What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other means would smell as sweet—Shakespeare.
What is in a name? Shakespeare in his classic book Romeo and Juliet was simply trying to say that the content of a person’s character cannot merely be judged by the name the person bears. But Shakespeare never met Nigerians. Today, there is indeed something in a name. There is a burden associated with being Nigerian—a heavy burden that falls on a person when such person’s name finds its roots firmly implanted in the national soils of Nigeria.
To be Nigerian is to be perceived differently by the world. The internationally acclaimed Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, wrote and I quote, “To travel with a Nigerian passport… is to feel that you are guilty of something.”
Some days ago, I heard the news of Obinwanne Okeke and other Nigerians and how their infamous financial crimes have further soiled our already undignified national name. Yes, there is something in a name. It can be an assured self-regard, a dignity. It can also be a stiff ignobility. And though there is something in a name, we have no say in the matter (if you do not have the redemptive privilege of naturalization—securing for yourself the passport of more ‘honourable’ nations). We are not responsible for where we are born. We have no say in the matter of our ancestry. Yet, we must bear the burden that accompanies a name.
Obinwanne Okeke is an Igbo man. In Igbo, “nwanne” stands for child of my mother, which implies a familial relationship, a brotherhood. And because of that brotherhood, that connectivity that exists because of a common ancestry, a common language, I, an Igbo woman would be perceived differently by the world because of the disgraceful exploits of my tribal kinsman.
There is no need for me to reel out a litany of the financial crimes committed by Nigerians that is currently creating a buzz on the news. The recent FBI scam bust report listing Obinwanne Okeke and other Nigerians in a massive online fraud. I am drawn to speak on what this implies, on how these crimes would colour the future landscape of us Nigerians. To put is simply, it is hard being a Nigerian.
What is in a name? Weaved into the name “Nigerian” are the words: fraud, corruption, injustice, criminal, scammer, untrustworthy… Of course, these words are not fully representative of the name “Nigerian,” and I am in no way trying to disparage Nigerians. Still, there is a painful truth in those words embroidered into the descriptive fabric of our citizenship. I see these words, these negative descriptors, in the people I meet, in my apartment building, in the marketplace, in institutions of learning, in the church. It is hard to miss these negative descriptors.
The apartment building I live in is full of young men, many of whom, I suppose, are in their twenties. I cannot clearly say what they do for a living. They mostly stay indoors, carry laptops and keep their eyes fixated on their phones. They have tattoos, hold up their hair in tinted dreadlocks and cannot seem to survive without electricity—their generators are always brimming with petrol. Surviving without electricity is an important skill you develop when you’re Nigerian but not for my neighbors. Their generators do not go off at night, and the common words I hear them say are: “intel,” “client,” “dollars.” Once, during a meeting involving all tenants, an altercation broke out, and one of the young men, angry, spoke out to another young man: “I know what you did in Lagos.” These young men who I cannot verify what they do for a living, who like to hide out in their apartments, who throw the loudest parties and happen to have done something in Lagos are the people who reinforce these negative descriptors and give it weight.
One time I was on a bus, the bus driver hailed a disheveled madman and gave him some money. Then the driver turned to tell me that the madman was merely undergoing a temporary insanity and would soon recover and become a rich big man. He said it was the new method of acquiring quick wealth. You undergo a period of mandatory insanity, after which you recover and money miraculously starts gravitating towards you. That’s like the NYSC of madness, where you serve and upon your passing out parade, you suddenly become a person whose bank account is bloated from too much money. I lack the words to express the shock I felt when I heard that and I am afraid I can no longer look at mad people the same way again.
That episode on the bus, when carefully examined, reveals the catalyst, the force that drives the negative descriptors of our citizenship: A perverse lust for money. A lust for money that is strong enough to reduce a man to a position where he is willing to accept insanity—an insanity that holds a promise of wealth.
A lust for money. This is what drives the economics of financial crimes. This why Obinwanne Okeke betrayed our familial relationship, the brotherhood of country and tribe. This is why Nigerians, at home and abroad have devalued their lives, embarking on an amoral quest for money, and do not mind if they inflict hurt, if they make it more burdensome to be identified as Nigerian. This lust for money is a national culture. It is a way of life. It is the reason a mother would say to her son who is working a low paying job as a school teacher: “Is this how you will become somebody?” The Igbo equivalent captures it so well, and I am sorry if you don’t understand the language. “O ifa ka i ga eme we buru mmadu?” Having little is a sin. The desire is to have more, so much more. And it is a powerful desire, a desire that transforms people into unrecognizable versions of themselves.
It is in our songs. If I no make money wetin I gain. If you no get money, hide your face. Na money be koko. We have a culture that glorifies wealth. A culture that accords respect on the basis of how much money a person has. I have heard of village meetings where young men shut the mouths of elders with large wads of naira notes. “I am dropping the sum of two hundred thousand naira so that this old man will shut up!” Ours is a culture that ascribes value to quick wealth. Nobody bothers with process, with growth. We want it big and we want it now!
And the church is in no way exempt. In my previous church, I could predict what my pastor would preach about. Central to many of the sermons was the promise of money. Today I came with a financial anointing to make you billionaires. Sermons that appealed to the people’s lust for money. Sermons structured to get people to give money to the church in the hope that they would become overnight millionaires and billionaires. You cannot expect a big financial breakthrough and not give a dangerous offering. Try God. Close your accounts for God! Money is a ransom for a man’s life.
Money is a ransom for a man’s life? I was seated in my former church, listening to my then pastor preach about how money is the ransom of one’s life and talk about another Man of God who was preserved from an assassination because he gave a large offering in church. The pastor was, in essence, telling me that I could not trust God for my protection. If I wanted protection, then I had to pay God to protect me. So, money becomes more powerful, even rivaling God.
To be Nigerian and to not believe in God is a luxury that I cannot and do not want to afford. Being Nigerian means being accustomed to the deficiencies and ineptitude of the government. Being Nigerian means looking to God, and not to the judiciary systems for justice. Being Nigerian means putting your faith in God and not the police or the army for safety since this is a country where soldiers kill policemen and free criminals. So to be without faith in God in a nation like mine is to live a life of luxury. Yet, I am not belittling faith. Faith is important and I have faith in God. My aim is to cast light on what our problem is, a problem that keeps sinking our name into a deep, dark well of disrepute—an inordinate desire for wealth.
What is in a name? Because to be Nigerian means that the world will make unfavourable assumptions about me before truly knowing who I am, I am saddled with a great burden of self-consciousness. A burden that demands that I impress, that I be on my best behavior. A burden that demands that I live my life in a constant pursuit to disprove the stereotype that Nigerians are fraudsters. This is our burden as Nigerians. I am truly proud of Nigerians who gallantly bear this burden, who daily prove to the world that we are not a people who can only be described as “unworthy of trust.”