What various forms of bodily deportment can teach us about power and authority in Africa.
When Nigerian President Bola Tinubu swore in his ministerial nominees at a ceremony in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) last month, the greater share of media commentary focused on the size of his cabinet. With forty-seven ministers and a retinue of special assistants and senior special assistants, many of whom enjoy cabinet status, Tinubu’s is the largest cabinet since Nigeria returned to civil rule in 1999, and many media commentators rightly accused the new administration of being tone-deaf at a time when ordinary Nigerians are being asked to make drastic adjustments due to the straitened economic situation.
Perhaps because of the focus on the size of the cabinet, scant attention was given to the incidents involving the newly sworn-in Ministers of Steel Development and Tourism respectively. After signing the oath of office register, Minister of Steel Development Shuaibu Audu, instead of shaking hands with the President as his other colleagues had done, elected to prostrate before Tinubu, a gesture which prompted applause from the audience. The gesture was repeated not long after when it was the turn of Minister of Tourism, Lola Ade-John, to sign the same register. As she extended her right hand to shake the president, Ms. Ade-John knelt down for him, again eliciting applause from the audience.
There is an obvious “cultural” explanation for the gestures of Mr. Audu and Ms. Ade-John respectively. In the case of the former, his father, the late Kogi State All Progressives Congress (APC) chieftain Abubakar Audu, was a friend and political associate of the president, in which case Mr. Audu might be excused for following “cultural protocol” and prostrating himself before a father figure. In the same manner, Ms. Ade-John might be excused for bending to an ethnic rule of seniority by kneeling before a much older figure who also happens in this case to be the president of the country, though it is worth noting that there were other ministers of Yoruba extraction who might have done the same but declined to.
At any rate, “culture,” while evidently illuminating in certain contexts, does not exhaust the gamut of explanations for physical postures in relation to authority. Indeed, there is an infinite variety of human postures, all of which, as Elias Canetti argues, “have their own special significance” and collectively provide an insight into various “silent configurations of power.” Not only that, since “Rank and power are traditionally connected with certain postures,” “from the way in which men group themselves we can deduce the amount of authority which each enjoys.” Put differently, the postures that people adopt before a powerful figure can be instructive on the sociohistorical context in which power or authority is being exercised, the nature or quality of the authority that is being exercised, and last but not least, relations between, shall we say, incumbents and recumbents.
In the case of Mr. Audu, while “culture” provides a partial explanation of his decision to literally humble himself before the president (more on the subject of humility shortly), and in full view of the public no less, it also logically alerts us to the possibility that fictive kinship between Mr. Audu and the president, rather than any personal or professional merit, was the main reason he was able to secure a ministerial nomination. If that is the case, Mr. Audu prostrating before the president was, in addition to everything else, an expression of gratitude for an unmerited “favor.”
For Canetti, kneeling can be either “a gesture of supplication” or “a form of flattery.” Neither supplication nor flattery proper, the Minister of Tourism’s kneeling gesture falls between both stools. Having already bagged the prize of a ministerial portfolio, she cannot be said to have been supplicating; nor, given the age difference between them, and the cultural, including gendered, expectations attendant upon that disparity, could she have imagined flattering the president by going down on her knee. Rather, hers is a reminder of how different bodily deportments often straddle the lines crisscrossing manners, deference, gratitude (there is definitely some of that in the case of Ms. Ade-John), courtesy, civility, and humility. An empty gesture being a near impossibility, every bodily deportment “communicates” something, and many can communicate different things or send different signals simultaneously, depending on the sociopolitical context.
Regardless of the message being communicated, the awe and grandeur of power in scenarios where the level of bureaucratization remains low and personalization of authority commensurately high is such that people are socialized to treat highly placed people (the so-called “Big Men” or “Big Women”) with a deference sometimes bordering on worship. To the extent that such people are–and expect to be–treated as though they are beyond the law, it is because they literally often are. Many instances of exaggerated deference to authority seen in Nigeria and other African countries owe in large part to this, raising for scholars and policymakers the spectacle of rule without law and power without accountability.
Not only that, a demand for physical submission has been known to be effective as a method of humiliating a political opponent or an agent that the person in authority wishes to bring to heel. For instance, General Sani Abacha could not have failed to imagine the effect that video footage of Lt. General Oladipo Diya abjectly begging on his knees following allegations of planning a coup would have on the Nigerian public, especially in the Yoruba part of the country where his then Chief of General Staff hailed from. More tragically, it is doubtful that Diya, who died in March, ever got back on his feet, esteem-wise. Here, a classic ritual of degradation achieved its targeted aim of professional and social emasculation.
That said, rarely is the incumbent-recumbent relation one-sided. Individuals can and often purposely debase themselves before authority figures in order to achieve specific objectives. In other words, someone might physically prostrate himself while, for all intents and purposes, remaining on his feet. There is ostentatious humility too, part of a conscious choreography whereby authority is deceived into giving up specific favors. Acceptance, followed by ostensible performance of one’s social inferiority is often effective as a way of obtaining social goods or privileges when the playing field is far from level. The work of anthropologist James Scott is particularly illuminating on these stratagems.
If all this points to anything, it is that, for all the emphasis on institutions and institution-building, in many African contexts, personalities remain salient. Accordingly, an understanding of their dynamic interplay with democratic institutions and norms is a desideratum for policy analysis and policymaking.
Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.