Letter from Africa: Cutting Nigeria’s ‘big men’ down to size

In our series of letters from African journalists, novelist and writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani looks at the impact of new economising measures in Nigeria.

President Muhammadu Buhari, who came to office in May, seems bent on making public office less and less attractive to the average Nigerian “big man”.

Beyond the unusually austere salary package for new members of his cabinet – in response to the country’s worst economic crisis in years – he has given an instruction that should drastically reduce the size of every serving minister’s entourage.

Few Nigerian big men walk alone: Such a typical highly esteemed and self-important person in Africa’s most populous country goes around accompanied by a multitude of men.

They follow him to weddings and funerals and birthdays and book launches; they stand when he stands, sit when he sits, and depart when he departs.

In return, he takes care of their needs.

Nigeria at glance:

  • Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation
  • Oil rich, but facing worst economic crisis in years after falling oil prices
  • 62.6% of its 170 million population live in poverty
  • Average annual earnings – 1280 (£850)

Source: UN

You can often tell when a big man is approaching by the number of followers pushing their way through in front of him or those shepherding from behind.

You can usually tell when one is in the vicinity, maybe inside a restaurant or a hotel, by the number of men hovering outside, at the front door or the gate or in the lobby, waiting.

As soon as their principal reappears, they jump into action, surround him to his car, then shove their way into their own vehicles, which zoom off behind and in front of his.

Sometimes, the big man is travelling out of Nigeria, perhaps to a country where such exuberant displays of clustering may be greeted with raised eyebrows.

In that case, the retinue will stop at the airport lobby, watching solemnly as he jets off.

But when he returns, they will have regrouped, possibly on the tarmac, ready to resume their duties from exactly where they stopped.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani:

Adaobi Tricia NwaubaniImage copyrightAdaobi Tricia Nwaubani

“Some government officials employ scores of their relatives, creating for them roles that never existed before”

None of this is particularly new. In many cultural groups across Nigeria, traditional rulers have been known to move around with a retinue that includes praise singers, who do nothing but blow their master’s trumpet.

When I invited my friend, Rick, to an event some time ago, he reminded me that, by asking him, I was automatically inviting dozens of other people.

“Are you prepared for that?” he asked.

A year previously, he had transitioned from the young man my friends and I had known since our teens, to the new traditional ruler of his community following his father’s death.

Old friend or not, his new status meant it would be unbecoming to appear at my event without his throng of followers.

Emir Muhammad Sanusi II (C) passes in front of his palace, on 8 February 2015, in Kano, NigeriaImage copyrightGetty Images
Image captionNigerian traditional leaders enjoy huge respect

But traditional rulers are not the only ones in Nigeria who now feel entitled to escorts.

Many business men do not walk alone. Neither do many politicians and pastors.

I once met a popular 419 scammer who would not sit down in public until one of the retinue of dwarfs who accompanied him had first sat on the seat to make sure it was thoroughly rubbed clean.

Like many age-old cultures in Nigeria, having large entourages has crept into our democracy.

‘Abstemious character’

Government officials, male and female, are known to surround themselves with aides and special assistants, and personal assistants to aides, and personal assistants to special assistants, and special assistants to personal assistants, each of them suckling from the national treasury.

Some government officials employ scores of their relatives, creating for them roles that never existed before.

Even if these employees have nothing to do or no office in which to sit, they will at least come in useful for accompanying their boss to public functions, announcing his great importance by swelling his entourage.

President Buhari aims to curb all this, on the national level, at least.

Muhammadu Buhari at a glance:

  • The 72-year-old is the first Nigerian opposition candidate to win a presidential election
  • Military ruler of Nigeria from 1984 to 1985 until deposed in a coup
  • Poor human rights record during that time and a disciplinarian – civil servants late for work had to do frog jumps
  • A Muslim from northern Nigeria, he is seen as incorruptible

Full Buhari profile

Is Buhari a changed man?

While inaugurating his new ministers, the president directed that they take on aides only from among the civil servants already in the government’s employ.

This stance is hardly surprising, considering the retired general’s famously abstemious character.

Economic factors facing the new regime, such as a decline in oil price and budgetary pressures, have made it essential to plug the unnecessary expenditure consumed by hangers on.

So this new order will definitely lead to fewer ministerial aides who do not work – and merely hover.

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