationals, or
hustling businessmen and women who will do
something, anything, just to make any buck available: I
What he makes is not a lot of money by any standards,
but to him it doesn’t really matter. He has a healthy
dose of respect for himself, respect for his own person,
the willingness to draw boundaries at what he considers
unacceptable, and the dignity of his labour. He is,
therefore he deserves to be respected.
You can see that story in either of two ways: It can be
an ego-boost telling you how good I am as a person, or it
can tell you how personal this theme is for me, how
important I take it that I would put my money where my
I recalled this story this morning as I drove into my
A truck-pusher was in front of me as I sought to turn in.
He was most likely illiterate, he was covered in dirt, and
he couldn’t speak English. I sounded my horn gently.
He turned back and looked at me, with no anger, and
none of the typical Lagos under-the-sun frustration:
‘Oga wait, make the person wey dey my front go’, and
he calmly returned to his business.
The person in front of him, whom I hadn’t previously
noticed was blocking him, finally moved, this truck-
pusher moved efficiently to the right of the world, turned
to look at me, and held my gaze. I nodded, reflexively, in
respect. He went on with his business. Me, with mine.
This is possibly an insignificant social transaction to
many. But in a country suffused with oppression, it
contains significant themes. This is not the typical reflex
of truck pushers in Lagos. They often react with
apprehension, with apologies, or, on the other hand, they
mask their embarrassment with disproportionate anger,
or try to match the disdain with which they are regarded.
They don’t react as equals, speaking to a person who just
has more than they do. This man was different. This man
reacted to me with the equanimity of dignity.
Unfortunately, this spirit is deeply rare in our country.
And there is good reason for this: our country doesn’t
create the framework for people to respect the pother
person as human beings.
In the dog-eat-dog world that has been created by action
and inaction, everyone believes that the regard with
which you should be treated depends on the tangibles
that you have – money, power,networks.
There is a reason “Do you know who I am?” is the refrain
that defines the powerful and mighty in our society. It is
supposed to distinguish those who deserve to be treated
as human from those who are not.
The wealthy oppress those who have nothing. Those who
have a little look with disdain at those who have less.
Mistakenly flag a car on the road as if it were a taxi and
see the violence of anger with which the driver will
respond to you: “Do I look like a driver to you?!” Pray, how
does a driver look? And if indeed you look like a driver,
why is being mistaken for another human being such a
thing that should make you take offence?
Because we judge our humanity, and the dignity that
should attend our humanity based on a base bottom-
line – how far away from poverty we have escaped.
This madness is brought to us courtesy of our
government. Leadership always role models the
behaviours that filters down to citizens. People behave
like they see their representatives behave. People react
based on how they are treated from the top of the power
Successive governments have robbed us blind,
disregarded the service of civil servants, belittled the
contributions of professionals, corrupted the idea of
value, belittled the essence of hard work, elevated the
craft of theft, and replaced the human penchant for
respectability and contentment with the crass obscenity
of acquisition and waste.
They slowly, steadily inverted our national priorities.
Who can forget the humiliation of the university lecturer
in Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Americanah’, the one who
lost his job because he wouldn’t call the governor’s wife
‘mummy’? That was Nigeria in one disheartening,
depressing, distressful snapshot.
That’s why the average Nigerian is beaten, surrendered,
and obsequious – constantly in a position of ‘abeg’, ‘I
hail’, ‘anything for the boys’, and for those that run
business, ‘hustling’. We have become a nation of
hustlers. We don’t build anymore, we snatch and grab.
We don’t grow, we slash and burn.
The Nigerian citizen is beaten down and hollowed out.
When they have no money, they expect no regard. When
they know nobody, they demand no respect.
You don’t see that in countries where the dignity of the
human person is primary. You don’t see it in Europe or
the United Arab Emirates or in America, where taxi
drivers walk with the swagger of ‘I pay your wages’ when
they speak to their congressmen, where policemen are
not fazed by businessmen wielding wads of cash. It
doesn’t mean that the art of the suck-up doesn’t exist;
wherever they are humans, there are power dynamics.
What I am saying is, humiliation isn’t part of the
essential national character.
There is a reason the Average American Joe is often
depicted as tough-taking, able to stand up for self, able
to give as good as she gets, able to find the words to
attack or to attend herself, because she lives in a
country of laws, where whatever happens, there is at
least the pretense for respect for you just because you,
too, are human.
Nigerians certainly used to have that sense of respect.
