By Ekundayo Simpson
Recent tribulations of Nigerians in parts of Africa – South Africa and Ghana notably – bring back to mind a public lecture delivered sometime before the end of the last century at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, by a professor of international relations. Prof. Jide Aluko, of the then University of Ife, took a broad view and a serious look at our country’s foreign relations in Africa and the sub-region and came to the conclusion that in West Africa we had only two friends: Togo and Ghana. It is possible that our historical links with Ghana, especially as a result of a common colonial past (joint air services, common currency, a joint appellate court in Sierra Leone with other British colonies in West Africa) may partly account for the summation that Ghana was our friend. But French-speaking Togo stood out as our big friend partly for the crucial role that Gen. Gnassingbe Eyadema played alongside our own Gen. Yakubu Gowon in the formation of ECOWAS in the mid-seventies. That may also explain the fact that the headquarters of ECOBANK is not Lagos or Abuja in Nigeria, nor Dakar or Abidjan, but Lome, Togo.
What is of interest to us, however, is that in spite of a close cultural affinity with Nigeria with common languages and dialects spoken in many parts of both countries, on both sides of the colonial divide, south and north: Yoruba, Egun, Dendi, Bariba, and of course Fulfulde and Hausa in the Oueme region: Porto Novo/Badagry, or Atacora, Borgou/ Borgu, Niger, Kwara, Oyo axes, among others, , Benin, formerly called Dahomey, failed, rightly or wrongly, to find a place in Prof. Aluko’s hall of fame. Talking of names, the name abandoned by fiat by Matthieu Kerekou in 1975 manu militari , Dan- home (Europeanized ‘Dahomey’), was derived from a sad chapter of the history of the warring ancient kingdom of Abomey, and means ‘on the stomach of Dan’, Dan being the name of the brother killed by his own brother, who then founded his kingdom on the very spot of that act of fratricide.
Today, it is a moot question if Nigeria’s closest neighbour to the west, a major beneficiary of our relative economic strength in the region by dint of its proximity and shared borders, as well as our constant largesse, all the more so since the creation of ECOWAS in 1975, can be said to be Nigeria’s best friend in the sub-region. Whether we like it or not, the Republic of Benin has now become a serious and constant factor in Nigerian governance issues, notably security concerns, socio-economic discourse and decisions at both formal and informal levels, a situation escalated and exacerbated by recent events, especially the closure last year of the borders with surrounding countries, itself a reflection of the new normal. The country is now in the eye of the storm, if for no other reason, for the issue of massive importation by businessmen into Benin of the brand of rice said to be highly cherished by Nigerians, as well as other goods, meant for the Nigerian market, and made to land at Nigerian borders in clear breach, procedurally, of the ECOWAS protocol on rules of origin. This is definitely a major setback for efforts aimed at sub-regional integration and promotion of tourism envisaged by the protocol on establishment and free movement of persons, goods and services.
There are, already, of course, the occasional weekend and holiday makers who cross the border mainly during public holidays, with hardly any economic interest in view, and the Celestial Church of Christ worshippers who troop in large numbers at Christmas on pilgrimage to the grounds near Porto-Novo, birth place of the late founder of their church, Pastor S.B.J Oshoffa. Of late, Benin has also been witnessing the influx of Nigerian students, a good number of those who had failed to gain admission into Nigerian universities, no thanks to tough JAMB questions, including other subject requirements, or had been expelled for various reasons, but are received with open arms in Benin, where there are a myriad of mushroom tertiary level institutions of varying standards, said to be universities, some specifically targeting their Nigerian wealthy neighbours. So clever are Beninois businessmen, and their Nigerian friends and agents, that they not only register such institutions in Benin but also manage to do so in Nigeria, in order to ensure that such so-called graduates are admitted into the NYSC scheme, and then the Nigerian educational system and job market. It would be good to find out if such Beninois institutions are also subject to the supervision and accreditation of their courses and programmes by the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC).
One irony of things is that hardly any of the products of such institutions end up seizing the opportunity to get to speak or know the French language even after spending many years in Benin. Most of these spoilt brats, dropouts, or failed admission seekers, many of them children and wards of well-to-do Nigerians, do not give a hoot about the language. Instead, their teachers use them to practise and improve their own English. Some Beninois institutions actually employ Nigerian lecturers to ensure that the lack of knowledge of French on the part of the students is no problem, provided the cash is good. On a particular 1st October, of course a significant date and public holiday in Nigeria, we set out for one of the more famous of such institutions, cocksure that it would be open for business. Lo and behold, the school was closed, observing the Nigerian Independence Day! What more, not one of the four or five students we approached for information could speak back to us in French. They were all Nigerians! We got to know that 99 per cent of the students in that institution, off the Porto-Novo-Cotonou highway, were Nigerians! Any wonder that the Nigerian authorities, notably the NYSC, have finally decided to take a close look at the qualifications emanating from such institutions, with a view to separating the wheat from the chaff.
