My brother. A ubiquitous phrase. Ever given a thought to the damage this phrase has done to us as a country and as a people? Perhaps not. We use it quite innocently to introduce our family members to strangers. But think again.
My brother is a dangerous phrase. It is at the root of all our failures as a country. It is the stumbling block to meritocracy, the promoter of mediocrity, the planter of round pegs in square holes, the corrupter of the fight against corruption, the destroyer of the rule of law and the maker of political, social and economic orphans. I will prove it.
Among native speakers of the English language, my brother is the male child of both or one of my parents. It takes a variation if he is the child of my father but not of my mother or of my mother but not of my father. In which case, he is either my half brother or my stepbrother. My brother is my blood relation. I discount the use of brother in the Roman Catholic Church. Its trainee priests are called brothers.
As an aside, I do not mind this. What I do mind is the first church calling its priests reverend fathers. Father is an honorific to which only those who heed the divine injunction to go out and multiply should be exclusively entitled. I do not know why the only misogynic religious institution in the world appropriated it. I mean, if they love being called fathers, they should do what the rest of us do – marry and populate the earth.
As I was saying, in Nigeria, things take a distinctly confusing turn with the phrase, my brother. In the social context, my brother is not my brother. He is actually a phrase employed in a variety of ways for various reasons and to various personal ends. It is, paradoxically, a social unifier and a political and social divider. And it is unapologetically an ethnic weapon for claiming or retaining tribal entitlements.
In a positive sense, my brother is a term of respect and endearment: a younger man or woman calls an older man brother or my brother, instead of the rather stiff and formal ‘sir,’ even if they are not blood or close relations. Close male friends use the phrase as a form of mutually cherished closeness.
Do not be deceived. The positive use of the phrase hides a multitude of social problems created by it. I find the phrase increasingly deleterious to our public, ethnic, political and social health. It gives us the right to appropriate public officers and other successful men in the society. The man who can claim a minister as ‘my brother’ (often pronounced as broDa) moves up the ladder of social recognition. Remember the wag who said success has many fathers? He was right. Success has many mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties, nephews and nieces too.
Pity our public officers. Each of them has enough fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunties, etc., to fill a village. A public officer may wonder where these people were when he was hewing the wood and drawing the water as an apprentice politician but it is a dark thought he would never put into words. He too must have appropriated a brother or two in the course of his climb up the public office ladder.
Our social law states that if a public officer comes from your village or local government area or state, you can appropriate him as your brother, even if you never heard of him before he was thrust into the political space. Our constitution, in its wisdom, makes our ministers and commissioners pure public property as representatives of their states or local government areas in the federal and state cabinets. Our social law has constitutional backing. Splendid.
We also appropriate a man suddenly catapulted to the social space with only one mega contract award. A change in his circumstances triggers a change in our circumstances too. The doors swing open for those who appropriate public officers and mega contractors and important political personages. We all reap the fringe benefits of being a big man’s brother. Casually drop the name and see the wonders in society eternally sold on the importance of important men. Only those who claim no big men as brothers truly know the pain of being truly marginalized in our country.
Here are the dangerous variants of the phrase, my brother: our brother, our son. What I write here goes for women too – my sister, our sister and our daughter. When my brother becomes our brother or our son, he is transformed into an untouchable. He is beyond the reach of the law and the servants of the law. If he is found with palm oil on his fingers his ‘fathers,’ ‘brothers,’ etc., stoutly defend him. His tribesmen, his town, his local government area and his state form associations, organize public protests and take out newspaper advertisements for a battle royal with his ‘enemies.’ If he is a minister, traditional rulers from his state are taken to Aso Rock to plead his case with the president, armed with the phrase, our son.
And the results? The generals in the war against corruption, waged since Major Nzeogwu declared it on January 15, 1966, stymie it to save our brother, our son. The corrupt laugh in our faces. And we say, God dey. Mediocrity trumps meritocracy because my brother decides who gets what. No one is ashamed of the malfeasance of our public officers because they are our brothers, our sons. The rule of law blows in the wind. Oh yes, it sweeps off the poor and the unprotected. A sense of entitlement makes competence in public office inconsequential because our brother, our son, remaining in public office matters more and public and national interest matter much less.
Impunity in our national life? My brother, our brother, our son. Do you still wonder why Nigeria is a pitiful victim of its abundant human and natural resources?
(First published in Verbatim magazine in 2014)