by Simon Kolawole
Matthew Syed, the British journalist and author, is one of my favourite sports columnists. His article, ‘Why Chelsea fans are doctoring reality over the latest controversy’ (The Times of London, August 17, 2015), readily comes to mind as I ponder over the nature and quality of public debate in Nigeria. Jose Mourinho, the Chelsea coach at the time, had been in the thick of controversy over the way he treated the team doctor, Eva Carneiro. Mourinho publicly chastised her for going on the field to treat an injured player, Eden Hazard, while the team was desperately searching for a winning goal in the dying minutes of a league match against Swansea.
Syed analysed the pattern of reactions among football fans as the incident snowballed into a crisis. While, as expected, Chelsea fans sought to rationalise Mourinho’s action, fans of other clubs were, unsurprisingly, critical of the Special One. Syed then asserted: “The twist, of course, is that had Arsène Wenger engaged in the same behaviour, Arsenal fans would have been falling over themselves to justify it. Ditto with other clubs and fans.” His take is that “managerial behaviour is judged not by what happened, but on pre-existing allegiances… Chelsea fans know that Mourinho was in the wrong… but they defend him out of a sense of loyalty.”
I have been sitting in my balcony, with popcorn on the one hand and soda on the other, keenly observing the patterns of public debate on President Buhari since he came to power. You would find the debates quite amusing if you are a FIFA-badge spectator like me. There are people who think Buhari can do no wrong. And there are those who think he can do no right. On the other side of the hemisphere, there are those who believe Jonathan has never done anything good in his life, and there are those who insist he has never done anything wrong. In fact, the whole game seems to be Jonathan vs Buhari. The match was decided in 2015 but we are still settling the score.
I don’t really understand why the whole debate has to be about Jonathan and Buhari. Many people have simply refused to move on from 2015. The bitterness of that poll still haunts us like an evil spirit, particularly on social media. No argument is complete without reference to both men. So when one person says “why hasn’t Buhari gone to Dapchi since 110 schoolgirls were kidnapped?” someone will reply with a question: “Did Jonathan visit Chibok?” I have seen same people who condemned Jonathan for not going to Chibok now defending Buhari for avoiding Dapchi. I’ve also seen people who defended Jonathan now condemning Buhari for the same inaction.
Syed says “self-conscious hypocrisy” is an occasional demand of group cohesion. That is, we overrule our senses to go along with the group. Several experiments have proved that we tend to respond to issues not strictly on the basis of the logic of the facts in front of us but based on the biases in our minds. If a governor pulls down the house of his political opponent for tax default, our responses would be shaped by our disposition to him. If we are sympathetic to him, we would seek to justify it by saying “but that guy should have paid his taxes”. If we are not, we would say: “This is surely political vendetta.” A neutral person would ask: what is the penalty for tax default? Bulldozing?
There is yet another interesting dimension to hypocrisy. Syed, in the same article, recalled a famous experiment by Professor Lee Ross, a psychologist from Stanford University, in the 1990s. Lee took peace proposals prepared by Israeli negotiators, labelled them as “Palestinian proposals”, and asked Israeli citizens to assess them. “The Israelis liked the Palestinian proposal attributed to Israel more than they liked the Israeli proposal attributed to the Palestinians,” Ross said. Logically, Palestinians would automatically dislike a Palestinian-authored proposal attributed to Israel. Both groups would judge proposals not on their merit but according to the identity of who came up with them.
I find the article by Syed so instructive that I must have read it a million times. It has helped me to understand public debate in Nigeria much better, especially the psychology of it. There are issues that I think are so glaring that there should not be much argument on right or wrong. But when you hear people talk, you will be gripped by the fear of God. You support Jonathan so you have to defend him, no matter what. You are Buhari’s fan so you have to behave the part, no matter what. There are people who support or attack blindly because they want to be seen to be right all the time — that their original position was not a mistake. They are always looking for reinforcement.
By the way, I don’t think it is a hidden fact that I am a fan of Buhari. I supported Buhari to be president long before he threw his hat in the ring in 2003. However, I am man enough to admit that things are not turning out well. But to say he has achieved nothing is to go overboard. No single president can transform Nigeria overnight, no matter the grandiose campaign promises. Developmental governance is a relay race, I often theorise. Jonathan did his part and deserves recognition and commendation. Buhari is building on many of Jonathan’s achievements, as seen in railway, agriculture and anti-graft war. Is that too much to admit? Is it not about Nigeria, after all?
One thing that discourages me about public debate in Nigeria is the dominance of duplicity. It easily blinds us. I can give an example straightway. Jonathan went to dance “Azonto” in Kano after the Nyanya bombing in 2014. Four years later, Buhari went for an extravagant wedding in Kano after the Dapchi kidnappings. Jonathan’s aides did not see anything wrong in the Kano rally convened to welcome Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau to PDP while Nigeria was bleeding. In 2018, Buhari’s social media aide said the president was an adult and could decide to go anywhere he liked. Are you getting me? That is group allegiance at work. Nigeria takes the back seat in the reasoning.
