The Cultural Context of Nigeria’s Problems, By Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú
Nigeria’s, and indeed Africa’s, problems lies in our culture, the lack of strong institutions, poor governance, religion and the unlucky latitudes we have found ourselves in. While wondering where to start, the chief justice of Nigeria (CJN) scandal hit, closely followed by the appointment of a new inspector general of Police.
I want to wish all you who read me, a healthy and prosperous year. I have served my thoughts on Nigeria to you in this column since 2013, when I came to you as an ordinary Nigerian, who took to writing because she sees a lack of appreciation for civics and the responsibilities of citizenship. I promised you at the time that I would dwell on sociopolitical issues. I have done so. Although, I tilted more to politics than the sociology of our lives as Nigerians, I have had to do a lot of introspection. I have done a lot of thinking and projections, given our peculiarities as a nation and have come to the conclusion that Nigeria must think, for us to be great. Nigeria must change, for Africa to be great, because whatever direction Nigeria goes, so does Africa. We have bred a generation of miseducated Nigerians. We have a culture that has refused to learn and has no love for reading. How then do we proceed to healing this country and developing a thinking and critical mindset in our young?
The answer, to me, lies in pushing easy to grasp information in places frequented by the young demographic and psychographic. From this first article of 2019, I will be less opinionated. I have chosen to inform more, educate more and teach more. I want to use this platform to mould minds. It is a bit of a departure but I did not pioneer this. I have benefitted immensely from the teachings of Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman in his New York Times Column. He has proven the method works by teaching his readers the economic outcomes of American policies in easy-to-comprehend formats. I am going to do what he does.
Nigeria’s, and indeed Africa’s, problems lies in our culture, the lack of strong institutions, poor governance, religion and the unlucky latitudes we have found ourselves in. While wondering where to start, the chief justice of Nigeria (CJN) scandal hit, closely followed by the appointment of a new inspector general of Police. The CJN issue brought to the fore the concerns around weak institutions and culture, while that of the IGP revealed the president’s ingrained clan-based thinking, which has become a culture. These problems feed each other to generate our nebulous path to development. For this reason, how culture impedes Nigeria’s development will be first in the series.
What Is Culture?
Culture has many nuanced definitions but the concise and robust definition I really like is: the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. From this definition, what we think, how we think, what we say or do is our culture. Our behaviour and attitudes as a people and how we live is our culture. Given this definition, our famed religiosity, corruption and mediocrity is our culture. For every culture, there exists customs, law, knowledges, morals, art and belief systems that defines its context. Let’s see how we stack up.
Customs – ideally, a people’s customs are their ethos and mores. An example of this is the Omoluabi ethos of the Yoruba, which emphasises polite speech, respect, kindheartedness, honesty, character, enterprise, hard work and sensibility. Have we exchanged our cherished values, which have served us for centuries, for that which we do not understand? Yes, we have, and we are thoroughly confused on what to embrace and to discard.
Law – every society has laid down rules and laws governing its conduct. Rules exist to bring those who flout laws to justice through enforcement and the branches of governance. Civilised societies are determined by the blindness of their justice system. Before colonialism, our traditional societies had justice systems that might have been harsh but which worked. We have never had it so bad until we adopted that which we did not partake in its evolution.
It is true that colonialism dealt us a bad hand and moved us backwards. Many countries have shaken off the shackles of colonialism and evolved better. A critical look at Nigeria and our evolving culture will reveal the need for socio-economic and psycho-social lessons.
Knowledge – every society possesses information and experiences packaged and passed on from one generation to the next. With rising literacy, a people’s information, experiences and ideas can be better preserved and passed on more consistently. It is important to note that our indigenous knowledges have been trampled upon by colonialism and further decimated by our leaders through ignorance and underfunding. Our lack of appreciation of history and indigenous knowledges has negatively affected our proper exploitation and production of knowledge.
Morals – every language spoken is a piece of social technology. The gradual erosion of indigenous languages and exposure to Western popular culture has created a potpourri of lost identities. Without an identity, it is difficult to understand what is acceptable within one’s culture, as one is lost in the middle.
