Chinua Achebe, in his classic analysis of Nigerian socio-politics, The Trouble With Nigeria, describes the Nigerians of the 1970s as having cargo cult mentality. This mentality, Achebe explains, is “a belief by backward people that someday, without any exertion whatsoever on their own part, a fairy ship will dock in their harbour laden with every goody they have always dreamed of possessing.” The cargo cult mentality is similar to the Judeo-Christian concept of the Promised Land. That is, the journey to a mythical paradise, attained not by critical thinking and interrogation of the circumstances, but simply by demonstrating faith in divine or temporal authority.
When the All Progressives Congress campaigned for “Change,” its campaign philosophy reinforced this cargo cult mentality. The leadership of the party guaranteed the Promised Land (including, astonishingly, equating the value of the naira to the dollar should Buhari win) without stating the process for its materialisation. It seemed, instead, that the APC simply wanted the blind trust of Nigerians. Truly, our blind trust was convenient at that moment, simply for the sake of ousting the Peoples Democratic Party. Otherwise, a little intelligent probing revealed some of the APC’s fantasies as ridiculous. Nevertheless—faith in APC or not—it was enough that a simple majority of Nigerians were tired of the inefficiencies of the Goodluck Jonathan administration and the APC came into power.
Yet, one year after winning the election, the propaganda machinery of the APC still wants to continue with the faith mantra. Government is still being run like an election campaign. Buhari loyalists—whatever this may mean—insist that we should doubt the socio-economic evidence and focus on the man. They attempt to motivate our belief with phrases such as: This is just a wilderness period; or it will get bad before it gets better. We are constantly cajoled into an irrational expectation of change without any corresponding reform in government and politics. We must not accept this, otherwise we become hostages to the cargo cult mentality.
It is easy for any jingoist to say it gets bad before it gets better. Those are just words. If we say this phrase to ourselves all day, no transformation will magically happen. Society does not change by the repeated chanting of comfortable slogans. In fact, it is just as easy—and more demonstrable—to say it will get bad before it gets worse. Simply because it is bad today does not mean it cannot be worse tomorrow. It is possible for us to deteriorate steadily and indefinitely.
In fact, the history of Nigeria proves the possibility of continuous decline. We have gone from a “fairly okay” situation to bad to worse and then even worse. It is depressing that our highest standards in public administration, in social utilities, and in public infrastructure were those achieved by or through the colonial government. Ten years after independence and all of these elements of governance started to decline rapidly. Public administration grew corrupt and inefficient. Social utilities—from postal services to railways to the national airline—deteriorated.
Today, public infrastructure is still confined to capital cities. In 2016, we still celebrate the construction of roads and bridges.
Of course, a lot of us conflate our access to modern technology with our socio-political development. Progress in world technology is independent of our society. Still, we have used technology to mask the gaps in our governance. The Internet and communications technology hides our lack of public spaces for discussion and exchange of ideas. It hides our deteriorating postal services and public communications systems. Fancy Asian and European vehicles hide our access to mass transit. Power generators and inverters hide the shame of our power systems. Strip away modern technology from our society, and we have almost nothing to indicate governance. But technology is not meant to replace good governance. At best, technology ought to complement governance, or even rely on good governance for effective delivery.
This is how you know that Nigeria is steadily declining. The Nigerians of the 1960s/70s did not have access to modern technology, but they enjoyed a fairly manageable socio-economic condition with an expectation of improvement on that.
And so, we need to know where we have been—where we are coming from—to understand that we are not automatically on an improvement journey. Improving our situation is not just about having a railway-measuring contest against the Jonathan administration or comparing an anti-corruption contest against the Obasanjo administration. It is about improving the entirety of the Nigerian experience. This means we first have to get back to the standards we had in October 1960, then improve on these. That was the original plan.
It is not enough for the champions of the current administration to tell us to have faith that the government will deliver. They have to demonstrate the process to us. For example, what is the president fixing? Why that in particular? How is he fixing it? How long will it take? Those are the things Nigerians want to know. Asking Nigerians to demonstrate blind trust when a government has not been tried or tested is, in fact, anti-progress.
Faith is a choice in personal decision-making. Faith may even propel us to cast a vote for a particular candidate. But governance is neither a religion nor a personal belief. Government is a public affair—and its workings cannot just be based on personal faith in the character of the president. Again, to quote Chinua Achebe in The Trouble With Nigeria:
“In the final analysis, a leader’s no-nonsense reputation might induce a favourable climate but in order to effect lasting change it must be followed up with a radical programme of social and economic re-organisation or at least a well-conceived and consistent agenda of reform which Nigeria stood, and stands, in dire need of.”
Radical re-organisation and reform will not be achieved just by faith. In fact, it requires a healthy dose of scepticism.
Originally published in slightly different form here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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