By Olusegun Adeniyi
Following a highly revealing (and very entertaining) interview on ‘Vibes With Five’—podcast of former England International and Manchester United legend, Rio Ferdinand (@rioferdy5)—former Super Eagles Skipper, John Obi Mikel (@mikel_john_obi) is now in the eye of the social media storm. In the interview, the 2013 African Footballer of the Year, who had an illustrious career at Chelsea FC, spoke about several issues, including what is generally regarded as ‘Black Tax’—an unstructured financial burden usually placed on a successful person by members of their extended family. While the term was coined in the days of apartheid in South Africa, it is a phenomenon that you find in practically all countries on the continent. I hear that there is also a Latino version in the United States called ‘Brown Tax’. Meanwhile, this has nothing to do with sports or the world of celebrity. But perhaps because footballers are noted for sudden stupendous wealth, they are often targetted by family members who see them as the ‘tides’ that must lift other ‘boats.’ And they are the people Mikel Obi spoke for.
Apparently affected by the lack of appreciation he received from those he may have helped within his family, Mikel lamented: “You get threatened by your own blood. When you come from Africa, and this is something I don’t think we speak a lot about, when you make money, it’s not your money.You get a salary and say, ‘I will put this aside for this person, put that aside for that person, and put that aside for my mum and dad’. Before you know it, you are getting less than them. That is the culture. They expect you to do that. For them, you owe them.” He went further to describe how that culture of entitlement ultimately breeds laziness and indulgent lifestyles, including from distant relations. “You have all these relatives, cousins, whatever you call it…and your sisters, they go off and they get married to some guy who just wants to get married to John Obi Mikel’s family because my life is sorted. And then you start looking after this guy. Before you know it, you’re looking at them. They keep having so many kids, and you look at it, ‘okay, you’re having these many kids, who’s going to look after them?’ It’s you.”
Quite naturally, a mix of entitlement and indulgence soon leads to resentment and blackmail if you don’t meet certain expectations, as Mikel explained. “For them, you owe them that.So, sometimes you have to be strong and say, ‘you know what, guys, enough is enough, I don’t care.’ They give you this thing whereby, if you don’t do it, we’re going to go to the press. ‘Oh, wow! After all that I have done for you guys.’ But this happens a lot. In Africa, I’m telling you, not everybody comes out and speaks about it, because we’re thinking, how are we going to talk about this?”
Before I continue, let me state that Mikel will not be the first African footballer to express his frustration. In 2017, Emmanuel Adebayor, former Togolese International (with Nigerian ancestry) who played for Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspurs and Real Madrid, also spoke of how his family members saw him as no more than an ATM machine from which to draw money. “I often change my phone number so that my family can’t contact me. They call me, not to ask how I am, but to demand money. That was the case after I injured my hamstring while with Tottenham,” said Adebayor. “They rang me while I was having a scan to ask me if I could pay a kid’s school fees. At least ask me first how I am before you do this.”
I do not see any reason to vilify Mikel for sharing his experience. But I also do not agree with those who see only evil in ‘black tax’. Perhaps the most nuanced intervention I have read on this issue is the X (formerly Twitter) post of Ikhide Ikheloa. While appreciating what might have necessitated Mikel’s “lamentation about the dysfunction that we now call black tax”, Ikheloa explains that there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept which many of us also benefitted from at some points in our life. If it takes a village to raise an African child, it also stands to reason that when such a child eventually makes it in life, they should not forget their roots. Ikheloa draws from his own family example which is not different from that of many. “There are circles of need; while my parents were billing others, they were busy being billed. Our house was always full, relatives fleeing poverty would come to us in the city,” Ikheloa wrote. “It is a privilege and a blessing to be in a position to give, to help loved ones, to look in the eyes of a hopeful youngster and assure them that they will be alright.” I share his position. The network of support that many of us have drawn upon to get to our present station in life makes it difficult to decry ‘black tax’. But I am also aware that each of us has a breaking point.
It is not wrong for successful people to help empower members of their family and other network of acquaintances through strategic giving. But such gestures should neither breed family loafers (and haters) nor impact on their own ability to save for the future. So, ‘giving back’ is not the problem. What we must discourage is a culture of dependence that has conditioned some family members of a successful person to believe they no longer have to work for a living. That’s what Mikel spoke against. Even when most of us may not have voiced our frustrations as he did, there is hardly anyone who has not ‘blocked’ certain individuals from their contact list because of this same problem. We must therefore ask salient questions about this phenomenon of ‘black tax’ because it also reflect in the productive capacity of our country.
I recall an experience I once had during a visit (in October 2012) to Ekiti State when Dr Kayode Fayemi was a first-term Governor. I escorted him on a working visit to the Ikogosi Spring that was then under reconstruction. During the inspection of work, we reached the reception area being constructed with thatched roof and Fayemi noticed that the Yoruba being spoken by the workers had a different slant. He asked where they came from and they replied that they were from Cotonou, Republic of Benin. Turning to the contractor, Fayemi asked why he would import foreigners to do local jobs. The contractor said the job required some special skills. “Then teach our people”, Fayemi directed. “They don’t want to work”, the contractor replied, right in the presence of many of the young boys from the village who had congregated. Almost immediately, Fayemi started to ‘lecture’ the boys who had been hailing him, but it was obvious they were not interested in what he was telling them. They just wanted him to ‘drop something.’ No nation develops when you have a preponderance of able-bodied young men who seek to build their lives not by working but rather by relying on collecting ‘black tax’ from successful people!
