The paradoxes that define Nigeria’s journey so far, puzzle me to the point of migraine. The self-inflicted setbacks, the little things that get compounded into complex crisis and the men you hope will be White Knights that end up with feet of clay. Now, we are knocking again at Kaplan’s gate when we should be making giant redemptive strides to rid a race of history’s unjust burden. The Great Escape somehow manages to elude a country that should be directing the path of the less endowed on its continent away from the misery pack. But Mead must be heed so that a few thoughtful, concerned and committed individuals can act to change our course and history, the only way history has been changed, by the few, the thoughtful, and the concerned and committed.
Robert Kaplan, we recall, tried to top his remarkable analysis in Balkan Ghosts, which played out after Josef Tito’s death in Yugoslavia with a vision of West Africa’s descent into anarchy from ethnic, religious and economic cleavages. My instinctive reaction after reading Kaplan’s Coming Anarchy 18 years ago was to send copies to Security and Intelligence Chiefs and empanel a group I called Nigerians United to Resist Anarchy (NUTRA). I saw clearly then that if leadership was not shown, the frustrations of our youth, in the burgeoning bulge could lead to loss of confidence in leadership and a turning to charlatans and War Lords for direction. Sadly we seem on the verge of that two decades after.
To see Nigeria knocking at Kaplan’s gate two decades after notice was served bleeds the heart. Where lies the fault. Surely we can, in a moment of allowed humour, blame our ancestors who we pour libation to so often. Perhaps we get them too drunk from the libation they fail to stay awake in watch over us. But beyond such lait motif, it is important to ponder how come problems that give long notice seem to manage to overwhelm us. Where are those small groups of thoughtful and committed individuals the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead so profoundly informs us are the engines that drive change in the World through all of history. Could it be that until we achieve what the Princeton University Nobel Laureate in Economics, Angus Deaton, finds to be the origins of inequality in the evolution of healthcare and wealth creation, so that we can make the “the great escape” from misery? We cannot build a culture of structured problem solving? Why are we in this recursive mode if not going round in vicious circles.
My own Nigeria journey suggests the problem may lie elsewhere. That place may be in the conventions that dominate how the Public Sphere has been conceived, since Military rule. The traditions of our political culture that make rigorous public choice difficult and enthrone the triumph, if not the triumphalism of politics over purpose until we get to the kind of desperate straits with threats, as we again find ourselves.
It is not unusual to see the typical Nigerian politician portray the Public Sphere as compartmentalized in a way that you have, Activists, politicians, intellectuals and the people.(the so called masses).
This fracturing which has gained some acceptance in popular culture sees the Activist as useful nuisance; muckrakers who curb the excesses to which politicians are given but who lack the discipline of execution. So their remit is outside of power and policy execution. That mindset sees the politician as an amoral being, largely self-serving and disinterested in truth but a necessary evil to help society forge a path for muddling through its troubles and whose trade rule prohibits speaking truth to power (anti-party activity), demanding a patient wait until those who spread the goodies hand you a prebend, usually a government agency you can hemorrhage for booty to keep your patron – client network oiled and the Party Chairman and some apparatchiks happy with some pecuniary gains. The received wisdom is that it is bad manners to talk while you are eating. Unfortunately they missed to observe members of a fellowship of businessmen, (FGBMFI) who call themselves eating talking people. And so politicians often carry on without being thoughtful about today much less concerned about the future of their children. As they drown in instant gratification while their chinese counterparts think of the next hundred years. The difference in mindsets plays out in the performance outcome differences we are witnessing. Politics here is about control and exclusion which leaves too many out itching to piss into the house. Politicians instead of being aggregators of interests unwillingly become sowers of discontent.
These ways of the politician takes to the absurd, Robert Michels famed 1911 thesis about Political Parties from which flow the “iron law of oligarchy” and the view that he who says organization says oligarchy. They thus sentence political party organization in Nigeria to Richard Daley type Chicago machines politics that deliver votes. Lost here is the critical role of conservative party backbenchers in the British Parliament for whose sake, for example, David Cameron called the Brexit vote. That activated Citizen input to policy, for good or for ill. But in our politics the citizen is a distant object to be bought and sold every four years for the purpose of a legitimating vessel for power. Excluding the citizen, especially through the failure of political parties is partly the reason for this season of instability. Surely we need to reorient political parties in nigeria.
Then there are the intellectuals who may not be activists. The duty of this class is typically the pursuit of truth, through knowledge. This is the reason, James McGregor Burns refers to them in that definitive book on leadership titled Leadership, as having ‘moral authority’.
Since military rule, an image, has managed to be injected into public culture that these people, intellectuals live outside of reality and that theory does not solve problems. In response many have become first movers in the “the generation that left town”. Many who did not take the brain drain train have been sufficiently bruised by what elite culture in contemporary Nigeria has done to intellect that they have unwittingly withdrawn from the Public Sphere, making Thought Leadership severely challenged in Nigeria. Without ideas a people perish. Nigeria struggles significantly today because it does to intellectuals what Biblical day jews did to the prophets. Thinking has become an alien in civic culture, a grave contrast to what was obtained in the times of the founding fathers like Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ahmadu Bello.
Even though nothing can be sillier than these compartments, those who profit from the myths encourage it. Like the classic Machiavelli view from the Prince that those who profit from an old order will do everything to prevent a new one from coming about, they manage to prevent change and keep Nigeria sadly Knocking again and again at Kaplan’s gate. But the few thoughtful, concerned, and committed, must find a way of resisting pushing Nigeria towards anarchy. The so called activists, intellectuals and citizens must break the space considered that of politicians who thrive by polarizing and excluding individuals and groups. They must point to the wisdom of mantra such as Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammed borrowed from Lyndon Baines Johnson, the former US President that it is better for everybody to be inside the house, pissing out than for some to be outside the house pissing in.
So how can the few thoughtful and concerned begin to rescue Nigeria from the War Lords, Hate Mongers and those unable to see 100 years from now as Chinese Leaders do.
They must come together from all corners of the country reconstruct the Public Sphere in a way even Jurgen Habermas would be proud of but they must also take the public sphere to the streets in the Language of everyday person without losing the benefits of being rigorous. They must tone the rhetoric of tension and show the people the costs and benefits of the options and how our current ways are not sustainable. Most importantly they should be able to show how character and values are central to public life and trace our current travails to the character and knowledge deficit in Nigerian politics.
What seems lacking in Nigeria is some dosage of Common Sense and inspired leadership. With the elevation of the dignity of the human person to central ethos of our national life, fair doses of justice and civility in engagement, Nigeria could be flying so close to the Sun, it could offer Icarus some advice on how to keep the wax from melting. As one who has been in the compartments of citizen, Activist, Intellectual and Politician I have seen enough to recognize why Nigeria does not work as it should. And this is my testimony.
· Pat Utomi, Political Economist, Professor of Entrepreneurship is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.