What an hour with Patrick Obahiagbon taught me about Nigeria
4 years ago in 2017, a group of young writers sat in a huddle at the Channels Television HQ in Isheri, Lagos, trying to figure out how to make their comedy show punchier. Their intelligent 30-minute primetime political satire show was getting 2 million weekly viewers, but not much in the way of laughs. Laughs were necessary for advertisers, you see.
We had tried everything including skit segments and canned laughter. As a last resort, we decided to bring in some of our friends and a group of 5th year medical students to be our studio audience. Anyone who was smart enough to be a doctor and from our social group would surely be smart enough to get satire.
A story about lack of self-expectation
I walked into the studio that fateful Wednesday for the taping session, sulking and sleep-deprived after another intense period of last-minute rewrites and writers room catfights. The session began. One-liners. Punchlines. Smart commentaries. Allegories. Sarcastic turns of phrase. Our smart audience sat there like blocks of wood, completely failing to connect with our material. Finally, it was time to interview our guest, and out he came – Honourable Patrick Obahiagbon. Our host Okey Bakassi took out a helmet to wear as a comedic prop, alluding to Hon. Obahiagbon’s expected barrage of grandiloquent nonsense and suddenly the audience reaction we had been searching for burst out.
True to form, Obahiagbon quickly launched into his usual multisyllabic verbal spiel, to the delight of our increasingly excited audience. Nothing that came before or after got anything close to the strong reception for a career buffoon verbalizing copious amounts of nothing in as many words as possible. Looking at the audience of what was supposed to be some of Nigeria’s intellectual elite being tremendously entertained by the antics of a cynical poseur masquerading as an entertainer, I suddenly realised why we would never be Nigeria’s ‘Daily Show’ – because even the ‘enlightened and educated’ Nigerian audience did not expect the same things of us as their American counterparts do of Trevor Noah.
On The Daily Show, Patrick Obahiagbon would be skewered and examined for what he is – a politician who uses a mixture of unnecessarily long words, onomatopoeia and utter gibberish to mask the fact that he has absolutely nothing to say. Trevor might possibly perform a comedic impression of his speaking pattern for the purpose of getting a few supplementary laughs to emphasize the fact that Obahiagbon is the punchline. On The Other News however, he was in on the joke, effectively taking control of the platform and misdirecting the humour to target nothing in particular. Rather than laugh at Obahiagbon, which was the proper outcome, this educated and privileged audience instead chose to laugh with him.
Nigeria has no “Elite” – Just a monied class
The epiphany I reached after that incident was that there is in fact, a huge vacuum of moral and intellectual leadership in Nigerian culture. The Obahiagbons of this world might understandably be feted and found entertaining by the lower placed in our society – because they simply cannot know any better – but what excuse could there be for those who absolutely should know better?
I realised that as with other areas of Nigerian life, this was yet another manifestation of lack of proper elite formation. Typically, highly placed Nigerians religiously refuse to understand that the purpose of the “elite” in any successful society is to provide something for the rest of the population to aspire to. An “elite” is not supposed to be merely someone with a few more zeros on their bank balance than most. In Nigeria, where the would-be elites do not understand their role and typically behave like lottery winners, the general idea is that the only criterion for admission to the elite is money.
It is no coincidence that supposedly elite Nigerians have no problem living in conditions reminiscent of a Soviet concentration camp; driving over bomb crater-sized potholes in Ikoyi and Victoria Island inside expensive SUVs, while using the shockingly primitive and environmentally injurious diesel generator as the primary power source for their homes and workplaces. Or being entertained by a supposed political representative who spouts onomatopoeia instead of doing his job.
Lack of self awareness makes it such that despite regularly travelling abroad and seeing what real high end neighbourhoods are actually supposed to look like, the minute they touch down in Lagos and Abuja, they are completely at ease with words like “borehole,” “septic tank,” “pothole” and “generator.” When you have an entire society built on the absence of shame, it does not occur to anyone that it is utterly absurd to pose for Instagram in front of your 3-bedroom N150 million detached house, which stands along a literal earth road that can only be navigated by an SUV, and which disappears two feet underwater whenever it rains.
None of this seems out of place to the “elite” Nigerian psyche, because it has been trained to accept indignity and outrage as the norm, and to view avoidable suffering as an inescapable fact of life. The burning sense of shame that should be felt as a result of Nigeria’s widespread elite failure is only felt by a small minority of people. We spend most of our time in a constant state of frustration and outrage, because apparently no one else sees the picture we are seeing.
Like I stood scowling and rolling my eyes a few years ago inside the Channels TV studio, we can only watch Nigerians laughing with the Obahiagbons of this world, completely unaware that ultimately, the joke is on all of us.