Nigeria at Crossroads: Moment for Lamentation and Ambivalent Reflection
Professor of Sociology
Bethel University, Minnesota
Nigeria is currently facing serious challenges and concerns. While I have not retired yet, and I am not living in the African continent, there is no day that for some minutes I do not reflect on the pain and suffering that millions of people are going through on the continent. Yet in spite of all of this, one often comes across news of especially African youth and middle-aged persons’ accomplishments in spheres that are very spectacular and deserve not only recognition but affirmation. Indeed, spectacular accomplishment is metaphorically speaking like a pedagogy of hope. Without hope, given the challenges confronting many ordinary people in Africa, the people can easily end up in a state of despair. It is in this respect that any serious discussion about nation-building and human development needs to begin by among other things asking these two questions: what does it mean to be human and what do we owe each other for being human? Whatever your religion, ethnicity, or nationality, these are important questions that are foundational to building a just and fair society for all because we know very well that without identifying what constitutes our shared humanity and building our society on that philosophy, we may end up creating what some economists call the “tragedy of the commons.” The tragedy of the commons happens when each of us in pursuing his or her narrow selfish interests and totally ignoring the common good, contributes immensely to creating a social environment that becomes similar to the Hobbesian state of nature where life is nasty, brutish, and short.
I have been prompted to think deeply about Nigeria, my country of birth for several days recently, after I came across a piece of reflection written by Professor Toyin Falola, one of Nigeria’s most renowned scholars and public intellectuals in the diaspora and in Africa. In the piece of reflection that he wrote, he commended some Nigerian youth for their spectacular accomplishment in completing their doctoral studies in reputable universities in the United States and Britain and starting new chapters in their lives as professionals, who will immensely contribute to the betterment of the human condition. As part of the reflection, Professor Falola’s message went beyond congratulating the youth to address some deep issues of concern that he has been ruminating on with some degree of ambivalence and lamentation regarding the state of affairs in Nigeria today. One of his lamentations is that there are many African scholars in the diaspora who would like to retire back in Africa so as to use their golden years to give back to the continent in a special way by mentoring cohorts of the younger generation, but they are unable to pursue that for numerous reasons. For instance, at the current moment, the situation in Nigeria is so complicated and unstable that many in the diaspora find it too risky to retire back home in spite of their sincere desire to do so. This is really a painful situation in the sense that despite living abroad for so many years, there is a way in which “home is home” and it is different. Professor Falola is lamenting the state of affairs in Nigeria where the country produces “brilliant folks who cannot go back and work” in the country.
Professor Falola’s concern about the need to contribute to nation-building and elevating the lives of those at the bottom of the Nigerian social pyramid was further extended by Bishop Kukah. Bishop Kukah commented on Professor Falola’s reflection and analysis by calling on all of us to ensure that the accomplishments of Nigerian youth “can, should and must effect a change” and that change “must happen in our lifetimes.” He further observed that “we can and must reverse this sad run of events on our continent.” While each African country has its own struggles in the area of nation-building and elevating human development, Bishop Kukah asserted that “Nigeria has become the theatre of all that is wrong with our people.”
The concerns that the two of them expressed touched my heart and soul deeply. When I was an undergraduate, even though I grew up in the social margins and periphery of the Nigerian society, I still had great hope for the progressive transformation of the country, especially when I came across the goals of Nigeria’s Second National Development Plan to build: “a united, strong and self-reliant nation; a great and dynamic economy; a just and egalitarian society; a land of bright and full opportunities for all citizens; and a free and democratic society.” The two goals that I find deeply penetrating are building: “a just and egalitarian society; and “a land of bright and full opportunities for all citizens.” How things turned out to be where they are today in Nigeria really bothers me deeply given the visionary nature of the goals of the Second National Development Plan. I know that I am a mortal human being, and my time here is limited. So, I am concerned about how others and myself can make the best use of my lives to contribute and make a difference in some way for the benefit of present and future generations in the country.