That this issue has posed its own challenge in the public space and may be responsible for the lack of accountability in the system today is why it is indeed worthy of serious interrogation. Ordinarily, when people go to public office, it is meant to be a sacrifice. But that is not the way those who expect this ‘tax’ see it. And the tragedy of Obi Okonkwo, the fictional character in Chinua Achebe’s ‘No Longer At Ease’, provides a practical example. In my August column, ‘To Serve…and To Eat!’ which interrogated this issue of public expectation, I illustrated my point with a piece I wrote in 2008 as Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Therefore, Mikel has raised a very important issue. Why, for instance, is it difficult to build generational wealth on the continent?
On Monday, the African Director of MacArthur Foundation, Dr Kole Shettima, was around in my office with the visiting Dr Jonathan F. Fanton, immediate past president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Fanton, 80, was the global president of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for ten years between 1999 and 2009. During the period, he took special interest in our country. Established in 1978, the Foundation has spent billions of dollars across the world and hundreds of millions of dollars in Nigeria to promote education, health, human rights, justice and accountability in the public space. Out of curiosity, I asked whether the MacArthurs left any children behind. Fanton said they had a son (now deceased) and a daughter who is still alive but stays away from the work of the multibillion-dollar charity organisation established by her deceased parents! Can you imagine an African man leaving behind such stupendous wealth to be managed by ‘outsiders’ to solve problems in faraway countries without the entitled children and grandchildren of some uncles, aunties, nieces, cousins and even unrelated village people fighting themselves to death over the money?
There is also a social dimension to this ‘black tax’ which I highlighted in my 2018 book, ‘From Frying Pan to Fire: How African Migrants Risk Everything in their Search for a Better Life in Europe’ in the chapter, ‘Edo and the Prostitution Ring’. With the display of houses and vehicles by families of women engaged as commercial sex workers abroad, others began to put pressure on their female children to also go and ‘make it’. In Mali, one of the African countries to which I travelled while researching the book, I heard heartrending stories from most of the girls at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) safe house in Bamako. One narrated how she was pushed into prostitution by a mother who kept comparing her with other girls in their area, asking her to use what she ‘has’, to get what the family wanted. “No be the same…they (‘successful’ commercial workers abroad who send money home) get na you get?” became a constant refrain until she joined the trade to meet family expectations. I am delighted that the efforts of both Governor Godwin Obaseki and the Oba Ewuare II of Benin has changed the sordid narrative in Edo State. But it is the same warped thinking that some people must work and be ‘taxed’ by others that led to the whole sordid enterprise in the first place.
In the end, what we are dealing with is a prevalent socio-economic crisis and bad sociology. If you are rich (it doesn’t even matter how you come about such wealth) and your family remains poor, it is deemed an indictment on you. There is indeed a residual belief that what belongs to the successful family member is meant to be dispersed not only among kith and kins but also within the larger community. Meanwhile, you help your people, and they become so dependent that literally every problem becomes your headache. You are called to bury every dead person, attend every marriage ceremony, pay the school fees of children by parents who do not believe in responsible procreation, etc.
But I do not want us to miss the message in Mikel’s interview. The culture of ‘black tax’ may have helped in the past, but it is now becoming a social problem. People must understand the value of work and not simply rely on the benevolence of others, even if they are family members. We must dispense with the culture of entitlement that believes that once one person ‘makes’ it in the family, everyone else must ‘tax’ that person to penury or death.
Adimora, Obiagwu at 60
In ‘Twin Grief: The Loss of My Other Half’, Jill Cohen explains that nobody can fully understand what a twin goes through upon the death of their sibling unless they themselves are a twin. “And even then, as we know, no two people grieve alike, as no two relationships are the same.” She added that the uniqueness of the twinship bond makes grieving more complicated. I have seen that with my brother and friend, Obi Adimora who lost his twin sister, Mrs Adaobi Ibezue (nee Adimora) 32 years ago. Since then, every birthday has been more an occasion to mourn her loss than to celebrate his own additional year. But as he clocks 60 on Saturday, Adimora must imbibe the spirit of the Biblical Ecclesiastes that there is a time for everything, including ‘a time to mourn, and a time to dance.’ A very private but highly thoughtful man who is fiercely loyal to friends and family, Adimora deserves to dance on Saturday as he joins the Sexagenarian Club. My prayer for him is that the several years ahead be more fulfilling than the years behind as I wish him happy birthday. Incidentally, Adimora shares the day with someone who is also special to my family, Pastor Emeka Obiagwu. His 60th birthday also comes up on Saturday. I will not be in Lagos for the thanksgiving service, but my wife will be joining the RCCG ‘Good Shepherds Pasture (GSP) family’ in the diamond jubilee celebration for our beloved brother. I wish Pastor Emeka happy birthday, good health and long life.
• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com