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Monday, October 4, 2010

Moving from the Brink to the BRI(N)C (Part 3)

Session Two started the next day with an attempt at, "Defining the Good Society" through a discussion of Aristotle's 'Nicomathean Ethics and Rhetoric' and Dele Olojede’s “Ask Nothing of God”. Aristotle had listed several criteria for determining what makes a good society, and had focused on happiness as an end in itself. We then struggled to relate Nigerians being adjudged as being the “happiest people in the world” by a 2003 BBC study to the reality of a society where nothing worked.
Some of us also found it difficult to reconcile Aristotle’s conclusion of a life of intelligence being the happiest, and hence leading to a good society, with the Nigerian situation. With so many educated citizens with advanced degrees, there seemed to be a negative correlation between the amount of intelligence and the good of society.

No reading could have done better justice to the Nigerian story like Dele’s keynote address at the 2005 NLNG Awards in Lagos titled “Ask nothing of God”. With another dubious report also finding Nigerians as the most religious people in the world, it is no surprise that the blame for every action or inaction is put at the feet of God.

Ask a Nigerian leader if he will be contesting an election, and he will mention God’s name. Ask him if he truly looted the treasury as accused, and he will mention God’s name. Ask the Nigerian citizen why he does not pay taxes, and he will thank God. Ask him why the government has not performed as promised, and he will blame God.

So while some participants disagreed with taking God completely out of the picture in Nigeria (I told you we are a very religious people), we could all nod our heads to Dele’s assertion that “That the citizen in Nigeria today lives in relative freedom does not mean he knows what to do with it. In fact, one often gets the impression that many Nigerians would rather not be free, scared as they are of freedom’s responsibilities. They grumble and complain about the flagrant inequities and outright robbery that unfold daily in full view, and they shrug and hope for some divine intervention, and fail to act to shape their own destiny. I have been looking out of the window in hopes of catching sight of this divine intervention, but perhaps my sight is poor. There is no cavalry out there riding to our rescue, ladies and gentlemen. We must face the cold hard fact that the world owes us nothing, and those who are not prepared to function in it will fall farther behind and become slaves to other races of men. It is neither fair nor unfair; it is just the way it is. As the line goes in the Merchant of Venice, “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano…”….The Americans have this wonderful preamble to their constitution, a statement of their ambitions as a nation. Its phrasing is elegant and soaring. It rallies the citizens around a common purpose. “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” That’s right, a more perfect union, a recognition that the task of improvement is never concluded, that a society must constantly strive towards the goal of insuring the common good….….So as we speak of the challenge of leadership as a catalyst for transformation, so must we examine the nature of today’s Nigerian, whose deep and self-destructive cynicism, as we have seen, is perhaps the greatest obstacle to change. ….We may consider a slight alteration to the famous passage in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, and say, my fellow countrymen and women: Ask not what God can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Community and Efficiency was the theme for the third session and we had as text, 'The Man and His Ideas', an expose on Lee Kuan Yew, founder of modern Singapore with the poser ‘Can Singapore's Experience Be Relevant to Africa? ’ We also had two papers by Peter Drucker which were: 'A Century of Social Transformation-Emergence of Knowledge Society' and 'The Coming of Entrepreneurial Society'.

This session was indeed full of debates as we marveled at Singapore where one man made all the difference and wondered where our own Lee Kuan Yew would emerge from. While being cautioned by the small size and monolithic nature of Singapore as compared to Nigeria, we were still able to relate to his challenge to Africans which he made in 1993 thus “From Africa must come a new generation of leaders, committed to reform, and tapping the same spirit that brought freedom 30 years ago. Angered by the failures of corrupt and autocratic leaders, frustrated by economic policies that did not deliver, impatient to recover their lost civil rights, and worn out by wars, Africa’s people are striving for a fresh start.” Needless to say, 13 years later, Nigeria does not seem to have heard his call.

As we read Peter Drucker’s words that there will be no “poor countries”, there will only be “ignorant countries”, we proffered ideas on what it would take to move Nigeria from the agrarian society in which it seemed stuck, to the knowledge society in which “practically every task is being performed in and through an organization”. Drucker advocated innovation and not revolution as a means of societal transformation, and pushed for the adoption of continuous learning and relearning as the key to an entrepreneurial society.

From Drucker, the discourse moved to the issue of Liberty while reading ‘Leviathan’ by Thomas Hobbes. According to Hobbes, in the interaction of men and the consequent competition for power, three major causes of quarrel exist: competition, diffidence and glory. The first make men to invade for gain, the second for safety and the third for reputation. We attempted to explore the Nigerian situation from the political class to the workers in a bid to understand the motivations for our various inactions, and unearth the reasons why ours was a country that was at standstill in terms of development.

Hobbes described the Nigerian situation aptly while talking about a society without the rule of law: “In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”. No that wasn’t the Hobbesian jungle, more like the Nigerian jungle!

We quickly moved on to Karl Popper’s 'The Paradoxes of Sovereignty', a critique of Plato‘s idea of trusting leadership unto the wisest. For Popper, as we could also observe in the Nigerian situation, you always have to assume the worst, and hope for the best when it comes to choosing leaders. Hence the focus should be on building the appropriate institutions and not solely on finding the ‘wisest people”.
Hence as Nigerians, rather than asking who should rule, more appropriately, we ought to be asking “how can we organize political institutions such that bad and incompetent rulers could be prevented from doing too much damage?”

