A few weeks ago, the Nigerian High Commissioner to Canada, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, invited me to McGill University, Montreal, Canada, to participate in a workshop on religious freedom and foreign policy. The workshop sought to focus strategic intellectual and diplomatic attention on the protection of religious freedom within the context of democratic politics. I was in Canada to meet with the Ontario Energy Board and the Ontario Power Authority; and the High Commissioner felt that my research experience and interest in religion and political and legal pluralism make me a good participant at the workshop.
The panel discussions highlighted interesting insights about religious conflicts and insecurity in Nigeria. The panellists were some of the best scholars of history and politics of Nigeria. From their wealth of experience, they zeroed on the threat that religious riot poses to stability and development in Nigeria and the West Africa sub-region. The panel underlined the need for a much more thoughtful engagement with religious fundamentalism in Nigeria.
The Nigerian High Commissioner was very masterly in making the Nigerian case at the workshop. Of course Maduekwe is muscularly intellectual and nationalistic. He chastised the powerful western countries of biased perspective on Nigeria’s so-called security challenges. His argument is simple and persuasive. Nigeria is the major victim of the global war against terror. After the allied forces smoked the terrorists out of Afghanistan and the Sahelian region, the next port of call became Nigeria, a country with the most attractive options for displaced terrorists. Therefore, Nigeria deserves support to build formidable deterrence and enforcement capabilities and not scurrilous attacks from western diplomats.
Maduekwe’s counter-perspective changed the discourse. At the end of the parley, it was clear that Nigeria is an interesting site to watch in the management of religious violence in the context of political and legal pluralism. The good news, as Ambassador Maduekwe opined, is that Nigeria has proved resilient in the past. Nigeria went through a civil war and emerged as the only country where belligerent nationalists sat on a table and reconciled without a UN or other foreign arbitration. The question this time is: Can Nigeria pull through again?
The panellists raised a red flag about insecurity in Nigeria and were dead scared about how the religious mix of the security crisis will pan out for the rest of Africa considering the geopolitical importance of Nigeria in the architecture of security in the region. At the end of the discourse, it was clear that even though Nigeria struggles with violent fundamentalism, it continues to provide lessons in the positive management of religious and cultural diversities. The High Commissioner illustrated this excellence with many examples of religious cohabitations in different regions of Nigeria, especially the South-west region.
Surely, Nigeria will pull through. But that should not be taken for granted. The value of the McGill workshop is to underscore the gravity of the issues the country faces in the context of a changing global order and the need for deep thinking and strategic action.
But it is that deep thinking that is sorely missing in Nigeria today and that needs to be urgently popularised. Since the bombs started to go off in Abuja and elsewhere, there have been no serious workshop and strategic meetings organised by groups outside the official security apparatus to rethink the social and political currents of the new wave of terrorism. We have not heard any insightful exposition by the dozen scholars and social critics that populated the cyberspace on the depth of the crisis and the sort of institutional adaptation we need to steer clear of the landmines. This is a clear evidence of the death of public reason.
Since the outbreak of the present violence, many columnists have written endlessly accusing government of incompetence and blaming every terrorist attack on failure of government. But the sad story is this grave crisis has not elicited the expected rigorous thinking and analysis from policy and intellectual circles in Nigeria. There have been no high-profile intellectual events to headline a serious commitment on the part of researchers and policy thinkers to properly understand and prepare for what may be a persistent challenge of the 21th Century for Nigeria.
Civil society leaders have gleefully criticised government about the crisis. But we are yet to see a commendable civic engagement aimed at proffering solutions to the crisis. How many essays and policy papers have been written about the crisis apart from ill-tempered and shallow editorials and op-eds? How many seminars, workshops and focus group meetings have been conveyed, outside official security circles, to think through the Boko Haram crisis? Definitely, the absence of such sort of engagements illustrates the low-energy public intellectualism that defines our public space.
