Reuben Abati : America & The Man-No-Be-Wood Nigerian Lawmakers


There has been no shortage of controversy and hair-raising incidents from the 8th National Assembly of Nigeria, but nothing breaks the heart more than the name-them-shame-them letter that has been sent to the Speaker of the House of Representatives by the US Ambassador in which he accused three Nigerian lawmakers of sexual misconduct during an April 7-13, 2016 participation in the International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP).

The three lawmakers are Mohammed Garba Gololo (APC, Bauchi), Samuel Ikon (PDP, Akwa Ibom) and Mark Terseer Gbillah (APC, Benue).  In his letter to the Speaker, James Entwistle says Gbillah and Ikon “allegedly requested hotel parking attendants to assist them to solicit prostitutes” while Gololo “allegedly grabbed a housekeeper in his hotel room and solicited her for sex”. This was reported to the hotel management. The use of the word “grabbed” sounds quite deliberate in its Nigerian-ness.

Whoever threw that phrase in knows certainly well, that Nigerian lawmakers who spoke against a Gender Equality Bill, and who have done nothing to protect the Child Rights Act which pegs the age of marriage at 18, are most likely to abuse women and grab anything that their libido finds attractive. Of course as expected, the three indicted lawmakers have claimed that they are innocent, that nothing of such happened and that they have been denied the benefit of fair hearing. Mark Gbillah has written a windy protest letter, like a petition for a visa denied, in which he not only affirmed his innocence, but he is also alleging defamation and the threat of possible lawsuits. Gbillah is even asking for a video-tape proof! You’ve got swag hen, bros, the way you just dey halla… 

But I will advise you and the two others to just drink cold water and chill, and as they say, calm down. Without any technical or express malice intended, the truth of this matter is that the US Embassy in Nigeria and the US Department of State have just thrown you and the two others under the trailer.  Read Ambassador Entwistle’s letter again, the word “allegedly” is used but the letter suggests that the weight of the law of the United States could have been brought to bear upon the three of you right after the reports were made, but now, two clear months later, after investigations have been conducted and the US Government is convinced, the decision has now been taken to name and shame you, and punishment has been issued: your visas to the United States have been cancelled.  The case against you is already closed.

Your threat that you will go to court amounts to nothing.  It is your word against theirs. And it is not just the three of you the Americans are shaming, it is the rest of us, and so the shame is an embarrassment to Nigeria. If you guys don’t think so, please hire an intelligent person to decode the following excerpt: “The conduct described above left a very negative impression of Nigeria, casting a shadow on Nigeria’s National Assembly, the IVLP, and to the American hosts’ impression as a whole. Such conduct could affect some participants’ ability to travel to the United States in the future”. What? All of these insults -just because three male Nigerian lawmakers could not manage erectile functionality?

It seems to me that part of the problem with many of our public officers is that they enjoy free meals and free rides so much that they hardly pause to understand the implications. They jump at every invitation to dinner from foreign embassies without knowing what it means to go there and start blabbing. Every word gets recorded! They also don’t know what it means to accept a free ride to the home country of those embassies under whatever guise. Everything you do during the visit is monitored and everyone around you, including the programme guides and the staff of the hosting hotel, has been specifically detailed to keep an eye on you. The IVLP is organized by the US Department of State through US embassies across the world. It is a “premier professional exchange programme.”