Are our neighbours, the Beninois, now our friends, decades after they were scored low, or ignored, by Prof. Jide Aluko? If a political scientist were to assess our West African neighbours today would the Ghanaians still be counted among Nigeria’s best friends, even in the light of what Nigerian traders and entrepreneurs have been going through in their hands these days, or when part of the Nigerian High Commission in Accra could be bulldozed with impunity in spite of the Vienna Convention protocol on extraterritoriality? An attack on our diplomatic space in any country is indeed an attack on our country, on our territory, our sovereignty.
How do the Beninois perceive us? There are two types of Béninois. There are those who like us, ‘feel’ us genuinely, and there are those who hate our guts, with passion and env. The former see us as blessed, brothers and sisters. Many of them trace their ancestry to places in Nigeria. The latter see us as spoilt, aggressive, indisciplined, arrogant, spendthrifts, total strangers, if not enemies. To them we are Anglophones, rather than Egun, Yoruba, Dendi, Fula or Hausa, like some of their own nationals, just as some Nigerians see them as French men and women, not just Francophones. There is no smoke without fire, let us face it. The laissez-faire character of our Nigerian system, a certain disorder included, one in which the colonial masters virtually abandoned us to ourselves at independence, obviously stands out in stark contrast to the relative rigidity of the Beninois society, legalistic, with its stricter enforcement of law and order, based on some of the norms and appurtenances of French culture, civilization and vestiges of colonial rule; long hours for lunch and siesta at midday. The monetary system, which some nationals are beginning to raise their voices against, is one still directly tied to the French treasury: the CFA franc to the Euro, after the days of the French franc. Thus the Nigerian currency continuously loses value against the CFA, even after its devaluation in 1994, and Nigerian goods and products across the border continue to be relatively cheap, under-priced, under-valued.
Whereas a Nigerian may just wake up one day, print a business card, carry a briefcase and be ready to start hustling for business and contracts, even if he would still do the required registration formalities later, or never, a Beninois in the same circumstances would hesitate before doing so without being properly registered and authorized. Any wonder that Nigerians, especially those they continue to call ‘Biafrais’ in Benin, the Igbo, appear more dynamic, achieve a breakthrough more readily, especially in the informal sector out there, as elsewhere. This they do with their proverbial business and entrepreneurship acumen, energy and sheer bravado – clan, town or group solidarity obliging and aiding – the same qualities, attributes and traits that have ensured that these Nigerians can be found not only in every town and village in Nigeria but virtually on every continent and virtually in every country of the world. But it is not without their getting into trouble, encountering from time to time the wrath of the law and the ire of enforcement agencies and personnel who, like in many French-speaking jurisdictions, are definitely more authoritative and more forceful than their Nigerian counterparts. They may also attract ipso facto the envy if not the animosity of their hosts. A part of the Misebo market in the heart of the Cotonou business district is almost like a part of the Ojuelegba/Tejuoso market around the railway crossing, in Lagos. Such is the Nigerians’ domination of the place. Many of the street traders on major Cotonou highways are Ndigbo, and they often face authorized harassment !
In the same vein, the less improvisation by technicians and artisans in Benin is in sharp contrast with what obtains here in Nigeria. The reason is that vocational and technical education is taken care of more seriously by their system than in Nigeria where the craze for university and academic qualification by our people makes the different tiers of government appear less interested in that sector of national and youth development. It is true that we have an apprenticeship system in the hands of the masters in the informal sector which provides a generally effective hands-on alternative to part of the sort of training available in technical colleges and trade schools. Not even our recent programmes and efforts aimed at youth empowerment, such as N-power and other initiatives can be said to match the type of large-scale training of youths found across the border and in Togo. That must explain why the foreman, bricklayer, tiler, carpenter, painter and others in that manpower category from those countries are believed, generally, to be better workmen and are often preferred or more sought after by some Nigerian builders, architects and engineers.
There can be no doubt that one major area where the difference between Nigeria and her western neighbour is most glaring is the issue of discipline, law and order, palpable right from the borders, a natural fallout of the greater discipline in vogue beyond our borders. The difference in the level of security, or sense of security, and, concomitantly, the level of criminality, between the two countries is enormous. This is hardly surprising if it is known, for instance, that most Nigerians are yet to be captured in a rigorous and efficient national identity scheme, in spite of so many initiatives meant for that purpose, whereas across the border, and in each of the French-speaking countries around us, an authentic national ID card, not a fake one, is a sine qua non. In this regard, we cannot forget a related incident long ago, when students from Nigeria, and other English-speaking institutions, were sent to Dakar on the Year Abroad Programme as part of their undergraduate French language training. In a particular year, before the spike in the number of universities, only two Nigerian universities were part of the Dakar programme, sponsored by France (Bourse France: French Scholarship). Students from the first university arrived a week before those of the second institution. But before the students of the latter university got to Dakar some of those from the earlier university had already tasted police cell. Why? They had the temerity to go to a night club in town, even before their identity cards had been issued, and were arrested by police on routine assignment. Such is the seriousness with which our neighbours, Francophone countries, including Benin, treat such matters.
