/The psychology of slavery

The psychology of slavery

By Femi Olugbile

Dr Femi Olugbile

There is a video circulating in the social media. Two nubile young women, stark naked, are shown, with a naked young man in the ambience of a family that is clearly well to do. The girls look to be between the ages of fifteen and twenty. In the background is an elaborate ornamental balustrade, with tiled steps leading upstairs.

One of the young women is holding a bundle of well-used one thousand-naira notes that could be the takings of a day’s commerce in a high-end wholesale or retail store.

The scene opens with one of the naked girls, ‘Janet’, on her knees.

‘Get up’ she is commanded. ‘Put up your hands.’

The kneeling girl gets to her feet, the evidence of her crime held guiltily before her.

‘How did you steal the money?’

Janet recounts how Tope, the other girl, put her up to a scheme whereby they would steal money from ‘Mummy’s bag, with the assurance that she, Tope, had ‘medicine’ which would cover their tracks.

‘How much did you steal?’

‘Five hundred thousand’ – apparently the amount in the bundle she is holding.

‘…I will destroy your life if you don’t confess…’ comes a shrill, high-pitched voice, apparently that of ‘Mummy’, from the background.

‘I never stole before this…’

‘Look at their faces…’ says another voice, addressing the camera audience. ‘They may give themselves false names…’

‘Don’t hire them as house help…They always steal from their masters…’ says ‘Mummy’.

She is convinced she is doing public good.

It is an ugly, despicable scenario, on several levels.

‘Mummy’ is sore at her stolen, now recovered, money and is intent on ‘disgracing’ her erring staff. In doing so, she is unmindful that her own anatomy is not very different from the adult females she is ‘shaming’ before the camera.

Five hundred thousand naira is a large amount of money, and it is abominable for workers to steal from their employers. But it is not likely that a worker who steals five hundred thousand naira from Zenith Bank, or ‘Mummy’s’ daughter, if she were to do a similar thing, would be ‘paraded’ naked in a video clip on WhatsApp.

The reality is that the scene depicted is not the story of an employer and her rogue employees. ‘Mummy’ owns Janet and Tope. They are not ‘workers’ in the conventional sense.

Omo odo’ are usually sourced through a nation-wide network of human trafficking. Many are from neighbouring countries such as Togo and Benin Republic. They are without passports or other immigration documents, and so are totally vulnerable. They are transported across international borders in seasonal consignments and given out to ‘masters’. Although they are paid a ‘salary’, it is invariably a pittance, below the national minimum wage. Much, if not all, of the salary is appropriated by the ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunt’ who trafficked them in. They have no rights. They are visited with sometimes unimaginable cruelty in some households. They are a lower form of life, not entitled to the hopes and aspirations of the children of the house. In all but name, they are slaves.

It is an attitude of mind that many Nigerians, even those who consider themselves humane and enlightened, hold towards their domestic workers, who they also use as labour in their small and medium scale enterprises. It has led some Nigerians into perdition, because, while it is regarded with a wink and a nod even by law enforcement agencies and religious authorities here, it is a crime in other countries, where all human beings are, at least technically, equal under the law. Some time ago, a Nigerian doctor and his wife were arraigned before a court in the UK for their cruelty to a young lady they had brought over as domestic help. The lady’s passport was kept from her and she was locked up in the house. One day she raised a cry that attracted neighbours, who called the police. She then recounted tales of beatings and humiliation she had received over the years. The couple were both sentenced to prison. The husband’s name was struck off the practice register by the General Medical Council.

Slavery is not just about chains but about servitude. In reality, a domestic help is a worker just like a bank employee.

There is a sordid, criminal element about the underground system of trafficking that is the ‘supply-side’ which makes domestic workers vulnerable and brings out the worst in their employers. That they often steal and lie, as ‘owners’ such as ‘Mummy’ would be quick to point out, cannot be strange to anyone who understands work psychology and the fact that employees in a system where they have no stake  or future and are treated as chattels would predictably behave like predatory animals, out for the kill.

There is nothing wrong with Nigerians or other nationals, registering with employment agencies and working legitimately and freely as domestic help, as many Filipinos do in Europe and America, and as many Nigerians do in the lower rungs of the Care system in the UK. But it is bizarre to have Nigerians who support ‘Black Lives Matter’ in other countries stand by while their spouses assault and humiliate domestic staff. It is the same disingenuous logic that allows people who support the toppling of statues of white slave traders to balk at acknowledging the guilt of their own slave trading forebears, or to support the preservation of anachronistic discriminatory cultural practices, such as the Osu caste system.

The proper recourse for anyone who has been the victim of stealing from an employee is to report to the Police. The Nigerian Police is imperfect, but it is what we have.

The litmus test for the modernity of any society is the recognition of the entitlement of even its lowliest members to human dignity and respect. There cannot be any exceptions to the rule.