Ours is a society where money answereth all things; a society where no one is immune to what I call the big man syndrome. It is why pastors drive with convoys or are armed with gun-wielding police officers while they preach on the pulpit. It is responsible for why young men commit cyber fraud – Yahoo Yahoo, if you will. Some of them go as far as making a Faustian bargain with the devil by reportedly killing a loved one or sacrificing human parts or ladies’ underwear all in exchange for wealth. We call it money ritual. It served as a trope in Nollywood blockbusters for decades. But is there any surprise young people lust after status when mainstream entertainment and social media glamourise the big man syndrome? Even the political class isn’t immune from this craze.
By being a big man in Nigeria, you become deified. You may even get eulogised by an Apala or Highlife band. It doesn’t matter if you’re an MC Oluomo. As long as you reek of money, your deficiencies are compensated for. But perhaps, the biggest flex to being a big man is the ability to escape the failures of the Nigerian state. If the sophistication of the high-brow community you live in cannot cater to your needs for some reason, you can always jet out of the country. Jetting out on a whim is the ultimate status signal of the Nigerian elite class and nouveaux riches.
Medical tourism is one of the reasons the elite class jets out. For years, this phrase has dominated public discourse. Nigerians travel every year to India and Europe in search of treatments they cannot get in the ill-equipped and sometimes dilapidated hospitals they have at home. Given how expensive it is, medical tourism is outside the possibility of the lower class. For the middle class, it usually takes a huge chunk of their resources and may render them broke or even indebted. But for the big man upper class, it costs them nothing. Pundits have argued that the reason the government has been very trivial in matters concerning the health sector is that a lot of them get their healthcare abroad. And even when the treatments they seek are available in Nigeria, they’d rather still go to the UK or something. It’s a gamble to go under the knife of a Nigerian surgeon, so they think. How patriotic!
Medical tourism has of course brought us shame. The biggest was the death of former president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua while being treated in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. And of course, Buhari spent three months in the UK in 2017 while getting treated for an undisclosed illness. The problem with medical tourism is that it is advantageous to those who can afford it. But it brings collective mockery to us as a people.
One can only speculate the circumstances that led the Ekweremadus to the UK. Likely, treatment is not available for their daughter in Nigeria. Or maybe it is but like most people of that ilk, they are generally suspicious of the competency of Nigerian doctors to carry out what I imagine would be a very complicated medical procedure. On a personal level, theirs is a deeply sorry case and I do empathise with them. I have no idea what it means to have a loved one with kidney problems. I imagine there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them. But then, there’s just a line no one should ever think of crossing. Such as the charge of organ trafficking the Ekweremadus have now been imprisoned for.
The arrest and subsequent prosecution and imprisonment of Senator Ike Ekweremadu and his wife show the failure of both our healthcare and legal systems. Many have rightly speculated that had they been arrested in Nigeria, the chances of them ever even spending a day in court are as good as finding life on Mercury; if ever they get arrested in the first place. Again, this is because of the big man syndrome. As long as you’re a big man, you are larger than life. Your needs are more important than those of others. You are entitled to preferential treatment and even if you break the law while at it, the rest of us can only suck it up and accept our fate as Haves not.
There isn’t much to say about this. It is tragic on all sides. I’ve read reports about the daughter feeling guilty her parents are now in jail because of her. Nothing could be sadder. It’s also tragic when you think of the extent her parents went, albeit illegal, to try to get her the treatment she needs. And of course, it’s tragic on a national level that a former deputy Senate President and his wife are now in a UK prison. It’s a win for justice but a loss for the country’s image. It is also a humbling experience for the big man elite class that their clout will not always work for them, especially abroad. That is a lesson for our judiciary. The judiciary needs to be weaned from the mammary gland of the political class so justice can be dispensed without favour. Perhaps, the biggest lesson here is the failure of the Nigerian state directly and indirectly affects us all, regardless of class. If subsequent governments had prioritised the health sector, perhaps, the Ekweremadus would not have had to go to the UK and maybe they wouldn’t be in this mess.
Olayemi is the publisher of The Disaffected Magazine. He also hosts the Disaffected Nigerian Podcast. He enjoys everything from Evolutionary Psychology to the syncopations of Apala music to Fela’s discography. He fancies himself as an Amala enthusiast. His dream is to be a travel writer someday.