Friday, December 31, 2010

Politicizing the Anointing

In a multi-religious society like Nigeria where matters of faith are often contentious, we should at least agree on one cardinal principle: Politics should not be used for religious ends while religion should not be used for political goals. This maxim is prone to flagrant violation, more so in an election year. President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign has been most guilty of this infraction. In one of his campaign ads sponsored by the United Nigeria Group, a voice intones at the beginning, “Let God’s will be done,” and goes on to exhort listeners to vote for the Jonathan/Sambo ticket because it is “God’s will” for the country. In another ad featuring some home video stars, the Jonathan/Sambo ticket is described as “God’s choice.” The Jonathan campaign has generally cast the president as some sort of divine elect or anointed king. This trend of religious politicking is worrisome.
In a society as religious as ours, faith will always be an ingredient of politics which at the best of times is an unstable alchemy of the empirical and the irrational. However, there is a difference between the incandescent political morality of Aminu Kano, whose religious scholarship sharpened his advocacy of democratic humanism and the opportunistic charlatanry of former Zamfara Governor, Ahmed Sani, the erstwhile proponent of Sharia, now an anonymous presence in the senate and last seen battling charges of child-trafficking and pedophilia. There is a clear difference between the thoughtful Spartan Christian faith of Obafemi Awolowo and the hypocritical self-righteous sanctimony of former President Olusegun Obasanjo whose presidency became a pulpit of bull.
Some will argue that the tenor of Jonathan’s faith-based campaign is simply political brand marketing, a scheme of communication that acceptably deploys religious idioms. Certainly, there is a clear effort to construct a usable myth around Jonathan as a man of providence and to dramatize his political trajectory as the stuff of the Nigerian dream. But Jonathan is in danger of becoming a candidate whose claims to leadership rest solely on the fortuitous manner of his ascendance to the presidency. His rise from anonymity to the highest office in the land within a decade, marked by serendipity rather than apparent competence, is being sold as a portent of divine favour and good tidings for the nation at large. There is a place for fairytales in politics, but to hinge our beleaguered country’s hopes on the good fortune of a candidate is, to say the least, imprudent. To advertize that fortune as a supernatural imprimatur upon his candidacy which we must accept for our own good is deception.
Nigerians have previously trusted in usable political myths to their grief. Even General Abacha was hailed by some as a messianic soldier ordained by God to cleanse the rot of the Babangida years although he had himself been an essential part of that rot. Obasanjo’s spectacular sojourn from prison to presidency evoked all kinds of pseudo-mystical interpretations and earned him the toga of the anointed – a concept which he took far too seriously. The late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua emerged as a dark horse in 2007 to clinch the presidency; an office for which his more famous elder brother had strived and ultimately died in vain. Again, some people saw providence at work in Yar’Adua’s emergence and sold him as a divine choice. Indeed, after his victory in the fraud-riddled 2007 polls, Yar’Adua urged his opponents to accept his election as the will of God. These are the results of the bastardization of politics in a religious society.
Religious politicking signals the crisis of legitimacy and stature ailing Nigerian politics. As the state has degenerated over the past two decades, its captors and operatives have increasingly sought to import legitimacy from the religious domain to deodorize their political pursuits. At the opening of the Lagos Central Mosque in 1988, General Ibrahim Babangida declared that the economic recession – which was exacerbated to no small extent by his structural adjustment programme – was “the will of Allah.” Such dissembling has become more pronounced since the inception of the Fourth Republic. Obasanjo constantly declared that his presidency was God-ordained. Ahmed Sani’s declaration of Sharia law in Zamfara effectively made him an Ayatollah – a defender of the faithful – without manifestly improving his performance or enhancing the lives of the people. In 2002, his deputy, Mahmud Shinkafi (now governor of Zamfara) issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Isioma Daniel, a Thisday fashion writer for an innocuous reference to the Prophet Mohammed in an article that some Muslims deemed offensive.
The danger is that ideologically bankrupt and amoral politicians will increasingly seek to legitimize their misrule by draping their failed politics in theological garments, thus casting themselves as prophets. The culture of impunity that already denominates public life can only be deepened by delusions of spiritual infallibility. Politicians typically seek transcendent authenticity by pressing flesh with clerics and getting photo ops with the country’s most respected “men of God.” But many are now defining their politics in religious terms, thereby altering the dynamics of democratic engagement and paving a highway to theocratic fascism. In this setting, failed politicians can always blame the electorate for being of little faith. Politics is conducted as holy war and governance becomes a personality cult. Dissent is criminalized as Luciferian insurgence against divine order. Social criticism becomes blasphemy and lawful oppositional activism becomes apostasy. Can terminal excommunications and inquisitions be far off? We should also fear that these ersatz theocrats will provoke an extremist backlash from zealots who believe themselves ordained to cleanse the society of elite hypocrisy. It is no accident, after all, that Boko Haram and allied groups have flourished in the Sharia states where politicians have cynically played the religious card.  
It is in this context that we must critique the Jonathan campaign and the general political field. The president’s recent appearance at the Redemption Camp where he was prayed over by Pastor Enoch Adeboye raises questions about the propriety of mixing politics with faith. Adeboye is one of Nigeria’s most respected clerics but is increasingly vulnerable to criticism as a leading luminary of a religious establishment whose choice of secular friends has been unscrupulous and whose deficit in social conscience and activism has become a moral millstone around its neck. Indeed, these religious elites are seen as collaborators with corrupt corporate oligarchs and rogue politicians in an infrastructure of kleptocracy.
The 2011 election must not become a referendum on candidates’ piety. The ads’ implicit and explicit appeals to superstition, emotionalism and irrationality are fraudulent at a time when we need to dispassionately invigilate the political options on parade. Their sectarian overtones are unwise in a country where religion is often a polarizing theme. Above all, it devalues what should be a serious contest of ideas for the right to direct Nigeria’s course in the 21st century. Bala Usman, the late radical historian, argued that religion in the public square is largely an instrument of social control deployed by political elites to mask the true nature of their self-serving adventures in power. He held that the manipulation of religion to mobilize political support is largely responsible for sectarian discord in Nigeria. The tenor of electioneering so far is consistent with his thesis.
As citizens, we have to exercise discernment in a dark age of false prophets. We must judge aspirants by their fruit. What is their track record on dealing with poverty, hunger, homelessness, disease and the vast range of dehumanizing plagues afflicting Nigerians? We must jettison vacuous religious rhetoric and ask concrete questions about social justice, equity and economic growth. Politicians should not contend for hearts and minds in churches and mosques but on the stomp and in debate forums where they can outline their reasons for seeking office. People of faith must insist on these ground rules so as to protect religion from profanity by political hacks. Keen students of Nigerian religiousity understand that the god invoked in these ads is a deceptive construct forged in the crucible of elite corruption and mass suffering, superstition and gullibility. Politicians must also eschew pseudo-religious buffoonery in order to renew a vocation now overrun by conmen. We should judge candidates by their competence and character not by their eligibility for Al Jannah lest we surrender our fate to charlatans.  

