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The Omo Onile Syndrome

Posted by By Uddin Ifeanyi on 2005/07/26 | Views: 831 |

The Omo Onile Syndrome


There are more than a few dimensions to life in this country. But the ones, which constantly give cause for worry, are those things, small things, which remind one of how far we are from there.

There are more than a few dimensions to life in this country. But the ones, which constantly give cause for worry, are those things, small things, which remind one of how far we are from there. There are of course the bigger ones: the stories that stare at you in bold, colourful, banner fonts from the newspaper covers. Stuff like the alleged involvement of law enforcement officers in the brutal murder of six traders in Apo, Abuja. These directly question our sense of a shared humanity. Neither the promise of lucre, nor the hope of escaping justice justify premeditated murder of this nature.

Still less does acknowledgement of the fact that extra-judicial killings have been recorded in other (supposedly more developed) jurisdictions excuse outrages of this nature.

My interest here however, is with those trifling negatives, the ones that never make the news, or are told in very small print. The deaths at hospitals because key surgery could not take place in the absence of electricity from NEPA. Complications arising from the inept general practitioner’s misdiagnosis of an ordinarily treatable malady. Long-drawn disorders, which deteriorate, not so much because of self-medication (itself a key concern), but because the administered compounds are under-strength: the result of a different kind of avarice. Interestingly, in the animal world, highly evolved parasites take pains to preserve their hosts in fine fettle. Even as they discomfort their hosts, they leave vital organs unscathed. But their human equivalent in our body politic live by a different ethos.

When these people sell goods/services, the concept of “profitable sales volume” is up-ended. Peddle poison by all means, so long as there’s gain to be had. What happens to the market, when the preferred business model subsists on so many one-offs? Sell to a new one! The problem then with these niggling niceties is not so much that they advert to the absence of a properly functioning mechanism within which to work out the sundry torts that they give rise to. They do also point to a popular loathing of litigation, the consequence of an upbringing with serious accent on the “communal” and its preference for qualified arbitration by elders. But do they not therefore indicate a major character failing?

The dearth of institutions and proper governance structures, bequeath an incentive framework to society. Often because these framework rewards anti-social behaviour, the structure of domestic incentives arising on its basis is described as “negative”. A positive structure of incentives is therefore one that elicits conduct in the benefit of the commonweal. But to the same structure of incentives, different peoples are bound to answer differently.

In evidence, look no further than the variations across Western Europe and North America as different communities there adjust to the normatives of protecting property rights, encouraging competition, while trying to defend decent wages for the most poorly paid workers.

My take on this, is that “traditional” definitions of property rights, for example, mediate popular response to governance failures. The respective polity, and the relevant processes, which arise on the basis of unsuccessful institutions, ought then to be different according to the dissimilarities in the referential totems of the different peoples.

One remarkable manifestation of the Nigerian encounter with property rights in its modern incarnation is the “omo onile” syndrome. Perhaps the most immediate evidence of the failure of institutions in this country, it gives expression to the tortured interfaces between communal land ownership patterns and modern property rights (with its emphasis on clear titles, and the concept of mortgages and collateral, which derive from the possibility of voluntary alienation of title). Alienation is perhaps the normative construct of the “omo onile” syndrome. The omo onile is deracinated. An alien, caught in the vast empty spaces between what he used to know (which no longer is), and this new form of organisation (which is yet to become). In this no-man’s land, he becomes a law on to himself: exacting tribute from all who have dealings with land and allied property in his precinct. I don’t know how much of what Hernando de Soto wrote in his book “The mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else”, applies to the omo onile, but I do know that the legal impediments to acquiring and alienating land title in this country, are material to his continued existence.

None of which directly mattered to me until recently. Imagine my chagrin when not too long ago, I suffered a blowout along the Third Mainland Bridge, just before the Carter Bridge turn-off. Fortunately, although it was way past 6.00 pm, the sun was making its way out rather languidly, and you could still pick so many things out by its light. I had hardly secured access to the turnpike’s shoulder, trying to park properly, before a perfect stranger ran alongside. Frightened? Beyond words. “Area boy”? Armed bandit? Had to park to find out. Parked; and then turned down his unsolicited offer of help. This was Lagos don’t you forget, and acts of charity ain’t a particularly strong component of the communal suite. Reached for the trunk of the car to bring out the spare, and lo and behold there was a second unknown waving traffic away from my distressed banger. Now, I was almost apoplectic. One area boy is a nightmare. Two, the exact definition of Hades!

Anyway I managed the argot that was essential to seeing them off: the kind of Yoruba that only gets spoken amongst bus drivers and their conductors, and which you are unlikely ever to find in print. But their point was that the particular stretch of the bridge at which my distress occurred was theirs: they were the omo oniles in charge of it. And any which way I had to pay parking charges. So why not let them help with changing my tyre; at least that way I get to feel that their parking charges is money well spent. My point? Almost certainly, that the absence of the law and its enforcement in this country is central to the presence of these vagrants in our communities.

Just as well, it helps to ponder whether there might be that ingredient in our character that conduces to these forms of criminality. For if I had lost my tyre much later in the evening, and had had the nerve to stop where I did, I would have been robbed!
Ifeanyi writes from Lagos



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