The spat between the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Aminu Ado Bayero and Air Peace, one of Nigeria’s major airlines, has once again, among other issues, brought on the front burner the twin issues of delay and cancellation of scheduled flights. More fundamentally, it has also peered searchlight into and serves as a throwback to the awesome powers enjoyed by Nigerian, African traditional monarchies; provoking in its wake a discourse of the relevance of the Nigerian monarchy. Embedded into it is the need to look at the African big man syndrome, otherwise known as the BMS. In it, the “bigman”, whether in politics, business or society at large, who is endowed with wealth, position or power, is a sacral object, venerated above ordinary mortals and is expected to be treated as a super-human object.
Last week, Isa Bayero, a cousin of the revered monarch, had petitioned the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) seeking punitive action against the airline for what Bayero termed “disrespect” to the monarch and by extension, the people of Kano. According to the petition, on February 24, 2022, ten members of the royal entourage of “His Highness,” comprising himself, four business class passengers and additional five economy class passengers, on a return Air Peace flight No. P47776 from Banjul to Lagos, which was delayed on the Banjul flight by over an hour, were refused boarding of the connecting flight to Kano due to their late arrival in Lagos “30 minutes” before departure. Bayero, also known as Isa Pilot, then put a call through to Allen Onyema, chief executive officer of the airline, to help delay the flight but according to him, “he (Onyema) flatly refused and avowed (sic) that he will not do that. I personally took this as an insult and a flagrant show of disrespect to His Highness and the Kano people at large”.
The airline denied Bayero’s claim. Oluwatoyin Olajide, chief operating officer of the airline, labeled Bayero’s narrative a “deliberate falsehood”. The airline, according to the statement, said that if the airline had agreed to stop and delay the aircraft which was set to take-off, for another one hour, open the doors for the Emir to walk in, “there would have been a very serious uproar in the media nationwide against both the airline and the Emir,” maintaining that Air Peace “took this decision to defend the image of our highly revered Emir of Kano and not as an insult as insinuated by Isa Bayero because if passengers were delayed for an hour after boarding and ready to fly and then to see the Emir and his entourage walk in, considering the pulse of the general public lately due to the complaints of delays, it would not have done justice to the image and character of the Emir”. It also claimed that Onyema actually attempted to help but could not since the aircraft had begun taxiing off.
As a convenient point of departure, the Emir’s right as a passenger of Air Peace must be strongly protected. The malaise of flight delays and cancellation has taken such a boorish dimension that airlines now trample on the rights of citizens with magisterial abandon. A product of the European Union 14 Regulation (EC) No. 261/2004 where the European Parliament, on February 11 2004, established common rules on denied boarding, cancellation or long delay of flights, and the Civil Aviation Act, 2006, Nigeria’s obligations under international aviation agreements are sacrosanct. The rules state that traveling by air confers certain rights on passengers. These include right to full value of the passengers’ money, right to book and confirm tickets and which can be done with an airline of passenger’s choice, “right to the provision of a conducive airport environment before, during, and after flights, right to seek redress for all irregularities during flight, right to be fully informed about flight status, right to be treated with respect and dignity, irrespective of race or physical condition,” among others.
In the Nigerian aviation world and this includes Air Peace, the menace of the rights of passengers being trampled upon without a single care is on the upswing. Domestic flights are run with impunity, without an iota of regards for passengers. Whimsical delays of flights and cancellations at the drop of a hat have also become incidences. Passengers have, by the very fact of flight delays and cancellations, failed obligations of presence to partners, lost contracts, prestige and honour therefrom. Yet, Nigerian airlines escape what should be huge legal liabilities due to scant occurrences of this peremptory treatment of air passengers being subjected to legal actions that ultimately demand huge damages and restitution. Apart from subsisting ancient dread of litigations, Nigerians subsume their rights in theological beliefs and fatalities.