The American government funds it, and in its 75 years of existence, 200, 000 persons, mainly “current and emerging foreign leaders” from 190 countries have participated in it. The objective is to provide an opportunity for interaction and exchange of ideas with counterparts in the United States and to offer exposure to the workings of the American system and democracy. People don’t usually apply; they get invited. In its wisdom, the US Embassy in Nigeria chose ten lawmakers from Nigeria including Gololo, Ikon and Gbillah. These three gentlemen should go and take a second look at whatever documents they signed before they collected a free ticket, free accommodation and some dollars, to cover the cost of their stay in the US as guests of the American people. They should check the small print carefully. They may just discover a line about good conduct somewhere; and what the US Embassy in Nigeria has just issued is a report and a testimonial on a trip that was paid for by the American taxpayer!  If so, can the Americans be blamed for protecting the integrity of the American woman, who paid the taxes that provided funds for the US trip by Gbillah, Ikon and Gololo? I am tempted to write something else on the in-context onomatopoeic suggestiveness of this last name but good conduct says No. Let me just ask then: should the US Congress fund a programme that allows foreign visitors to come and harass the unwilling American woman for sex or solicit for prostitutes?
I must say this though: it is not only Nigerian lawmakers who act sometimes as sexual predators, either at home or abroad.  The United States also has a long list of lawmakers who attracted odium and sanction, because they could not keep their libidos in check. The only difference is that whereas in the United States, such predators when caught out are named and shamed, and they often show contrition, in Nigeria high social status is taken as a licence for sexual predation and that is why the indicted have been sounding so arrogant and defiant.  When Nigerian public officials go on any trip, local or foreign, they usually make special arrangements for what is called “Man no be wood”.  This is the euphemism for the money that is set aside by an individual for taking care of prostitutes, female companions, or accidental bedroom partners during such trips.

There are male public officials and even company executives who in fact swear that they will never sleep alone on a bed during any offshore trip. They will therefore either travel with what they call “a handbag” (this is the word for a mistress taken on a trip), or may be their wives who are knowingly introduced to others on the trip as Madam, but generally no trip is deemed successful without the accompaniment of a “cover cloth” (that’s another word for a woman whose task is to satisfy the sexual needs of a Nigerian travelling offshore). There are even more denigrating terms in the local languages. In Yoruba, such women are referred to as “agbesun” or “aso ibora”.

And of course, in many countries, female hotel attendants, particularly house-keepers are ready targets. Nigerian men are known in some countries to be quite generous, when paying for such special services. This instructively has nothing to do with religion. One of the guys in the present case, is said to be a devout Muslim (yet, he was allegedly soliciting for a prostitute), the other is said to be a practising Christian and an elder in the Apostolic Church of Nigeria (these religious labels hen?) and the third is described as a Christian (in this matter, there is obviously no religion!). What has also not been said is that some personal and special assistants to Nigerian big men attend to this same matter as part of their job definition. The sociology of misogyny, sex-solicitation and phallocentrism in Nigeria is quite an embarrassingly interesting subject.

The present scandal under review will not put an end to it, but the testimonial from the US Embassy is a cautionary note to all future Nigerian travellers to the US, especially public officials.  Gbilla, Ikon and Gololo have had their visas to the United States cancelled. They may never again be given a visa to that country.  And it may also be the case that other embassies in Nigeria would have taken note of their indictment by the US Embassy, and hence refuse them visas or opportunities such as the one they have just enjoyed and abused.

The leadership of the House of Representatives has reportedly set up a panel of inquiry. We expect in typical Nigerian fashion that the panel will stand by the three lawmakers, declare them to be honourable, guiltless gentlemen; the panel may also summon the American envoy and possibly interrogate him, but all of that will not change anything about the Americans’ decisions about a programme they organized and sponsored and whose terms and conditions the three indicted lawmakers agreed to. By the way, in the state of Ohio, US, where the lawmakers visited, sexual harassment, prostitution and solicitation are illegal. The allegations against the trio are akin to a breach of contract and trust and a shameful record.

The indicted lawmakers probably do not understand how serious this is. But I accuse the US Embassy in Nigeria of overstating its case and it is like this: All that talk about negative impression of Nigeria, and the National Assembly and the threat to future participants is too saccharine. It is unfair to label the rest of us in that manner. Many Nigerians have participated in the IVLP over the years and they behaved well. Even in this instance, out of 10 Nigerian participants, there has been no need to complain about the seven others.  So, we should always name and shame the ones who fall short of standards and expectations but save us the stereotype, don’t jump from three to 200 million Nigerians and start tarring all of us with the same brush. The terms of participation in the IVLP should be between you and the individuals involved and not the House of Representatives or the rest of Nigeria. Gbillah, Ikon and Gololo do not represent me, just as they do not represent many readers of this comment.

BY REUBEN ABATI (@abati1990)