Monday, July 07, 2008

The subversive power of new technologies....

(written Friday... now in an internet cafe singing along to Boyz 2 Men, "Now, we come to the end of theuh rooaad, still I caaaan't leet go-ooooo....")

I got back to Kano from Jos yesterday to the news that I had taken the light with me. No PHCN/NEPA for five days straight. In Jos, it was off for at least three of those days. My father visited the local PHCN office to have a long detailed conversation with the workers about a national power grid failure… ai me…

Here is a story I was told last night that excited me and made me think that my desire to write on the way technology is exploding existing power structures is on track. The family friend who told me this is a young Bakane man, let’s call him Bashir, who is waiting for NYSC, having completed his degree this past year. There was a lecturer at his polytechnic who was a known “tribalist” and chaser of female students. According to Bashir, this lecturer did not like him because Bashir is Hausa-Fulani, and although Bashir had made Bs on both of his exams, the man failed him. Bashir took his case to the HOD, upon which the lecturer claimed that he had seen Bashir cheating, and that is why he failed him. When asked to prepare another exam for Bashir to retake, since he had no evidence that Bashir was cheating, the man brought an exam in which he filled it with things that had not been taught in the class. When Bashir protested that this was testing things they had not been taught, another student from the class was brought in, who confirmed Bashir’s story that none of the things on the new exam had been taught in that course. Finally, the lecturer cornered Bashir and told him that unless he paid him N10,000, he would not pass him.

“I went back to the hostel and cried,” Bashir tells me. “What else could I do? Where could I come up with the money? If I told my father, he would not give me since he has always advised me that I will advance in life from my own hard work, not whether I am rich or poor.”

Typical story, right? One played over and over again in Nigerian literature and popular culture. (See Buchi Emicheta’s Double Yoke, Eedris Abdulkareem’s “Mr. Lecturer,” Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s Hausa novel, Wani Hanin Ga Allah) Here is where it gets interesting. Bashir tells me that he remembered an episode of 24, he had seen in which a girl had alerted police to what was going on by dialing a number and keeping her cell phone open. Bashir realized he could use his cell phone in a similar way. So, he went to the lecturer and pressed “record” on his cell phone and proceeded to beg his lecturer. “I don’t have the money. I cannot come up with 10,000 naira,” he told the man. “If you don’t have 10,000 naira, bring N5,000, he told him.” Bashir begged him some more to reduce it to N2,500, and they finally settled on N3,500. Bashir told him he would bring it the next week, and the lecturer said that he must bring it by the next morning or he would fail him.

“I went straight to the HOD,” Bashir said. “I told him that the lecturer asked me for N10,000 to pass his class.” The HOD said, “No, not him. He wouldn’t do that. Where is your proof?” “I pulled out my phone and played him the recording. He sat with his head in his hands, saying ‘oh no, oh no.’ From there, there were some who wanted to sack him, but there was a powerful professor, who is of his same tribe and also a cultist, who fought for him. (Because he is involved with the cults everyone fears him, even the other lecturers.) So, he was suspended for 6 months. Shege wawa….”

This powerful professor succeeded in (according to Bashir) reducing his 2.1 degree to a 2.2 (even so, he graduated first in his class), trying even to give him a 3rd class until one of the other lecturer’s argued that there would be trouble from the external examiners if they saw that he had graduated at the top of his class but had gotten a 3rd class.

What excited me about this story, whether or not it is embroidered in Bashir’s favour, is recognizing the ways in which new technologies are exploding hypocrisies. The power of the cell phone in exploding secrets is clear enough in the Hiyana scandal, in which the adultery that would normally have stayed the secret of the businessman and the actress became public knowledge. (Of course a professor here tells me that similar sex phone videos created by students had been seized at the university even before the Hiyana scandal, but the fact that an actress was involved in the phone video gave the critics the ammunition they had been looking for to confirm the “iskanci” of the film industry.)

What interests me, however, is how these new technologies are challenging entrenched power structures of society, in which filmmakers (and musicians with music videos) tell stories that expose (or at least make accusations about) the secret lives of the rich and powerful. These stories, which the critics try to pass off as mere “entertainment”/ “spoiling society with the corruption of the West” /“what sales,” are actually often profoundly political statements by disenfranchised youth against the excesses of their elders. Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s novel In da So da Kauna first published in 1991 (or 2) anticipated this: The heroine Sumayya suffers through many trials (most prominently including her grandmother taking bribes from a wealthy suitor) to finally marry her poor but virtuous lover, Muhammad. After the marriage, her grandmother comes to the house and tries to break up the marriage. Unknown to her, Sumayya records their conversation and then plays it back to her father, thus discrediting her grandmother.

Such examples turn value systems which value elders, wealth, and “minding one’s own business” or “keeping secrets” on their head. The argument from the youth seems to be that the elderly and the powerful have forfeited their right to respect by abusing their privileges. New technologies (cell phones, digital video recorders, internet, etc) now give youth a power to challenge the entrenched power structures.

Now if there were some viable cheap technology to challenged the entrenched power (or non-power) structure of PHCN (other than generators....)


NigerianDramaQueen said...

Wow im glad Bashir thought of that..I hope he got a passing grade in the end?
It is stories I hear like this rmind me of why I must come back to Nigeria..

Talatu-Carmen said...

nigeriandramaqueen, thanks for the comment! I think he did end up passing the class because the HOD saw that the lecturer was corrupt. According to him, he graduated at the top of his class, with a 2.2.

Do come back! I think we need a generation of passionate young people to challenge entrenched corruptions and bring about change!