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Future of Progressives

The most urgent question in Nigerian politics at the moment is not the outcome of the 2011 elections. It is the possibility of forging a viable progressive alternative to the extant political order. Several analysts interpret Nigerian politics as a Manichean drama between the “evil” ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party and an angelic opposition. This portrait is simplistic to the point of silliness. What ails Nigerian politics is bigger than a single political party; it is a militarized and parasitic political culture of which the PDP is only the most obvious example. It is a system, poisoned by the long years of military dictatorship, which cuts across party lines. The PDP is its most visible manifestation because it is the dominant party. Therefore, it would be a mistake to reduce political change to simply changing parties in power. Ejecting the ruling party will count for nothing if we do not change the reigning ideas.

A second view of Nigerian politics shared by many of its practitioners and analysts is that ideology is inconsequential; that tags such as ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ are passé. Again, this is a legacy of military rule which virtually eliminated ideas from politics and redefined it as a contest of cash and brigandage. It is true that Nigerian politicians mostly do not reckon with ideology. Indeed, to the extent to which political parties are ideological communities, we do not have authentic parties at the moment; only protean constellations of interests ever changing in accord with personal fortunes. The PDP is thus the biggest and the most successful congregation of strange bedfellows in the field. But ideology does matter. Over the past two decades, governance has been shaped by what can only be described as a free market kleptocracy entrenched by a raft of neo-liberal reforms that emphasizes untrammeled liberalization, huge cuts in social spending, privatization and the devaluation of the naira.

These measures are consistent with the structural adjustment programmes that were promoted by western governments and Bretton Woods Institutions during the 1980s and were discredited by the 1990s. General Ibrahim Babangida fundamentally altered the fabric of state-society relations by imposing SAP in 1986. Within the context of military dictatorships and our quasi-militarized illiberal democracy, and in the absence of regulatory inhibitions, these measures amount to simply vandalizing the state, cannibalizing federal assets and sharing them among cronies. The contradictions inherent in effecting a radical shift in socio-economic priorities under a totalitarian regime was glossed over by architects of SAP. In effect, even though, it affected a consistency with capitalism, what emerged can only be called a kleptocracy or more charitably, crony capitalism or predatory capitalism.

To be sure, Nigeria’s economic woes predated Babangida, but his socio-economic engineering deepened the consumerist maladies of the society, accentuated social injustice and corruption, and destroyed civic trust in government. The perverse neo-liberalism that generated these dysfunctions remains the dominant philosophy of government. The state has lost its meaning as a provider of public goods – social infrastructure, roads, bridges, education and healthcare etc. Government’s responsibilities have shrunk dramatically, while it has tightened its grip on national resources and redefined itself as a profit machine for its operators. For the vast majority of our compatriots, governance is denoted by its absence except for the nuisance value of sirened motorcades and allied formats of reprobate pageantry. It is this culture of predation for which a progressive alternative must be found.

In the quest for a progressive alternative today, it is sensible to look back and to reclaim the vision of the progressive patriarchs of yore. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Aminu Kano were the leading luminaries of the progressive tradition in the fifties and sixties. It may be argued that their inability to win power, due to British colonial intrigues, internecine squabbling and ethnic mistrust, was the most significant political mishap in the early stages of the Nigerian project. For without a doubt, the course of Nigerian history would have turned out very differently if they had directed it. Zik, Awo, Aminu and their cohorts were not doctrinaire socialists despite their left-leaning rhetoric. British colonialists saw them through the blinkers of the cold war and deemed them to be a “red danger” but they were nothing of the sort. Rather they were “third way progressives” who envisioned a synthesis of an enterprise economy and a welfare state.

Their ardent advocacy of universal public education reflected their belief in the moral purpose of the state as an enabler of human potential and national prosperity. They were welfarists who were as interested in wealth creation as they were in social justice. The philosopher, Chinweizu has characterized their ideology as “communalism” rooted less in Marx than in the communal ethos of African society which emphasizes inclusion and collectivity. It is a vision of the responsible society that leaves no one behind in the quest for moral and material progress. The state is thus necessary to underwrite the mutual wellbeing of the citizenry while reining in the inequities and inequalities that result from unbridled capitalism. Certainly, surrendering society to the caprices of market forces would have been anathema to the patriarchs.

Nigerian progressives today are suffering from a number of plagues. The ascendancy of right wing military regimes throughout our history severely limited progressive fortunes. It also meant that right wing politicians were the favoured parties in military-sponsored transition programmes. Babangida’s particular persecution of so-called “radicals” nearly destroyed the progressives and left them too exhausted to mount a feasible challenge for power in 1999. Thirdly, the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of communism in 1989, unleashed a sense of ideological bankruptcy which buffeted the Nigerian left. The left has long supplied the moral energy of progressivism and with their weakening the progressive community also atrophied.

But the progressives are also reeling from self-inflicted woes, chiefly, their congenital inability to build a truly national movement. Progressive forces have been undermined by factional infighting, bigotry and sectarian prejudices. Progressivism is not synonymous with any ethnic nationality even though some politicians and commentators of the south west persist in making this unfortunate assertion. Their potential for a national victory has been nullified often enough by the irredentist reduction of progressivism to an ethnic enclave. In his seminal book, Africa in Ebullition, Adegoke Adelabu argued that the Action Group was limited by its “self-imposed provincialism and its petticoat of shabby parochialism.” The same criticism is valid today against those who deem themselves heirs of the A.G., and its later incarnation, the U.P.N. For years, an odious narrative has made the rounds casting the south (and the southwest in particular) as the bastion of progressivism and the north as the seat of feudal conservatism. This bogus narrative assisted by bigoted and ignorant commentators has long prevented progressives on both sides of the Niger from linking hands and rising to the defence of their constituency – poor, disillusioned Nigerians who are in the majority.

Secondly, progressives seem incapable of subsuming ego and personal ambition in the quest for greater collective victories. Internecine dogfights splintered the Peoples Redemption Party and reduced a potential national progressive movement to a skeletal organization located entirely in Kano. Too often, progressives prefer to operate as lone-rangers so convinced in the justice of their own cause that they wind up in a cul de sac of their self-righteousness, high on puritanical fervor but electorally impotent. This is a shame because when they make their case rightly, the progressives have the most compelling vision for Nigeria; one which should enjoy greater mass appeal but which for these reasons does not.

Of late, progressive ideals have disappeared from the public square. We live in an age of intellectual famine and ideas are rarely given space to manifest. Militarized politics ensures that public debate is frequently “won” by the hecklers and those who make the loudest noise. Reasoned, sober voices are drowned out. The triumph of cash and carry politics has sapped progressives of their confidence. There is presently no recognizable progressive party. Creating a national movement calls for progressives to rediscover their political identity and re-establish their pavilion in the marketplace of ideas. If they can regain their faith in themselves and in their values, overcome expired prejudices and provincialisms and find new young and energetic leaders, Nigeria could very well experience a national renaissance. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Naija is not Enemy Territory

I read the report online at first with bemusement and then with a growing sense of grief. It was of the Minister of Information and Communication, Professor Dora Akunyili condemning the usage of “Naija” in place of Nigeria as “very uncharitable and unpatriotic.” Speaking to participants of a reality show, she said, “It is very offensive to call Nigeria 'Naija'. We are making plans to write companies to stop using the word Naija. I have heard that name Naija in adverts. I want them to go back and remove that word. If anybody says this is Naija, ask the person, 'Where is Naija?' We have to stop this word because it is catching up with the young. If we don't put a stop to its usage now, it will continue to project us wrongly,” she said. (Thisday, November 15, 2010)

At first, I was tempted to dismiss it as another instance of official logorrhea but was driven to put pen to paper because such gaffes delivered with undue zest from high government officials often somehow wind up informing policy. And also because such cant should not go unchallenged or be allowed to frame public perception of the issues. The minister’s response demonstrates almost everything that ails our government. The planned censorship of the term ‘Naija’ is an example of a typical misappropriation of energy in the service of petty ill-conceived goals. The obvious misplacement of priorities at a time when so much is going wrong exhibits the devotion to frivolity that defines high office in Nigeria. The incident also verifies the lingering presence of a ghastly bequest of military rule – the refusal to engage intellectually with popular phenomena and instead to reflexively “ban” whatever is not understood. Instead of seeking first to understand, we move immediately to undermine and to antagonize. It is the knee-jerk reaction to whatever does not emanate from the narrow and squalid precincts of a dysfunctional state bureaucracy.

