Nigeria at 50: Primitivism or Civilisation?

Apple launched its latest Ipad last April for which over 140,000 applications have been developed so far. These applications, many of which are free, are accessed through its Itunes store. A week ago I tried to buy an application, ContactP HD, that will enable me send emails in bulk to thousands of my readers across the world.

I discovered that almost every country is listed on the store except Nigeria, meaning you cannot purchase anything from Nigeria in that store. Though the application is just $1.95 dollars, there I stood helpless in spite of my Visa card.

Someone told me that a Nigerian customer could access the stores if he claims Niger Republic instead of Nigeria. Niger! Itunes is not the only cyberstore that does not have Nigeria on its list. I have encountered many others before.

Last May, the German Foreign Office invited me to participate in a blogger tour in Berlin. One of the other fourteen participants from China, Michael, alerted me that my emails containing the word Nigeria may not reach him because they will be classified as spam and blocked. On a different occasion, another participant, Mahmud from Egypt, remarked, perhaps with a bit of exaggeration, that when the world learn about Nigeria in the international media “is either when you are killing one another on the streets or kidnapping oil workers and businessmen.” (I just hope Mahmud has not heard the latest kidnapping involving dozens of primary school children.)

The import of the above is clear. Over the years, the world has learnt not to trust us. It is not saying that we are a bunch of fraudsters. Certainly, they know that the average Nigerians is as good as any good citizen of another country. But there are just too many unrestrained fraudsters among us that make the risk of dealing with us too high for many business managers across the world to take. As international business becomes increasingly run on the credit card, I doubt if we will go far in selling our goods to the world as the chances of citizens of other countries divulging their credit card details to us cannot even be contemplated. We must limit ourselves to bank transfers. That is why, long before 9/11, when we apply for their visa we are made to undergo extra-scrutiny, worse than the citizens of Arab countries. In the end, the visa to US, Canada, Europe and Britain is hardly issued to us. Thus, the ‘Mutallab’ case was quickly used to install body scanners in our airport while they are still not in use in Saudi Arabia, the country from where fifteen out of the nineteen 8/11 bombers allegedly originate and nine years since the sad even took place.

Stories like these about Nigeria are conspicuously absent from its 50th Independence Anniversary narrative. They describe the bad reputation and moral liability we are handing over to our children, a legacy so different from the one we inherited from leaders of the First Republic when neither Niger nor Egypt was ahead of us in development as well as in character. I wonder what further denigration the future has for us in the Information Age. I also wonder what language the world needs to speak before we institute rule of law to appreciably tolerable level.

On my facebook,, I sought the opinion of my cyber friends on how they would rate our leaders, past and present, in quantitative terms. A plot of their response clearly depicts an inverse line; that is to say the respondents are unanimous in holding that quality of leadership has deteriorated progressively in the past 50 years. The last respondent, Umaru Samaila, generously gave leaders of the first republic 98% but went on to become increasingly economical until he reached Jonathan, whom he rated 20%, thirty percent less than IBB and Abacha. The only time the curve managed to show an increase is during the tenures of Murtala and Buhari, two leaders who unquestionably have genuinely endeavoured to make Nigeria a better country.

The issue is not whether Nigerians are quantitatively better of in terms of infrastructure and social services today than at independence in 1960. It makes a very sad reading that some writers would point out that progress has indeed been made because our GSM today works better than the analogue lines of 1970; that our roads are double-lane and asphalt rendered, wider and smoother than the single-lane collar surface roads of the 1960s. In the end, according to the authors, the fact that we can communicate better and travel faster means progress has been made. That is missing the point. That is growth in absolute terms, which the scientist often rejects. Growth is a natural process but it is usually measured relative to time and, in a competitive environment, relative to the progress of other competing entities. If we compare our rate of development during the First Republic with that of today relative to the human and material resources available to each period we would fully appreciate the folly of the absolutists. In fact things like GSM are global phenomena, not something that any Nigerian leader would claim a credit for, as Obasanjo apologists often do. Even within the GSM realm, why did MTEL, the national GSM career, woefully failed where private ones like Celtel, MTN and Glo succeeded? Does the average Nigerian child today stand a better chance to acquire a good standard of education as did his father in the 1960s? Is the average Nigerian adult better trusted today by citizens of other countries, nay by his own fellow countrymen, than was his father in the 1960s?

Yet, Nigerians, generally, are not ready for change. Everyone comes to television and preach against corruption when he is a beneficiary and perpetrator of corruption. Followers or leaders, we are reluctant to change. Would Nigerians, to bring my point home, vote for Murtala as a President today seeing how they are unanimous in acclaiming his nationalist credentials? No. Many mouthpieces of corruption or trumpeters of ethnicity in the press would accuse him of being a Muslim, a Hausa, a northerner, a military, and a lot of other rubbish just to jettison the chances of a success that would check corruption. On election day, the elite, from the Commander-in-Chief to the constable, would gang up to ensure that he does not win. I am not surprised that neither him nor Buhari are listed among the awardees at our 50th Anniversary by a regime that is increasingly becoming an offshoot of the corrupt Obasanjo dictatorship.

