Monday, July 26, 2010

On Good and Evil in a Failing State

         Edmund Burke, the 19th century Scottish statesman famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In applying this axiom to contemporary Nigeria, it is permissible to argue that the problem of our society is not that evil people outnumber the good. Various critics and analysts of the Nigerian condition have situated the national crisis within a broader collapse of values and an unhinging of public decency that ripened during the long dark years of military rule. Politics as we know it on our shores is a jarring study in the banality of evil. The news headlines strongly suggest that the ethical challenges of a post-colonial society still trying to find its soul have mutated into pure atavistic amorality in every dimension. The current generation of Nigerians raised and socialized under military rule has no terms of reference for moral conduct in public life or even the very idea of a public life. Incubated in the consumerist ethos of a materialistic age, it is a generation that does not believe in anything except self-interest, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Its creed is materialism but of the nihilistic and narcissistic kind.

          Even so, the problem is not that evil people outnumber good people but that good people do nothing. It is the Burkean conundrum. Nigerians are generally decent, compassionate and morally aware. They want the same things – the basic social amenities and the guarantees of security that make for a healthy, happy and wholesome life. They want to grow old and see their children and their children’s children progress and break new grounds in mutual prosperity. No ethnicity or creed has a monopoly over these aspirations; they are common, universal and indubitably human. However, the moral majority is also a silent and a passive majority lacking faith in the power of their goodness to prevail over evil. In fact, in our popular theology and popular culture, the power of evil is celebrated. Our home videos depict Nigerian life as a precarious existence threatened by an array of physical and metaphysical perils. The faithful are taught to pray against the machinations of the Devil and a host of supernatural forces ranged against them. Parents are more likely to terrorize their children into obedience with threats of Ojuju Calabar (a local masquerade or bogeyman figure) than to teach them voluntary ethical behaviour.

Why we have more faith in the reality of evil than in the power of good is a subject for anthropologists and sociologists to investigate. It may have to do with the African mind and how it traditionally interpreted the unpredictable vagaries of nature as forces to be feared and worshipped, not to mention the cultural penchant for seeking metaphysical causes to explain natural phenomena. We can venture further postulates. Apart from virtually nil infrastructural development, zero growth and a post-conflict type economy, military rule left other less visible but even more insidious legacies. These bequests are buried in our collective psyche and subconscious. In the course of the 1980s and the 1990s, we were socialized to believe in the power of the strongman; the man with the most guns and the most money and his divine right to lead.

Today, ten years into our at least nominal democracy, this belief continues to negate the emergence of authentic democratic institutions and habits. It is the reason why like military coups, elections in Nigeria feature all the elements of state capture, the hijack of the state and its arsenal of coercive instruments by political gangs and their eventual privatization of governance upon their ascent to power. It explains the gangsterization of politics and public service and the complementary adoption of oligarchic capitalism that makes membership of some cult, mafia or cartel, the presumptive pathway to political relevance and economic prosperity.

In many ways, Nigeria is like a frontier society, a 21st century version of the American Wild West characterized by primitive predatory capitalism and a surfeit of banditry and lawlessness. The culture of impunity and incivility that denominates our politics and public life is evidence of this. The Book of Ecclesiastes speaks of an epoch streaked by “the tears of the oppressed” who “have no comforter” in a land where “power is on the side of the oppressor.” These are our circumstances. A predatory ruling class simply steals, kills and destroys in order to secure power and economic resources. The Nigerian condition is not an accidental misfortune. It is not the unhappy consequence of poor planning and stupid policies although we have had plenty of that. It is not merely a result of the fact that increasing numbers of life-long felons are retiring into politics. Official corruption in Nigeria is not simply a problem of dishonest individual leaders and top officials; it is a system. The configuration of power and governance makes it essentially anti-development. Those who control the state thrive by subverting development. It is more rewarding for them that the state and the economy are dysfunctional than operating smoothly. It is systemic evil. What we have is not the rule of law but the rule of the outlaw, a moral climate designed to engender the ascension of antiheroes.