The question that should engage us as thinking beings is this: What is “Naija”? The term is increasingly pervasive and has found near ubiquitous expression on the platforms of popular culture, media, advertizing and in the corporate world. Among the younger generation, it is a slang of popular usage. Yet, young Nigerians do not turn up at airports describing themselves as nationals of Naija nor do they brandish passports issued by the Federal Republic of Naija. The term is simply a colloquial diminutive of “Nigeria” with roots in the idiomatic treasury of urban Lagos. This is why its most common expression is in the vibrant popular culture of which Lagos is the trend-setting capital.

But Naija has come to mean more than a casual slang. In a profound sense, in the generational consciousness of its proponents, there are figuratively two countries – Nigeria and Naija. Nigeria is what it is: a complex, unfair and unequal post-colonial travail for a meaningful human existence occurring in a pungent paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty. Naija represents what the emergent generation of Nigerians born between 1975 and 1995 are making of their beleaguered nation. It expresses the vitality and the resiliency of youth in a realm where dreams die first. It is the parallel universe that young Nigerians are constructing with their sweat, creative toil and irrepressible dreams channeled principally through popular culture – songs, art, films – but also through the entrepreneurial dynamism that enables them to make an honest living against incredible odds. Naija is the labour of love of an orphaned generation. 

To grasp its poignancy, we must understand the socio-economic circumstances in which this generation lives. In 2008, the Ministry of Youth Development disclosed that 80 percent of Nigerian youths, that is 64 million Nigerians, were jobless. Success rates in post-secondary school examinations have cratered at around 20 percent. According to the federal government, 71 percent of Nigerian graduates are unemployable – a living testament to the collapse of our education sector overseen by successive regimes since the 1980s. 86 percent of Nigerian graduates remain jobless for up to two years after graduating. These are a few of the demons that young Nigerians confront daily amid the absence of basic social amenities such as electricity and potable water.     

Above all, the government has shown little inclination to address these issues; to promote an agenda that gives Nigerian youths a sense of belonging, civic purpose and hope for the future. Instead, from time to time, we are treated to government officials trotting out a youth culture they barely understand to publicly flay it with the scourge of pious hypocrisy. For if anything projects us wrongly, it is surely the conduct of those in authority, whether it is the juvenile brawling in the national assembly or the grand larcenies of those entrusted with leadership. Indeed, it is the chasmal divide between state and society, between politics and public priorities that Naija represents as a conceptual community. Naija is the patriotic poetry of a generation that has been left for dead by its fathers and mothers, and yet has chosen to make this country, warts and all, its own and to convert its frustration and angst into a fuel for creative endeavour. It is, in fact, a term of endearment.

Advert companies did not invent ‘Naija’; they simply discovered a wave in the popular culture among the dominant demographic subset of the social economy and are now exploiting it with aplomb.  If intelligence instead of mind-closure was the directive principle of governance, the official response would have been to seek ways of harnessing this viral idiom and seek interface with its purveyors. Rather, what we saw was a quasi-militarist response that perceives the creative space that young Nigerians have forged for themselves as enemy territory. In ‘Naija,’ a generation has found not only a common syntax for defining its reality, but also potentially, the raw materials of a unifying political ethos, a core around which they can rally and contend for their collective destiny. It holds the basis of a patriotism far more authentic than the sterile sloganeering proffered by uninspiring politicians. 

Instructively, President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign has co-opted young artistes who are exponents of ‘Naija’ signaling an effort to tap into this phenomenon, to reach the youth vote and cast the president as a voice of youth. Since youths also demographically dominate the electorate, this is either savvy or opportunism or both. This demographic, it should be noted, also lacks genuine representation in the high councils of government that could conceivably advise on the nuances of youth culture. For these attacks on youth culture also stem from a generation gap that alienates politicians from their children and from youths in general who constitute the majority of our population.  

Nations all over the world have socio-cultural and informal appellations by which they refer to themselves (Britannia, Yankees, Kiwis, Nippon, Aussies, and Zion etc.)  There are also ontological and philosophical ramifications to a people choosing a formal or informal name for themselves instead of retaining their colonial cognomens. Names are vectors of values and identity and ‘Naija’ is an affirmation of values and an identity construct distinct from the post-colonial conundrum inherent in “Nigeria” – the name with which Flora Shaw baptized us.  Ironically, during the 1950s, Tai Solarin, the great educationist and social critic campaigned spiritedly against retaining the name ‘Nigeria’ because of its etymological kinship with the term “nigger.” He argued that preserving this name amounted to acquiescing to our national baptism with a racist epithet. Possibly, he feared that it would signal the “niggerization” of the world’s largest black nation and entrap us in a physical and metaphysical ghetto. Considering our present circumstances, Solarin might have been on to something.    

There is no telling how seriously the Ministry of Information will pursue its self-assigned censorial task but it is worth noting that words can’t be killed. They can only be buried or momentarily driven underground from where they will inevitably resurrect with greater rhetorical and intellectual potency. In view of this, we are better off allowing the positive values of Naija, chief among them the ability to coax hope and excellence from the jaws of despair and defeat, to permeate our public life. There is much to be gained from analyzing Naija and letting its essence revitalize our broken society. Nigeria is reeling from many ailments. Naija is not one of them. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Understanding Boko Haram: A Theology of Chaos

A kingdom can endure with unbelief, but it cannot endure with injustice.

                                                                            Uthman Dan Fodio 

Three weeks ago, Boko Haram, the ultraviolent Islamic militant group rose like a phoenix from hell from the ashes of its defeat last year by the Nigerian military. In Maiduguri, Borno State, they carried out motorcycle-borne ride-by shootings targeted at police officers and other law enforcement agents. In Bauchi, they stormed a federal prison and set free hundreds of their members as well as other inmates and threatened reprisals against those they accused of persecuting their members. Obviously, the military did not defeat Boko Haram last year when a five-day long clash ended with the extrajudicial execution in police custody of Mohammed Yusuf, the group’s leader. Although scores of the militants were killed or rounded up, several also escaped, simply melting into surrounding environs. According to the State Security Service, Boko Haram has 540,000 members. A group with that numerical strength cannot be wiped out by the strategy of decapitation traditionally used by states to cripple dissident groups. Decapitation as a strategy is simply targeting dissident leaders for elimination as a means of exterminating their rebellion from the very top. The resurgence of Boko Haram makes clear that the military operation against it was only moderately successful.

