Every now and then, I catch myself somewhat frustrated by the contradictions that engulf Nigeria and its people. Nigeria is a great country, we say. Yet, my daily experience of governance, society, and citizenship continues to be negative. The more I travel the world and interact with the governance systems of other societies, the more I realise that a lot of us Nigerians don’t know better—and those who know are unwilling to admit the truth that our society is a failure by several parameters.
Yet, in certain senses, Nigeria is really a great country. For one thing, about 180 million people living within a sizeable territory populate it. This fact, ordinarily, is an entrepreneur’s dream. Our territory is strategically located in the land area surrounding two intersecting rivers that converge into a delta. The land is embedded with mineral resources and layered by rich animal and plant life. The climate is generally kind. Natural disasters are rare. In retrospect, it seems that the British colonists who carved out the country were sharp thinking and keen-eyed.
This is the picture of Nigeria that we like to present to the world. And so, we confuse our potential with reality. But reality says we are, comparatively, one of the most backward political societies on earth. Our science and technology are imported. We have no national claim to inventions or technical advances that are in global circulation. Our policies are often based on whim and religious opinion, and rarely—if ever—on empirical studies. We can barely organise ourselves politically. There is continuous discontentment in our ethnic and religious components and we don’t know how to resolve it. Our governance is like the case of a person who is guessing a password: we stumble from policy to policy hoping to eventually hit the correct solution. We cannot even execute the very basic of counting ourselves accurately and without controversy. Instead, we are champions of ethnic repression, religious fundamentalism, a patronage economy and, of course, political and social corruption.
Corruption is the easiest to blame because it involves pointing fingers at others while avoiding personal and communal responsibility for other issues like religious and ethnic intolerance. In this way, politicians continue to send us in the other direction while they settle to feed fat. Our political history is an unending accusation of corruption by one set of rulers against a previous set of rulers. We are masters of probes, panels, inquiries, investigations, and arrests that inspire momentary hope but realise nothing in the long run. Recovered money might as well continue to be missing for all the good that it has done the ordinary Nigerian citizen.
But the nature and causes of corruption are more complex than we seem to understand. We have the corruption of greed and the corruption of need. We also have the corruption of the mind. This corruption of the mind is eating deep into our national existence. Our minds have been decayed, first by political and religious colonialism, next by hypocritical nationalism, and finally by military dictatorship. These three regimes have erased the concept of social equality and instituted an elite political class that has “captured the state” and makes policy decisions above the grasp of the masses. And the political class ensures its continuing survival by repressing critical thinking in the general population.
And so the quality of our education has been systematically dumbed down over the decades. A little learning is a dangerous thing, said Alexander Pope. The average Nigerian graduate today knows very little about the philosophical basis of constitutional rights of the citizens and the limits of governmental powers but would insist that we should give government a chance. In 2017, the Nigerian media and pop culture cannot fully engage with and comprehend well-established concepts like the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the separation of powers, or civilian control of the military—never mind the latest theory in sociological jurisprudence or particle physics. The average Nigerian cannot casually state the name of the presidents of Cameroon and the Republic of Benin. It is little wonder that the citizens continue to remain unaware and ignorant of the progress of the world.
And still, most of us remain uncurious and apathetic. We quantify and qualify knowledge by how much it will earn our wallets. We do not know—and our politicians do not want us to know—that the quality of a person’s life should not be determined by their bank account balance—but by their socio-economic rights as citizens. The things we struggle for daily are our rights as citizens: the right to employment, the right to a good environment, and the right of access to healthcare. Instead, we struggle with these things, calling on religion for help. We are paying for our ignorance.
I was reminded of all these when, a few days ago, at a seminar in South Africa, the presenter gave a presentation on Charly Boy, Denrele Edun and Bobrisky to illustrate a socio-legal discussion. I had a moment of wonder at how the academia in another country had no problems studying our issues in order to understand more. This is education: the unabashed pursuit of an understanding of the nature of the world. The gains may not be immediately clear to the uninitiated. Yet, when we know more, we can make better decisions and better policies. When we make better decisions, our lives improve. Knowledge inspires critical thinking.
If we are to be saved as a nation, it will be through our collective ability to think critically. An enlightened citizenry cannot be forced into submission. Critical thinking forces us to ask: why are we doing it this way, and can we do it a better way? Only an ignorant society is accepting of the status quo. We need to think more critically, and we need more knowledge to be able to do this effectively.
Considering the factors stacked against the probability of this happening, our future looks very bleak. But all is not lost. Online and offline, I come across young Nigerians who are truly interested in knowing more. There are still Nigerians who seek understanding, not just to get certificates or salaries, but to be able to contribute more meaningfully to public discourse. Somehow, this gives me hope.
Originally published in slightly modified form here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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Ever wondered about the class structure of Nigerian society? Read the mini-series on the Hierarchy of Nigerian Policy.