I knew the Nigerian love for awards was bound to blow up in our collective face one day. I just didn’t realize that it would blow up in our literal collective face: the face of the man whose job it is to represent all of us. Yup, the President Of The Federal Republic just got caught up in a fake award fiasco.
It all started, as most comedies do, with declarations of victory from the Nigerian Government. Various Presidency staffers tweeted or retweeted about the President receiving the first Black History Month National Black Excellence and Exceptional African Leadership Award from the family of slain African American civil rights icon Martin Luther King.
First of its kind in Africa https://t.co/MhLNG155HQ
— Abike Dabiri-Erewa (@abikedabiri) March 26, 2018
I will counsel Nigerians to say give PMB the time he needs to do the job that he is doing. He is one of the most legitimate leaders that the continent has produced… I assure you he is going to make Nigeria a better place. — Martin Luther King’s Nephew https://t.co/C6DZCn3nbI
— Bashir Ahmad (@BashirAhmaad) March 27, 2018
Several things gave me pause about the award when I first heard about it:
- Its name. Apart from being very long and clumsy, it was just too on the nose. Almost as if it was originally an award for “National (read “American”) Black Excellence”, but the awarders decided to extend its scope to “Exceptional African Leadership”, presumably after an African Leader or his agents approached them with an… umm… exceptional honorarium.
- Its lateness. Black History Month is in February. Giving out the FIRST EVER Black History Month Award at the end of March has got to be the worst yet most apropos example of Colored People/African Time in Black History. How do you miss the entire month? This is not how we build Wakanda.
- Its timing. Like the God worshipped in African American churches, this award may not have come when expected, but it was right on time for Buhari. Just a few days before the visit from the Kings, Bill Gates had also been in our country. America’s richest man took time out from sitting at the most glorious wedding guest table since Cana, Galilee
to point out very politely to Buhari’s government that its latest economic recovery plan was flawed., and did not invest enough in the Nigerian people’s education and health. The Government had been reeling from this quite unexpected salvo, with its supporters’ responses ranging from gaslighting (“Bill Gates did not mean what his words clearly said”) to clapbacks about the man who is single-handedly funding our fight against polio being a “mere university dropout”. And then, in the midst of the PR storm comes the calming voice of “Martin Luther King’s Nephew”, which appears to be all the President’s aides knew him by, telling us all to Peace Be Still, and, as he was quoted to have said, to give Buhari a chance to finish his reforms by electing him to a second term next year.
Nigerians’ reception of Buhari’s reception of the award was mixed, to put it mildly. It ranged from his detractors condemning the King family as ignorant frauds who should keep their noses out of Nigerian affairs, to his supporters declaring the King family as keen analysts of the politics of the Black World, with far better understanding of context than the neo-imperialist Gates. Nigerians love a good argument, but unfortunately, events would not allow us to see this one to its logical conclusion.
The MLK Center, aka the organization run by his children, and which actually represents the icon’s legacy, tweeted:
— The King Center (@TheKingCenter) March 28, 2018
That’s right. One moment, we were arguing over whether or not Buhari deserved the award, and the next, the official shrine of MLK was pronouncing it had nothing to do with this mess, and that the departed ancestor was angry about his name being used in vain by a nephew who at least had had the good sense to hide his own.
Basically, we went from “are the President and the MLK family scamming us?” to “Holy crap, a fake ‘MLK family’ just scammed the President!”
How the Hell did this happen?
Well, as I said at the beginning, it was bound to happen. A matter of time. This our love for awards, earned or unearned, will be [one of] our [several] undoing[s]. We get honorary degrees, and start calling ourselves “Doctor”. We get fake degrees from paper mill universities, and start claiming to be graduates. We pay for Silverbird Man Of The Year and cele… Oh look, a bird.
There is something perverse about the Nigerian soul that wants to be praised even while not doing anything noteworthy, or worse, while doing something terribly noteworthy. Like so many of our common national vices, our politicians merely magnify this thirst for unmerited accolades. They did not invent it.
But paying for a worthless award meant to look valuable is quite common here. Paying for a worthless award meant to look like it was coming from specific people who have nothing to do with it is a new level of farce. This happened either because the President and his people were fooled, or because they believed we would be fooled. Whichever is the case, one thing is now clear: the President and his team are unaware of Google. Again, this is not a failing that is somehow exclusive to Nigerians in Government. The sheer number and length of arguments in my neighbourhood bar easily resolved by tapping the Wikipedia app three times has taught me that our people just do not believe anything worth knowing can be looked up. This is why people were gleefully tweeting pictures of Martin Luther King’s widow presenting the award to Buhari, even though Miss Coretta received her own Call To Glory a decade ago. So whether the Government was gullible and did not check the award out, or they knew what they paid for, they assumed we would be unable to work the Googler to find out that:
Only the Nigerian press was discussing the award
- the award had no website or social media handles, strange, considering the MLK Center has all that.
- The MLK center can be reached and asked to confirm its involvement in the awards.
- Well, the Government underestimated Nigerians. Some oversabis reached out to MLK Center, and they pooped the Presidential party with that shade-heavy tweet. Egg on Buhari’s face. And ours.
And it won’t be the last time. I wish I could say “we have learnt our lesson”. We are too far removed from the context in which the rest of the world lives to draw any meaningful lessons from this culture clash. The way so many people were ready to dismiss Bill Gates’ comments because of the words of a man they only knew as “Martin Luther King’s Nephew” says everything that needs to be said about how we as a society assess merit, authority, and credibility. A man whose qualifications were so unknown to us that even his name got lost under his uncle’s was being used to dismiss the policy assessment of a man who has spent years donating to and studying Nigerian public health policy. But hey, “do you know who his uncle is?” That innate belief that accolades and respect can be bought or inherited is so central to the Nigerian psyche that it will prove very difficult for us to see future MLK’s Nephews coming.