The emergence of Boko Haram signifies the maturation of long festering extremist impulses that run deep in the social reality of Northern Nigeria. But the group itself is an effect and not a cause; it is a symptom of decades of failed government and elite delinquency finally ripening into social chaos. Think of Boko Haram and other extremist groups of its kind as bacterial cultures. We must understand the Petri dish in which they have been cultivated. In order to appreciate the peculiar resilience of such groups, we must grasp the socio-political and economic conditions of the north. Northern Nigeria is a seething mass of illiteracy, misery, poverty and beggary. While Nigeria generally scores very poorly on every index of human development, Northern Nigeria sinks below the abysmal national average to the extent that a child born in the northwest or in the northeast is likely to have a lower quality of life than a compatriot born in the southwest or southeast. 

The news headlines in recent months portray only a part of the north’s mosaic of human suffering. Since the beginning of the year, lead poisoning has steadily decimated children in villages in Zamfara State, where they have been forced by poverty to engage in illegal mining. Cholera, a water-borne plague eradicated by the early 20th century has reached epidemic proportions in the north where it has killed hundreds. The recent outbreak has been called the worst in twenty years and according to the Federal Ministry of Health now poses a threat to the rest of the country. Cholera is rife in the north because of the lack of potable water and flooding. In addition, the southward surge of the Sahara is claiming many natural water bodies forcing rural folk to resort increasingly to contaminated water sources.      

In 2006, Borno State Governor Ali Modu Sheriff told broadcasters that he was not bothered by criticisms of his administration in the print media because 95 percent of the people in the state cannot read and write. In any case, he added, less than 2 percent of Borno residents have access to newspapers. The governor’s press people later clarified that what he had meant to say was that radio and television were the dominant media in the state. To discerning ears impervious to spin-doctoring, it sounded as if Governor Sheriff had been glorying in the illiteracy level of his people and boasting of its utility as a political weapon. Mahmud Shinkafi, the current governor of Zamfara achieved infamy in 2002 when as Deputy Governor he pronounced a fatwa urging Muslims to kill Isioma Daniel, a Thisday reporter, for alleged blasphemy. Despite the acute humanitarian crisis of the north, its leading politicians have been preoccupied in recent months with how to clinch presidential power in 2011 and how to negotiate favourable niches in a post-2011 political reality.  Clearly the priorities of the so-called northern political elites are not in consonance with the realities of their people.

These facts are necessary to provide an insight into the prevailing political psychology in the north. Boko Haram is the consequence incarnate of misrule by delinquent political elites. It is a creature of state failure demonstrating the decline of our institutions in all its unvarnished ugliness. Despite the fact that the sect sent a widely publicized letter warning of its militant intentions, its attacks still surprised law enforcement agencies. The diminished intelligence capabilities of the government, the ease with which the militants struck at the federal prison and the group’s boldness in attacking federal agents since 2005 all indicate the waning strength of the Nigerian state. Elsewhere in the federation a range of embryonic insurgencies exist in the form of militant groups in the Niger Delta and kidnap gangs in the south east, and they intimate us of the fact that the Nigerian state no longer has the means to impose its will on this country; it no longer has a monopoly over the coercive instruments that underwrite the state’s rule and indemnify it against sedition or dissidence. Boko Haram is the terrifying face of this reality in northern Nigeria. It is the harbinger of incipient chaos.      

Boko Haram is an extremist group but it transcends the traditional extremist victimization of Christians in pursuit of grander anarchic ambitions. Its war is with the Nigerian state and western education which it perceives as a vector of the corrupting influence of modernity. Its ultimate objective is some version of an Islamic state, preferably of 7th century vintage. In this, it closely resembles Maitatsine, the violent extremist cult that inaugurated the bloody era of religious terrorism in the north in the early 1980s. But Boko Haram is itself only a part of the picture. The social conditions that permit its existence are rife across the country. Millions of unschooled and unskilled able-bodied young men reside in our cities and towns and provide a ready pool of malcontents for extremist recruitment. Even among the educated unemployed, the crisis of unemployment in Nigeria where 40 million youths are jobless makes them vulnerable to sectarian preachments. Into this breach, groups like Boko Haram enter offering a theological framework of social analysis: rampant poverty and existential meaninglessness emanate from the Nigerian state and its unislamic provenance; from the presence of western education and the intrusion of modernity into an Islamic society. Boko Haram imparts to its members a sense of purpose and mission as warriors for the cause of God ordained to cleanse the society of moral impurities and establish an alternate order.

In a failed or failing state, religion is particularly prone to perversion. The role of the state is to protect humanity from assault by the elemental forces of nature through the institution of law and order. Where the state is derelict, religion is often the likeliest agency people turn to for interpreting the vagaries of their existence. This is what has happened in Nigeria. The explosion of sectarian violence in northern Nigeria coincided with four developments in the eighties – the collapse of the Second Republic which signaled the failure of politics and a popular loss of faith in politicians; Babangida’s imposition of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) which eliminated state subsidies, and through untrammeled trade liberalization wiped out local enterprises (especially the major textile industries and tanneries of the north) thereby eliminating jobs; the Babangida regime’s unhelpful religious politicking as evinced by its surreptitious dealings with the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) which gave the impression that it was a pro-Muslim regime and inflamed sectarian suspicions; and the collapse of the agrarian communities of Nigeria’s northern neighbours, Niger and Chad due to massive plagues of drought and desertification, spewing huge numbers of refugees into northern Nigerian cities where they fell into the void of extremism. Niger and Chad are essentially failed states and represent bleak prophecies of what could eventually befall northern Nigeria.

Even now, as desertification and drought devastate vast swathes of the north, a convergence of ecological, economic and social adversities is occurring. When rural areas lose ancestral farmland to the onslaught of the Sahara desert, huge numbers of disinherited young men flood northern towns and cities in search of jobs. In some places they become commercial motorcycle riders known as Achaba who now number about three million in the Kano metropolis; otherwise they swell the ranks of the urban underclass and most wind up on the margins of society from where they become easy recruits for politicians looking to build private armies or for roaming bands of outlawed extremists or bandits. Note that in the southeast where gully erosion has devastated rural communities, young men dispossessed of any means of livelihood make for the urban areas where many sadly enlist in the underworld. It is permissible to argue a direct link between the ecological degradation of rural areas and the uptick in urban crime and terrorism that has gripped south eastern metropolises.

These instances tell us that the umbrella of the Nigerian state is in tatters and while a derelict political class continues its self-indulgence, dispossessed Nigerians are embarking on the path of self-help by any means at their disposal. Religion is one of those means. It is tempting to argue that this pattern of perverse religiousity is something unique to the north and attributable to its Islamic heritage. This is untrue. Consider the neo-Pentecostal cults in Akwa Ibom that engage in torture of suspected child witches. In these communities, pastors or exorcists are engaged by poverty-stricken parents to seek out the witches in their household. Children are tortured, found guilty of witchcraft and banished from home from which point onwards they fall prey either to early death or sexual slavery and maltreatment as victims of child-trafficking. In a failed or failing state, religion assumes the role of locating scapegoats to explain social conditions of misery. In the north, Boko Haram blames the presence of western education and the Nigerian state itself; other extremists blame it on the presence of Christians or infidels, just as in some other parts it is blamed on the presence of non-indigenes, infidels or strangers. In parts of Akwa Ibom, defenceless children are the scapegoats for material conditions of poverty.

