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Nigerian, Who Are You? By Pius Adesanmi

August 1, 2016

I am hoping that this question will be asked by 180 million tongues so that we may arrive at a collective version of the same interrogation: just who the hell are we as Nigerians?

Also, this will be a rather long read, meant only for the deep. If you are the intellectually shallow type who easily dismisses dogon turenchi and grumbles that reflection is too long, heed my advice and stop reading this essay now. It is not meant for you. Go and spend your time on entertainment blogs and celebrity gossip magazines.

It is not that you, Nigerian, do not understand the fundamental significance of this question – who/what are we? It is not that you do not know that no people, no nation, no society has ever achieved greatness in history that does not boast generations of thinkers and philosophers who, moved by this fundamental existential question, established critical thought and reflection as the foundation of such societies.

The Greeks, the Romans, and the Europeans who succeeded them in our times all faced this fundamental question. Their attempts to answer it produced the leaps and bounds in human innovation and achievement that we admire today. It produced the Enlightenment. It produced modernity. It informed the bases of science and technology and invention. It produced all the gloss and shine that you, Nigerian, now go to admire in London, Paris, New York, Toronto, etc.

If you are doubting whether you are aware of the importance of this existential question – who are you? – or not, just think about how many times in your life as a Nigerian you have repeated the Socratic dictum: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” You are familiar with that saying. Granted, you may not know the origin. You may not even know who uttered it in ancient Greece and why it was uttered but you know that it has always been there in the Nigerian public sphere as one of those wise sayings and quotable quotes that we throw around.

However, there are things that you may not know. You may not know that this dictum is basically establishing critical thought, reflection, theory, and philosophy as the bases of a life worth living. You may also not know that, beyond the individual, generations of Western thinkers applied this dictum to the life and nature of nations, peoples, and societies. This question is one of the informing bases of the two hundred years of intense thinking and philosophy in Europe that we know as the Enlightenment. That is why the 19th-century French philosopher, Ernest Renan, entitled one of the most famous essays on nationhood, “What is a Nation?”

This Enlightenment project – philosophy – gave you modernity. It gave you all the marvels that you desire and go to admire in the Western world. Generations of Dubai Crown Princes understood this Enlightenment and modernity game and invested heavily in it. You see, today, you pay so much money to go and see Dubai and invade social media with tales of the marvels you see there. What you do not know – and this is Nigeria’s greatest tragedy – is that everything you see in Dubai has its origins in thought, philosophy, critical reflection and all that thought stems from the simple process of the examined life trying to find answers to these two foundational questions: who am I? Who are we? In other words, who are we as a nation?

Who are we? We are the United Arab Emirates. So and so are our attributes. Such and such are the building stones of our national self-fashioning and we expect our thinkers and philosophers to establish them as part of our psychic and psychological make up. We are the future of humanity in innovation, genius, and architectural derring-do. Who are we? We are the United States of America. We are God’s gift to humanity. We are defined by a set of ideals and values we call the American dream. They make us exceptional. No other nation on earth so self-defines. Who are we? We are the people of France. We are so and so…

Once you allow room in your national life for philosophy, theory, and sustained critical thought to guide you in answering these questions, your genius, your innovation, your science and technology, your politics, your architecture, your manufacture, your industry, and your entrepreneurship will begin to emerge and evolve in tandem with the answers you have provided to the stated questions. There is no national being outside of these questions. And there is no lazy way to answer them. No short cut to answering them.

That is why there is no science and technology, no innovation, no genius, no skyscrapers, no modernity outside of philosophy and thinking. If you are a Nigerian and you defied my opening warning and have read this essay up to this point, chances are you are close to dismissing it as dogon turenchi and too long. Chances are you close to dismissing it as the abstract and theoretical ramblings of a talker and not a doer. After all, what Nigeria needs urgently now in your opinion are doers and not talkers trafficking in dogon turenchi. Then you buy your flight ticket and go to Dubai tomorrow to spend money on and in a society produced by thinkers and theorizers. You no see your life outside?

This happens because you want modernity on the cheap. You want development on the cheap. You want 21st century civilization on the cheap. For fifty years since your political independence, you have resisted thought and theory. You have resisted critical reflection and philosophy. Successive generations of Nigerians have come to wear resistance to thought and philosophy as a badge of honour. They dismiss knowledge as dogon turenchi all the time. They refuse to make connections between things. They refuse to see that Nigeria’s situation today as Africa’s most dysfunctional society, trapped in 17th-century backwardness, is a direct consequence of the fact that she is unexamined, unreflected, and tragically untheorized.

