On Tuesday, Speaker of Lagos State House of Assembly, Mudashiru Obasa, and his colleagues urged the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) “to issue an Executive Order for all streets, gardens and notable areas named after colonial masters or beneficiaries of slave trade be changed all around the country.” They also resolved to call on the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, to direct the Commissioners for Tourism, Arts and Culture, and Justice to look at the Listed Sites (Preservation) Law of 2015 “with a view to removing all vestiges of slave trade and colonial superiority as a stand against racism.”
The motion was moved by Noheem Adams who – while reacting to the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis – thought to draw attention to the realities of anti-black violence and racism despite slave trade abolition. They moved the motions because, according to Obasa, they want to “correct the impression of colonial masters’ supremacy by the White-skinned and to decry the incessant racist attacks and ill-treatments of Black people across the world.”
I do not think I have read anything funnier in recent times. The trouble with some of these Nigerian politicians is that they watch too much TV, and they believe every serious issue is commutable to a farce. After watching news reports of protesters in western societies toppling the statue of Confederate soldiers and slave traders, these lawmakers too want to rename streets to “correct” the impression of white supremacy.
Unfortunately, racial supremacy is not an impression that can be corrected by wiping off the names of colonial masters and beneficiaries of the slave trade. Racism is a structure, and its pillars uphold our modern world. It is a mistake to think you can touch the formidability of its structure by renaming streets. By the time society starts to build a monument to a certain cultural practice or the person that embodies it, it means its norms have calcified. You can pull down statues, and rename streets and neighbourhoods, but the world that slave trade/colonialism built will remain intact.
First, there is little from the lawmakers’ discussion of racism/slave trade/colonialism or their recommendation about confronting it that suggests they understand the subjects. Like Nigerians who correlate racism with their home-grown tribal differences, they supposed racial superiority could be cured by promoting African values and culture as a counter. Second is how, in their critique of race, they exhibited a massive blind spot on how they – as African leaders – contribute to the impression that black people are innately inferior.
On this score, I encourage the Lagos lawmakers and their likes to read the essay by the historian, Moses Ochonu, Looking for Race: Pigmented Pasts and Colonial Mentality in “Non Racial Africa”, where he eloquently demonstrates how the vestiges of racism and colonialism have been deeply sublimated into our socio-political culture and currently manifest through the tropes of class, social differentiation and daily cultural encounters. Or they could check out the essay by the ethicist, Nimi Wariboko, Colonialism, Christianity and Personhood, to understand how the ideologies of race, colonialism, and Christianity configured us both as a subject of the empire and as a consumer. Until you, at least, understand how our present consumption habits were formed, and the current exchange patterns of commodities established, you do not know racial supremacy enough to challenge it.
What good does it do to pull down the visual vestiges of colonialism/slave trade while its psychological infrastructure remains lodged in your heads? You cannot understand how we became a people whose lawmakers buy 400 Toyota Camry -the 2020 model- at the beginning of a pandemic and then go on Twitter to beg more sensible countries for ventilators without first acknowledging the historical roots of such behaviour. We are a society with neither the competence to manufacture or with the intelligence to sustain such items, but that has not stopped us from inordinate consumption. Right from the days of slavery, we have been accursed with leaders who will raid villages, enslave people, and sell them to white merchants for mirrors, alcohol, and gunpowder. They did that for many years, and still never learned how to build those materials by themselves. Why task themselves when they could disembowel the earth for its resources?
Today, we have barely evolved and the recrudescence of that behaviour still defines our African lives. We are still an economy that depends mostly on extraction, never manufacturing. We export crude oil and import the final product. Is anyone surprised that Chinese miners are being caught in African jungles illegally digging up resources now that the future of oil is uncertain? What else would have given a foreigner the gumption to do that if not that our leaders are selling us out once again? The little revenue we realise from selling those raw materials still end up abroad. Our leaders take most of it to shop for better education, health facilities, pleasure tourism, and even a breath of fresh air that they deny millions of Nigerians at home. We borrow money at a high-interest rate only to steal it. How do you live such a pretentious existence and claim that you are serious about removing the vestiges of colonialism and racism?
Through their actions and moral failings, Nigerian/African leaders feed the machinery of racial supremacy. These same lawmakers recently admitted their wives spent N80m to travel to Dubai for a frivolous educational trip. How do they justify such an expense? If their wives truly wanted an education, how about sitting for WASCE/ UTME like normal people? No, they had to go all the way to Dubai at the public’s expense even while Lagos schools lie comatose. Why did they not spend the N80m to renovate schools and equip them with functional libraries? Even if your wives needed a seminar for whatever reasons, why not have it in Lagos? You cannot even keep Lagos as clean as it was in the colonial era, but your priority is renaming streets to correct racist/colonial impressions?
Has it ever occurred to these people that they contribute to the myth of black inferiority through their culture of wanton consumption? Do they not know that Dubai people see Nigerians arrive in their country and wonder what kind of people we are? The roads that lead to our overpriced housing estates get badly flooded every year, but rather than come up with a solution, we just steal enough money to gape at spectacles in Dubai and elsewhere. These are not problems that are resolvable by doing the easy work of changing labels. You have to change habits wholly.
During that plenary session, one Abiodun Tobun stated, “We must also encourage our children to know that Black people is (are) superior.” Does he care to explain the sense in which we are superior when Lagos State under their watch looks like a scene from a dystopian movie? Another lawmaker, Abdul-Sobur Olayiwola, stated that we should promote our indigenous languages to boost our confidence and to ultimately eliminate racism, while Sa’ad Olumoh added that Africans must write history from their own perspectives.
Look, all of these proposed solutions are superficial. While it is impressive that they are at least considering black transnational solidarity, they need far more complex thinking. They need historical lessons on the long-lasting impacts of slavery/colonialism and racism. They also need to understand how they have been contributing resources to its insidious effects.
Until they learn that as members of the political elite and leadership class, they are still not different from what they were in the days of slavery, we have not started. They have to acknowledge that they are still as greedy, brutal, violent, and utterly selfish as they have always been. Until we understand how our forefathers got carried away by the shiny objects of capitalism, we have neither business nor the moral right to take a stand against racism. Saying we should teach our children languages and ideologies of black supremacy only demonstrates that we are locked in our bad behaviour. We are not yet ready to ask ourselves the questions that will set us free.