Milton Friedman's “Capitalism and Freedom” provided the opportunity for us to discuss the role of government in Nigeria. How much government was too much government? Was government doing enough? Or was it doing too much in the wrong places? It was a paradox that while government seemed to be involved in everything in Nigeria, at the same time, there seemed to be an absence of government in every sphere of human life in the country.

It reminded me of a quote I had seen on Mark Hammond’s motorcycling blog, “It wasn’t just the highways and cities of Nigeria that didn’t make sense. The whole country was a knot of contradictions -- upside down and inside out, like the black and white negative of an old Kodak filmstrip. Nigeria is crisscrossed by more power lines than a Godzilla movie, yet electric service is sporadic across the nation. It is Africa’s largest oil-producing nation, yet fuel stations were often empty of gasoline and diesel and kerosene, or jammed with long queues of waiting vehicles.” Such was the paradox of the Nigerian situation.

As we moved on to 'Equality and Efficiency: The Big Trade-Off' by Arthur Okun, we started discussing on the appropriate type of leadership desirable for Nigeria. Did we want a benevolent dictator or an uncaring democrat? Each participant had to mount the podium and explain what he thought was the most fitting trade off for the Nigerian society between equality, efficiency, and liberty. There were some funny comments that the average Nigerian needed efficiency and not liberty, because he wouldn’t know what to do with it.

While each of us came to different conclusions, we were able to vigorously debate the kind of leakages in government in Nigeria, and whether we could truly achieve market place efficiency without rule of law.

Our discussion of leadership would not have been complete without a review of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, and in no time the discussion had shifted to the styles of leadership by two of Nigerian’s past leaders; late General Sani Abacha , and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. While we all started off condemning Machiavellian tactics, the discussion finally got round to some people agreeing that sometimes, you need a little of Machiavelli to rule people in a place like Nigeria.

What do you do when your personal principles contradict with public expectations of you as a leader? George Orwell's story: ‘Shooting an Elephant’ was the opportunity to launch into a passionate discussion about this.

As a colonial officer in Burma, Orwell recalled a day when an elephant ran wild, entered the village and was wrecking havoc. Villagers had reported and Orwell, who was disliked as was any colonial officer, was called upon to intervene. Picking up his gun, he went to the scene and he was followed by a large crowd which kept increasing, awestruck by his gun which they expected him to use in killing the elephant that was actually tame.By the time he got to the animal, however, he realized there was no point in killing the elephant that had survived its attack of 'must', the temporary madness that made it to misbehave initially. But the crowd was restless and he could see their expectation: they wanted him to fire the animal and even when he really had no desire to do so, he eventually ended up shooting and killing the elephant to. This led us into a discussion of some actions we had taken, not out of personal conviction, but due to the expectations of our spouses, friends, communities, followers and ‘crowds’. Interestingly, some of the participants denied having ever had to shoot elephants, while some moralized that the elephants they shot had actually deserved to die anyway.

The lesson from Nelson Mandela's 'Long Walk to Freedom' which we moved through more quickly than I would have loved, was that while leaders like Mandela arrive on the scene (after years of sacrifice and risking their lives), we really did not need a Mandela in Nigeria for things to be right again.

In ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, we are quickly introduced to Omelas, a small city where everyone is happy and prosperous; and you wonder, what could be more perfect? But for the community to exist in this lala land, its members must accept the abominable suffering of a single child locked up in a basement. Most people succeed in averting their gaze from the suffering child, because they feel they are having a lot of fun living, and moralize away the child’s suffering. Very few are those who walk away, and even for those, one is not sure if it is due to a sense of moral integrity, a troublesome conscience, or simply an acceptance of cowardice.

We quickly drew similarities between Omelas and the suffering in the Niger Delta, where most of Nigeria’s oil is found, and the attendant under-development of the area. We discussed about the Nigerian super-elite, who live luxuriously in the midst of poverty. There are stories about local government officials who meet monthly under a tree to ‘share’ the allocations meant for the local government while the town goes to waste. We quickly realize that while predictions like those of former Ambassador John Campbell sound too ominous and ill-willed, we might truly be dancing to the brink, unless we are able to quickly recognize that the task before us is to fix a failed state where the government does not work for a vast majority of the people.

If I could pick just one reading that truly resonated with me throughout the seminar, it would be Leo Tolstoy’s 'How Much Land Does Man Need?', the story of a poor but apparently contented farmer who due to a lack of core values was led into abandoning his peaceful existence and seeking lustfully after wealth through the acquisition of acres and acres of land beyond his wildest imagination.

Naturally, at the end of the story, the farmer’s obsession for wealth and lack of self discipline led him literally “six feet down”, and by the time he realized that he only really needed six feet of land, it was too late. While it was easier to relate the story to the unbridled quest for embezzling Nigeria’s wealth by both current and past leaders, it was even more rewarding for each one of us to inwardly ruminate over this story and realize that we would all at the end of our lives only need six feet of land, but then below the ground.

Day Two was rounded off with some poem readings by Dele Olojede which centered on the themes of leadership, man’s struggles on earth, and what type of legacies we all planned to leave behind.

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