Towards an Ethnicity of Values, By Okey Ndibe
For me, one of the most disconcerting facts about public discourse in Nigeria—including intellectual exchanges—is the rampant, if not default, deployment of ethnic or religious sentiments. Confronted with issues of moral urgency that demand the taking of principled positions, far too many Nigerians find comfort in embarrassing expediencies shaped by ethnic or religious affiliation.
I’d like to suggest that this particular malaise ranks awfully high in the menu of toxins ravaging the Nigerian body politic. And the greater pity—the tragedy, in fact—is that this particular pathology has infected a wide and widening section of that demographic group that answers to Nigeria’s intelligentsia.
It is dispiriting enough to run into unlettered Nigerians who can’t see the right or wrong of any issue without first wearing their ethnic or religious lens. It becomes sordid when those who are seemingly educated resort to viewing matters of profound import through the lazy, easy, hardly pertinent prism of ethnic aggregations or religious affiliations. Such haste to seize and spout ethnic jingoism or religious jingles raises serious questions about the form and content of education in Nigeria. At its best, education is a tool that frees and enlarges the mind, enabling the educated to see matters without the blinkers of ignorance or parochial platitudes.
When we see Nigeria’s parade of PhDs act and speak as if each issue is defined by their particular ethnicity or religion, then we must pause and ask salient questions. Here’s one fundamental question: Is the possession of an academic degree (or degrees) synonymous with being educated? Another way of posing the question is: Do degrees and diplomas translate into education? Is there a correlation between acquisition of a string of diplomas and the cultivation of an enlightened outlook?
I recall that, at graduation ceremonies, the graduates are said to have been found worthy “in character and learning” to deserve bestowal of degrees. Where lies the “character” when many of the graduates of Nigerian and foreign schools are willing participants in crooked activities, including primitive, criminal accumulation of wealth and electoral fraud? Where resides the “learning” when so many of our graduates are ever willing to subordinate principle to ethnic or religious rationalizations?
Perhaps, then, some of the Nigerians we glibly refer to as educated are merely “certificated.” The difference is crucial. A woman or man may cram up some economic theories or principles of moral philosophy without having the slightest clue how to apply them in real life. Such a person would be able to regurgitate the crammed information in an exam to earn a high grade and an impressive certificate. But ask her/him to apply the “knowledge” in the dynamic praxis of lived experience—and you see certified incompetence.
In the 1980s, the novelist Chinua Achebe had occasion to rebuke a group of academics at the University of Lagos for evincing a narrow, stultified vision of education. Here’s what happened. Achebe had given an interview to the then Concord newspaper in which he bemoaned the cataclysmic decline in the quality of education in Nigerian universities. His criticism drew the ire of some UNILAG academics. In separate interviews, these critics sought to dismiss Achebe’s argument. One of them accused Achebe of making a pronouncement that had no “scientific” proof. He then asserted that the spoken English standard of the average undergraduate was superior to Achebe’s. Another—a sociologist, if my memory serves me—reminded Achebe that each discipline has and uses its own jargon. A third, an economist, voiced his disdain for fiction, stating that he had no use for novels. He concluded that he missed nothing by not reading novels.
Appalled by the substandard quality of the responses, Achebe riposted that his critics had inadvertently made his case far more eloquently—about fallen standards—than he did originally. To the critic who accused him of making an “unscientific” claim, Achebe wondered how the counter-claim about the average student’s spoken English standard measured up as “scientific.” He reminded the sociologist that each discipline has its lingo, but that the most learned people are able to rise above the esoteric tongue of their discipline to communicate to a broad audience in an elegant language. He held up Bertrand Russell, the Nobel prize-winning philosopher mathematician, as an exemplar of the educated person who was able to transcend disciplinary claustrophobia. Achebe had some bad news for the novel-detesting economist. He told the man that, in denying himself the insights and pleasures of fiction, he loses much in culture and enlightenment—and would not even be a good economist. Achebe categorized the criticism of his assertion that educational standards had declined dramatically as a case of “combative ignorance rabidly trumpeting its own values.”
I’m willing to suggest—scientific proof or no—that educational standards in Nigeria have further declined significantly since Achebe’s claim in the mid-1980s. In fact, the invention and spread of the Internet has both afforded once repressed groups ease of access to expressive platforms and facilitated the articulation of abhorrent, pathological attitudes. One is constantly shocked by the ethno-religious name-calling between different Nigerian groups on Internet forums. The dirtiest epithets are hurled at the ethnic or religious “Other.”
Those with access to the Internet—many of them, one imagines, university graduates—frequently promulgate ideas that members of other ethnic groups are sinister and diabolical, in short as the very incarnations of evil. In like fashion, these Internet partisans often make sweeping ethical claims for those who belong to their states, ethnicity or religion.
Such claims, whether they denounce or extol whole groups, are caricaturist in nature. They have little or no validity, even when they appear persuasive or seductive. In fact, we should recognize them as inimical to the cultivation of a broad base of enlightened society. I have argued elsewhere that ethnic baiting and stigmatization often precede genocidal horrors. The free circulation of ideas of the inherent villainy of members of other ethnic groups and the inherent moral goodness of members of one’s own ethnic collectivity is a clear and present danger. Those who champion such attitudes are ever reluctant to subject their positions to self-scrutiny. They seldom pause to interrogate the legitimacy of their notions of collective guilt and collective heroism. Without any form of examination, ethics is collapsed to the size and shape of ethnicity.
The rampancy and growing appeal of such wholesale creeds have fed the argument that Nigeria ought not to remain one country. That contention is outside the purview of my talk, except in one respect. It is this: If Nigeria is ever to have a chance at self-realization, then its enlightened citizens must strike alliances across ethnic, religious and social lines. A critical core of citizens must begin to look beyond ethnic and religious considerations when faced with issues that behoove us to take principled positions.
I am Igbo by birth, but I make no extraordinary claims for my ethnicity. There are admirable Igbo men and women and deplorable Igbo men and women. The same is true, I believe, for members of Nigeria’s other myriad ethnicities. I make a point of judging Igbo politicians and public officials by the same criteria I use to judge politicians and public officials who happen, say, to be Kanuri, Efik or Yoruba. I admire people who share my values, whatever their ethnic or religious identity. I believe, quite simply and unapologetically, in the ethnicity of values.
This column is adapted from a talk I gave at an event organized by the National Association of Seadogs in New York City on June 28, 2014. Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe