Credible Opposition and Nigeria’s Cognitive Repair

“Too often, support is given to the political elite by those who have nothing to gain from offering up their loyalties so cheaply, and everything to lose from the damage that is done to the country when it is held that ‘might makes right’.”

A lateral view of the brain showing the cerebral hemisphere
A lateral view of the brain showing the cerebral hemisphere

A sinister trend is sweeping through Nigeria at possibly the most critical time in the country’s post-colonial history: a thoughtless sycophancy in the face of power. In Nigeria, as in many other countries including those of the OECD, there will always be those whose sheep-like loyalty to their party or leadership of partisan choice is an inevitable consequence of a faulty character. Legitimately and illegitimately, some may also receive payment for their practice of blind political faith. Still, the fawning defenders of power who live by an ethic of depraved bootlicking must know that the damage they do is both to themselves and to others.

The ‘I Stand With Buhari 9 million man affirmation march‘ was advertised earlier in the year by Buhari’s adoring supporters to express their unwavering political allegiance. The depressingly laughable online campaign spawned a number of downright ridiculous ‘movements’. In the face of public criticism of politicians, a mindless “I Stand With” now ensues. Bizarrely, some Nigerians appear to be volunteering themselves to hold upright a long list of people from the president downward, who on simple observation, appear in full receipt of the balancing tools which nature provides by our four limbs. More worrying than this, however, is the strategy of these human crutches; which is to violently shut down any critique of their chosen messiahs.

Our ability to make a significant contribution to national development may lie in nothing more, but certainly in nothing less than, our capacity for critical appraisal.

There is currently cause for apprehension in Nigeria. In a poor global economic climate in which a $20 per barrel oil price is not looking unlikely, a stubborn and damaging oil-dependency means the country is facing an unfavourable economic outlook. The Naira hit a three and a half year low at N300 to the dollar at the parallel market while official rates are artificially maintained at just over N190. The country’s stock market appears to be in a heightened decline.

On the other hand, a case can be made for cautious optimism. Significant movements are taking place in long neglected sectors. A $300 million investment in agriculture has recently been announced. Large infrastructural developments appear to be taking off in states from Lagos to Abuja and Kaduna. Buhari’s high spending 2016 budget also means nearly unheard of levels of government spending in critical areas like education and health.

But in order to permanently tip the scales into positive development, Nigeria has now reached the stage where every adult must find their contributory niche. There is no longer any room for lackadaisical bystanders.

It is understandable that the primary concern for most people is to maintain their day jobs and the mini self-governments that most Nigerians operate from their homes (what else can private provision of electricity, water, education, and transportation be called?). However, keeping abreast of government policy, lobbying fervently for as much information as possible on all matters pertaining to the public sphere, and exercising our democratic right to keep the government in check should provide the parameters of our citizenship duties.

Our ability to make a significant contribution to national development may lie in nothing more, but certainly in nothing less than, our capacity for critical appraisal. If patriotism’s object is the state and not its leaders, then a sycophancy that holds the occupants of state power in higher regard than the long-term health of the state itself, comes perilously close to an unforgiveable treason.

the fawning defenders of power who live by an ethic of depraved bootlicking must know that the damage they do is both to themselves and to others.

The desire to blindly defend ministers, senior civil servants, senators, the president, and indeed anyone with even minor access to the corridors of power and to intimidate those who dare raise a critical eye has begun to display itself in subtle and destructive ways among partisans of both the major political parties. The worrying trend is particularly evident on the country’s vibrant social media.

Twitter has proved an especially effective instrument for these senseless agents. Commentators critical of politicians or other prominent people encounter vicious and coordianted attacks either in public tweets or via direct messaging. Within seconds of questioning a political big man or woman, 20 tweets appear in your notifications as if from nowhere, all in a language so colourful that those who have been raised correctly might literally blush. Standing up to these vipers sometimes shuts them up and suddenly their tweets are “no longer available”. But standing up to people whose moral standards are so low can be a very tiring business and so it is not surprising that many with valid critiques simply back down.

Power, whether real or merely perceived, has been given a benefit of doubt that its owners have rarely earned. Too often, support is given to the political elite by those who have nothing to gain from offering up their loyalties so cheaply, and everything to lose from the damage that is done to the country when it is held that ‘might makes right’.

