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.