TUESDAY WITH REUBEN ABATI
Cameroonians got their chance of introducing into the syllabus of Comedy and Other Comic Forms (a subject I taught in my other career), what seemed like a variant of the domestic nature of humour and wit, when in the last week and more days, they forced humour out of what seemed like an ordinary situation and added to the Ice Bucket Challenge and the Mannequin Challenge, what has become known internationally as the #Bidoung Challenge or the #CourberDosChallenge.
While we were busy here disgracing the Super Falcons who won the Golden Trophy at the 10th African Women Cup of Nations Championship Football Tournament (AWCON), by refusing to pay them their entitlements, and forcing them to take to the streets to advertise national shame and disgrace, the Cameroonians who came second in the tournament, were treated to a Presidential banquet and special romp with the President and his wife. It was a special occasion in sports whereby a silver medal was better rewarded than a gold medal and in this instance, an odd commentary on sovereignty and its priorities.
There are other comparisons in terms of the attitude of the managers involved. Nigeria’s red-beret wearing Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, a graduate of the University of Jos and a lawyer I am told, publicly confessed that Nigeria did not expect the Super Falcons to win. They got to the Semi-Finals and they were not expected to win and this was the reason their allowances were not paid? This same man, may be he should stop wearing a red beret, would later revise the English Language and say on tape that the “money that was spended on the Falcons was well spended”. Gbagaun!
Shame on WAEC! WAEC, you see your shame? How do we justify this kind of grammatical seppuku by someone who purportedly passed School Certificate English? Abi, Lobade oh, Abi, Lobatan oh. This same fellow two months back kept the Nigerian male soccer team stranded in Atlanta and wondered why they were going to the Olympics. Compare and contrast him with the Minister of Sports and Physical education in Cameroon. His name is Pierre Ishmael Bidoung Mkpwatt. His team, the Lionesses of Cameroon came second in the 10th edition of the AWCON. He got them a Presidential reception, handshakes and all that. But when it was his turn to greet the President and his wife, Mkpwatt bent down so low, the whole of Cameroon erupted in laughter and for weeks, Mkpwatt has been the butt of trans-national joke. How low should any government official bend to show loyalty to a President? Mkpwatt’s bend- down-low greeting went viral on social media, and has since inspired so many memes and imitations, with goats, cats and humans, ridiculing the Minister.
Mkpwatt was so grateful the team under his watch came second; he was willing to kiss the floor. Here in Nigeria, our own team has been subjected to ridiculous humiliation. In Cameroon, they are laughing and having fun, over their second place prize, here in Nigeria we are gnashing our teeth over our distinction, and behaving as if it was wrong for the national team to have won the gold medal. Something is not right. Cameroonians are not worrying about what was spent for their country to win the Silver Medal, Nigeria’s Sports Minister is bragging about “what was spended” to get a gold medal. When we are all spent with “spended” funds and we are left with a demoralized female soccer team that has won the AWCON eight record times, then we would probably in the future realize how we “spended” useful talents that could always lift the nation’s spirits and foreground our sovereignty in strategic areas of strength. A silver medal brought Cameroon so much humour and wit; a gold medal brought Nigeria so much agony, regret and embarrassment. This is the first sub-text of the Bidoung Challenge in the context of crucial sovereign questions.
Let us now return to Cameroon. Cameroonians obviously don’t know when to laugh. Mkpwatt’s offence is that he bent too low while paying respects to imperial leader, Paul Biya. Respect is something important to Africans. Mkpwatt probably overdid it. One online-parody showed him bending 90 degrees at a 30 metres distance remove. By any normal standards, that is too much of a show of respect. Other memes, google this, are worse, cats and goats got into the matter with Cameroonians bending so tragically low and purportedly making fun of Sports Minister Mkpwatt. What nobody has said is that the man actually being ridiculed is President Paul Biya. They are ridiculing his 34 years of autocratic rule. The national objection to autocratic, patriarchal rule through comedy is a way of saying we have had enough, sir. Why should we all bend so low to make you so important? Comedy after all as Hugh Walpole tells us, is “for those who think while tragedy is for those who feel”. Cameroonians through the Bidoung challenge are saying therefore that they are tired of the culture of subservience, too many years of Cameroonians bowing down to one man who doesn’t want to leave. When is Biya planning to leave? Beyond the comedy, this is the message. He has been President for more than 30 years. We are all tired of him. We don’t want him behaving like he is a President for life. Africa’s biggest problem is the continued existence of sit-tight rulers. Our rulers don’t believe in democracy.
They believe that there will be no country without them or their sons and very soon, their daughters. Just look at Gambia, the Republic of Congo, Equitorial Guinea and Gabon. Even the recently elected leaders behave like monarchs.
In this matter, Nigerians are better off. Nigerians have now reached a stage in our democratic evolution where they seem to believe that nobody can steal their mandate. And the way they are all waiting for 2019, it looks like they believe in the sanctity of democracy. But I will like to defend Cameroon’s Sports Minister, Pierre Mkpwatt. Nobody outside Cameroon has accused him of speaking out of turn like our red beret guy who doesn’t know the elementary difference between “spend” and “spent.” But the Cameroonian Sports Minister’s biggest offence is his bending “down too low.” In Africa, I beg, that is not a big deal. There is something in Africa called eye service in the corridors of power.
Mkpwatt is the latest victim of the eye service syndrome in Africa’s corridors of power. I have seen pictures of the US President Barrack Obama carrying his own umbrella. Members of his staff call him Barrack. In Germany, Angela Merkel still cooks for her husband every Sunday, and she goes to the groceries store to get special delicacies. I am not making this up. She said so in my presence. In the Western world a leader is not considered God, he or she is a citizen. The problem we have in Africa is that the leaders behave like they are monarchs. Mkpwatt bending so low to greet President Biya was merely succumbing to an African expectation and tradition; in fact, if he had prostrated, he would not have been out of place. Abusing and maligning him is hypocritical. Any other Cameroonian would have bent just as low if not lower.
And Nigerians need not act superior. Even here, people bend too low to show loyalty to the reigning President. One prominent figure once told me that it is survival strategy. Nigerian opportunists bend even far lower, they prostrate, and they utter all kinds of stupidities to impress the man of power. Sycophancy is the biggest challenge to power in Nigeria. There are too many people approaching the man of power telling him things and seeking to influence him, They would kneel down if they have to. They will recite the Holy Books if they think that will help. They will do whatever it takes to have their way. All of this is never in the interest of the people.
A former privileged government official once told me that he found himself on one occasion at the Presidential Villa whereby he arrived and he found everyone kneeling down before the President. He thought it was odd and he didn’t think he had to kneel down. He stood his ground and stood up but the President was growling at him and he too was looking back. At that moment, he suddenly saw a respected national figure, who slumped onto his knees and started crawling towards the President, shouting “Rankadede” with clinched and raised fists, as he did so. What was he supposed to do? He went on his knees! In some government houses, the Governors sit on thrones. When they stand up, their subordinates also stand. When they sit, the subordinates also sit. When they go for lunch, or dinner, no appointee eats anything other than what the Governor eats. The protocol is that you cannot obey an order of gravity that positions you higher than the big man. This is precisely the Biodung Challenge. The Sports Minister had to stay away from and below the big man. It is worse in Nigeria where people actually kneel down or prostrate to the man of power or his wife, even when there is no need for such overt expression of loyalty.
The irony of it all is that the same people who bend down so low may not recognize the same man of power once he is out of office. The same Mkpwatt that is bending so low for President Biya may claim tomorrow that he no longer has his phone number. Unfortunately, Paul Biya plans to die in office.