We cannot change the whole of history, because if we try to do that as Nietzsche said, we will be overwhelmed, and chances are that we will end up becoming very cynical because there are too many things that can disappoint us and maybe even feel a sense of despair. But we can do our best by creating a niche and making a difference in that area within our limited time and with our limited resources. The little we do in the chosen niche, can inspire others, and give us a relative sense of satisfaction that we have at least tried to make a difference in touching the lives of some people, especially those on the other side of history. Some economists argue that even if we cannot have a revolutionary change in society, if every day, every one of us will decide to engage in a random act of generosity to another person, the cumulative effect of that will make the world a better place. When one engages in a random act of generosity, it means he or she does not know the beneficiary of the generous act and they are not likely to ever meet again. So, the goal of the generous act is not to win a vote or create a hierarchy of power, but to make a difference in the lives of fellow humans because of our shared humanity.
When I was an undergraduate in the mid-1980s, I read one newspaper commentary in Nigeria where Late Chief Moshood Abiola and Professor Wole Soyinka celebrated their birthdays. The commentator in the newspaper made the point that the two persons come from more or less the same generation, but they interpreted their life history differently as they celebrated their birthdays then. Late Moshood Abiola celebrated the great accomplishments and achievements of his generation, but Professor Wole Soyinka according to the commentator titled his birthday speech then, “Wasted Generation.” The commentator argued that they come from the same generation, but they were using different yardsticks to evaluate their accomplishments and so they consequently arrived at different conclusions.
Personally, I agree with Professor Soyinka about my own generation, — I completed my undergraduate studies in 1986. I always ask myself what has my generation done to really improve the lives of the “Wretched of the Earth” in Nigeria? Many of the members of my generation in Nigeria today are occupying positions of power and authority broadly speaking and are indeed the ones looting the national treasury and creating conditions that will not allow Professor Falola and many like him to return to teach in Nigeria after retirement. I recalled how while we were undergraduates, my generation criticized the Nigerian elites/ruling classes and we went on strike several times in protest against some policies adopted and implemented by the then Federal Government of Nigeria. I do not know how other people feel, but personally, I feel too much obligation to humanity, particularly the people of Africa and Nigeria. Growing up poor in rural Bauchi State, without subsidized education using public money in Nigeria, I could not have had access to undergraduate education. On a critical note, the public money used to educate me was money that every Nigerian citizen was equally entitled to.
The economic logic that informed how the public money was used then to educate us was that the money invested to educate my generation will train and equip us to become professionals and future leaders, so that we can contribute to nation-building and the promotion of inclusive economic development that would benefit all Nigerians, including those that were denied access to the money used to educate us, even though they needed good roads, rural clinics, healthy drinking water, and good electricity supply, etc. But after being trained with public money, my generation became empowered and used its bureaucratic and institutional power to act in a predatory manner to enrich themselves, their friends, and relatives at the expense of the masses. Some of us out of despair explored ways for leaving the country and we left. The elites and ruling classes from my generation further focused more on promoting differences among ordinary Nigerian citizens instead of focusing on our shared humanity. For millions of ordinary Nigerian citizens, it was double jeopardy. White people treated Africans badly, especially during the colonial period because of their assumption of being a superior racial group, but today, my conclusion is that the problem was not simply being White or European, but something about the moral and ethical cultivation of the human heart and soul. Simply because someone is Black and African (i.e., not White, or European), if he or she has no moral and ethical cultivation, the person can be as oppressive as the Europeans were to Africans, if not worse. The naked fact is that even though I am a Black person who grew up poor, if I have power and privilege over other people, my being Black and growing up poor does not automatically immune me from abusing or oppressing other people and treating them like trash. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, we totally ignore this kind of moral and ethical imperative, which calls for the need for all of us in humility and sincerity to interrogate ourselves.
As a doctoral student in the United States, I came across a book that contained the names of all people from various African countries that received a scholarship through USAID to come and study in the country. They attended prestigious universities. Their names were listed by country. Some of them graduated long before I finished my teacher’s grade three certificate studies in Bauchi State. I remember how overwhelmed I felt after going through the list of those from Nigeria who received their education in prestigious universities in the United States. I wondered then whether there was anything new I would learn and do to make a difference in Nigeria after completing my doctoral education when there was a list of these highly educated people who were back in Nigeria, but the country did not change for the better in spite of their spectacular educational accomplishments.