Because the Nigerian does not know that the tragic backwardness of his country is a direct consequence of the absence of philosophy, because he is blissfully unaware of the costs of Nigeria’s national culture of hostility to any notion of philosophy, theory, and abstract thinking, he becomes this perpetual laughable character, seeking doers who will make Nigeria like Dubai and London overnight, in the absence of thought and dogon turenchi. He does not know that those places he admires and wants Nigeria to be like are products of four hundred years of uninterrupted dogon turenchi – if you limit things to the just Enlightenment and modernity.

The inability to make these connections is why the Nigerian recoils in horror at the sight of ambassadorial nominees who cannot recite the national anthem and the national pledge. It is not that those nominees really do not know the wordings of the anthem and the pledge. Those wordings have been repressed in their unconscious because, due to our hostility to intellectual labour, we have never answered the question: who are we?

If you do not answer this question, your anthem and pledge are lies. When the wordings of your anthem and pledge are lies, they become repressed in the unconscious of the citizen, unutterable by his or her tongue. The citizen is in an existential impasse because an unexamined nation hostile to thought and philosophy is asking him or her to say things that are at variance with reality.

“I pledge to Nigeria my country. To be faithful, loyal, and honest?”

Honest? Really? Excuse me, I don’t seem to have gotten the memo that honesty as a national ethos and a defining attribute of the Nigerian nation evolved from a process of foundational intellectual rigour which established that attribute as a definitive feature of our national character.

You are asking ambassadorial nominees, produced by a society where it is existentially impossible to be honest, to pledge that they shall be faithful, loyal, and honest? To be honest in Nigeria is to agree to perish. To be honest in Nigeria is to commit suicide. There is no job today in Nigeria that can guarantee even an honest poverty living for 99% of the citizens. Not in the civil service. Not in the private sector. Not in the informal economy. That is one of the most severe contradictions of the current anti-corruption war. You are fighting corruption in a national environment where not to be corrupt is to die of hunger.

Because Nigeria is unexamined, unreflected, and untheorized; because Nigeria insists on a haughty disdain for philosophy and intellectual labour and says that she wants only doers – never mind that the two have been historically inseparable in every society that has attained modernity – there is no national foundational philosophical work on that attribute – honesty - which she threw so casually into her national pledge. She then evolved along the paths of corruption and made it existentially impossible for anybody to be honest.

In Nigeria, honesty is the very negation of life and survival for there is no conceivably honest way to survive on N18, 000 a month. No honest salary can make you survive in Nigeria yet we are still 180 million. If we have not all died in a situation where honesty is impossible, it means our society has dictated dishonest ways of survival.

Recently in Lagos, I woke up early in the morning and sat down to work by the poolside of my hotel. I had my laptop and was ordering munchies here and there as I worked. By about 11 am, I noticed that I had racked up a bill of nearly N18, 000 and I was yet to even leave one place.

At about noon, a secondary school teacher came to see me. He is one of my ardent social media followers and I had agreed to meet and thank him for the faith he has in me and what I do. He came in a Toyota Camry. In the course of our conversation, he revealed to me that he earns N45, 000 per month and it hardly even takes care of his car for the first two weeks of every month. When I noted that the salary is way too low, he laughed and informed me that he is getting that much because he teaches in a private secondary school and he considers himself “one of the lucky ones.” He is married. He has two children. His wife is still “looking unto God for a job” as he put it.

Now, my mother also drives a Toyota Camry. We fill the tank twice a month at about N10, 000 and she is only able to afford this because even funds for petrol come from Ottawa. That is already half the salary of this teacher who uses the same model. I had already burnt through half his monthly salary ordering poolside peppered snails, peppered this and peppered that and the like before he joined me that morning.

Who are we? We have never asked this question because of our hostility to thought. Because there is a consequent vacuum, all this teacher has to go with to even essay an answer to this question is the practical society we have evolved and in which he must exist and exercise his calling as a teacher.

This is a society in which this teacher must “hustle” – our euphemism for the myriad dishonest ways of cutting corners to make ends meet in Nigeria – in order to survive for N45, 000 per month cannot guarantee him an honest existence in Lagos. Hustling – we must repeat again that it is a code for corruption and dishonesty – is our closest answer to the honesty question in our national pledge.

To make matters worse and more ironic, millions of Nigerians literally must wake up every morning and pray to God or Allah to bless their hustle – that hustle meaning the millions of ways multiplied by 180 million people in which they are going to have to be dishonest just to survive for that day.

Then you ask this secondary school teacher, who must hustle and to whom we have not given a foundational philosophical ethos of honesty, to stand up in front of pupils daily during morning assembly and lead them in repeating a national lie: “to be faithful, loyal, and honest…”

This explains why the words of our national pledge get stuck in our throats and in the throats of citizens that Nigeria is sending out on assignment as Ambassadors and High Commissioners. Nigeria is asking them to utter a lie. This lie is what creates the existential impasse you see on TV when citizens have to recite that pledge.

