Sunday, 8 December 2013
The Dangers of False Equivalence By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo
I was simply following the panache of the news when I said that President Olusegun Obasanjo met his American counterpart, George W. Bush, at the White House.
Immediately, raw anger stormed across his face as if Kanji dam just busted at the center of his skull. The muscles of his cheek tightened like a bow tie around a boxer’s neck. Even the hot moist air coming out of his mouth curled up with a vicious gait.
“Counterpart, my behind,” the former MIT Professor said.
It was over ten years ago but I still remember it as if it was yesterday. We were watching T.V news at a Boston apartment of another Nigerian. The professor rolled out a series of rants on why nobody should ever make such comparison. He centered his argument on what real democracy and accountability for those charged with administering the state ought to be. I listened to him carefully because he was not another lost soul in the Diaspora. In the 80s, a democratically elected governor lured him back to Nigeria to help open a university of technology. His dream university was soon abandoned by the very governor that brought him home.
At first, I attributed his bitterness to that experience. And then, the 24-hour news channel showed a clip of the press conference at the White House between President George W. Bush and President Olusegun Obasanjo. The question for Obasanjo was why he sent in soldiers to Zaki Biam to massacre villagers.
“They butchered my soldiers with machete,” Obasanjo said, gesturing with his hands the descent of the machete on the bodies of his soldiers.
The vulgarity of his posture, the coarseness of his voice, and the crudeness of his answer left us in stunned.
“I rest my case,” the retired Professor said at the end of the clip.
At the heart of every conflict that appears intractable is a misinterpretation of where to place the equivalence balance. Ethical standard is supposed to be our guide in determining the moral line. But moral relativism has muddled up the ethical pond and given rise to moral equivalence. This misnomer is at play in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israeli- Palestinian conflict, in the War on Terror. The same thing happened during the Cold War.
In Nigeria, a similar dynamic has been playing out in the minds of those who try to do an in-depth analysis of the Nigerian situation. Once an analyst tries to ask the question, where did water enter the husk of the melon, clarity gives way to minefields.
Today, everyone is grappling with the Boko Haram problem. But it is impossible to understand it without a dispassionate comprehension of what happened in the past. People did not just wake up and learn how to kill others with this degree of impunity. It typically follows a progressive decline. The degree of such a decline depends on whether there was any effort to stop it when it started. If human failing emerges without the society putting in control mechanism, it accelerates over time.
Putting in place and enforcing consequences is the only way to stop any society from descending into anarchy. And that was what we failed to do. Today, we are left with the only option facing those whose ship is sinking – holding on to false equivalence.
The problem with looking at the past is often how far into the past we should look. The farther we look, the less credible the prism is. But we must try to decipher through it all because the past has a way of stepping on today as it struggles to control the future.
As we search for solution to the Boko Haram problem, some compare Boko Haram to the Niger Delta militants and recommend the same sort of amnesty. That is where the controversial suggestion that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” emerged.
Some Northerners are frustrated that most Nigerians who look at the Boko Haram problem fail to see that northerners are, by far, the majority of the victims. Some go as far as complaining that even when these Nigerians do acknowledge it, they show no sympathy – instead some suggest that the chicken has come home to roost.
But the most frustrating feeling coming from the north is the idea that it is only when there is problem from the north that the call for the breakup of Nigeria is at the highest peak.
For example, some will say that for Nigeria, the January 15th 1966 coup was where the Nigerian crises started. That on that day, Igbo people planned a coup killing only Northern leaders in order to finally take over Nigeria. And because Igbo people did that, some bad elements in the north decided to kill thousands of Igbo people.
Of course, Igbo people did not plan a coup. Those who planned a coup were ambitious Nigerian soldiers most of whom were Igbo. I understand this better following the Gen. Ihejirika Affair- in my own eyes, army’s promotional decisions have been interpreted to mean Igbo attempt to dominate the military. Though Ihejirika did not consult me in his decisions, they are already attributed to the wider Igbo agenda.
Even when the former interpretation of the January 15, 1966 Coup as “Igbo coup” is glossed over, the later suggestion that “some bad elements in the north decided to kill thousands of Igbo people” falls into the category of moral relativism. If a dozen or so soldiers who met in secret to plan a coup to install Awolowo as a leader of Nigeria are seen as “Igbo people” planning to take over Nigeria, it follows that thousands of northerners who went on the streets of the north to kill thousands of Igbo people are more than “bad elements.” Following the same logic, they are all lumped together as murderous northerners- even when several northerners protected some Igbo people from those out to murder them.
But again, that incident could not have been the starting point. In 1953 a massacre of non-Muslims, mainly Igbo people, occurred in Kano. It was an escalation of what happened in Jos in 1945. In a report issued by the British administrative officer that looked at the incident, he wrote, “No amount of provocation, short-term or long-term, can in any way justify their behavior…the seeds of the trouble which broke out in Kano on May 16 (1953) have their counterparts still in the ground. It could happen again, and only a realization and acceptance of the underlying causes can remove the danger of recurrence.”
We know that even after the war, we did not do anything about the “seed of the trouble.” We did not realize and accept the underlying causes. We did nothing to surgically remove the seed. Instead, we watered the ground and fertilized it with blindsiding strategies like political Sharia. Consequently it continued to reoccur, even when no more Igbo soldiers were planning coups. It continued until we got to where we are today.
Before the Cold War ended, light had to be shined on the dark parts of the conflict. For the Soviet Union, it came when they introduced glasnost and perestroika. Glasnost is openness while perestroika is restructuring. Openness let the pus to drain out of the wound giving room for the surgeons to restructure the laceration before stitching it up. We need openness and restructuring not continuing excuse that bygones are bygones because we said so or because we were not born when they happened. Neither are we served by covering things up out of fear that the country will collapse. The country is already collapsing, so why fear doing something to fix it?
A topical analogy could be drawn from the recent ordeal of our ebullient First Lady, Patience Jonathan. When her stomach started hurting and protruding, she did not rob Vicks and Vaseline and put bandage on it. According to her, she was flown to Germany where doctors opened not just her belly but also her small and large intestines. The doctors cleaned them up with iodine, Dettol and Lysol and then rearranged her small and large intestines. Even though she died for 7 days, after the stitch up, she came back to life as ebullient as ever. The same could be done to a nation.
That you were not born when the tectonic plates shifted does not immune you from the tsunami that will occur when an earthquake happens along the fault line. If a strain of the virus that caused the 1918 flu epidemic which killed 100 million people should escape from the laboratory, it will kill all those not prepared to tackle it, including those not born when it first killed 3% of the world’s population.
We are still at the false equivalence point where our failure to establish and enforce ethical standard has left us swimming in moral relativism and its counterpart, moral equivalence. Those who allow themselves to be lost in the cyclone of false equivalence are stuck in recurring violence, self-deceit, delusion, and compounding confusion until a final slide into the abyss. There lies the danger of false equivalence.
Like the former MIT professor said, I rest my case.