The truth is, if indeed Air Peace delayed His Eminence’s flight from Banjul to Lagos and the Emir feels that his rights as a passenger have been trampled upon, I expect him to be in court by now to sue Air Peace for this unconscionable denial of right. Groveling before Oyeama for an aircraft taxiing off to be stopped for the sake of propitiating the god of His Highness’ bigmanism is certainly not a substitute to seeking redress for rights violation. Moreover, how do you expect passengers who were not parties to your delay in Banjul to suffer delay of their own flights for one hour when they were not parties to the airline’s liability?
The bigman in Nigeria is literally a god and believes, as Ebenezer Obey sang in one of his evergreen vinyl, that whatever money – and power – fail to swing, is as dead as dodo. It is a syndrome that has landed us in this social and political cul-de-sac that we have found ourselves. Wealth, power and position are wielded to render norms, rules and laws useless. Whereas in saner societies, the feeble, weak, sick, old get prioritised due to their inabilities, here, the powerful and money-mongers get opportunities because of their abilities. Bigmanism perforates the theory of inalienable rights of man and equality before law and God. This theory is what Yoruba call the “aparo kan o ga j’aparo kan lo,’ the thesis of the equality of quail. In qualifying this equality however, they say that such equality of quails is only put in abeyance when one quail climbs the furrows to the top of the heap, ahead of others.
This thesis of the equality and inequality of quails has, from time immemorial, conferred on natural rulers magisterial and fatherly roles in traditional societies. Taking its cue from the biblical time when monarchies took over from theocratic states, until the advent of colonial powers, monarchs ruled in most parts of Africa.
Due to the awesome powers at their disposal, many of the kings were tyrannical, despotic and considered themselves as God’s deputies on earth. Even when they conquered Africa, seeing the entrenched influences of royal fathers on the continent, colonialists continued the system of ruling the natives through their kings. In Nigeria, except in the southeast of Nigeria where this failed, it was a huge success.
To be fair to natural rulers, from ancient times, they have performed commendable roles as bridges between their subjects and government and as liaisons between the people and their cultures. But today, that institution is mostly relevant only as a piece of antiquity. Many of the occupants of the stools are vacant upstairs about those ancient roles their forefathers performed and most of them are everything but royal in their comportments.
Most of them live off public funds and bear nil roles or responsibility in the development or prosperity of their domains. In the southwest for instance, many of those who scramble to become kings today do so not strictly for their projected roles in the lives of their people but to use the stool as opportunity to corner lands, collect bribes and join the ranks of bigmen who wield huge powers over the ordinary people.
Today, natural rulers are neither custodians of values, virtues nor culture. We have traditional rulers who engage in embarrassing vices unbecoming of their titles, beating their wives, doing drugs and all manner of malfeasances. One of them, always donning odd wears that bear no link with his office or custom, once wrote on his Instagram page: “You think kings can’t ‘Swag’!! 21st century kings like me will catch you unawares!!! You got it all wrong by thinking kings are just ‘old raggedy, sad looking, can’t dance, working with voodoo, scary looking, can’t have fun and only boring!!!”
From the time of independence, many African countries have been plagued by challenges of poverty, hunger, corruption, economic and social insecurity, illiteracy, unemployment, violence, armed conflicts, inequality and discrimination, all of which resulted from poor leadership. Many of these leaders, including the traditional royal elite, are associated with BMS. Though a political science term, BMS is a leadership disorder. BMS, from psychoanalysts’ view, is a chronic deficiency of positive personal and societal values.
When perpetrated or perpetuated in a society, BMS is a system of corrupt, autocratic and totalitarian persons who have formal powers entrusted in their hands. The power the big man has is the power to trample on lesser people and ride roughshod over them.
The big man captures power for his selfish purpose and for patronages. At the political level, some of the symptoms of BMS are tribalism, coercion, corruption, nepotism and a hungry thirst to hold on to power at all cost and ad-infinitum.
At the traditional royal stool level, BMS also manifests. The power in the hands of a royal father who is afflicted by the BMS makes him believe he can turn day into night. The reverence and superhuman belief that traditional rulers used to enjoy stemmed from beliefs that they had spiritual powers.
