By Abimbola Adelakun
Yoruba films aficionados would no doubt be familiar with the spectre of the gateman, a comic relief that almost always overwhelms the story arc. Most times, the gateman is caricatured as a half-wit; his “acting” lacks any artistic subtlety; he talks too much and most of the lines are improvised, and can be irrational and rude. Like Esu in Yoruba cosmology who is the gatekeeper between the celestial and terrestrial realms and therefore privileged to know many secrets of both humans and the gods, the gateman in Yoruba films also knows too much for his lowly status. Much credit can be given to Babatunde Omodina, the Baba Suwe character who turned the role of a gateman into such an outsized and hyper-visible one. His natural boisterousness meant no director could contain him and so he was left to roam free. Without the discipline of a script, he was uncontainable, disruptive, rude, and brash.
The gateman is also a reminder that Nigeria’s technological evolution is static. Our society is one that necessarily rigs the urbanscape with fences and manned gates because we have not quite developed sophisticated and automated means of securing our houses. We resort to fences and gates even though they are ugly and take up useful space; some really beautiful architectural masterpiece cannot be flaunted because the owner has to wall him/herself inside. Yet, without fences we would be doomed by ravaging forces from outside that threaten our private domains. Since the network of infrastructure that can help us manage our urban landscape more efficiently is currently missing, we have the gateman.
The gateman thus signifies a technocultural lack, a permanent reminder that we are a pre-automation society. Another reminder of such lack is the bus conductor. Bus conductors exist because our society has not yet engaged technology. We still use bus conductor to chant destinations at the top of their voices. We are not yet a cashless society where, instead of submitting our money to a conductor, we can simply swipe bus tickets or cards. If we have properly designated bus stops, and each bus has buttons one can press to indicate to the driver that one wants to alight, we will have no need for conductors. Just like we should, ideally, have minimal or no need at all for gatemen.However, Nigeria not only has bus conductors, they also have an association run by a “national president.” Typical of labour union in Nigeria to display socialist pretensions, the president goes by the title of a “comrade”!
Lately, the President of Bus Conductors Association of Nigeria, Comrade Israel Ade Adeshola, announced that they were working with the Lagos State Ministry of Transportation to employ 1,000 graduates from various universities as bus conductors. He said they were already training the graduates and they would be paid N50,000 monthly as salary. Their objective is to make “bus conducting attractive, respected, and dignified as obtainable globally.” I do not know how much of the globe “comrade” Adeshola has travelled, but if he is talking about western societies, he should know that the job of a bus conductor has long been phased out. The same thing with jobs like car wash and fuel attendants. While those societies are still experimenting with driverless cars – and one day their buses will drive themselves – Adeshola should also know that those who drive their buses are mainly those with equivalent of senior secondary school certificate and some professional certification.
For the life of me, I had to wonder why of all people they had to reach for to empower bus conducting, it had to be university graduates. What becomes of the uneducated and the school dropouts that currently do the job of bus conductors when graduates begin to gentrify such occupations? Why not train those that hold the jobs if they are concerned about the dignity of the profession? Either the proponents of the idea have an aversion for what the university personifies or they are espousing the Nigerian reality – that the quality of a graduate degree in Nigeria has been so devalued it is no better than illiteracy, and should therefore be denigrated accordingly.
Let me make it clear at this point that I am in no way looking down on bus conductors. Through their jobs, they hold up their own share of the Nigerian sky. Like many of us, they are simply trying to live their lives with as much human dignity as they deserve. A decent society is one where everyone, including low wage earners, is not only allowed their dignity but also access social structures that can guarantee their upward mobility. If anybody with a university degree, of their own accord choose to be a bus conductor, it should be no problem. My worry is governmental involvement; it means they are not thinking with an eye for the future, just merely widening the culture of poverty and underdevelopment.
We should be making plans towards using technology to create more opportunities for the society and planning for that time when certain professions would be inevitably phased out. This BSc “Bus Conductor” plan will instead contract opportunities. Meanwhile, as they are planning a future of “Bus Conducting” for graduates, Nigeria is busy approving more universities and we are planning to turn more polytechnics into universities. This kind of disparate thinking reflects part of the problems of our society. We do not have an overall idea and philosophy that undergird policies, and leaders in their various corners basically end up working at cross-purposes.
What exactly does a Lagos bus conductor do that anyone needs four years of education in the university to execute? If you want people who earn low wages to aspire to get an education, why not start with OND at least? Why start from the university which is the pipeline through which societies train their elite and thinkers? Why send people to universities and then provide them with jobs they do not need an education for? Anyone that thinks that having graduates as bus conductors will improve road business should first of all ask why Nigeria that produces thousands of graduates every year has been unable to think her way through modernisation. A number of the National Union of Road Traffic Workers’ officials in Nigeria flaunt degrees but you only need to see their primal conduct when they want to seize motor parks from each other. If we have to “use” graduates to try to shore up what is deficient in every stratum of the society, then we would have to take everyone through the university so they could get jobs as even gatemen!
We should be looking at widening opportunities and one track is vocational education. A country like Germany has a model of vocational education that enables students to attend schools for an average of two days a week and spend the rest of the time being affiliated to a company where they learn skills of professions. Although Germany has standard universities, more than half of students who leave high school choose this dual vocational training option rather than more conceptual kind of education the university offers. Nigeria can refine this system to suit her own local needs. There are university students who are unfulfilled because they would have been better suited elsewhere. Ours is a society that places too much emphasis on university certificates but not everyone is wired to pass through that system neither should a university degree be the only route or access to self-sustenance in any society.
With vocational education, Nigeria too can build students who will not only know crafts that can translate into direct impact on the society through self-employment, but also build theoretical education to boost their knowledge of how things actually work and how they can be improved. Many technicians in Nigeria simply acquired the craft, they cannot reverse engineer so as to improve on the manufacturing process. Those are the aspects Lagos State should be looking at, not enticing poor and desperate graduates with a N50,000 salary to take a job that is no longer necessary in a modern society.
First Published on PUNCH