The view that Islam is solely to blame for religious violence in the north is simplistic for another reason. The south has a very substantial Muslim population (particularly in the southwest and parts of Edo state) and records very little of the sort of sectarian bloodletting that periodically grips the north. The region’s acceptance of western education and, especially, Obafemi Awolowo’s single-minded insistence on free education freed many communities from the yoke of illiteracy, boosted the technical capacity of the western region and created a vibrant middle class. Economic security meant that religious affiliation could not be the primary social identity in the region. Lagos State, for instance, has only ever had one democratically elected Christian governor – Sir Michael Otedola, who served in the short-lived Third Republic. Yet, this has never been an issue in Lagos politics. Compare this with Kaduna State where Governor Patrick Yakowa is the first Christian to occupy that position, despite the considerable Christian demographic presence in the state. His ascension to that office this year was attended with uneasy novelty, tension and fears of sectarian violence from some Muslims who saw his rise as a loss of power.  

The difference is that religion is at the centre of northern life. Matters of faith are synonymous with political allegiances. The north, historically hobbled by its cultural resistance to western education, experienced the absence of technical capacity and a lack of readiness for the demands of a modern economy, for which it had to compensate by accommodating southerners and expatriates. According to B.J. Dudley in his seminal work, Instability and Political Order, deep-seated resentment of the educated, technically-savvy southerners who formed the urban merchant middle class of the north was the source of ethnic violence in the region between the 1940s and 1960s. He argued that these explosions of inter-tribal animosity were also (indeed, primarily) class conflicts pitting wealthy southerners against the northern urban underclass. This thesis remains valid. Storefronts in commercial districts are specifically targeted during bouts of rioting by the armies of vagrants and juvenile delinquents that roam northern cities and towns. This kind of “ethno-religious” violence stems from cultural hysteria – the angst of communities who are unprepared for a modern social economy, who have been raised to be deeply antagonistic of modernity and who consider themselves assailed by outsiders as a result.  Young males are socialized to see themselves as victims and then to react as aggressors. Their rage is inevitably directed at presumed alien influences in their communities, often people of other faiths and ethnicities. Supremacist ideologies rooted in inferiority complexes gain increasing audience.

Without the skills necessary to access opportunities in the current socio-economic equation, the people are left with nothing but their religion as their sole resource and are thus vulnerable to all the monstrous mutations of faith that are liable to manifest in a climate of ignorance, corruption and economic inequality. Such alienation feeds the burgeoning subculture of violence embodied by street gangs like the Yan Daba in Kano and Sara Suka in Bauchi. The political imperatives are clear. The north in educational and socio-economic terms is a disaster area comparable to the ecologically devastated Niger Delta. Both zones are theatres of human and environmental carnage wrought by rapacious elites. Northern politicians have singularly failed to invest in education and to fast track infrastructural development in the region. Indeed, over the years, northern elites have cultivated the impression that illiteracy and ignorance are part of northern identity; that part of what it means to be a northerner is to be illiterate, in order to facilitate their own positions as political protectors of their victimized people. Even the Koranic education system is dysfunctional and is mainly mass-producing millions of almajiris – the street children that are fixtures in virtually every northern town and city.

This is a travesty of the region’s history and heritage. Northern Nigeria has a long-lived tradition of learning and literacy. Uthman Dan Fodio’s jihad was not only aimed at purifying Islam but also at replacing the rule of materialistic potentates with that of scholars. A comparable analog is Plato’s idealized government by philosopher-kings. But Northern-dominated anti-intellectual military regimes from the mid-eighties onward reduced the region to a crypt of learning. Anti-intellectualism is now promoted as being synonymous with Islam – a strange proposition since the religion gave the world gifts of insight in the sciences, astronomy, medicine and mathematics especially algebra. We still use Arabic numerals as the mathematical medium for explaining the physical universe.  In the north, there persists a residual antagonism of the so-called Yan Boko – western-educated northerners “who have forgotten their roots.” This obdurate resistance to education and glorification of illiteracy remains along with elite kleptomania, the region’s greatest obstacle to progress and the leading vector of sectarian violence and poverty.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the British colonialists and the Fulani aristocracy conspired to block the spread of western education in the north. The British wanted to avoid what had transpired in southern Nigeria where the ready acceptance of education had created a generation of anti-colonial nationalist agitators. They also wanted to avoid the emergence of educated Islamists of the sort that were then challenging their rule in Egypt. The British understood that western education would upset the conservative feudal social order over which their allies, the emirs ruled and would ultimately endanger colonialism itself. The Fulani aristocracy objected to western education because they feared that its Christian missionary purveyors would gain inroads into their domains.

Herein lies the source of the historic schism between northern and southern Nigeria. It was not political in the beginning but educational, technical and thus socio-economic. The northern elites of the independence era led by Ahmadu Bello necessarily saw their roles as slowly opening their society to modernity while preserving it from domination by the southerners who were better prepared for the rigours of a modern economy. Today, it is fair to say that the general antipathy to western education in the north has been sustained by political elites who understand that psychological subservience is best perpetuated in a climate of ignorance and fear. By using the bogey of southern domination and manipulating religious and cultural symbols, northern politicians have been able to maintain their access to power. Decades ago, the leftist academic Bala Usman extensively critiqued what he accurately identified as the elite manipulation of religion for economic and political advantage.

Boko Haram and other extremist groups of its ilk have also emerged in the context of a yawning political vacuum in the north. Forty years ago, the poor of the north at least had champions like the great Mallam Aminu Kano and his Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) and later the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP). Mallam Kano, a scion of the ruling class was an ardent advocate of the talakawa and made it his life’s cause to terminate the conservative power structures that he deemed responsible for their poverty. He championed education, women’s rights and the social emancipation of a people bent double under the yoke of feudal oppression. He used Islam as a liberating ideology against the preachments of those who used Islam as an ideology of subjection of the masses and women. In his excellent study, Ethnic Politics in Nigeria, Okwudiba Nnoli details how the British colonialists colluded with their local confederates in the 1950s to deny NEPU its electoral victory using thuggery, chicanery and intimidation.

In the years since the early eighties when Mallam Kano died, the fortunes of northern progressives have waned. There has been no other northern (or for that matter, Nigerian) politician of comparable iconic status and moral authority. The machinations of conservative opponents and military dictators ensured that the northern progressive movement was reduced to its entrails. No politician and certainly none of his prominent disciples have risen to claim Aminu Kano’s mantle. In the absence of a progressive opposition to the conservative ruling elite, a dangerous vacuum has grown in northern politics. The talakawa may have lost their political champions but this is not to say that they are completely voiceless. It is this vacuum created by the neutralization of progressive forces that extremist cults are now seeking to fill. It is their advocacy of the cause of the poor and their opposition to social injustice that lends these groups their appeal. Boko Haram and allied groups represent a potent if erroneous critique of the delinquent state and its dysfunctional leadership culture.