Our situation evokes a theodicy. Where is God? Where is the power of good in a realm in which evil is so mercilessly predominant? Where is hope when godless men prosper? To explain our adverse circumstances, a theology of fatalism and a bizarre eschatology that situates Nigeria’s redemption at some far-off future time has developed and seized the Nigerian imagination. The faithful are told that God will swoop down in due time, work miracles of apocalyptic proportions and set the nation free from its demonic captors. They are enjoined to pray unceasingly for the dawning of that judgment day. Oddly enough, even public policy is crafted in eschatological rhetoric. Consider that in 1979, General Olusegun Obasanjo predicted that Nigeria would be a superpower by the year 2000. During the 1980s, General Ibrahim Babangida promised millennial prosperity with housing, health, education and welfare for all Nigerians by the year 2000. General Sani Abacha shifted the millennial goalposts by a decade with his Vision 2010 economic program. President Obasanjo pushed the threshold further forward with his Vision 2020 agenda promising to make Nigeria one of the world’s twenty largest economies by the year 2020. Along the way, the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. program to halve the incidence of poverty, illiteracy, disease, maternal and child mortality by 2015 has entered our canon of millennial visions. These prophecies were all the more remarkable because from 1979 to 1999, Nigeria recorded virtually no growth.

Long-term planning is all very well but that is not in the main what these programs were about. By deferring progress, these regimes, aided by their theological coefficients, postponed and continue to postpone the necessity of fighting in the now for justice and equity. By adopting a futuristic vision of national progress, the work left undone by several generations is laid up for our progeny who must bear the burden of their forebears’ knavery and indolence. Above all, the civic will to change is sapped as Nigerians are enjoined to pray for their leaders even as those same leaders perpetuate the plunder of our patrimony. The establishment prophets assure us that a millennial day of divine rescue is coming thereby desensitizing us to the urgencies of the now. Our duty, they say, is to survive, to cling on by any means necessary, until that day. If we cannot beat them, then we must join them. In the meantime, we are to accept that evil must prevail for now until the Lord in his infinite mercy moves to save us. And so the masses of otherwise decent and morally-sensitive Nigerians participate in the destruction of their country and become unwitting accomplices of the evil forces which they so readily revile. Just by the simple fact of their surrender to things as they are.

This nation has been literally brought to its knees in what may seem to be a posture of prayer and supplication. In fact, this posture is an apt metaphor of our genuflection at the altars of the oppressors. It is a statement of our surrender to the whims and caprices of feckless tin gods. This position of prayer is actually a portrait of our faithlessness and our civic and moral inertia. Authentic faith moves through prayer to politics; politics meaning a broad engagement in public life that conceives of a responsibility to the wider society at large whatever our individual callings might be. Faith must transcend personal survivalist concerns and energize social and political action. Good and evil are but cosmic abstractions. It is with our moral and civic choices that we incarnate either good or evil in the public square and in the market place. With our acts of omission or commission, we can become as angels establishing beauty, symmetry and order or demons perpetuating death, decay and dysfunction.

Throughout history, societies have been transformed by the twin moral impulses of righteousness and justice. These instincts emanate from a sense that good is inherently superior to evil and therefore, that evil can be defeated by good. The notion that good trumps evil is innately human. It has driven civilization throughout the ages. It is why we generally love fairytales and movies with happy endings. The great moral traditions of the world offer a hope in the eventual redemption of humanity, whether in the form of Nirvana, Utopia, New Jerusalem, Elyseum, Valhalla, Zion, Al Jannah, or allied idealized visions of the city of God. They speak of the attainment of a state of enlightenment and a universal consciousness in a terminal civilization of peace, love and justice. But they are fundamentally based on the idea of the ultimate triumph of good over evil. What we must recover then, as people of faith, is the belief that the good within us can overcome the evil without. As the great nationalist philosopher, Mokwugo Okoye once said, “To be silent in the face of so many evils crying for action is to give consent to their continued existence, for progress demands discussion and action.” And action prescribes a resort to righteousness and justice as the basis of our social and political redemption.

