Omo-Agege and the challenge of ‘respect’

Last week Tuesday, the Federal Government’s Twitter handle shared photos of the new Deputy Senate President, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, kneeling to greet President Muhammadu Buhari during the visit of the recently elected leaders of the ninth National Assembly to Aso Rock.

Given the spate of events that led to the emergence of the ninth Assembly, Omo-Agege’s effusive display of respect affirmed genuine concerns that this batch of lawmakers are going to be mere seals of every executive whim. If he keeps up that kind of gesture, he will go through his tenure awestruck by political power and never be able to muster the necessary ethical strength to fulfil his democratic duty of enforcing tenets of checks and balances.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the photo generated some hoopla from those who found it ludicrous that one grown man would kneel before another, and in an official environment too. I am one of those who have a visceral dislike to the exaggeratedly ostentatious ways we genuflect before our leaders and politicians as a sign of “respect.” Yes, I quite understand the arguments people make about tradition and “culture,” and how curtsying or bowing before elders or supposed superiors is an inextricable part of our culture. I have had dialogues with political supporters who have no problems with Omo-Agege and insist that as Africans, we should preserve greeting customs and not yield them to modernity. This idea of culture as a code of conduct to which we must adhere with an idolatrous fervency merely stymies a meaningful critique of the problem of “respect” in our political culture.

There was also the tribe of rationalisers who chalked down Omo-Agege’s sinking knees to deserved acts of respect for the President. They even ransacked the Internet archives and dug up images of former British PM, Theresa May, kneeling before royalties to teach us that such grandiose act of respect is, in fact, universal. Their logic is, if an Oyinbo woman can kneel, why not Africans who have an even stronger predilection to showing respect? In putting up Ms. May as a relatable standard of respect for higher powers, they also conveniently forgot that the woman was severely ridiculed in the press for her effusive demonstration of respect to royal figures.

While Omo-Agege’s manners are commendable, everything is wrong with his kneeling before the President. The President is not a king, and because he does not rule by monarchical authority, we should not have to genuflect to show respect. Buhari’s mandate as President is legitimated by the equalising principles of democratic authority. Even though our leaders in any democracy get certain privileges because of their position, we are all equal subjects before the law. No, Nigeria has not yet attained this utopian ideal of equality embedded into the practice of democracy, but that does not change the principle. The striving towards equality is the more reason we should do away with grovelling cultural practices that necessitate bowing, kneeling, and prostrating before our leaders. All those acts of respect are enforcers of asymmetric power dynamics between government officials, and in leader-led relationships.

Cultural acts, such as kneeling, are not value-neutral gestures. They are deeply symbolic, and that is why they trigger a chain of instinctual reactions that also have other political implications. There are several photos circulating online that show politicians and leaders in various kneeling poses before influential political figures. There are also other images of high-profile politicians, not kneeling, but making other gestures of submission and political patronage before their political superiors.

For instance, there are a number of images of Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai, kneeling before other politicians like a serf. Speaking of which, look at how much political signification was invested in the picture of the son of former Lagos State governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, prostrating before Buhari when the latter visited Lagos. Ordinarily, a child greeting an adult should be banal enough to beneath everyone’s notice. However, that single moment was abstracted from its context and remediated within the permanent frame of digital images, thus turning it into a political statement. Those that circulated that picture while cooing about the well-brought-up Yoruba boy stretching out fully before authority were not just admiring an act of innocence. They were creating a narrative about Yoruba people, inter-generational subservience, and political relevance.

Some time ago, a female minister gave an interview where she stated that if she needed to resign from Buhari’s cabinet, she would first kneel before him to tell him about her decision. I was livid when I read that line in the media report. Why does this woman have to be so deferent to make a simple point if not because our “culture” is both debased and debasing? Whatever happened to standing straight and making your point? There are even images of Mrs. Dolapo Osinbajo kneeling before Buhari. Again, some of their online warriors have tried to make Mrs. Osinbajo’s gestures about good breeding and respect for Buhari’s authority and age. That all sounds perfectly acceptable until you begin to wonder why there are no corresponding images of Mrs. Buhari kneeling before Osinbajo in deference to his age and authority. Beyond the gender factor is also the ethnic coloration to these acts of respects. Most of the time, it is the southern politicians that are found kneeling before their northern counterparts and not the other way round.

Different anthropological researches have been carried out to understand why cultural practices such as kneeling and bowing are powerful, whether they are done during religious worship or in the corridors of power. There are the plausible conclusions that when we kneel before another being — physical or spiritual — we are shrinking ourselves so that the other person can be magnified. Kneeling is about humility, submissiveness, respect, and even obsequiousness. In Nigeria, the lines of differences between all these attributes of kneeling easily blur when it comes to performing before those who wield power to control our ambitions and fates.

Omo-Agege’s kneeling before Buhari was not reverence for the President or the Presidency, but a worship of the unregulated power embodied in the President to determine how Omo-Agege’s political career will fare. That power dynamics necessarily impel extravagant display of respect in our political culture, and that is why we — both the leaders and the led — tend to over-invest in artefacts of respect. From rhetoric to actions, everybody cultivates and demands respect in a way that urges conformity with the status quo, and even demands acquiescence from us even in the process of our demise. Strikingly, there were at least three other people in that room with Buhari, yet, none of them knelt as Omo-Agege did. Why?

What is the way forward from here? Culture or not, our leaders need to master body language that bespeaks respect and at the same time is not too unctuous. We can agree that respect is crucial to the efficient operations of our democratic processes and should not be dispensed with in the name of asserting independence. We need a universal language of respect to our leaders that does not require contorting our bodies to the point that the respect we want to give becomes overstated, sycophantic, and even appears as grovel. The excessive smarminess and toadying to power impede democratic functions, and they do not necessarily mean people are truly respectful.

Of course, it is also disingenuous to pretend that what Omo-Agege’s critics are advocating is wilful disrespect for the President. No, theirs is outrage at how the lopsidedness and dysfunctionality of our democratic process turn against itself such that those who are invested with the power to regulate the excessiveness of the executive of the leadership end up as moral invertebrates. They will rather go down on their knees than stand up for what is right.