Expertise. Every country needs it. Some countries cultivate and nurture it; others denigrate and shame it. Expertise used to be revered in Nigeria. Today, the learned and the informed are scorned as textbookish idealists who, in spite of their mastery over their subject areas, are unschooled in the ways of Nigerian life.
This disdain for book people, for competence and intellectual capital has crept into our politics. That’s the arena in which it’s doing the most damage to our country.
Our countrymen are prone to amnesia. Some of it is self-cushioning, willful forgetting, some of it an expression of the national malaise of shortsightedness. We seem to have forgotten the time when people who knew what they were talking about were encouraged to talk about it. Our national attitudinal distortion is a function of this failure to remember when our values were different and when those values defined how we conducted personal and public affairs. One of those values used to be the pursuit and expression of knowledge and expertise.
The elevation of quackery and street smartness to high national arts makes it hard for some Nigerians to imagine a time when we valued their opposite: the mastery of a knowledge area or technical subject. But it doesn’t take a distant excursion into our history to get to a recent past in which learning, expertise, and knowledge were the gold standards at all levels of our life. There were those who breached this national ethos of course. But back then, knowledge possession was its own reward, a magnet for admiration and a source of inspiration.
Knowledge used to be celebrated, if not always put to use, from top down and vice versa. Its acquisition and the access and importance that it conferred dominated the counsel of parents and guardians to their wards. Pep talks in other social settings venerated people of expertise and projected them to young Nigerians as models of accomplishment and heroism.
Men of intellect, unique qualification, and expertise were widely consulted for their superior insights. They were sought out to comment on burning national issues in their areas of expertise. They were prodded to intervene in policy debates that fell within their intellectual province. Their competence and jurisdiction over matters of public good gave them a social and intellectual capital that entitled them to reverence and moral authority.
Remember when Professor Chike Obi, the famed late mathematician, was consulted for an expert opinion on the question of what constitutes two third of votes in two third of states during the 1983 elections? This was standard practice when Nigeria, though sliding, still valued expertise and book knowledge.
Placed in the same situation, today’s politicians would, far from seeking the verdict of an expert, transform into overnight mathematical geniuses and proclaim with authoritarian fervor what they believe the constitutional criteria on two third means. Their self-serving declaration would subsume and override the opinion of any professional mathematician, no matter how learned, no matter how grounded in the settled logics of the field.
Another solution to a numerical quagmire in today’s politics would be a peculiarly Nigerian and PDP invention called “political solution.” It is a political consensus usually consummated by quid pro quo accords, bribery, the active fear of class suicide or all three. It is applied when the constitution is observed in breach or when a political event fails the constitutional muster. Extra-constitutional interpretations and compromised opinions are summoned to supplant the informed opinion and advice of actual experts.
Sometimes the goal is to put the issue beyond the intervention of experts, to deny the experts a say on the matter. Political events are manipulated and controlled to yield predetermined outcomes and to preempt ambiguities that may call for the intervention of experts. This last method alienates expertise and enthrones mediocrity. With the other methods, politicians impersonate experts or disregard their informed opinions. Here, they avoid having to seek out informed pronouncement, shutting out the book people altogether.
Unlike the know-all, conceited politicians of today, yesterday’s politicians respected experts and craved their pronouncements over difficult national issues. It’s not that they enjoyed doing so or implemented expert recommendations consistently. But they had to seek out experts because society still regarded the talented and the trained as consultants of first and last resorts and enforced on politicians the modesty of recognizing where their knowledge ended and that of trained personnel began.
There was still some value to being a trained, knowledgeable formal or informal consultant on certain specialized matters. Some of the politicians themselves, unlike today’s flaky public officials, had been experts—proud experts—in various learned vocations and fields and had parlayed the prestige of their professional and intellectual accomplishments into political ascendancy. Their residual respect for book knowledge therefore moderated their disdain for the idealism and technical expertise of book people. It was also in their own self-interest as men of expertise who found themselves in politics to demonstrate the importance of knowledge to policy formulation and political decision-making. Their patronage of experts boosted them and added luster to their own political standing among their less intellectual peers.
Then something shifted in our national mores. The tectonic shift was mostly political; perhaps it was a deeper moral shift that merely manifested first in the realm of politics. No matter, the shift has erased the relevance of experts in our national life. Today’s experts and intellectuals are called dreamy-eyed idealists who live in the unrealistic worlds created by their own textbooks, unable to grasp or participate in the morally perverted world of Nigerian political and economic transactions. Now normalized as the realistic alternative to the Utopia of book people, this is a world in which there are few rules and moral restraints; it’s a world in which street smarts trump reason and intellect.
We have a national assembly today that rarely if ever calls expert witnesses to factually and intellectually foreground its hearings on key national policy issues. Even technical and esoteric committee hearings rarely patronize the expertise of those trained in the technical area. They prefer the cacophonous deliberations of uninformed legislators whose only point of reference is how much money is at stake in a particular bill.
When experts are called, it is usually for show. Their advice is discarded as rapidly as bribe-backed non-expert interventions are proposed to the committee.
An allied problem is the veneration of Euro-American and Asian expertise, even when it is inferior to Nigerian capacity at home or in the diaspora. One political joke when Obasanjo was president was that if one wanted his approval on any project or policy proposal, all one had to do was recruit a white or Asian “expert” and introduce them to Baba as the foreign technical partner or consultant for the project. It worked every time.
A cousin of mine once said half-jokingly that if he ever had a serious proposal to present to any government official he would take a trip to Chinatown in Lagos to recruit a “foreign expert” to shadow the project. His presentation of this culture of lionizing “white” mediocrity at the expense of Nigerian expertise may be spiced up for effect, but it is grounded in an unspoken truth. Pardoned Chinese convicts sent to Nigeria to enroll in construction work gangs have been known to be regarded by our politicians and bureaucrats as "foreign experts," "consultants," and "technical advisers." Such blue collar foreign workers routinely provide "technical" cover for fraudulent businessmen seeking government contracts on false premises. Even sincere, competent entrepreneurs now have to play the game of lining up behind a foreign face--any foreign face--to attract serious attention.
We are in the mess we are partly because we routinely fail to harness the brains of our experts in our policymaking, project planning, and infrastructure-building endeavors.
The author can be reached at: [email protected]