Would Alvan Ikoku or Zik win elections in Abia or Anambra State today? Equally, would Balewa or Sardauna be given the gubernatorial tickets of PDP or CPC in Bauchi or Sokoto States today? They, like many people of integrity today, cannot even aspire for a party ticket because they do not have the money that would earn them our reckoning or the dishonest bent that would permit our yearning to ransack pubic coffers. But we sing their praises today because they are dead, who, according to Machiavelli, pose no threat to our interest today. If they were alive, we would have opposed them as we oppose their likes today.

The case of Buhari is indicting to the conscience of this country. He will remain a pebble in the shoe of the Nigerian elite. We are not avoiding Buhari when we question his democratic credentials; we are rejecting the principle that makes him different among our political class. That is why since 2002 when he joined politics, I have held that his goal, like that of Aminu Kano before him, may be limited to serving as the symbol of conscience in a political world perverted by deceit and corruption. The good will support him or for someone better than him in that sense while those whose consc
ience is less pricked by corruption will oppose him and go for candidates with a lesser commitment to tackling the menace. Many vultures that have sufficiently devoured our public treasury are joining his CPC in many states today precisely because they want to exploit the goodwill and hoodwink the masses into giving them the necessary votes they need to steal further from the public treasury. The party itself so far reckons only with the wealthy, unfortunately.

So if we believe that our leaders are so bad and the country is declining to a brink, what informs our reluctance for change? What is responsible for our deliberate choice for decay instead of growth when citizens of other nations and their leaders could tame their passions and live to a standard that earns them the confidence of other nations and business partners?

Questions like these that depict our sad reality continue to preoccupy my mind since I started public commentary in 1999. I have heard many theories. Some blame the European colonialist who amalgamated us into one country, as if we are the only colonized nation before. Some have accused our oil wealth, as if we are the only oil producing country in the world. Some blame western education, as if we are the only nation into which it was introduced. Some blame the size of our country any time we point at the success of small countries like Ghana, Niger and Guinea in, say, conducting free and fair elections, forgetting that we are just one-eighth the population of India, the largest democracy in the world, which often conducts free and fair elections. Some blame our multi-ethnic composition claiming that we have over 500 tribes and two different religions, forgetting that India, again, has three big religions – Hindu, Buddism and Islam – and over 1,400 tribes. If only every ethnic nationality would be allowed to govern themselves in a federation, the ethnic jingoists would claim, Nigeria would be a great country. The excuses are infinite and mostly half-truths.

A deeper look at our problem however will not fail to ascribe our inability to manage our affairs creditably to a more intrinsic factor. And my conviction of that factor is becoming stronger by the day. We have before us a civilization challenge, along with many other Africans because most of the problems we have are not limited to Nigeria. Some are even worse than us, particularly in terms of instability. It is the complicity of other factors – the size of the country, its multiple ethnicities, oil wealth, strategic importance, etc – that have worsened our situation. The crux remains the question of civilisation. We have failed, like most of our ancestors, to overcome the excruciating primordial factors and launch ourselves on the plane of civilisation, as others have done before and as some leaders of the First Republic attempted.

We still succumb to individualism at the expense of the collective, as did our primitive ancestors. The education acquired from other civilisations – Arab and European of recent – have failed to moderate the influence of the crude ‘selfish gene’ in most Africans. This was confirmed to me by the veteran journalist, Magaji Danbatta, who told me in 2004 that leaders of the First Republic hoped that with mass education Nigerians in various regions will produce the crop of citizens required to put the country among developed nations one day. However, Danbatta continued in his lamentation, that hope was dashed in spite of the panoply of educational institutions and degrees of all sorts. “We are sort of jinxed or cursed”, he concluded. Richard Dawkins will dismiss the superstition and argue that we are under the spell of the selfish gene, which must be moderated by altruistic refinement of culture before civilisation would be rooted. “Our genes may instruct us to be selfish,” Dawkins said in The Selfish Gene, “but we are not necessarily compelled to obey them all our lives.” In Nigeria, we find the epitome of Dawkins’ fear: “My own feeling”, he warned, “is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true.”