            Boko Haram’s actions cast some light on our institutional failings. Their assault on the federal prison in Bauchi may even be seen as an escalated protest against a travesty of justice. 70 percent of Nigeria’s prison population is awaiting trial. The justice system is over-burdened, beset by corruption, manpower shortages and other plagues. Keeping Nigerians in detention without trial indefinitely does not serve the cause of justice. From their point of view, Boko Haram simply liberated their brethren from illegal captivity by state agencies. If suspected terrorists cannot be charged to court and successfully convicted, then it is the fault of the state.
In a sense, the Boko Haram saga is also about chickens coming home to roost. For years, northern politicians paid lip-service to anti-Christian violence wrought by homicidal zealots. It was as though some secret diabolical transaction stipulated that Christian lives be used to placate the violent extremists to stop them from turning their attentions to their leaders. Emergent groups like Boko Haram, Kalo Kato among others are sectarian zealots like their forebears but have now arrogated to themselves the right to determine who or what is “Islamic.” To that extent, the double-edged sword of extremism is now aimed precipitously at the jugular of the northern ruling classes. It remains to be seen if northern politicians understand the catastrophic potentials of the Frankenstein monster that they have created; whether they can act to stamp out the homicidal pathologies festering along the margins of their society.
A few things can be done to arrest the slide into anarchy. The federal government should establish special tribunals mandated to deal expeditiously with cases of sectarian violence and terrorism. The capabilities of security agencies in terms of intelligence gathering and early warning systems should be enhanced. The operational conditions and capacities of the police mobile units, the army and other paramilitary agencies should be enhanced with respect to addressing urban terrorism and guerilla warfare. From all indications, our security forces are not yet attuned to the operational nuances of suburban counter-insurgency and conventional military approaches result in great collateral loss of life and property. Our northern borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroon are notoriously porous and have to be secured against the influx of weapons and would-be extremists and fanatics from these countries.
However, the greatest task lies in the domain of politics and public policy. The fact is that vast areas of the north are conducive to crime and insurgency. So too are the scores of decaying urban centres across Nigeria left desolate after the collapse of social services and public utilities in the late eighties and early nineties.  There needs to be serious commitment at the highest levels of government to address the entropic conditions incubating groups like Boko Haram. It might require some kind of federal intervention especially in the areas of education and healthcare and greater pressure on northern elites to develop the region. Without this, Nigeria could find itself battling with an insurgency in the north in addition to its manifold challenges. And unlike Niger Delta militants who are at least open to negotiating with the state, the absolutist extremist groups in the north want nothing except the very destruction of the state itself.  
Superior bullets, bombs and spies alone will not defeat extremism. Terrorism as a form of protest beckons to a generation of youths who see that they are destined to live and die in poverty and deprivation. Their present is bleak and their future is uncertain. Thus, they take refuge in a manufactured past, a mythical 7th century Islamic Utopia into which they seek to forcibly induct the rest of the society. For these alienated legions, life is a more frightening prospect than death so presumed martyrdom has an allure because it offers a post-mortem status that exceeds anything that Nigeria can currently offer them.  Such cults threaten national security because they virulently oppose the pluralism, tolerance and civic mutuality generated by the very existence of the Nigerian nation. Their ideologies are by nature exclusionary accommodating only one perspective. Our national ideal, even if observed mostly in the breach for much of our history, is inclusion. Furthermore civic solidarity is undermined when a growing number of Nigerians aspire to relocate to the 7th century while the rest strive to master the 21st century. It is worse when these mutually exclusive aspirations occur along geographical lines.

Ultimately, we must redefine the notion of Nigerian citizenship in such a way that it provides a framework of civic purpose and welfare for every citizen. Being a Nigerian must offer a measure of existential meaning for Nigerians otherwise disaffected millions will seek definition in narrow, exclusive and polarizing sectarian identity constructs. The only cure for extremism is an umbrella of psychological, social and economic security spread over the nation by a socially responsible state, one that sees its role as guaranteeing the common good. Constructing such a state is the most urgent task of leadership today.     

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Audacity of Hopelessness Part II

Nnamdi Azikiwe envisioned a Nigerian society run by “an aristocracy of intelligence” – a realm in which the smartest and most competent citizens would be at the helm of affairs. The nationalists of his generation would have been dismayed by a situation in which even the presidency is allocated or “zoned” to an individual on the basis of ethnicity or creed rather than through free and open democratic contest. In The Trouble with Nigeria, Chinua Achebe argued that the abolition of merit in our public life fosters social injustice and a cult of mediocrity. “The greatest sufferer,” he wrote, “is the nation itself which has to contain the legitimate grievance of the wronged citizen and accommodate the incompetence of a favoured citizen and, more important and of greater scope, endure a general decline of morale and subversion of efficiency caused by an erratic system of performance and reward.”

Politicians who make it a priority to renew our institutions and install merit at the centre of our national existence must come to the fore. Enthroning an aristocracy of intelligence must once more become a viable ideal. This is not borne out of idealism alone but of common sense. For the subtext that has yielded the audacity of hopelessness is a failing state. The fact is that the Nigerian state no longer has the capacity to project its agenda at will. The increasing prominence and boldness of various non-state actors convey this reality. Consider that the Nigerian police as at 2009 had a paltry 377,000 men policing a population in excess of 150 million. Even combining the ranks of military and paramilitary agencies cannot yield the numerical strength required to monitor a country as populous as ours. And the numerical strength of security agencies is by itself insufficient to address the range of asymmetrical threats that threaten the republic. This explains the federal government’s recurrent inability to swiftly address eruptions of sectarian strife. It is not, as frequently supposed, merely a failure of political will, but a matter of institutional incapacity.

We live in an age of privatized violence and deregulated terror. The state no longer enjoys a monopoly of coercive instruments. Armed robbers are frequently better armed than the police. The police force itself is too poorly paid, ill-equipped and ill-motivated to competently engage the new realities of crime. It is essentially a uniformed underclass pressed into service by desperate economic circumstances and armed by a delinquent political elite to preserve a tenuous social order. Theirs is ultimately a losing battle against the chariots of anomie.

Nigeria’s security and intelligence architecture is apparently still conditioned by the imperatives and the perceptual mainframes of the military era in which national security was conflated with the physical security and political paramountcy of the ruling regime. In the lexicon of martial authoritarianism, ruling regimes, like medieval European potentates, were synonymous with the state. This is why the political primacy of the Head of State is a prime security objective interpreted in the same terms as the security of the country itself. During military rule, this doctrine spawned the terrible excesses of the security establishment. Today they generate serious failures of intelligence and breaches of national security. The philosophy may have been alright for detecting coup plots, engaging mutineers and ensnaring dissidents. But it falls far short of addressing threats against the state that are indirect and subtle; it fails to detect the machinations of asymmetrical forces that are less interested in the capture of the state than in its subversion through stealth and artifice. Military era security protocols are useless when deployed against forces that have no interest in plotting coups to seize power, for example, insurgents and religious extremists.

The degraded capabilities of the state are the result of forty years of the denial of merit in our public institutions. The smartest and most competent Nigerians do not see the public sector as a career option, preferring instead the greener pastures of the private sector or foreign El Dorados. And as the public sector has come to be seen as a haven of state-sponsored mediocrity, the government’s inability to meet its basic obligations such as providing social services and security has diminished. As things stand, only the presence of Nigerians who still swear by the old verities of honesty and hard work is restraining the floodtide of moral anarchy from completely submerging our society. These are the salt-of-the-earth Nigerians who bear the burdens of their citizenship with nobility and dignity. In the teeth of incredible odds and the vexatious provocations of delinquent politicians, they have refused to make their poverty an excuse for crime. They represent the very best aspects of the Nigerian spirit.  But this remnant is itself endangered because neo-Machiavellian radical pragmatism has assumed the force of common sense in our society. Until merit is enthroned and moral certitude restored to the public square, more and more Nigerians will succumb to the audacity of hopelessness.       

