It’s taken as fact that the average Nigerian youth scarcely troubles himself with matters of governance. He has a Rain Man aptitude for pop culture trivia and can parrot, impressively offhand, all the song lyrics in Davido’s discography. He even knows from whom Mercy Eke got a love bite last week. But ask him who his local government chairman is and watch Rain Man suffer a drought. “I can’t really say,” he’d tell you. People say the youth are apolitical because their attention has been pinched away by idle pleasures. Of these pleasures the most scorned trio: football, music and Big Brother Naija, the last of which is this piece’s raison d’être. How so often have we heard that BBN is the root of all moral decadence?
Are the youth apolitical because they elect to watch Premier League games on weekends rather than queue up to get their PVC? I think not. That would be writing up a symptom as a cause, like saying hair loss causes cancer. Are the youth apolitical because politics and politicians have jaded them? That’s more like it. To rouse yourself into getting a PVC or to partake in national politics you have to at least believe your participation counts for something. Now this is the kind of declarative sentence that often lands one in soup, yet I would say that no reading, thinking Nigerian who is well into his twenties is genuinely convinced his country will reach Canaan in his lifetime.
Maybe a few years ago the youth of today were a more hopeful throng, believing the election of some politician would have a Rumpelstiltskin effect, spinning their waxen straw lives into something golden. But Nigerian politics, with its ready supply of political promises that turn out to be sacks of manure, has its way of disabusing you of your fantasies. When the incumbent presidency rode to power in 2015, it was on the steam of pledges. It pledged to end terrorism in the North-East region. To scale up the economy. To improve the electricity situation. Last year, armed bandits killed more than 2,000 civilians, and since January this year terrorists have killed over 250 people in Zamfara State. Nigeria’s inflation rate in 2015 was 9.0%. An NBS report in May this year puts the inflation rate at 17.71%. Also this May, the Nigeria Electricity System Operator said the country generated 3,522.80MW of electricity. That’s 477.2MW less than it was when the presidency assumed office in 2015. There’s a Nigerian pidgin English term for this: promise-and-fail.
Once-hopeful youths, used to seeing political promises rarely kept and watching their country grow progressively dismal, now carry in the flowerpot of their soul dying autumn leaves of pessimism, turning to those things we denigrate as idle pleasures because anything, even vacuous reality TV shows, is better than real life. Big Brother Naija hasn’t caused political apathy anymore than Koko the Gorilla is responsible for Pearl Harbour. It’s only one of many antidepressants people swallow to make Nigerian life more bearable.
Why are people drawn to Big Brother Naija? For many reasons. There’s its appeal as a social experiment—it’s the Orwellian Oceania, without the poverty and the oppressive Ingsoc Party—but that’s only one-third of its charm. People love it mostly for the illusions it has to sell. For three months some twenty or so young adults are corralled in an ultra-modern house, the sort the Nigerian poor dreams to live in. Anyone wondering why Gulder Ultimate Search has fallen off should look at where its participants have to live—in the wild, wild West, among mosquitoes and tadpoles. Even Mowgli and Tarzan had it better.
Life is already hard, and Nigerians don’t want to have to see that hardship on TV. The Nigerian middle class is a kind of reverse Narcissus who’s repulsed by its own reflection. New Nollywood, it appears, understands this. EbonyLife for one can’t stop making movies set in the moneyed extreme of Third Mainland Bridge. One thing you also notice is how those who make it into the Big Brother house are often of a certain specimen: the men are handsome; the women are gorgeous. It’s just like in music videos, where everyone and everything is perfect.
Even conflicts that occur in the Big Brother house are of the sanitised and low-stake kind. In real life people deal with diabetes and lose sleep over creditors. In BBN, the greatest tragedy is not becoming house captain or getting spurned by your love interest and having fans of the show mock you on Twitter. For three months you live in this gilded enclosure, idle but comfortable. Conversely, idleness is costly in real life. Rent won’t pay itself, and landlords aren’t given to charity. Taken together, the different things making up BBN tell you all you need to know about what the show’s producers intend: They aim to bleach life of all ugliness, asking you to imagine a world with no suffering, a world in which you didn’t have to work, where sloth has no consequences.
Even fantasies have limits. Addictive though it is and although it has been the reason many a distracted wife has overcooked dinner, Big Brother Naija has never stopped anyone from doing the things they deem important. The show’s most zealous fans still tend to their day job; they attend church; they go to weddings. The show certainly won’t derail attention from the forthcoming general elections, contrary to what certain alarmists forecast. People won’t participate in politics if they think it’s a waste of their time and hope, whether or not they watch Big Brother Naija.