Unfortunately however, most of them are pastors and imams with blind spiritual eyes, apologies to King Odewale, in his attack of Baba Fakunle in ‘The Gods Are Not To Blame’. They are also mostly symbolic heads with no real powers.
From the immediate post-colony however, politicians who resent traditional rulers trying to compete with them, have embarked on humiliating them with dethronement and constitutional freezing of their roles. A few months ago, Rivers state emperor, Nyesom Wike, at the governor’s quarterly meeting with traditional chiefs, publicly tongue-lashed and ridiculed one of them.
His crime was that he shook his head while the emperor was speaking. The governor said the monarch used to be a small errand boy who oscillated around him and his friends some years ago. “You’d think he’s an elderly person. Very small young man… this boy. I know when I was in school; he was running around us, going on errands. Now he’s dressing Usman Dan Fodio (Sokoto caliphate’s founder). Then he begins to breach protocol. He thinks when he’s shaking his head like this, I’d be happy. That’s fake…that’s fake …You just (go) and wear something that is bigger than you… to breach protocol,” he thundered.
The last time monarchs were assigned any crucial role in the constitution was the first republic when in July 1960 Sir Adesoji Aderemi became the governor of the Western Region. The dethronement of the 18th Sultan of Sokoto, Ibrahim Dasuki, in 1996 during the military government of Sani Abacha and the recent dethronement of Sanusi Lamido Sanusi as Emir of Kano by Governor Abdullahi Ganduje further accentuate the helplessness of traditional rulers in the hands of the political authority and the growing extinction of the veneration of their stools.
Bigmanism in Africa renders time subservient to the bigman and deploys it in constant service to him. In other words, whenever the bigman comes to an event is when the event begins. The bigman arrives late to catch trains – if he ever condescends to entering such at all – flights and comes late to events, believing that his bigmanism will come to his aid. Being a bigman is sine qua non to having power over life and death in Africa. When the bigman arrives train terminuses in Europe and America however, he complies, knowing that that clime has no respecter for persons.
On its face value, we can argue that the British monarchy, as well as Arabian Sheiks and emirates, are also variants of the traditional African bigman. However, apart from their relevance in those climes, those monarchies bring a lot to the table, unlike Africa’s. The bigman in those societies try to de-sacralise their persons and offices. That is why you witness the president of America rolling his sleeves and getting down to work, Joe Biden taking bouquet of flowers to his vice on her birthday and prime ministers entering trains and even riding cycles. Not so for the Nigerian bigman. It is a taboo for them to be seen like ordinary human beings.
His Highness, Alhaji Bayero’s indignation that Air Peace could have the temerity, audacity and effrontery of refusing to put a rein on its aircraft for “just one hour,” even when the craft was already taxiing off, is borne out of the BMS syndrome discussed above.
The emir most probably couldn’t countenance this, having been told stories of how his forefathers ordered their beautifully adorned royal horses to be leashed with reins. It is the audacity of the blue blood. This audacity is in spite of the fact that all we see are mere red blood corpuscles, just like that of a common beggar on the street.
Coming from a northern feudal oligarchic system where the emir is a demigod whose word is law and the talakawa are propelled by a philosophy of fatalism that enables them to be in continuous servitude, you can then put in context the emir’s disdain at Air Peace management’s “audacity”.
In an attempt to escalate feudal support for the Emir’s fate and collectivise “the people of Kano” as victims of the “crime” of Air Peace, Isa Bayero, in the petition, painted the refusal of Air Peace to stop the aircraft for Emir Bayeri to mount like his royal horse as “a flagrant show of disrespect to His Highness and the Kano people at large”. The question to ask is, could Bayero have ordered Delta Airline or British Airways to wait for him while he wears his royal apparel?
Until we put a stop to the tyranny of the Nigerian BMS and the bigman’s belief that any of its members can get away with impunity, Nigeria will continue to wriggle in the maggots of underdevelopment and plagues of poverty, hunger, corruption, economic and social insecurity, illiteracy, unemployment, violence, armed conflicts, inequality and discrimination. All of these are traceable to the ‘Big Man Syndrome’.