Opponents of meritocracy tend to be supporters of policies like the constitutional Federal Character principle and the quota system. Their original intent was to facilitate equal access to social and economic opportunities for Nigeria’s diverse ethnic groups, especially those considered to belong to “disadvantaged areas.” In practice, these remedial mechanisms perpetuate social injustice, subvert meritocracy and have entrenched mediocrity in the public square and especially among the very people it was designed to help. The quota system and the Federal Character principle have failed because they have been used as channels for cronyism and nepotism instead of as instruments of democratizing opportunity. However, the failure of these policies as currently conceived does not negate the thinking that inspired them in the first place. The educational disadvantage of Northern Nigeria in relation to the South can be remedied by better governance and increased investment in education by both states and the federal government. Affirmative action programs are needed but should be designed to ensure that while democratizing opportunities for the disadvantaged, merit is not discounted. A multiethnic meritocracy is very possible.

There also needs to be a broader and deeper political commitment to social security and welfarism, both of which are enshrined in our constitution as “Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy” which proclaim among other things that the state shall “control the national economy in such manner as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity.” This provision envisages a state that is socially aware and responsible, underwriting the education, employment and healthcare of her citizens, thus creating a necessary buffer between joblessness (and other disadvantages) and hopelessness. The salient paradox is that only institutions manned by the most competent hands can capably deliver these solutions. In other words, the necessity of installing meritocracy in governance is inescapable.   

There are those who will deride these proposals as idealistic. The proper answer to their position should be “so what?” What is wrong with being idealistic? In our present circumstances, the only alternative to idealism is the hopelessness and the nihilism that place us all at the risk of anomic violence. Idealism is not utopianism. It means aspiring to reach the highest levels of social and public virtue. It does not matter if we fall short. The point is that we make incremental advances on our journey towards a progressive and a sustainable nationhood.There is a widespread cynicism about Nigeria’s prospects among its comfortable and affluent middle and upper classes. This sentiment corresponds with the hopelessness of the underclass in every respect except that it is a self-indulgent escape by the more privileged from the responsibility of renewing Nigeria. Both the cynicism of the comfortable and the hopelessness of the afflicted are self-negating and nihilistic, offering no real solutions to the crisis. It requires no intelligence to state the obvious about the Nigerian condition. Pessimism is often the disguised mental laziness of the economically secure who have refused to think their way out of the morass. It takes real effort to find solutions. That is the work before all of us, not just politicians. 

Idealism requires fresh and bold acts of social imagination. Imagining a new Nigeria is a task for all of us – a civic responsibility. It is a call incumbent upon us as intellectuals to postulate a rational optimism about the nation’s future; as creative artistes to craft dreams of renascence in poetry, prose, song and ennobling myths because the soul of a society is forged in the province of its imagination; as politicians who must design and practice a new politics of hope and justice; as entrepreneurs who have to create wealth and value through marketable solutions; as public servants who bring a new zeal and conscientiousness to their stations and redefine the very meaning of public service; as social activists leading non-governmental agencies as angels of mercy into zones where the state and the market cannot operate because our capacity for compassion is what makes society humane. These contrarian engagements with the nation are essentially acts of faith. In short, nation-building is an act of faith.

It takes faith to transcend the Hobbesian ghettoes of absolutist self-interest and declare our collective possibilities and establish a common future. Idealism requires all of us in our various domains to live as exemplars of that faith; to incarnate the new Nigeria. This is how nations are made; they do not build themselves. A nation, after all, is more than mere geography. It is an idea. It is citizens, who through acts of faith in the name of their imagined future that breathe life into that idea and give it a tangible reality. And the nation thus quickened gives meaning, hope and purpose to its citizenry. In this way, citizen and state enable each other in a virtuous cycle of mutual affirmation. In our age, the one response we can muster to the audacity of hopelessness with any certainty of success is the audacity of faith.  

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Audacity of Hopelessness Part I

The capacity to produce social chaos is the last resort of desperate people.