It is depressing but true that it is only in foreign think tanks and centres that the Boko Haram crisis is receiving the quality attention it deserves from scholars and policymakers. The Nigerian intellectual and civil society actors have not done well in engaging with the challenges of nation building. The danger of this lack of intellectual rigor and vigour is that we may not effectively overcome these challenges. As much as political activism is a good ingredient for transforming a society it requires the sauce of knowledge. Socially relevant knowledge is produced through institutionalised quality thinking.
The predicament of underdevelopment approximates to the chronic absence of problem-solving thinking. Whether viewed in terms of the weakness of institutions or the low quality of goods and services, countries that persist in underdevelopment are those that are unable to socially produce quality solutions to environmental, social, economic and political challenges. It is not a happenstance that developed societies have successfully mainstreamed their universities and other epistemic communities with their policymaking institutions. The marriage of knowledge production and policymaking is definitive of societies that are on the forward march.
The real issue here is the quality of public reason. In his latest book titled The Great Degeneration: How Institutional Fails and Economies Die, Nail Fergusson shows how the degeneration of western society occurred or could occur. What stands out from his analysis is that the quality of institutions for coordinating social transactions makes the critical difference between prospering and declining societies. So, when societies think clearly and act intelligently, they create superior social institutions to solve their problems. But when public reason is weak then problems persist or compound.
The failure of public reason in Nigeria is very evident and troubling. The quality of debate is depressing. In the place of logic there is anger and fury. The favourite of Nigeria’s army of dysfunctional public intellectuals is anti-government: an obsession with attacking government instead of facilitating quality governance. It is ok and even desirable for opposition politicians to attack government, even mindlessly. Their job is to displace those exercising political authority. Therefore, it is permissible for them to be intolerant of the party in government
But the rest of the civil society doesn’t have such mandate. Its mandate is to cater to the welfare of the society. In doing so, it may find itself at times at opposing side of the government. But it begins to lose its mandate if it acts as if there is anything redemptive in just being against government, rather than being against bad policies and programmes. The focus of civil society is policies and programmes that affect social and economic outcomes for the people. It plays its role best when it plays the policy game and not politically partisan. Of course, policy is politics. But that is only to the extent that policy seeks to achieve broader political outcomes. Not just partisan outcomes.
As the heat of 2015 builds up, it is the right time to remind us that most of the more difficult problems we face today are not the products of mere partisan politicking. They are outcomes of leadership. And leadership begins with mobilising ideas that could change the situation. Ironically, as Nigerian civil society leaders busy themselves with how they can get more involved in politics, they easily forget the low hanging fruit in the transformation: improving the quality of ideas in the public sphere. Our continued underdevelopment is a product of low quality public reason. If we don’t improve the quality of public reasons, if civic leaders don’t see problems as opportunity for creative thinking and mobilise social engagement in search of solutions, we will wake up after much politicking and many elections and discover we have simply compounded our problems.
It was John Maynard Keynes, the icon of modern economics, who observed that practical men who believe that they are exempted from the influence of intellectuals are themselves slaves of some defunct economist. Therefore, we must clarify the intellectual influences shaping public policy. If these influences are not qualitative and positive, then our political and civic activism is misguided. The quality of thought determines the outcome of collective action.
So, the nation needs a heavy dose of good thinking. Events like the McGill seminar should be an everyday staple in Nigeria. Note that creative ideas are not generated through superficial one-off encounter. We need persistent and intense rational discourses; we need to wrestle day and night with these problems before clarity begins to emerge.
Solutions to social problems do not end with good ideas. There should be great leaders who can use these ideas to mobilise quality collective actions. Politics seeks to recruit these leaders. That is good enough.
But when we have found the best leaders amongst us, we may sadly discover that because we could not produce enough good ideas, these leaders could do very little to change our situations. So, we need to begin to create the good ideas that great leaders will use to mobilise transformative collective actions. That is a more urgent task.
So far the reservoir of great ideas is running empty. So, let’s begin to think.