Art – the loss of our art and art forms, spearheaded by early foreign religious missionaries who labeled them as demonic, has been very painful. With the incipient loss of linguistic depth, it is not surprising that our art is not showing any originality that will warrant serious international acclaim.
Belief systems – these are Nigeria’s greatest enemies of development and growth. Religion is part of culture but it merits its own separate topic in a different article.
It is true that colonialism dealt us a bad hand and moved us backwards. Many countries have shaken off the shackles of colonialism and evolved better. A critical look at Nigeria and our evolving culture will reveal the need for socio-economic and psycho-social lessons. I posit that our biggest problems have little to do with colonialism but more with the way we see, think and act.
This manifests in the appointment of people into positions based on their familial, tribal, religious or political affiliations, rather than their abilities and competencies. This may look good In a country where a section is educationally disadvantaged but it is detrimental to the overall development of any nation where it is an acceptable practice. No country can reach its potentials when the best are denied opportunities. Clan-based thinking is also incestuous, and incestuous relationships promote mediocrity and a lazy mindset. With a lazy mindset, the natural consequence is an entitlement mentality. The Boko Haram insurgency rekindled in Nigeria and general insecurity has grown because our national security architecture has been weakened. These days, children of prominent Nigerians have joined the army with a sense of entitlement and privilege, with the sole agenda of making money and gaining power, not service. These children often run at the sight of battle with insurgents.
We cannot continue this cycle of mediocrity, resource theft, nepotism, corruption and expect to develop human capital and raise the standards of living of our people. Each one of us must focus on becoming a resource in our area of influence.
Researchers acknowledge that mindset is hard to change. Mindset is defined as the established set of attitudes held by a person or group. The mindset of laziness, entitlement and dependency cannot be understood or addressed without a look at how the ruling elite, in cahoots with religious leaders, has been gaslighting Nigerians for a long time. Their mind altering agenda has worked wonders. It has created a miracle-seeking, anti-intellectual environment, where only God can solve problems. Humans only have to wait and pray!
President Buhari once referred to young Nigerians as “lazy youths”. It is not hard to figure out why the young generation now expects everything, from jobs to political power to be handed over to them on a platter. They have been fed on a cocktail of cheap money, religion and favouritism all their lives. They have seen it and lived it. They feel owed and they nurse a grudge of robbed potential that demands compensation beyond input and reason. The Nigerian entitlement mentality causes the young to expect government or God to hand them jobs, cars, houses, food without commensurate effort. Unfortunately for them, the world is programmed differently. Life rewards those who work.
A Culture of Dependency
A culture that once believed one rich man among nine poor relatives has increased the number of poor people in that family to ten, has become a culture where dependency is celebrated and enjoyed. All in a little over a generation, we substituted our norms and sacrificed our values. It is now common for people to beg or wait for those who are better off in the family to cater for them. This has had a negative impact on wealth creation.
With the kind of education we give and how it is funded, Nigeria can never get it right. We pay lip service to everything; we underfund education, while pretending to be doing everything to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for education. We know that our population is growing, yet the education budget decreases or stays stagnant year-on-year. Our education system rewards rote learning to the advantage of memorisers and the disadvantage of creative and abstract thinkers. It has become an education where the suitable is sacrificed for the irrelevant. We have created an environment that produces semi-skilled job seekers to feed the industrial system, instead of creating a knowledge economy that promotes thought. We developed a system where students go through untouched because they did not specialise where their aptitudes and greatest potentials are. Add to this, is institutionalised examinations malpractice and preference for university degrees, without a corresponding vocational base. We keep churning out unemployable graduates who cannot defend their degrees. What this has done to us, is a cascading loss of potential and wealth.
The world has changed! Performance and productivity are the language out there. We cannot continue this cycle of mediocrity, resource theft, nepotism, corruption and expect to develop human capital and raise the standards of living of our people. Each one of us must focus on becoming a resource in our area of influence.