An abuse of one’s power occurs where someone in a position of authority uses this position in an abusive way by manipulating others because they have the ability to punish for disobedience.
This abuse can take several forms and in many instances may not even be a quantifiable act. It could be a tone of voice or a choice of words. In some severe cases, it could be someone being openly aggressive and verbally abusive; it could also be derogatory treatment, like being asked to do things which are intended to belittle and ridicule.
Seniors and Juniors
When I first moved back to Nigeria, it amazed me the way seniors spoke to and treated juniors. From inside people’s homes, to schools, to the office. We even see this in the church. Abuse of power can be seen in all societies. It is not something that is new in any capacity, but the extent to which it was being openly displayed in the Nigerian setting intrigued me.
A friend of mine recently became a worker in the church. He had been going through some personal difficulties which he came through unscathed. He wanted to re-dedicate himself to God by sacrificing his time to work as an usher. This guy is a well-known “Phoneh” speaking, Champagne popping, G-Wagon driving, Lagos boy. I thought it was really deep of him to take the step to recommit his life to God and he seemed very dedicated. He did both services on Sundays, was there for mid-week service and seemed to really enjoy being in Church. One day I saw him and had noticed that he was no longer ushering, so I asked him, “Guy, how far na?”.
When he explained what the most senior pastor had said to him and how he had been treated generally by that Pastor, I understood why he had decided to jeje keep himself to himself. One thing he stressed was that “over familiarity breeds disrespect, God knows my love and dedication for him is unshakable”. He was simply not used to being spoken to in a particular way and could not tolerate it from anyone. He felt that rather than having an emotional outburst (which was definitely imminent), it would be best for him to attend the church as a regular and dedicated member of the congregation.
The Zimbardo Experiment
Having studied psychology to a high level (well I have a keen interest and did Psychology at A-levels, I am not saying I am a psychologist ooh), I have always known about the “Zimbardo Experiment”. This ties in with my understanding that a lot of our character traits are natural to us as mammals, as opposed to learned behaviour imposed by the society in which we were nurtured.
The Zimbardo Experiment took place in Stanford Prison in 1971. A group of average young men were randomly selected and divided into the roles of Prisoner and Guards, and put into a prison-like environment in the basement of the Psychology Department at Stanford University. Initially the study was intended to last two weeks. But due to the brutality exhibited by the guards and the suffering being administered on the prisoners, the experiment was terminated after only 6 days.
I have always been intrigued by this experiment, as it has provided a striking illustration of how certain roles shape an individual’s behaviour. Zimbardo argued that the reason why the guards acted that way was because they conformed blindly to their assigned role.
“Guard aggression … was emitted simply as a ‘natural’ consequence of being in the uniform of a ‘guard’ and asserting the power inherent in that role”
Zimbardo argued that the guards could not help themselves and could not be blamed for their actions, as it was a natural result of being put into a position of authority. As humans, the instinctive action would be to conform to the authoritative role, and thus show aggression as a means of controlling a group – which is deemed as needing the controlling presence of an authoritative character. It is for this reason we see abuse of power being exhibited worldwide and not isolated to any particular jurisdiction. It is simply human nature.
Interestingly the Zimbardo experiment has been repeated several times over the last 4 decades with exactly the same results. It has now become a tried and tested hypothesis that where you put someone in a position of authority, the natural reaction is to subordinate a group viewed as being lower you.
Nature vs Humanity
Seeing as the natural reaction is to subordinate when put in a position of authority, the distinction between a nice senior and a mean senior is personal choice and the legal ramifications of their actions. People who are nice seniors simply choose to be nice seniors. Maybe it is a personal character trait, maybe it is shaped by their nurturing or maybe it is a conscious choice not to act in a way which goes against what they know to be right. Unfortunately these nice seniors tend to be a minority in our peculiar jurisdiction, with mean seniors taking center stage.
I believe one of the main reasons why we see these mean personalities exhibited in extreme portions in our society is the fact that there are little to no legal implications for the senior’s actions. Even in the more organised environments, bullying in itself is not illegal. However, harassment is illegal, and to this end has been classified into several different subsections. Unfortunately, proving harassment or unfair and abusive treatment is very difficult. Unless the senior physically assaults you, or you are able to capture the abuse in some capacity, you will find yourself with a weak case.
To make this dim situation worse, in Nigeria, even where you are able to capture the abuse and you have a valid claim, instituting an action in any court is extremely difficult and somewhat unheard of. There are some abuses where the evidence is glaring and thus the claim stronger.
Unfortunately there seems to be no legal precedent for the seemingly minor abuses, especially where the senior never at any point lays a finger on the junior, but merely resorts to minor indiscretions, subtly turning the knife so to speak.
Shuffering and Shmiling
A song by the late Fela Kuti comes to mind, titled “shuffering and shmiling”. Most people on the receiving end of this abuse are suffering and smiling – they get offended and yet they smile, ignore and almost act like nothing ever happened. The employee regards the boss as a god and would not want to do anything to upset the god. The boss starts to believe he is a god and begins to act unquestionably because “Who you gonna call…Ghost Buster”. As the feeling of being above caution begins to sink in, these characters begin to step on toes as they wish, without apologies and without any real ramifications. And the worst part is they know that the person whose toes are being continually stepped on will never dare to say anything, as so not to be labelled as rebellious or insubordinate. We see this endlessly in the average office setting.
A good friend of mine is the European HR Manager for a leading cosmetics company. One day I asked her what was the most absurd reason she had heard for someone taking time off work, and she replied a man once claimed depression for 6 months (full pay) as he was mourning the death of his cat.
In England, depression is a valid reason to take 3 months off work, and no employer dare sack you for it, otherwise they would be liable for unfair dismissal. Unfortunately for us, in Nigeria depression is not regarded by many as a “real illness” and very few bosses would grant months of paid leave for it. Imagine being able to claim depression because of unfair treatment in the office. Seems like a distant dream.
It’s funny, in Nigeria, I find that subordination of one’s juniors has become a norm and somewhat entrenched in our culture. Because of not wanting to be seen as disobedient we don’t say anything. We just grit our teeth and get on with things, knowing what is being done is not right but not saying anything. This has created a vicious cycle, which has left us wondering if the abuser came before abused.
Where you find yourself as the abuser, just because no one might call you to question, does not mean that what you are doing is right.
Where you find yourself suffering abuse, I would suggest you try by all means to capture the abuse. Even where it is not significant enough to warrant a criminal investigation, concrete evidence of malpractice presented to a more senior senior may affect the actions of the abuser, be it in the home, office or school.
Ivie Omoregie is the Founding Consultant at Skye Advisory. Skye Advisory is a boutique business advisory firm with locations in London, England, as well as Lagos, Nigeria. Skye Advisory offers bespoke Legal, Financial and General Business advisory services to small and micro businesses.