Today’s Man Like is Andy Obuoforibo, a 40-year-old politician and product manager. He tells us about how his father’s warmth and work ethic taught him the real meaning of masculinity, how his mother’s foray into politics influenced him to participate in politics and why he supports the LGBTQ+ movement as a Nigerian politician.
When did you realise you had become “a man”?
I don’t think it was in a single moment. There have been times in my life when I felt like I scored some “man points” — like when I got my first job at a Safeway grocery store as I turned 18. Or when I took my first student loan, signifying that I was now responsible for my own education.
As I grew older, it became less about external accomplishments and more about my show of strength, like the first time my father asked me for advice.
Nice. Speaking of your father, what was your relationship with him like?
I was blessed with a good father. He was warm, affectionate and very present in our lives, even for the most trivial things. When I was 14, I had pretty fringe tastes for a Nigerian kid: I loved heavy metal and role-playing games. My dad went on a trip to the US and he came back with Metallica’s Black album and some role-playing game guidebook. He taught himself how to play Dungeon Master so he could play with me.
As I got older, we started to disagree on two fronts: political ideology and career. He wanted me to become a doctor — a professor of medicine — like him. So he taught me a lot about medicine — much of which I still know today. But I realised from the onset that I was more interested in computers. We had a bit of friction there, but during my college years, we mended fences and found our way back.
Would you say your father’s relationship with you influenced you as a man?
Very much. The biggest lesson I learned from him before his death was that strength isn’t in rigidity, because that makes you brittle. He knew how to be warm and soft in his strength. Now that I have fewer things to prove, I’m starting to understand the value of that. It helps me interface with my sons and other people better.
On the flip side, I picked up some bad things from him too that I wish I accessed closely and earlier. I learned from him to take on everybody’s burden. I learned that duty comes first. These are all good things, but when taken too far, they can cage and destroy, and this is what we often see happen to men. My father was very dutiful to his work, to his family, to his church, to his God. I never saw him miss work out of illness, and I try to emulate that. But it can be detrimental. You think you must accept everything “as a man,” you must be the rock and centre. You think you must be the one everybody leans on, but this makes it hard for you to lean on people.
Hmm. Is there anything about your upbringing you’d change with your kids?
A big thing I’ve learned to not do is to try and predict and hope for what they’ll become. I’m all for Project Mbappe and I’m hoping it works out in that direction, but I’m learning to think, “These kids are going to find their way. They’re going to figure it out.” They were born into a world I’m too old to understand. I need to be aware of that. I’m learning to be okay with figuring it out —not telling them where they need to go, but being able to detect their destination quickly enough to help them get to it. That’s really the job — to give them all the tools you can.
My parents really did a great job of giving me a lot of tools. When I was young, they exposed me to a lot of things. I think that that’s something that I also want to be able to do. I’ll tell you a story about my father.
My popcorn is ready.
We moved to Uganda when I had just started JSS2 in Nigeria. My father had gone back to work with the World Health Organisation. He was working all over eastern Africa, but he chose Uganda as our primary base. When it was time to choose a school for me, he looked at all the international schools and everything and said, “You’re going to a French school.”
I didn’t speak French. I only knew “comment ca va”. But my father said, “Not knowing a second international language has limited me in my career. I could have gotten to the very top of the UN, but there’s a limit to where I can get to because, in terms of international languages, I’m monolingual. You’re not going to have that same limitation. You’re going to be bilingual or better.”
So he put me in this school where I could not speak a single word of the language of instruction. I was in JSS 2 when I left Nigeria. Because of the language barrier, they moved me back to Primary 3, and it was the most horrifying experience. Just imagine this 12-year-old black kid in a class of eight-year-old white children who thought he was stupid because he couldn’t talk. You can imagine what that was like. My father was like, “Well, it’s really that simple. You will learn French, or you will fail and keep repeating.”
It worked. I learned the language. It was tough, but my dad was there every step of the way. Every time I would complain that some kid made fun of me, he didn’t just brush it off. He’d say, “I’m sorry you’re going through that. But you know why you’re going through this right now.”
When my mates were learning English, the school made me take Spanish because why learn a language I was already fluent in? Somewhere in there, it turned out I had a knack for languages, so after learning French and Spanish, I learned German, Italian and Portuguese. Speaking Spanish and French made it easier to learn the rest.
