Those that follow me have probably figured out by now that I spend a lot time in Lagos traffic, constantly hopping from one bus to another. While I would certainly prefer to commute less, there’s an upside, in that it allows me see and ponder all kinds of interesting things. This post is largely inspired by one of such bus rides, where I witnessed a passenger getting told off by fellow passengers for tossing the wrapping of whatever she’d been eating out the window. The lady in question seemed genuinely surprised to have been called out in this manner, “since when did we begin to care if there’s junk on on the road?” , she asked, looking frantically around for a sympathetic opinion. Unfortunately for her, there was none to be found, and judging from the vigorous dissent of almost all the number in the bus , I’m guessing she would have done better to keep her opinion to herself. Okay, I confess, I kind of derived some perverse pleasure from every moment of her discomfiture. At the same time however, I also couldn’t help but marvel at how the catch phrase “Eko o ni baje o”1 seems to have taken on a life of its own and created a new set of expectations in the hearts and minds of Lagos people.
Now, please forgive any subsequent appearance of grandiloquence, but it is at this juncture that I would like to reveal the first of my “original theories”, conceived in a Molue2, and propounded after many hours of grueling mental exertion and acute philosophical soliloquy, I assure you. Following protracted consultations with all my associated alter egos, in the persons of Bankole, Lordbanks and Naijadude, we have unanimously resolved to call it…(drumroll please)…the Law of Expectation.
To state it simply, I posit that:
expectations, positive or negative, which are fulfilled and reinforced by subsequent practice will over time achieve normative status and thereby become default behaviour and the generally accepted state of affairs – Lordbanks
Real corny, huh? Blame it on Law School.
I wouldn’t know if this theory exists and is better articulated in some dusty old sociological treatise somewhere, but since I haven’t stumbled upon it yet, I just had to make this up. Anyways, the gist is; if people get away with doing something for long enough without raising a substantial number of eyebrows, it’ll become normal, no matter how weird or counter-intuitive it actually is. What then happens after is that we adjust our default states to anticipate these ‘normal’ behaviours, even if they go against our principles, what we would do in ordinary circumstances. Think about it…how bureaucrats will refuse to do their work, until they’ve been given the obligatory tip. Or how we can never get people to form an orderly queue, even if it were to save their lives. I have no idea how African time came about, but I can safely say that somehow, we’ve taught ourselves to never be on time, because the other person we’re expecting isn’t likely to be punctual either. And save for the white markings, a Nigerian knows that Zebra crossings are no different from any other stretch of road that must be respected by looking left, right and left again before one ventures across. I’m operating on the assumption that we agree that all this isn’t exactly normal behaviour. In the unlikely event that you don’t…but I’m sure you do.
Ironically, refusal to conform to this aberrant form of normal will not only earn you a reputation as an oddball at the least (sanctimonious bastard being the other end of the scale), but also cause you a good deal of inconvenience.The bureaucrats will hate you and delay or even mislay your precious files. Your sense of order and propriety will always ensure that you ‘carry last’ when there’s anything to be distributed. Getting stood up by tardy associates will become a fact of life. And you run the risk of being run over, should you be crazy enough to use the Zebra crossing in the exact manner for which it was intended.
So there you have it, a tale of warped expectations, giving rise to all sorts of social anomalies that this rant can’t even begin to explore. But the good news, however, is that expectations and the behavioural patterns that form as a result aren’t immutable. All that need happen is that the existing expectation be superseded by a superior one. Take Lagos for example. Time was when people had to claw and kick their way aboard Molues and Danfos. Now they line up patiently, waiting for the BRT. Bus conductors now pointedly refuse to open the door before they get to the bus stop, preferring to annoy a few impatient passengers over submitting the day’s earnings to LASTMA officials in fines. Paying tax used to be a joke. Now ordinary Lagosians point at specific infrastructural improvements in defence of it. The quickest way to book an appointment with the psychiatrist might be to drive against traffic. And it would be incredibly remiss of me to list all these developments without a mention of Oshodi, what it was, and what it now is (news clip from Channels TV). What Fashola has done is to create a new set of expectations in place of the old, the assurance of incentives or consequences resulting from specific actions and behaviour. In just over four years, Lagos has become a much saner, cleaner and safer place than it used to be because its inhabitants have largely subscribed to the Eko o ni baje credo. The effects of this sort of social psyche transformation take a while to be really apparent, but we’ve seen that it can be done.
Satisfied that my fellow passenger had been taught a fine lesson in decent public etiquette, my mind to turned to deeper concerns. Like how she could have easily won the argument if we were in average company (the said event did not transpire in a Molue). And that’s the problem, there are too many people who think it is perfectly fine to throw trash anywhere they please, or expedite their passport processing with bribes, or throw lavish thanksgiving services after serving a jail sentence for looting public coffers. Nothing will change until we tip the scale of public opinion in the opposite direction, and substantially so. I can’t say how or when it began, but in my opinion, much of what ails this country can be traced to a process of gradual conditioning, one that took place on many levels. Like is ongoing in Lagos, the emergence of a new Nigeria will require fundamental changes in the way we think, in our perceptions of the probable consequences of our behaviour. A change in our expectations. How this will come about? A matter for another day perhaps. For now we have come to the end of this Molue meditation.
1Eko o ni baje o: Lagos state credo, introduced and popularised by the Raji Fashola administration.
2Molue: Huge yellow and black striped Lagos buses.