A significant amount of ink is spilt on predicting economic trends in Nigeria, terrorism in the north and, more positively, on the robustness of the country’s artistic scene. That Nigeria is suffering under the burden of a population that has been psychologically traumatised by decades of a subtle brutality is rarely noted.

there is in fact no one more aware, more consumed by, and whose lives are more altered by the detrimental effects of a gross plundering of the public purse than Nigerians

In development studies it has been theorised that the reason revolutions occur in places like the Middle East and even in North Africa but not in countries like Nigeria is that countries like Nigeria are in fact, “too democratised.” Which is to say, that Nigerians unlike Algerians, or Tunisians, or Egyptians have simply not suffered enough to stage an uprising. It is plausible; but what the developmental theorists do not consider is that in countries like Nigeria, a slow burning, but ever present, neglect of the general public by successive governments has caused a kind of cognitive damage within large sections of the population. The normal calculations of risk and reward do not apply in an arena where an armed thief can be hanged “as a deterrent to others” but politicians whose very pores give off the gross stench of an outrageous corruption and malfeasance receive advisory and ministerial political postings.

Although many outside Nigeria have spent the better part of the last 30 years grieving louder than the bereaved when it comes to the state of the country’s corruption, as if as a result of some unknown branch of metaphysics they are able to feel the cost of corruption greater than do Nigerians, there is in fact no one more aware, more consumed by, and whose lives are more altered by the detrimental effects of a gross plundering of the public purse than Nigerians. Yet, when some are faced with the façade of the rich and powerful, this understanding appears to either take a back seat or disappear altogether.

Those who, under normal circumstances, would be fully cognizant of a self-possessed dignity, have now reduced themselves to shinning the shoes of ministers. At the feet of politicians, they prostrate themselves flat out on dirt roads. Not because they are overwhelmed by the moral authority of these men; but simply because power is approaching.

Power, whether real or merely perceived, has been given a benefit of doubt that its owners have rarely earned.

It is possibly as a result of years of degradation of our principles of public thinking and behaviour that far too many Nigerians have grown comfortable with publicly massaging the posteriors of powerful people. When in fact, the most appropriate mode of collective behaviour demands the very opposite. Indeed, the correct modes of public behaviour have been out of operation for so long that it is not surprising that few remember what they are.

Combined with a political space that is now just enough open for ordinary folk to feel comfortable publicly airing their political views, the consequence has been an unhealthy and disorderly mudslinging in which sycophancy and blind party political allegiance is mistaken for national patriotism.

Nor does the general public receive much of an example from the respective party leaderships. With the uncertain national economic situation being fanned by a worrisome global financial environment, Nigeria has never been in greater need of credible opposition. Instead of carefully considered counter-policy recommendations that provide the public with a nuanced understanding of possible economic and political choices on the basis of which the current government could be constructively challenged and kept on its toes, what counts for official opposition these days is a garbled string of incoherent name-calling and largely irrelevant personal insults. And so, the general public takes its cue.

That Nigeria is suffering under the burden of a population that has been psychologically traumatised by decades of a subtle brutality is rarely noted.

Ahead of the PDPs upcoming party convention there must be a clear understanding among PDP members that just as much as Nigeria needs a strong party in government, it also needs a strong and policy-coherent party in opposition. Without it, the populace is left looking to outside arbitrators to help it understand the ramifications of, and alternatives to, official government policies; conversations in which incumbent governments rarely have any interest engaging.

It must be clear to president Buhari, about who the jury is out, that any economic and political gains that he and future governments may make cannot be sustained by a population that continues to labour under the burden of a not so silent cognitive dysfunction. It is not too much to ask that Buhari take it as part of his presidential duties to aid in Nigeria’s holistic rebuilding. As well as the economy, security, and party politics, Buhari must see it as part of his job to enable the cognitive repair of Nigeria’s population. It may be as simple as instructing those of his supporters who are among the ordinary citizenry that he and the officers of his party are quite capable of standing up for themselves. Each has more resources at their disposal to defend themselves from the courts, from party opponents, or from members of the population itself than their ‘standers with’ could imagine. Still, it might be too much to ask that Buhari encourage his counterparts in the opposing party to give the same caution.

At this critical juncture in Nigeria’s developmental trajectory, one of the most important lessons for Nigerians of all ages, ethnicities and ideological stripes, is that there is no sight more pitiful and more unfree than the sight of he whose mind is under the authority of another. I suspect that resolving decades of what is akin to a national psychological haemorrhaging will take a lot more than merely this recognition, but it is a good place to start.

~EAMS

 

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