Because they are products of an unexamined society that has made dishonesty an inescapable precondition for survival, these ambassadorial nominees know beforehand that when they get to their countries of designation, Abuja will hardly ever send their working budgets.

To survive and function, they will have to design dishonest ways to milk money from the Nigerians in diaspora you are sending them out to serve. They will have to invent all kinds of dishonest service fees just to be able to pay the bills of the embassy. They will have to endlessly tell lies to Nigerians in the diaspora to account for the shoddy service they deliver in their mission. There is just no conceivably honest way to be a diplomatic representative of Nigeria abroad. Who are we?

Consider what Nigeria has to offer the world in the sphere of built spaces and modernity. Even here, we continue to pay the price of our hostility to critical thought and reflection. I know Lekki, Ikoyi, and VI. I know Banana Island. I know Maitama and other spaces of Nigeria’s hypermodernity in Abuja. I know all the spaces where the 1% have their sprawling but largely cultureless homes in Nigeria.

Going to those places, you feel terribly sorry for Nigeria. Those neighbourhoods are eyesores that are inferior to even the worst ghetto areas of Ottawa in terms of conceptualizing and planning the built environment. Nigeria’s most exclusive neighbourhoods are chaotic, dysfunctional, unreflected urban ghettoes boasting billion-naira mansions, villas, and chateaux. One foreign magazine recently called them the world’s most expensive ghettoes. For good reason.

Some of the homes you see in these places in Lagos and Abuja can buy three such homes in the most expensive neighbourhoods in London, Paris, Dubai or Washington. Yet, the crass absence of urban philosophy and our incurable mediocrity is noticeable everywhere.

You have multi-billion naira homes in these places with finishing so horrible you begin to wonder if the Nigerian is genetically wedded to mediocrity. If you have a home in Lekki, Banana Island, and Maitama, chances are you also have homes or apartments in London, Dubai or Washington. Chances are you eat dinner in Lagos and breakfast in London a few times a week.

Yet, the standards you do not accept for your home in London or Washington, you get to Banana Island or Maitama and accept them. What is wrong with you? Is the quality of the plumbing or the finishing or the crown moulding you have in your Maitama home the same as you have in your home in London? I see expensive and ostentatious crown moulding with terrible symmetry in your Lagos or Abuja home. Does the crown moulding in your London mansion lack symmetry? Why did you accept it for your Lagos or Abuja home?

Why should I visit you in your billion-naira home in Nigeria and flush your toilet by using bucket to fetch water from the tap in the bath tub and pouring it into your WC because of the horrible water pressure in your Nigerian home? Again, what is wrong with you? Why do you accept such standards for your home in Nigeria that you find unthinkable for your home abroad?

The answer is simple. It is not lack of money. You have enough money to make first world water pressure standards happen in your Lagos or Abuja mansion. You keep your home abroad in the conditions set by those who have spent at least three centuries asking and answering the question: who are we?

Because they do not have disdain for philosophy and thought, one of the answers they have provided for that question is that they are not mediocre. This answer is what shapes their vision of society and the standards they elect to live by across generations. In Nigeria, you accept unreflected chaos and mediocrity as shown in your hyper-expensive homes in Banana Island, Lekki, and Maitama because you know that you are in a society that has refused to answer that question and even believes that she has the luxury of dismissing the critical thought that could provide answers as dogon turenchi.

Nigerian, there is a mitigating factor to your refusal to answer this question and your illiterate attitude to critical thought. There is a reason you are so proud of ignorance. You are a product of British imperialism. It was never in the interest of the British to create a society rooted in methodical reflection in Nigeria. A ramshackle contraption just good enough to be exploited economically was all that they needed and that is what they created for you in Nigeria. Your only crime, Nigerian, is that more than fifty years after your freedom, you still have not seen the light and cured yourself of hostility to critical thought.

So long as you keep dismissing thought as dogon turenchi, you will never understand why you are like this. You will never understand why Oshodi, Okokomaiko, Yaba, Abule Egba, and Nyanya are the way they are. You forget that those in government cannot even organize their own lived spaces and environment in Banana Island, Lekki, Ikoyi, VI, and Maitama. You forget that they are capable of putting a mansion worth N5 billion in their own unplanned expensive ghettoes.

In Maitama, they even built a house for a former President on the Maitama intercity rail line. They ceded part of the same Maitama rail line to a woman who now uses it as the parking lot of her private school! A school parking lot on a communal intercity rail line! Right there in Maitama!

These uncultured elite, who do this sort of conceptual violence to their own posh lived spaces and environment, are the ones you expect to envision 21st-century urban lived space philosophy for Oshodi and Nyanya?

Una go tey for there!

Epe ko o.

No be say I dey curse you o.