In our context, righteousness is doing the right thing, performing that which commends itself as an act of conscience and a moral necessity. The righteous deed is essentially right in itself and requires no authentication by its consequences. Civil righteousness is doing what is right regardless of its consequence. It is the womb of courage. Imagine that a child is crawling unknowingly towards a ditch in the ground. As that child toddles in innocence towards a fatal plunge into the pit, you are confronted by a moral necessity. Righteousness does not demand that you pray at that hour or seek divine intervention. You are the only one who can possibly intervene in that drama. The moment demands action not prayer. Therefore you act and save the child before it falls to an early death. That is righteousness – doing the right thing. While righteousness is doing the right thing, justice is fixing what is wrong. So in this drama, justice demands that you cover the ditch and eliminate its threat to the child. Beyond that, it requires you to investigate who or what created that threat in the first place. For pursuing justice in a lawless society necessarily implies a confrontation with evil.

We can now begin to imagine a public theology of civil righteousness and social justice. Charity and compassion constitute the righteous response to the poor, the hungry and the alienated in our society. This is basically in the domain of social enterprise and non-governmental activism. Social justice, however, requires that we investigate the structures and systems that mass-produce poverty, hunger and alienation. It is the calling to interrogate the protocols of formalized inequity and oppression which hinder people from fulfilling their potential. This is what it means in the Pauline syntax to challenge “powers and principalities.” There must be a needful balance between our empathic duty to feed the poor and our prophetic responsibility to ask why the poor have no food in the first place. Discernment and vigilance are necessary in this regard for uncritical charity can serve to defuse political outrage and cause people to accept as benevolence the things that should be their civic inheritance. Such munificence can deepen our beggary and victimhood thereby neutering our capacity to ask crucial questions of the state.

The pursuit of social justice will lead us into many domains including those of politics and public service for this is where the faulty systems and structures can be reformed or destroyed if necessary. Civil righteousness and social justice mean that we must uproot and destroy dysfunctional systems as well as build sustainable institutions. To do so, we will have to penetrate the innermost sanctums of power where the realities of Nigerian life are dictated and rewrite the rules of our social, economic and political existence. Thus, the new theology redefines politics as a noble and patriotic vocation whose practitioners are called to manage and maximize our collective possibilities.

The role of faith in a developing society or a failing state is not to manage the consequences of failing institutions, nor is it to anaesthetize us to the crimes against our humanity and posterity inherent in the reduction of so many of our people to dynasties of prehistoric subsistence. It is to inspire us as citizens to identify real causes and confront them. Civil righteousness and social justice demand that we address the urgencies of the now through compassionate encounters with the humanitarian consequences of our arrested development and creative and constructive engagement with its systemic and institutional causes.

Our resistance to evil may not yield immediate spectacular victories. Most of our acts of conscience will not birth dramatic results. But they will accomplish something no less important. History has been known to turn on the mustard seed paradox; on small apparently hopeless acts of defiance whether it is Rosa Parks refusing to go to the back of the bus, Gandhi leading his people on the salt march, Martin Luther hammering his 95 theses to the church door or William Wilberforce and his band of conscientious activists waging a twenty-year campaign to end slavery. Mustard seeds are small, sustained, seemingly insignificant acts through which we counter evil and bring good into being. In the end, the point is to create crisis of moral choice for our children before the dark night of anomie and anarchy completely falls over our land. For if we can show them through our acts that another Nigeria is possible then it will be enough.


  1. Well said Chris! Eloquent and yet clear...a cutting but very necessary message to us.

  2. what a touching article. thanks for the eye-opener.

    call Nigeria