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