I’m running out of space, so I will now rush my argument. First, I surrender to the fact that bias is human and universal. It is not peculiar to Nigerians. I will, also, not dispute the fact that partisanship is always a factor in public debate. We tend to go with group dynamics in advancing our arguments irrespective of the facts. Three, we cannot legislate on people’s emotions. We live in a world of opinions and no matter how annoying we find some people, we have to defend their freedom of expression. However, I am beginning to think public debate needs to be “hijacked” by a third force — I mean critics whose primary loyalty is to the progress of Nigeria, no matter who is in power.
No commentator is perfect. We all wear goggles. But some goggles are darker than the others. I benefit tremendously from reading and listening to the intellectual contributions of those who look at issues more dispassionately, suppressing ethnic, religious and partisan allegiances. But many commentators are not capable of controlling their jaundice. In the Fulani herdsmen impasse, for instance, it is so predictable to know where people, including government officials, will pitch their tents. We make it look like a killing competition. The critical issues of deforestation, insecurity in the land, anarchy and weak law-enforcement are not dominating discourse.
Can any society make progress when their collective reasoning is so narrow and lacking in intellectual rigour? I would think the issue that should bother Nigerians the most is that human lives are being lost unnecessarily and the government owes each and every one of us the duty of providing security and ensuring that justice is done to lawbreakers. I would readily accuse Buhari of being lethargic in the herdsmen affair. He deserves to be thoroughly criticised for that. In fact, there are enough issues on the ground for which he should be properly criticised. I can list a dozen instantly. But why hate a man because of his religion and ethnicity? Why?
We need to examine our collective reasoning. Nigeria can never be better than the collective reasoning of Nigerians. Everybody cannot reason alike, but we can reason together. I understand that elections are around the corner and politicians must politick to remain in office or gain control of power. I know. However, we need to birth a new political mindset that emphasises a common loyalty to the development of Nigeria. We need men and women who, after voting for whoever they like, will continue to insist on good governance — whether or not the winner is their preferred candidate. This group of Nigerians must overwhelm the cults of partisans in the public sphere.
I am aware that those who refuse to be blinded by sectional emotions stand the risk of being accused of “sitting on the fence” or being “naïve”, but then there is always a price to pay for your convictions. You should prefer to be abused for having a bias for national cohesion and development. Our collective thinking, as things stand, is very detrimental to our progress. The wrong people are controlling the airwaves. We cannot be reducing the whole debate about Nigeria to Jonathan vs Buhari. For all you care, Buhari and Jonathan will pass away. Presidents will come and presidents will go. Nigeria will remain. If we are wise then, our priority should always be Nigeria.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS
Lagosians are having a foretaste of “fiscal federalism” as higher taxes have been introduced by the state government. The vehicle licence for a 16-tire trailer will now cost N200,000 — up from N8,750! You could pay a fee as high as N50,000 for sinking a life-saving borehole at home! Land use charge is heading for the skies! But why are advocates of “true federalism” protesting? When oil-producing states begin to keep their petrodollars, taxation is going to be fastest way to make up for the lost revenue in most states (or is it regions) of the “true federation”. It’s not only northern Nigeria that will pay the price, as the spiteful campaigners think. You ain’t seen nothing yet, guys. Reality.
THE MONEY MACHINE
Finally, a senator has revealed what they “earn”. Senator Shehu Sani says every senator gets N13.5 million monthly, which they “account” for (LOL), and another N700,000 they don’t account for. Of course, principal officers collect more. There is also the N200 million for “constituency project”. Long ago, we heard about blackmail money under the pretext of “oversight” function. Failure to play ball will lead to public hearings, probes and resolutions. There is also “prepaid” budget padding — under which MDAs pay “cash down” to have their budgets handsomely inflated. Many lawmakers even nominate contractors or do contracts. We are a bunch of jokers in this country. Disgusting.
I was fascinated by the recent “public hearing” on Ajaokuta Steel Company. Ms Natasha Akpoti, a lawyer, made a depressing presentation on the history of the project. But she missed it when she said it should not be privatised. She didn’t name a single company that is well run by government. We that can’t run refineries will run a steel mill? Are you joking me? She made me laugh when she said foreigners should not run the mill because it can produce guns. She probably doesn’t know Nigeria actually imports arms from foreigners! As it has now turned out, the lawmakers, in fact, approved N2bn for the concessioning and are now opposing it after “public hearing”. Nigeria!!!
The National Assembly is hell-bent on turning a private security outfit, called Peace Corps, into a government agency. At this rate, the lawmakers will soon upgrade Arksego and KingsGuard to parastatals. President Buhari did the right thing by withholding assent to the bill. If Nigeria is under-policed, the logical thing to do is strengthen the police force — both in numbers and with modern systems that reduce the physical presence of police everywhere. But to create yet another body, after NSCDC, and keep bloating the huge public service is not what we need now. Whenever we have a challenge in Nigeria, we always think the solution is a new law or new agency. Warped.
- This piece was written by Simon Kolawole/Thisday