I am not the first author to employ the civilisation theory – which essentially is a cultural theme – to explain our decay. One Nigerian scholar, Malam Ibraheem Suleiman of the Institute of Law, Ahmadu Bello University, has eloquently expressed it in the 1980s. I cannot now lay my hands on those writings that were then published weekly in the New Nigerian. It was through him I was introduced to the writings of Sir Arnold J. Toynbee, particularly his magna corpus, A Study of History. There has long been scepticism among Victorian scholars over the fecundity of western concepts like liberty and democracy among ‘savage’ populations of the ‘uncivilized’ nations. The insult in the words ‘savage’ and ‘uncivilized’ by even progressives like Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, John Bright, Thomas Huxley and Hebert Spencer who fought for the emancipation of blacks may tempt us to dismiss Toynbee’s mid-Twentieth Century assessment. However, the simple truth is that, though some of our ancestors built empires that were affiliated to some civilizations as many Western scholars would later discover and propagate, many of them were indeed savage during the Victorian era and beyond; some tribes practiced cannibalism up until the beginning of the last Century, the worst savage behaviour humanity could witness. And if western scholars of today do not call most of our leaders savage, I guess they are restrained only by diplomatic considerations.

And though Toynbee’s disheartening appraisal that “the black races alone have not contributed positively to any civilization, as yet” may be dismissed by Afro-centric scholars, we cannot deny that we have not been at the right places, at the right times. It is either we did not have the sufficient of the requisite five stimuli – “of hard countries, new ground, blows, pressures and penalizations” – or we had an overdose of some of them, like the impact of slavery that was most grossly perpetrated by Arabs and Europeans with the connivance of African leaders. So while other nations were compelled by severity of their circumstances to develop, Mother Africa overindulged us with its bountiful resources and unrivalled geography.

In the comfort of her arms, the copiousness of her milk and the benevolence of her climate, ‘the custom rules and society’ of our ancestors ‘remained static’. Like other primitive people, they directed their mimation, in the words of Toynbee’s abridger, D. C. Somervell, “towards the older generation and towards dead ancestors who stand, unseen but not unfelt, at the back of the living elders, reinforcing their prestige.” By contrast, in societies in the process of civilisation, “mimesis is directed towards creative personalities who command a following because they are pioneers. In such societies…‘the cake of custom’ is broken and society is in dynamic motion along a course of change and growth.” As a caveat, Toynbee did hold that primitive societies are static only “as we know them”, from their anthropological state.

Does Toynbee’s thesis provide any insight into the present state of our selfish, unmitigated individualism that has defied the moderation of learning and the refinement of custom? Does not our ineptitude incline us to the worship of past, dead heroes, instead of living ones – nations and individuals – whom we will endeavour to imitate without any excuse? The entire 50th Anniversary celebration is preoccupied by hero-worship of our ‘nationalist struggle’. Does not the abundance of Africa’s bounties – its diamonds, gold, copper and food – create in us the docility to tolerate blatant abuse by our leaders and encourage us to partake in, or aspire to, the destructive vanity of primitive acquisition? Does not our interethnic intolerance denote a r
esidue of the clannish orientation of primitive demography as against the more accommodating nature of civilisations?

Managing a modern country poses a civilisation challenge to us. Within a hundred years we are called upon by an ever-shrinking world to uphold the etiquettes, virtues and principles developed by other nations for which many of us are hurried to undertake. Our sojourn in that course has revealed our reluctance to depart from our ancestral terminal of primitive accumulation. We see ourselves as individuals first before locating our coordinates in the community, a trait that invites us to decimate into our personal estate whatever public property is entrusted in us, thence the collapse of every public institution and corporation in the country.

I disagree that this unfortunate station is reserved for our leaders. The followers too aspire to it. Taking the North for example, all its present and past governors are from very humble backgrounds, children of the talakawa, if you like, except Sardauna who came from the aristocracy. The same students sons of talakawa who walked the distance of 140 km from Zaria to Kano in 1976 when Murtala was assassinated to commemorate with his family are the same leaders who are ransacking our public treasury today. The universities they passed through were unable to briddle their primitive penchant to accumulate illegal wealth at the expense of the society. Also, communities all over the country accord traditional titles only to such looters. I have not heard anyone ever so honoured because of his accomplishments in scholarship, integrity or good governance. The problem is endemic.

Many writers and commentators have made public their views of what we and other similar African nations need to do. On this, I subscribe to the theory that individuals determine the course of their societies. Social progress, in the words of Bergson, whom Toynbee was generous in quoting on this issue, “…is really a leap forward which is only taken when the society has made up its mind to try an experiment; this means that the society must have allowed itself to be convinced, or at any rate allowed itself to be shaken; and the shake is always given by somebody.” We need to discover the seed of our progress that is ingrained in the living Nigerian or African personality that carries the genome of our salvation, whom Toynbee aptly called ‘genius’, and who would be the subject of the concluding half of this topic next week.

I admit that this discourse is unusually long. I indulged in the space considering that we are on holiday with plenty of time at our disposal. I, nevertheless, dedicate it to Sumpo and to many others who always prefer the essays when they are long.

Aliyu U. Tilde
Abuja, Nigeria


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