Are Nigerians really spendthrifts and wasteful? So some of our Beninois neighbours believe. This can only be in comparison with their own way of life, marked by understandable frugality. When it comes to the handling or managing of cash and resources generally, you cannot beat the Beninois. They know how to manage what comes their way. Unlike their Nigerian neighbours, the Beninois know how to save and cut down on unnecessary spending. Take the case of attitude to the utilities. Perhaps because electricity and water cost a fortune in Benin, even where readily available the Beninois know how to minimise their use. On the other hand, Nigerians do not know how to save on them, and this may be related to the fact they are not always available here in Nigeria. Nigerians use water with reckless abandon, when available, and do not know how to put off the light where and when not needed. We are yet to see public buildings, offices and hotels with interrupters, primed to switch off the lights on the staircase and corridors when not in use. Perhaps the relative low cost of these utilities is responsible for our lack of prudence with their use. Greater availability of the prepaid meter and with it the elimination of the notorious estimated billing system should definitely curtail our lack of a sense of economy and management of these essential resources. In Benin, even in relatively comfortable families, and in spite of the weather being generally warmer than in our country, air conditioning is a luxury which many do not indulge in, even when it is provided in homes. Finally, because of our recognized generosity compared to our African brothers and sisters, as can be seen in our lavish parties, private and public receptions, we would appear all the more profligate to our Beninois neighbours.
As for those of our next-door neighbours who like us, and admire rather than hate our guts, and have nothing serious against us, they really like us. They see us as friendly, hard-working, rich, blessed by nature and the Almighty. For this segment of the Beninois society, we are generous, resourceful, bold and are God’s gift to Africa, as a southern African statesman once described our nation. They note that the Nigerian has no complex, can be trusted to stand up to the Oyinbo, what cannot always be said, they claim, of some of our neighbours in West Africa and elsewhere in Africa. For these Beninois, our presence next door to them should be seen as a blessing and their own citizens should do everything to exploit that proximity and opportunity, positively. Hence, a few years back in Benin just before a presidential election, one of the top stakeholders insisted that his support would be predicated, among other things, on finding out which of the candidates knew how to take advantage of the presence next door of the economic giant – Nigeria. They realise that their economy cannot but be a serious beneficiary of the Nigerian economic wealth and bountifulness, if well managed. The case of rice and some other products imported into Benin for the sole purpose of serving the Nigerian market essentially is well known. And, as if to confirm the fact that the Beninois authorities know exactly the importance of their Nigerian neighbours, in all respects, the first thing a newly elected president did some time ago immediately he was sworn in was to head straight for Otta to meet the then Nigerian president.
We cannot conclude this short essay without recalling the sort of bonding and especially cultural solidarity we experienced some years back in the course of our professional activities across the border. Having previously covered countless high level international meetings hosted by Benin, we did not expect any surprises, we thought we had seen it all. As coordinator and head of a team of interpreters for a two-language French and English assignment, we had to accompany some members of a team of experts from an English-speaking country meet the top hierarchy of a security arm. The meeting proceeded in what interpreters call consecutive interpretation situation. When English was spoken I worked into French and when French was spoken , I interpreted into English.
Eventually, the head of the Benin team, on noticing that my name was Ekundayo, and knowing that I was Yoruba, unceremoniously abandoned the French language and resorted to speaking Yoruba exclusively for me to interpret into English: ‘E so fun won pe …’: (‘Please tell them that…’), and so I had to put what he said in Yoruba into English for his interlocutor, and then what the foreign expert said, not into French, but into Yoruba, for the Beninois, and so on and so forth, till the end. Needless say that at a point I noticed some uneasiness on the part of the head of the foreign experts, having got what he did not bargain for – the communication in Yoruba, rather than French – almost as if there was collusion between the Beninois and the interpreter, who incidentally was recruited not by the Beninois but the foreigners themselves, after a rigorous process, right from their base, far away. I had never had to interpret English into Yoruba and vice versa throughout my career as conference interpreter, more so at such a high-powered level, with men in impeccably smart uniform. But such was the level of cultural synergy, acceptance and at-homeness created and demonstrfated in practice by these friends of Nigeria, these culturally dynamic Beninois. We know of such linguistic synergy across the borders up north – Niger and Chad – a least with Hausa, where delegates from both sides of the divide may discard the use of interpreters, and the foreign languages, English and French. But what happens when other foreigners from far away are also involved, like in Cotonou?
- Simpson, a retired Professor of French, is CEO Interlingua Limited