By Tunji Olaopa
Almost every Nigerian knows who Helen Paul is. She is that star comedienne. Just one out of the few ladies in the trade, who burst the male dominated genre to prove the age-old saying that what a man can do, a woman can do even better. And Helen Paul is very good at stand-up comedy. I have listened to her jokes several times. Her uniqueness derives from her capacity to mimic the piping voice of a teenage girl. One that is widely celebrated is where she presented herself as a child who caused trouble between her parents because she told her mum that when she called her dad, it was a female voice that responded. On hearing this report, the mother went into a fit of tantrum: “This man is cheating on me!” Helen Paul delivered this “mother’s” lament in a mother’s voice before reverting to the child’s voice. When properly queried by a neighbour about what the female voice on the phone said, the “child” responded that the female voice always says “the number you are calling is not available at the moment.” This is hilarious! And what is all the more so is the perfect mimicry of innocence the comedienne is able to generate through the voice of the child.
However, Helen Paul is far from being an innocent child. Or, to put it more brutally, her innocence was dashed immediately she surfaced into the world from a society that stigmatized those who have been unfortunate to have fallen to society’s twisted sides. From her own testimony, her mother gave birth to her as a child of rape. We live in a society that is so puritanical but so hypocritical that it polices rape and immorality which it permits within its dark crannies. This is a society that allows the raped to be traumatized while the rapist goes free. When the woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, the man she committed adultery with was not there for persecution. When a rape occurs, the victim is compelled by the prospect of society’s scorn and stigma to hide in shame and remained traumatized by forced silence and the consequent inner psychological agony. The society forces the victim of rape to blame herself. All those who take delight in Helen Paul and her comedy would never have known about her mother’s many years of pain and shame. They would never have been able to imagine the horror of giving birth to a child conceived out of rape. No one would be able to imagine the pure agony of raising Helen in silence and without the full joy of being able to narrate the circumstance of her conception. Maybe only mothers would be able to imagine the trepidation with which the mother behold her child every day, always wondering what she would turn out to become.
Well, Helen Paul broke free of that stigma and rose high as a stand-up comedian. She brought laughter to many hearts and home whereas her mother never had the benefit of laughter while raising her. If this story had ended here, it would not have merited more than a first glance as one of those stories that come out of Nigeria as a postcolonial state. We came to know about Helen Paul’s mother’s situation because Helen herself bagged a doctorate in creative arts at the University of Lagos, the first comedian that I know to have achieved this feat. And she went on her Instagram page to celebrate and dedicate the degree to her longsuffering mother. I cannot reproduce the message here, but it is a piece of heart-wrenching message that speaks beyond her mother to the Nigerian state at large: “I Helen Paul dedicate this to my mum. You gave birth to me out of rape. They told you I wouldn’t amount to anything.” She narrated that she grew up being called a bastard, and people taunted her always that she would not amount to anything in life. Yet, she declared, her mother was confident that if the child of the mentally challenged can survive, God will watch over Helen. Well, that God watched over her not just to grow to be tops in her chosen profession, but to be able to get a doctorate as well, and to dedicate it to her mother.
Helen Paul’s story is just one out of thousands that comes out of Nigeria. Indeed, her success is just a rare one out of millions of children—abused, helpless, hapless, orphaned, homeless, raped and born out of rape—that are narrated on the daily news as a staple for already bruised consciences. Nigeria is home to abandoned children, single mothers, pregnant teenagers, miscreants, vagabonds, the mentally, physically and visually challenged, armed robbers, thugs, touts, destitute, drug addicts, party hoodlums and so many other socially impoverished persons that now serve as the badge of Nigeria’s profile of misery. Despite Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999, and the flag off of democratic governance, there is no definite transformation of the country’s productivity profile in ways that could empower its citizens to transform their own conditions. Unfortunately, democratic governance in Nigeria comes with the added crises of unbridled killings from ethnic rivalry, unmitigated bloodshed as a result of terrorism, unending electoral violence everywhere, and the unceasing looting of the common weal by those saddled with the affairs of state.
In the 2018 Hanke’s Misery Index, Nigeria is rated as the sixth most miserable country in the world, behind Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Argentina, Iran and Turkey. This Index demonstrates that the happiness of the citizens of a state, and their prosperity, is linked to the state’s capacity to generate economic growth. This point is made in a much more expansive manner by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their 2012 bestseller, Why Nations Fail. The authors’ simple argument is that the difference between prosperity and poverty in nations is a function of the kind of politics and decisions that the leadership of those countries decide to play and to make. If a country decides to open up its political space and therefore build participatory democracy, it would lead to democratic institutions and probably generate good economic decisions. On the other hand, if a country decides to close up its political space and become authoritarian, there is the likelihood that it will build an extractive structure that will impoverish the state and its people. This argument tells us a lot about those nations that have failed. And the Misery Index is the profile of failed states in which the leadership have consistently made decisions that consigned the citizens to untold misery.
When you drive along any major Nigerian highway, in itself a glaring index of underdevelopment, you will see Nigerians in various states of misery—young children either begging for money or selling wares and running after potential customers; mentally ill Nigerians in various level of nudity and degradation; poverty-stricken Nigerians trying to make ends meet; and a horde of the unemployed and the unemployable, together with thugs and touts and pickpockets. The fundamental question which goes to the very heart of Nigeria’s policy architecture and governance framework is: How many of these miserable citizens are able to rise above the limitation of a postcolonial context like Nigeria? How many deaths does the Nigerian state record daily from existential limitations and from pure misery and poverty? The trajectory of misery is that it represents a vicious cycle: misery and poverty reproduce themselves in Nigeria. A child born on the street or into poverty stays in it till death.
The Helen Paul narrative is a story of grit and determination, and of breaking free from the shackles of social limitations. It is the story of running with a vision in a postcolonial context where the state is incapacitated but hostile and rapacious. On the one hand, the mother who suffered the agony of rape believed that her child would turn out as a star, despite society’s shaming and stigma. On the other hand, the child born of rape somehow took the baton of hope and ran with it until she got to the point of applause. Helen Paul made herself a solemn promise not to be incapacitated by the Nigerian state and her gloomy youth unemployment statistics. She picked up on her passion of comedy and her intellectual aspiration for a doctorate. Today, she has both, and the sky and Nigeria are no longer a limit to her glory. But the story is also a warning to the leadership of Nigeria. For every Helen Paul that rises to the top out of the dark depth of postcolonial obscurity and crippling deprivation, there are many more that perish in silence and in the dark places of the silenced graves. Let us then imagine what happens when the Nigerian leadership wakes up to her responsibility over her citizens. Imagine how many Helen Paul would be capacitated to emerge as the base from which Nigeria can launch a new productivity paradigm. Imagine how many parents would be empowered to nurture children who will turn out to be good citizens of Nigeria.
*Prof. Tunji Olaopa is the Executive Vice Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org)