It taught me early that life is not always easy, that things can be difficult and even unfair. But if you have a plan, you stick to the plan. That’s something I hope I can do for my children — expose them to experiences that teach them grit while showing them that when they come home, there’s always going to be a warm hug waiting.
Life can be brutal. I try to be fair to men of previous generations. The toxic masculinity system exists because no one thought of a better way to help men navigate this cruel, unforgiving world while taking care of their responsibilities. Now we know better. We’ve learned and we’re learning. The danger is in overcorrecting. We still have to find a way to prepare sons and daughters for a tough, unforgiving cruel world without making them unforgiving and cruel themselves. That’s the balance we have to strike, the holy grail. I think that’s the real tough job of parenting.
Looks like you have this parenting thing down to a science.
LMAO. Not even close.
I hear you’re into politics. What’s that about?
My mum was one of the first women who ran for governor in the old Rivers State during the Third Republic. Civics was as much a part of my life like the way going to church on Sunday was.
One striking thing about history is that change is always made by normal people. In societies that work, there is no sense of separation, that the “civic space or politics is for some people, so I’m not bothered.” Getting involved in our community, getting it to work the way it’s supposed to work was a given in our house.
The more active you’re in a particular space, the more likely it is that eventually, something in that space will connect for you. A series of events snowballed me into politics. I got really involved in activism. The government at the time wanted to demolish a waterfront community in the Niger Delta, where I was from, and I got very involved in the protests to stop that. Because of that, people from the community were like, “Hey, come and run for political office.” After a while, I eventually left politics to become a chief. It’s still that same relationship I have with my people that has moved me away from politics into chiefdom.
You’re one of the few, perhaps the only Nigerian politician, who openly supports the LGBTQ+ community. How do you balance keeping the people’s support and standing for what’s right?
There is no balance when it comes to justice. There is either justice or no justice. As long as there is a single law or rule in Nigeria that discriminates against LGBTQ+ people, we don’t have justice. If the only way to succeed politically in Nigeria is to bend to that injustice, maybe others can do that, but I’m not one of those people.
When I had to go to college in the US, I had to write TOEFL because I never took English in secondary school. One of the essay questions stated: Electorate politicians have to carry out the will of their electorate. But elected officials also have a duty to do the right thing by conscience. So what should the politician do when the demands of the electorate clash with their conscience or what is morally right? My answer, which hasn’t changed since I was 17, was that if it’s a question of fundamental issues of morality of justice, the politician has a duty to say, “On this issue, you are wrong. Let me give you a compelling argument why.” His next duty is to make those arguments.
If he fails, he fails. They vote him out, he goes home, and that’s okay. I believe that completely. I believe people have a right to have sexual and romantic relations with any consenting adult they want to. If people choose not to vote for me because of that stance, then guess what? I don’t want to be elected in Nigeria. I don’t want to be elected by people who will only vote for me if I support injustice and oppression. For most parts of my life I’ve been a minority. I’m from the Niger Delta, I’m oppressed. As a black man in America, I was oppressed. So I will die before I become part of the system that extends that oppression to any other human being. Oppression thrives because people who know better turn a blind eye simply because it’s more convenient for them or the personal stakes for them are too high. I can afford not to be elected to office. I have the skills and other ways to influence policy and influence my society. If elections are the one thing I can’t win because I support gay rights, so be it.
What are the biggest challenges with masculinity in Nigerian men?
I’d split this in two: the things that hurt us as Nigerian men and the ways we hurt others.
I think men, men in general, but Nigerian men in particular (because of the pressures we find on ourselves), just have to learn that there’s no single way to be a man. It has already happened. You can’t lose your masculinity. The status cannot be revoked so you have nothing to prove. Knowing that and having that pressure taken off you reduces a lot of things that we do that can harm us: the way we don’t share our problems, the way we put impossible standards on ourselves which we may be able to live up to in one moment but we’re bound to fail in the next.
When it comes to how you treat other people, I think there, again, it comes down to allowing yourself to be vulnerable. You know, and I don’t mean allowing people to harm you. We have to learn better ways of communicating our wants and feelings in ways that allow people a chance to make conscious decisions on how to relate with us. We don’t have to just be reactive.
Your dad seemed like such good vibes so one last question about him: When you think of him, what memory comes to mind?
My favourite memory was raiding the fridge at midnight with him, and then when my mother was shouting about food missing in the fridge, he framed me for it and said, “You know you have a teenage son in the house.” I turned to him in shock and he winked.. We were quite conspiratorial like that.
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