When George Orwell wrote his dystopian novel, 1984, in June 1949, he would never have thought that the fundamental and troubling issues he raised in the terrifying novel would come to be an interesting feature of popular media culture some six decades later. The novel addresses the looming possibilities in the human society of totalitarianism and an encroaching regimentation of human actions and behaviour as a result of government attempt to monitor every dimension of the lives of its citizens through technological innovation. The setting of 1984 is in Great Britain which became the site for the emergence of a superstate. The province is called Oceania. And it is under the totalitarian rule of the Party headed by Big Brother, and assisted by the Thought Police. The function of this police apparatus is to monitor and repress individuality, independence and critical reflection. Through doublespeak and deep propaganda, the Thought Police search for thoughtcrime, and put down all rebellion. The protagonist of 1984 is Winston Smith who was a loyal party member and very diligent but who harbours thoughts of rebellion against Big Brother and the state. When he enters a forbidden relationship with Julia, a co-worker, that was the beginning of his end.
One of the enduring captions that 1984 left to our memory is “Big Brother is Watching You.” This is a caption accompanied by the picture of Big Brother, and posted in every house. This is supposed to serve as a warning to everyone that non-compliance will be terribly dealt with. And this is in spite of the fact that the figure of the Big Brother may just be a useful fictional that the people held in awe.
The reception of 1984 was enormous. And this is because it was able to capture the imagination of the people, and burrow into their fear of an emerging totalitarian imagination just on the heel of Hitler and Mussolini in the aftermath of the Second World War. The spectre of totalitarianism was the subject of Hannah Arendt’s famous book, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
This work is an intellectual analysis of Nazism and Stalinism as the major totalitarian dynamics of the twentieth century. Yet, it is Orwell’s 1984 that captures the cultural imagination about the looming threats even after Nazism and Stalinism had been defeated. But the cultural appeal of 1984 is not just limited to the intellectual appreciation of totalitarianism.
There have been many movies and popular songs that have made reference to the frightening dystopia represented in Orwell’s novel. Several songs in the 70s had “1984” as their titles—from David Bowe to the British band, Eurythmics. There are also many movies, like Dr Who, that have also referenced Orwellian totalitarian themes. Several revolutionary groups all across the world have also taken the slogan, “Big Brother is Watching”, as a sarcastic onslaught against authoritarian governments. But the most popular manifestation of this slogan is the Big Brother Television Show. This is a virtual reality competition created in 1999 by John de Mol in the Netherlands. In the show, individuals called housemates are housed in a secluded house and monitored through hidden television cameras situated all across the house. And based on the voting of viewers, the housemates are progressively eliminated from the “House” until the last person remaining wins the cash prize. The Big Brother franchise covers over 54 countries.
The reception of this show in Nigeria—the BigBrotherNaija—has been overwhelming. The show made its entry into Nigeria in 2006. The second season aired in 2017, the third in 2018 and the fourth is ongoing. This version followed on the earlier Big Brother Africa which began in 2001, and entered its ninth season in 2014. Statistics reveal that the third season of the show saw over 170 million votes cast with Nigerians spending N7.2bn to vote for 26 housemates. This would translate into about N5.1bn in profits. But most significantly, the show provides ample entertainment opportunity for millions of Nigerians who sorely need distraction from the drudgery of daily living, and the inability of the government to respond to their aspirations for democratic governance that will be empowering. Many Nigerians therefore wait eagerly for the BBNaija reality show to commence, and then they sit for hours watching the antics of housemates as they quarrel, laugh, bath, display affection and even sleep. They are caught up in the relationships that develop among the housemates, their emotional differences, fights, and the eviction of any of their favourites. The names of these housemates percolates down into the streets and the minds of those who are BBNaija faithful viewers.
And this assessment in itself warrants a critical comment. One would probably understand the origin of this programme, like some other ones too like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and “America’s Got Talent”, from the Western liberal societies and their affluent sociological dynamics. Yet the original signification of the slogan, “Big Brother is Watching You,” sits incongruously with its popularisation as a virtual reality show. Whereas graffiti writers and revolutionaries in Eastern Europe, for instance, use the slogan as a reminder of how independence and individuality as well as the responsibility of the government to its citizens could be compromised by allowing the autocrats their way, Africans, and Nigerians sit ecstatically watching BB show edition after edition, and voting frantically to ensure their favourite housemate does not get voted out.
This popularisation of a serious revolutionary issue calls for a pause at several fundamental levels.
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The first question it raises concerns the penchant of Nigerians for always opting out of the radical for the trivial. We turned all our serious situations into an occasion for laughter and merriment. Presently, young people in Hong Kong are severely engaging with their government over an extradition bill, and on a larger case of Hong Kong’s relationship with Mainland China. In a wave of protests that started in June, youths and civil society organisations have teamed up beautifully, and with the assistance of social media, to challenge the collaboration of their prime minister with China. The Sowore’s “Revolution Now” saga is still an ongoing development, but it has become a critical commentary on the readiness of Nigerians to become deeply conscious about their governance situation. What the Hong Kong example, as well as so many others across the world, from Sudan to the UK, reiterates is that governance is a contract between the government and the governed. And this social contract must be guided at all times through deep democratic vigilance. In this sense, the BBNaija reality show is a good entertainment form for Nigerians. But it is a bad distraction from the awareness that the Nigerian predicament is more critical than the sanitised atmosphere of the BB house. “Big Brother is Watching You” should be a terrifying outcry that will keep Nigerians ever vigilant about the possibility of losing their democratic gains or being complacent about pushing its boundaries.
The second crucial issue the BBNaija show raises has to do with the possibility of a moral rebirth for Nigeria. The readers will agree with me that Nigeria is fast becoming a normless society within which negative values have become the order of the day. Nigeria seems to have lost her moral compass. All across the world, Nigerians are synonymous with scam and fraud and other negative activities. The recent arrest of over 77 Nigerians in what has been called the largest fraud in US history only goes to underscore the moral deficit confronting the Nigerian society. This is not a new issue, even though its incidence has become more alarming and troubling. In 1980, Nigeria had the Ethical Revolution programme. This was followed in 1984 by the War Against Indiscipline campaign. When Obasanjo became the democratically elected president in 1999, one of his uppermost concerns was with the value orientation of the public service, and this was to lead to a deep national moral rebirth programme.
Unfortunately, there seems to be an ongoing parallel efforts that are contradictory—one from the government and the moral institutions of the country (the churches and the mosques); and the other, the popular culture that has gone off the censor’s assessment. The Nigerian society is now a moral battle ground in which the government is making effort as to how to morally sanitise the consciousness of Nigerians, especially about corruption, and Nigerians are getting a different moral vibe from popular culture. BigBrotherNaija has become a big representation of that moral decline. This is an entertainment show with no moral framework guiding its projection of human relations in virtual reality. This show is beamed live into different homes with no thought for caution. More importantly, the housemates represent different moral dynamics that range from the amoral to the immoral.
All the housemates project behavioural dynamics that run counter to what parents teach their children.
The question to ask is simple: Do we need an entertainment that compromises the already fractured societal framework? While it could, of course, be easily creatively re-conceptualised and rebranded, the sin of the BBNaija is that it further contributes to the moral decadence of the Nigerian society by projecting attitudes and behaviour that do not enhance social and moral values, as well as national self-understanding. It only keeps throwing up “celebrities” who occupy the deep end of negative mentoring for the Nigerian youths. And disturbingly, this is what explains its fascination for those who need a more positive motivational orientation.
Prof. Olaopa is a retired permanent secretary