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That humiliating haircut

If you have been wondering why Nigerian women, unlike their counterparts in other parts of the world, continue to tolerate insults of all kinds from men, you need to take a second look at the ignoble photo of a senior regional commander of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) delightedly shredding or cutting into strips the carefully arranged hair of some female staff of the organisation. The photograph was published two weeks ago in mainstream and online media at home and overseas.

The look on the man’s face seemed to suggest he was enjoying the horrible act of shaming women in a public space. The incident occurred in Port Harcourt, during a routine morning parade. Regardless of the women’s transgression, that particular event demeaned Nigerian women and what they represent in our society. The photo also attracted international condemnation for Nigeria and public disapproval of the commander’s overenthusiastic conduct.

Following that shameful action, many people have asked biting questions. Why would the regional commander of a government agency treat women publicly in such a despicable and repugnant way? What may have driven a senior official of the FRSC to the point where he decided that cutting off the hair of female staff members was an appropriate punishment? What is the existing code of conduct for staff of the FRSC? Does the code of dressing stipulate the lopping off of women’s hair when they breach the rules? These are questions the hierarchy of the FRSC must answer, as it seeks to respond to the shameful conduct of a senior staff.

I am personally outraged by the behaviour of the FRSC official. He should be disciplined for a number of reasons. First, female staff of the FRSC are not kindergarten kids, who could be treated as second-class citizens in their fatherland. Even nursery school children are accorded some degree of respect. Second, the senior commander exceeded the limits of his powers when he humiliated female staff in a public domain. He does not have the authority to cut off women’s hair because the women wore certain hairstyles that he found to be objectionable. There are many ways the women should have been disciplined, if they breached the FRSC code, without arbitrarily cutting their hair in a disgraceful manner.

At a time when the government of President Muhammadu Buhari is struggling to meet the expectations of citizens, including the challenge of overturning a battered economy that has failed to shrug off the effects of recession, that shameful haircut represented an unwelcome embarrassment for the government and people of Nigeria.

No matter how you examine that photograph, the behaviour of the regional commander was extreme. Could he have treated his own sister or wife in that manner? Could he have subjected his female relatives to such a contemptible and disrespectful treatment?

Regardless of whatever might be the FRSC rules that define how female staff should dress, plait or carry their hair, the punishment given to the female staff in that photo could not be justified. There is nothing right or judicious in publicly humiliating female staff members, who may have contravened the code of conduct of an organisation in which they work. No form of argument would justify a man cutting off a woman’s hair, as a form of punishment.

That kind of rebuke is inappropriate and offensive. It is a violent form of reprimand. It lowers a woman’s self-worth in the public domain. Indeed, the punishment is not proportionate to the “crime”. There must be better and acceptable ways of reprimanding or correcting women, who breach the rules that govern behaviour or dressing in their workplace.

The government needs to discipline the overzealous FRSC regional commander because he acted well outside the powers conferred on him by the organisation’s mandate. He is a regional commander but that does not give him the right, power, or authority to disgrace and ridicule women, who work for the FRSC.

Although a representative of President Buhari has condemned the action as “humiliation of women”, the Presidency should go beyond mere condemnation. All we have been informed so far is that the senior and petulant FRSC commander has been “disciplined”. The nature of the “discipline” remains unknown. While the man might feel it is alright for him to humiliate women in a public space, his employers appear to be shielding him and lessening his offence by saying he has been disciplined. That is not enough. Everyone wants to know whether he has been sacked. His behaviour cannot be defended, not even by the Presidency.

The punishment given to the regional commander must be such that would convey the message that the government abhors actions that debase, degrade and sully the dignity of women. If you think it is too much to sack the man because he cut off the hair of female staff members of a government agency, consider how you would feel if your spouse or sister or female relative received that treatment?

My biggest disappointment is that civil society did not rise to demonstrate forcefully against the repugnant behaviour of the senior commander of the FRSC in Port Harcourt. The lack of action by civil society says a lot about the Nigerian society in general. It is true that many people have been incapacitated by the daily challenges of trying to earn a living in a depressed economy, I would argue that the struggle for the dignity of women should not be defined solely by what goes into our stomach. The times may be tough but there are also other important matters that demand our collective attention. This is not one of those instances in which silence may be the right course of action. Humiliation of women in any organisation should not be tolerated in our society.

I have often wondered why we have a weak civil society or why there is no active women’s organisation to champion the rights of Nigerian women. Such an organisation would have mobilised members to protest vigorously and to demand immediate apology from the FRSC, including the immediate dismissal of the man, who humiliated female staff members of the organisation. Other than a few trickles of protest, everyone seems unconcerned about what happened in Port Harcourt. That is what I regard as a national tragedy.

In 2013, the then Rivers State Governor Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi said our political leaders had continued to enrich themselves corruptly without self-discipline because civil society did not take direct action to prevent them from the rapacious raiding of the national treasury. Amaechi’s comment represented a direct reprimand of our weak civil society. In his criticism of a gutless civil society, Amaechi asked his audience: “If you see a thief and you allow him to be stealing, what have you done? You have stoned nobody; that is why we are stealing…”

Amaechi’s statements were intended to draw everyone’s attention to what could happen in a country with a frail and inactive civil society. He said corruption by state officials has persisted in the country because of the absence of a strong civil society that could rise to check such abuses. Embedded in those remarks is the notion that a pathetic civil society tends to tolerate irresponsible leaders, widespread corruption and general abuses of human rights by the ruling class and other state officials.

We are known as a nation of loudmouthed people. We hailed in 2011 the actions of civil society that overthrew authoritarian governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. We rejoiced and shouted uproariously about the phenomenon known as the “Arab Spring” that swept across North Africa and the Middle East. But we lack the force, commitment and power of the kind of civil societies that operated in North Africa in 2011 and beyond.

Ours is a society in which everybody shouts but nobody wants to die or go to jail for the good of others. It is this inadequacy in our character that public officials and political leaders have manipulated to their gain. We yell at every sign of corruption or abuse of power, such as we saw in the senior FRSC official’s mistreatment of female staff in Port Harcourt two weeks ago. Yet, we lack the energy, the will power, the courage and the strength to scrutinise public officials and political leaders and to compel them to be accountable to the nation.

The person who said a weak civil society is the mark of a failed state got it right. We live in that failed state. When civil society fails to hold political leaders to account, when civil society fails to act decisively against lawlessness by state officials, it essentially abdicates its moral authority to function as the conscience of the nation.

On Tuesday, 2 July 2013, the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, said at a lecture he delivered as a guest of the Nigerian Institute of Management: “The most compelling reasons for revolution throughout the ages were injustice, crushing poverty, marginalisation, rampant corruption, lawlessness, joblessness, and general disaffection with the ruling elite.” What happened to female staff members of the FRSC in Port Harcourt was a sufficient trigger for the nation to rise and protest injustice against, and oppressive treatment of, Nigerian women. That experience represents a clear case of abuse of power.

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