From then on, I started thinking about the fact that we need more than just education to transform Nigeria, Africa, and the world. Later, I became interested in the history and evolution of Western civilization from the time of the ancient Greeks, through the Roman republic and empire, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, modernity, postmodernity, globalization, hyper-globalization, etc. There is indeed a huge amount of erudite scholarship and wisdom that has been accumulated in the evolution of Western civilization (as in many other civilizations) during all these historical periods, notwithstanding the effort by some Afrocentric scholars to dismiss everything that is not African in origin. The conundrum is that when one looks around today, in spite of all the reservoirs of erudite scholarship and wisdom in the Western tradition, we are still dealing with a lot of “crap” in terms of human development. If people like Auguste Comte will resurrect today and see that despite all the availability of scientific knowledge and industrial-technological achievements, there are still people who go hungry even in advanced nations, he would be very disappointed and realize that creating a just and fair society requires more than just having scientific knowledge and industrial-technological accomplishments. One just needs to pay attention to the kinds of debates going on among some of the elites in the Western world with regard to how they perceive people who are not of Western ancestry as inferior beings. “De jure” racism is gone, but “de facto” racism is still used to perpetuate injustice and oppression.
All these have made me to experience pessimism of the intellect, although I try to balance that out with optimism of the heart. If knowledge per se will change the world for the better and for all, we should be in a kind of New Jerusalem by now or “Dar es Salaam,” and not be dealing with some of the issues we are dealing with such as in Nigeria where life has become nasty, brutish, and short for many innocent people. Thus, I am now at the point of asking myself, what do we need to add to knowledge (broadly speaking) as such, so as to be sure that it will create a more just and fair society, or a just and egalitarian society and a land of bountiful opportunity for all citizens? Is it wisdom, courage, sacrifice, authenticity, compassion, etc., etc., that we need to add to our knowledge? Surely, the kind of moral and ethical cultivation of a people and society is important is very important in this respect as they phenomenally shape the kind of social institutions that emerge in a society. Two people or societies with the same kind of excellent knowledge (scientific, religious, and technological) will use it differently depending on the kind of moral and ethical compass that informs their vision for humanity and the common good.
I know and agree that knowledge and technological-industrial resources are necessary for development, but they are obviously not sufficient; neither are they the only things that are needed to create a more just, fair, and egalitarian society for all. Moreover, the more I explore this conundrum and concern, the more I am scared, reflecting even on myself that the modern and postmodern world we are living in is built around a human conception and caricature known as “homo economicus.” In our world today, one is directly and indirectly conditioned to acquire the social orientation and personality of homo economicus as the quasi-character quality necessary for success. This homo economicus is, however, at his or her core, a kind of human being that is so self-absorbed, and even when he or she is in that state, instead of admitting such moral limitation, if not a failure in some cases, in humility and sincerity, he or she uses certain strategies, to come up with a sacred canopy that covers the self-absorption and narcissism. The self-absorption and narcissism now become sacralized through the backdoor. Thus, in many contexts, the desires, and aspirations of homo economicus have gradually gotten a seat at the inner sanctum of many government and religious institutions, where instead of scriptures or ethics interrogating life and disciplining it, crude human desires inspire a reinterpretation of scripture and social ethics to fit the Zeitgeist of homo economicus. This notwithstanding, there is an attempt to cover or hide all this with a sacred canopy as many religious teachings are used to dehumanize others and promote hatred and prejudice. Frankly, I am worried not just about Nigeria but about the fact that humanity has no clear direction or destination as Patrick Deneen says based on his discussion and analysis of liberal democracy in “Why Liberalism Failed.”
While I am committed to doing my best and working with others to make a difference in some way, I still feel terribly overwhelmed that my youthful idealism and hope for Nigeria, Africa, and the world will not be realized in some way up to the time I will die, and this is truly and sincerely painful. The ideals of pursuing and creating a more just, fair, and egalitarian society for all may not be realized, and if this happens, it is not because of a lack of knowledge or scientific and technological resources per se, but because some people have chosen to use their knowledge and power to create private pleasures, which result in public pain or plight. Even if personally, I have accomplished something, and assuming I own the tallest building in Abuja, Nigeria, I feel my generation has failed the country. I pray that the younger generation does not repeat the mistakes of my generation. I will always remember the French philosopher who said, metaphorically speaking, there is no growth without death, just as no seed will germinate, grow, and produce yields that become a great harvest without first dying. The world will not be a better place without us making some sacrifices. But what kind of mindset comes to terms with sacrifice not just for now but for future generations and for the common good? What kind of worldview and culture creates a social atmosphere among not just elites and the ruling classes but ordinary members of society also, to value and honor making sacrifices for the common good and humanity at large? This is my reflection and lamentation at this historical moment where Nigeria is again at crossroads.