By Jude Collins
When Omotala, a renowned Nigerian actress secured a slot in the Time Magazine’s highly coveted positions, for the 100 most influential people in the world, for the year 2013, a very humane comment describing the quality of her rich personality, was made by Richard Corliss, Time’s movie critic. According to him, Success hasn’t spoiled Africa’s most renowned leading lady. Rather than going Hollywood, Omotola wants to stay Nollywood.
What Richard Corliss pointed out about Omotala is a rare quality among the rich and the influential in Nigeria. In Nigeria today, there is a social phenomenon that is being created by what I have chosen to articulate as ‘celebrity syndrome.’ Once people who were hitherto nobody shoot their way to fame and stardom, the next thing that follows is a radical change of attitude. Beginning with the pomp and pageantry that announce their movement, as well as the security details that glow all around them like the halo of holiness, one cannot but expect, as a necessary corollary of such status, a paradigm shift in their relationship with the common folk.
True to this claim, some events in the past and even at present have etched into our collective consciousness the utter reality of this paradigm shift. For instance, not so long ago, a buzz about Ayo Balogun, popularly known as Wizkid, dissing a fan on his twitter handle for daring to correct his wrong grammar rented the sky. I think the exact words of Wizkid read like this; broke people always think they have opinion. What of the embattled words of our amiable Chimamanda Adichie, describing Elnathan John, one of the nominees for the 2013 Cain prize, as one of her boys at the workshop she normally organize? Those words might appear mindless and patronizing when viewed dispassionately. And most recently, our collective consciousness was once again jostled by a verbal assault, from a serving governor to a poor widow. It was a most unfortunate statement in which Gov. Adams Oshiomhole of Edo state, told a poor widow hawking her goods at one of the road sides in the state, to go and die for daring to use widowhood as an alibi, for indulging in the roadside trading that has been banned in the state.
All these mindless comments of our elite men and women and the constant media buzz trailing them, is a testament to the reality of the social tension rife in Nigeria. Mind you this is no attempt to pithy the poor against the rank and files.
However, the point is that unlike our amiable Amazon, Omotala, success has spoiled most of our elite men and women and especially our elected officials. Within the privileged circle of Nigeria’s elites and celebrities, one notices a culture of exclusivity, poshness and a disturbing elitism that not only set them apart from the rest of the masses, but also dubs them as sacred cows. In Nigeria today, the divide securing the world of the rich from the poor is clear and impassable. There is hardly any meeting point.
But the irony of our age is that we celebrate this divide using beautiful expressions like: celebrities, elites, V.I.Ps, aristocrats, cream of societies and so on without knowing the enormous claims they are making on the fabric of our social life. How prescient was Fulton Sheen when many years ago, he summarized the leanings of this age with a most perceptive title of a book called Old Errors and New Labels? It is pretty concerning that our sociologists and other social activists are not being perceptive to how portentous such seemingly harmless expressions are becoming for the health of human family.
While there is a vast corpus of literature condemning the ancient and traditional caste system for the stigmatization and segregation it has brought to human family, there is hardly any known voice (be it political or religious) condemning the social tension celebrity syndrome is creating in our age. But the fact is that these seemingly harmless phrases have no doubt fragmented and stratified the human family with a radicality never seen before. Think of the many young men and women who have been killed or maimed just for the crime of falling in love with the daughter or son of a wealthy man.
Think of the human struggle for survival in Nigeria and how many Nigerians that loses that battle on daily basis. Think also of the fact that social media like facebook has created a celebrity page where poor masses can neither send nor receive the offer of friendship from men living on the affluent strata in our society. For all its atrocities as a social crime, caste system has never been anywhere near the fatality score-card of celebrity syndrome. As the world counts her victory over the strongholds of caste systems of the old and traditional order in some parts of the globe, she should warm up for a more challenging task. Celebrity syndrome has created a new social caste system that is more infernal than the old caste system.
Gov. Adams Oshiomhole has already given the red light betraying the banality of this social phenomenon. While the caste system of the old and traditional order regards its human victims as totems that must not be abused, the new caste system created by wealth and fame treats its human victims as sub-humans with debatable humanity at that. What is destroying human family today is far from hunger and poverty or even the major humanitarian emergencies like war and religious crisis. It is rather the ever widening gap securing the world of the rich from the poor. No one who visits places like Ajegunle and Victoria Garden City both in Lagos or Okpoko and Akpaka housing estate both in Onitsha will come out without having the feeling that ours is a cruelly divided planet.
And to aggravate issues, the major dramas of today’s world are continually being cast and recast on the stage of the rich and mighty where the poor could hardly gain access. How many of the people living on the poverty divide in today’s world, could relate with the reality of a world whose affairs are constantly being modelled on the aristocratic patterns of wealth, bureaucracy and opulence? The day I encountered a woman struck with childlike wonder and fascination, on seeing a running tap for the first time in her life, was the day it dawned on me that human family has left many of its members far behind the light of civilization, as she struggles to keep pace with the very few privileged ones. Henri J. Nouwen was closest to the truth of this type of encounter when he said; “From time to time someone enters your life whose appearance, behaviour, and words intimate in a dramatic way the contemporary human condition.”
The contemporary human condition is that, giving the ever-widening gap between the worlds of the rich and the poor, the poor have become so backward and out of touch with the trends of time, while the rich have allowed wealth and success to spoil them, to the extent of making them deride and ridicule the poor with impunity. Gov. Adams Oshiomhole’s encounter with a certain poor widow remains a point of reference in this regard. Interestingly, Gov. Oshiomhole seems to be getting an invitation for something special. Of all the governors in Nigeria, the destitution of his own people keeps making headlines of our national dailies. The first time it was the saga of the stowaway kid whom he eventually gave scholarship. This time around it was the poor widow whom he offered a job and N2 million in cash. As good as all these gestures might appear, they are nevertheless akin to the act of a physician treating the symptom of a disease without curing the cause of the disease. Who knows the struggle for survival and how many people that lose that struggle on daily basis? Must we wait for public outcry before something is done?
Therefore, I challenge Gov. Oshiomhole to go beyond the mere simplism of using palliative measures in tackling the problems of his people and look for more concrete things to do to heal our divided planet. I challenge him to prove to Nigerians that success has not spoiled him and that he has not taken a tumble into the pitfall of fame. A story told of Siddhartha Gautama, popularly known as Buddha, the founder of Buddhist religion was that, as a child from a wealthy family, he was ordered by Suddhodana, his wealthy father, to live a life of total seclusion which made it impossible for him to relate with the poor folks in his land.
But one day as providence would have it, Siddhartha ventured out into the world and was confronted with the reality of the inevitable suffering of life. The next day, at the age of twenty-nine, he left his kingdom and newborn son to lead an ascetic life and determine a way to relieve universal suffering. This is how Buddhism-a religion that strives to bridge the divide between the rich and the poor-was born. Who knows if Oshiomhole’s encounter with the poor is not an invitation from God for him to found-may be-a new religion that can address concretely the problems of his people. If he so wishes, we can call it Oshiomholeism.
Written By Jude Collins