We see it reflected in the ‘Are you the one feeding me?’
sentiment, but these days that sentiment is scarce to
find, and the spirit almost non-existent.
We treat those who have less as if they are not human,
because our governments treat us as if we are not
human. They intimidate musicians trying to protest,
they demean journalists asking them questions, they
disregard teachers whose salaries are owed, and they
ignore doctors stuck in a system they despise.
And we in turn do it to the next person. We cover our
disdain for the existence of ‘okada-men’ by claiming we
are offended by the lack of caution, but in fact if you
see the way drivers treat bike riders on the roads, you
know that it is disdain for these pests that litter
streets that belong to the car owner.
While treating them as vermin, we self-righteously
preach down to beggars, asking why they cannot get a
job, as if we are unaware that jobs are scarce, a national
safety net does not exist, and the vast, vast majority of
our people, in their entire cycle of their lifetimes, will
live below the poverty line.
And that attitude goes through the line, on each rung of
the social and economic ladder. We are grateful that we
move from one rung to the other – testimonies in
church loudly declaring how God moved us from Oshodi
to Lekki, as if those who live in Oshodi are not human –
and then proceed to oppress and delegitimize those who
are not as lucky as we are.
We treat each other very badly.
The other day, my cousin, a Second Class Upper graduate
from Nigeria’s most respected private university
informed me that his boss, who runs one of Nigeria’s
biggest online platforms, showed up in the office and
informed them that, apropos of nothing, he would not
pay their full salary for the month. He paid half.
Why? He told them, “I have been too nice to all of you,
you need to sit up.” Nice? With their salary? The money
have earned? Just like that. And three weeks after he
unilaterally, and illegally, withheld their pay, he still has
not paid them, or apologized. Because “he is too nice”,
and he can get away with it. Because he has more
money than they do – therefore he can play fancy free
and footloose with his obligations and with their
And there are many employers of course who do this.
Who treat the paying of monthly salaries like a favour,
who find any excuse to shortchange those that work for
We pay mechanics and plumbers so little, ruthlessly
beating down cost to satisfy ourselves, then wonder why
they steal and cut corners with our work. We refuse to
get standard rates from informal workers, lie to taxi-
drivers about our distance on trips and are quick to call
them ‘ole’ when they point to the unfairness of it, and
the turns and twists of the route that they were
unprepared for, and demand that you pay your due. We
treat support workers in companies as if they are not
part of the company because they did not go to school or
their collar isn’t blue, as if education is the standard for
“I have more – money, education, power, networks –
than you, therefore I am more human than you.”
Our governments role model this to us. We in turn do it
to ourselves everyday. And thus we elect more of
ourselves to go into government and perpetuate this
This is the reason, for instance behind the repeated
disdain with which the elitist governors of Lagos have
treated the weakest of its citizens since democracy’s
return. It is why Akinwunmi Ambode can, in flagrant
disrespect of court orders, dislocate the lives of the
people of Otobo Gbame, demolishing houses and
business, just because they can.
Because these are mere ‘fishermen’, a nuisance to the
big vision of a cosmopolitan Lagos to which they do not
belong. The government is impatient with their demands
to be treated like people, like human beings with lives
and stories. They were evicted on the 17 of this
month, ruthlessly and violently, one of them caught
muttering ”We don’t care about court orders. Take it to
The all-powerful governor. The one who was voted to
secure their humanity, but who will not even pause to
regard it. 5,000 people rendered homeless in one fell
swoop, and the country continues to move on.
How do we proceed from here?
I don’t have the answers to this particular one. I don’t
have answers for how we can begin to rebuild the fabric
of our basic dignity.
But perhaps we can start with the questions – each to
ourselves, when we sit alone in our rooms, and when we
splash water on passersby without remorse, and without
stopping our cars to apologise.
We can ask ourselves daily, one to another, citizen to
citizen: ”am I treating this one simply as a human being,
whatever their disadvantage or their circumstance?”
Do we treat ourselves as Nigerians with the simple self-
possession that existence alone demands?
We have to recover our basic dignity. And with it our
humanity. One to each other, then systems that make it
so. Structures and laws, and rules, and processes and
court judgements and simple symbolisms that make it
clear that we know what matters.
Life is not worth living without dignity. Nations are not
worth having if they cannot ensure it.
*Jideonwo is co-founder and managing partner of RED
(www.redafrica.xyz), which brands including Y!/
YNaija.com and governance consulting firm,
StateCraftInc (www.statecraftinc.com). Office of the
Citizen (OOTC) is his latest essay series.