Cornel West

           The advanced nations of the world have built their institutions upon a simple moral equation that can be stated thus: ‘Talent plus hard work equals success.’ It means that so long as the citizen understands his talents and gifts and is prepared to maximize his potential through endeavour at school and work, he will ultimately be rewarded with success. This principle is built into the reward systems, structures and institutions of these nations. In practical terms, it ensures that the cream always rises to the top and the most gifted and competent hands are assigned the reins of leadership in every sector of the polity. With the best and the brightest at the helm, nations advance continuously, breaking new grounds in human progress.
            Even when talented individuals are hamstrung by forces beyond their control, such as the economic status of their parents, welfare systems are in place to provide a financial cushion for such disadvantaged but promising persons. Unemployment benefits and allied forms of social security are meant to provide a springboard for the disadvantaged to compete for honours. They ensure that no citizen is ever denied economic or social opportunities on the grounds of ancestral underachievement. No generation should suffer for the sins or limitations of its forbears. Individuals will succeed or fail by their own hands. In essence, the principle of meritocracy is the moral engine that keeps the most advanced societies and economies of the world racing ahead. This is, of course, an ideal. Even among the world’s richest nations, inequalities of access to opportunity exist. What is key is that the fulfillment of this ideal remains on the front burner of politics and public life.
            The notion that talented citizens who apply themselves will be rewarded with financial security, public esteem and high repute is intimately bound up with the idea of justice. Justice in this context means just reward. The operative assumption at the heart of these nations is that their talented and dexterous citizens will be justly rewarded. Good things will come to the most deserving. Injustice, therefore, describes a situation in which this moral equation is not active.
            The effect of this equation is to give hope, purpose and meaning to the citizenry. It tells them that a moral order exists; one in which the most productive members of society are adequately rewarded. It proposes that success is neither an accident nor the whimsical gift of capricious gods, but the logical consequence of talent and endeavour. Citizens come to believe that they are not at the mercy of fate or caprice but truly captains of their own destiny. The autonomy of conscience and the will to create unleashed by this understanding is the wellspring of progress and innovation. What results from all this is a virtuous cycle in which achievers become exemplars of infinite possibilities inspiring more people to pursue excellence thereby creating yet more exemplars who spawn yet more achievers. For example, Barack Obama’s historic ascension to the American presidency has surely raised the bar of aspiration especially among African-American youths who can now aim to be more than basketball stars and rap artistes. Achievement becomes a virtue; excellence, a habit and progress, the default mode of a society so engineered.
            If there is any formulation that amply summarizes the secret of the successes enjoyed by the world’s leading nations, it is this simple principle that talent coupled with hard work results in success. Conversely, if there is any singular statement that summarizes the Nigerian crisis, it is that this moral equation is no longer at the heart of our society. For most Nigerians, especially the generation born after 1975, there is a crystal clear moment in the memory when it dawned on us that succeeding in Nigeria had to do with much more than talent and endeavour. It may have been when National Common Entrance Examination results were announced and we were told that despite scores exceeding the stated cutoff mark, we would not be admitted into the secondary schools of our choice because Nigerians from different states are subjected to different test standards. It may have been when, in pursuit of either higher education opportunities or jobs, we were quietly told that we were from the wrong geopolitical zone, or the wrong state, or the wrong local government area or possibly even the wrong family. In that moment, the notion that talent and hard work would never suffice struck us with revelatory clarity. We realized then that there were other unknown variables hidden in the Nigerian equation for success. From that point on, we committed ourselves less to achieving the pious ideals of honing our talents and working hard and more to the mastery of these unknown variables, whatever they might be.
            The suggestion that talent and hard work have little to do with success in Nigeria may be debated by some. Certainly, there are several prominent Nigerians who are celebrated for their talents and have risen to the top of their fields through the application of their formidable gifts and tons of hard work. However, what is not debatable is that millions of young Nigerians have come to believe that talent and hard work are not the primary prerequisites for achievement in Nigeria. Indeed, many discount them entirely as factors. We encounter this belief frequently when we are told that merit matters less than “connections” in clinching a job or a contract or when we hear the axiom that getting an appointment is about who you know rather than what you know. An NOI-Gallup poll conducted in 2007 found that “the more educated Nigerians are, the more they believe in the power of ‘connections’ and the less they believe hard work is the critical ingredient for progress in our society. The consequences of these beliefs are catastrophic. Why bother discovering one’s talents if they do not count for anything in the scheme of things? Why bother with hard work if it is all futile?
            These are the questions haunting a generation of young citizens increasingly surrendering to existential nihilism. For without the moral idea that talent and hard work will be justly rewarded, there is only the psychic inertia of hopelessness and despair. The notion of just reward fortifies the conscience against lawlessness. When it is eroded, disaster is afoot. Why delay gratification when society’s ethos strongly suggest that there is no tomorrow to live for? Why not eat, drink and debauch ourselves today because we may well die tomorrow? Why work hard to pass examinations when having brains is scarcely respected in our anti-intellectual society? Indeed, why work hard at anything at all? This is the crisis at the root of the plagues of delinquency now rife in our society. The epidemic upsurge of fraud, armed robbery and the newly prevalent species of violent crimes such as ransom kidnapping and suburban terrorism typically carried out by youths between the ages of 17 and 35 are symptoms of deeper sense of hopelessness.
          Fifteen years ago, it was difficult to imagine that Nigerian youths would ever engage the military and paramilitary forces of the state in violent combat. A clear threshold existed in the Nigerian consciousness that precluded the possibility of violently confronting the servants of the state. But over the past decade as pocket insurgents, vigilantes, sundry militias and gangs have multiplied atop the rubble of widespread urban decay, it has become clear that this threshold has been breached if not erased completely. Fifteen years ago, a strategic assessment of threats confronting the republic would have highlighted a military coup by adventurous soldiers. Today, the threat to the republic comes not from mutinous elements in the state apparatus but from non-state actors of which there is a fearsome plenitude on our shores. The spectacle of young Nigerians violently taking on the state whether as militants or extremist fanatics is a manifestation of what I call the audacity of hopelessness.
            Members of Boko Haram, the violent Islamic extremist sect tore up their school certificates not only because their leader taught that western education is a sin but also because there was scant evidence that their certificates would earn them access to a more qualitative life. In the south east, male school enrolment figures have been in decline since the mid 1990s in consonance with the spreading belief that illiteracy is of no consequence if you have money. At first, males in the region took to trading in their quest for wealth and then they turned to a variety of darker pursuits. At its best, education directs individuals to their place of optimal function in the social organism. It facilitates self-knowledge and purposeful citizenship. But in our anti-intellectual clime, the value of knowledge and learning is questionable and wealth sits atop the highest pedestal of our priorities. The consequence is that too many of our young people are locked in an existential funk and a vocational limbo. All this stems from our perverse reward system.        
When Sigmund Freud was asked the secret of happiness, he said simply, “work and love.” The economic empowerment and dignity which comes from being productive citizens and the consequent ability to raise families is what gives people a stake in their society. Once people are so invested in their communities with the means to create and procreate, their appetite for delinquency and deviancy correspondingly diminishes. Their work gives them something to live by; their family gives them something to live for. In this way, work and love impose a regulatory discipline upon citizens. Vast millions of unemployed young Nigerians have no such stake in the country’s future. Their economic exclusion makes them predators on society rather than shareholders in its progress.
As Obafemi Awolowo said after the civil war, “As long as there are serious doubts in the minds of Nigerian citizens as to the availability and permanence of economic prosperity and social justice, so long they will be disposed to civil war, or to its next of kin – civil strife or communal rioting.” It is clear that we have bred a generation of malcontents now dispensable as cannon fodder in episodes of political violence, sectarian strife and internecine conflicts. The British scholar Anthony Kirk-Greene once wrote, “Fear has been constant in every tension and confrontation in political Nigeria. Not the physical fear of violence, not the spiritual fear of retribution, but the psychological fear of discrimination, of domination. It is the fear of not getting one’s fair share, one’s desserts.” In other words, it is the fear that playing by the rules is futile and insufficient to guarantee success and security. This fear is undermining our democracy.   
The moral context of Nigerian life is also significant. In practical terms, Nigeria is a place where good things happen to bad people in a blatant transgression of natural justice. Persons of disrepute are rewarded for their lack of scruples with national honours. Convicts and felons have been known to enjoy access to the highest levels of government. In short, criminality is all too often rewarded. Whereas advanced societies have mapped meritocratic routes to wealth and power, the paths to similar objectives in Nigeria are fraught with unpredictability. There is no guarantee that a lifetime of honest effort will be justly rewarded. This explains why allegiance to godfathers, secret cults and rogue politicians is increasingly seen as the surest route to economic, social and political security. It also explains the preponderance of black markets, renegade civil servants and similar institutional mutations which subvert our democracy. For where due process and rule of law are debased, only social Darwinism can prevail. 
            Let us then consider the dilemma of the generation now coming of age. They make up the ranks of a forty million-strong army of jobless Nigerians. Their experience of Nigeria is of retirees denied their benefits after a lifetime of service to their country. It is of countless brilliant soldiers wastefully consumed in attritional cycles of coups, counter-coups and rumours of coups. Their material reality is one in which unacceptable levels of want and beggary exist in the same time and space with pornographic opulence. Let there be no mistake, popular discontent in this country does not stem simply from poverty - poverty is present in every country; it is that poverty in Nigeria occurs within the context of stark inequality, public theft, status consciousness and the idealization of riches. Under such circumstances, poverty is interpreted as the consequence of being stupidly honest, of being naïve and of refusing to be as radically pragmatic as success in our culture demands. 
            The moral conclusions yielded from this experience are frightening. The emergent generation grew up in a clime in which the strong trample upon the weak often with assistance of state power. Success therefore does not require goodness but strength as a cardinal virtue. They have been socialized in a land in which wealth and power are idolized. There is therefore no virtue in being honest. The only virtues are wealth and power and these are to be acquired by absolutely any means necessary. It does not require a social scientist of exceptional vision to discern in this worldview the blueprint for an animal kingdom. The audacity of hopelessness thus emanates from the spiritual suffering of people who see their talent, their hard work and their lives wasted in the gyre of a meaningless existence. It comes from the subjugation of good minds by stupid ones; and the strangulation of nobility and courage by mediocrity, mendacity and perfidy.