Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: A regime of illiterates by illiterates and the rest of us

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: A regime of illiterates by illiterates and the rest of us

Thursday, December 31, 2015 4:54 pm

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

By Olufemi Taiwo

In his “The New Deal”, the late great Gil Scott-Heron intoned: “I’d said I was gonna write no more poems like this, but the dogs are in the streets….” Yes, I had promised myself to stop pointing out the negatives about our existence as a country. But it seems that our capacity for finding depths to plumb when I could have sworn that we had hit rock-bottom means that it would be next to impossible to keep my promise. No, human foibles and the stupidities of the American government and society at large kept Scott-Heron writing poems like that till he passed. I am more than proud to follow his lead. Except we be rid of the last louse, we cannot but have blood under our fingernails.

Few who are knowledgeable about Nigeria and its affairs in the last two or so decades would deny that, pound-for-pound, the country must be in the front ranks of the countries with the highest number of degrees and other formal qualifications per capita in the world. And this not just because of the exponential growth of institutions handing out degrees by their thousands within its borders. It is that Nigerians would go to the ends of the earth, hell even, to obtain a certificate, any certificate. As a result, the country is awash—I nearly said drowning—in a sea of formal qualifications across all demographic and economic sectors. Ordinarily one would expect that a country like that, one that even wrote into its constitution—such as it is—minimum educational qualifications for eligibility for elective offices across the length and breadth of the country, would do the most things right when it comes to running its affairs.

Unfortunately, a degree does not an educated person make. One sees a persistent disproportion between the proliferation of certificates and the quality of leadership in all areas of life in Nigeria. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the infiltration of university-educated types into the business of the country has witnessed the calamitous decline in the quality of the nature, level, and scope of services in all aspects of our life.

Over the years, I have often wondered why this has been so. Here is what I have come up with for an explanation. I am convinced that, contrary to received wisdom, the principal functions of public life in Nigeria—government and its related institutions, education system, health systems, agriculture, etc.—are designed by illiterates and run by same. It is a self-perpetuating regime of illiteracy with only the personnel changing from one set of operatives to another. This is why successive occupiers of these institutions, their functionaries, from the president on down to the lowliest local government councilor, from the chief of defence staff to the newly-minted second lieutenant, from the primate of major church denominations and chief imams of major mosque congregations to the fresh inductee into either clergy, with all their fancy certificates in multiples, no less, form one of the largest coteries of illiteracies the world has ever seen. Notice how little change there was when we had our first doctorate holder as president.

If the knowledge of our functionaries is notable for its deficiencies, if the ranks of those who know better have no say in determining how things are, what we end up with is exactly what we have in Nigeria as I write this: a state of illiterates, designed by illiterates and run by illiterates for the benefit of illiterates. The rest, including the vast masses of our people who expect that their functionaries would at least have some idea of what they are doing, be damned!

Unfortunately, a degree does not an educated person make. One sees a persistent disproportion between the proliferation of certificates and the quality of leadership in all areas of life in Nigeria. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the infiltration of university-educated types into the business of the country has witnessed the calamitous decline in the quality of the nature, level, and scope of services in all aspects of our life.

I can only give you what I take to be representative samples of the ways of this confederacy of illiterates that passes for functionaries in my homeland. The question that keeps recurring as I write this is how, with all our talents and formal qualifications, we could be so consistently inept, inefficient, clueless, etc.—supply your own adjective. I can only hope that the irony is not lost on us that the country that proclaims its most in everything in the African continent could at the same time suck at the most basic task of organizing life and thought within its borders.

Where does one even begin? A plane flies into one of those prestige badges that have become a must-have for Nigeria’s beggared constituent states: an airport. I don’t think that one requires degrees and similar qualifications to know that a runway and an enclosed terminal do not an airport make. That if you are not flying those small planes that have their gangways built into their main doors, you need gangways for embarkation and disembarkation of aircraft. Yes, our local airlines fly jet aircraft but Bauchi Airport, on that fateful December day, had no working gangway for passengers to disembark on their arrival there in this most recent illustration of our capacity for high-class ineptitude.

The pilot, aware of his professional responsibilities, insisted on flying back to the port of origin. But, trust our multi-degreed, formally educated, Nigerian passengers, some of whom I am certain included the functionaries whose behaviour is referenced in this article. They asked the “officials”, not minding the pilot’s preference for the right thing—fly back if conditions were not right for disembarkation—to improvise. Lo and behold, a ladder materialized and our elite—few amongst the masses fly—disembarked. The cash-and-carry, let’s-get-it-done-somehow mentality that ruins our lives, corporate and personal, won the day, again. It is not beyond imagination that, given their conviction that that is how life goes in Nigeria, they might have turned their flowing garbs into rope ladders had those aluminium ladders not been available.

This incident encapsulates all, repeat all that is wrong with how we live, and die, as the elite segment of our society. To start with, airports now vie with universities as the latest-chieftaincy equivalents for states and communities in our land. Everyone can have one and with time, must have one. There is no rhyme or reason to why they are established, how they are built, who builds them, who will use them and, most important, how are they to be funded in perpetuity. After all, in the places from which we borrowed these ideas, building an airport is much more than laying asphalt and enclosing a terminal.

Aircraft are responsible for two major types of pollution that decent societies led by thinking men and women worry and talk endlessly about when they think it is time to have an airport built or expand an existing one: noise and air. Has anyone ever heard of a debate in Nigeria in the last half-century over whether or not to build an airport with due regard to the environmental impact of such a venture? When was the last time the public was consulted on whether or not an airport should be built, where, and so on? The elite decide they need an airport because their peers in other states have one and they need to be spared the indignities that road and rail travel entails in Nigeria, etc. Pronto, one is built! No cost-benefit analysis, no studies on whether it would repay the investment, who will use it, and are the personnel available to run its very advanced operations? We build them in exactly the same way that newly-empanelled chairmen of local government councils put a wall around a dirt pitch and launches a new ultra-modern motor park!

What happened in Bauchi is the harvest of planlessness that is itself a fruit of our thoughtlessness. Of course, once the incident happened, all the other manifestations of our multiplex illiteracies kicked in. Certainly, you cannot have anything happening at the airport that answers simply to the officials on the ground as the agents primarily responsible for what transpires in their neck of the bureaucratic woods. The Minister has to intervene and has to appear to be doing something in the heat of the moment. Like clockwork, the minister has promised a “probe into the incident”. This is now part of the DNA of our functionaries and our fresh bevy of doctorate holders and other degree-wielding equivalents never pause for a moment to realise that the smell around them is coming from their own farts. Worse, sometimes as often happens, what are essentially crime scenes are contaminated by ministers—massive illiteracy!—and their retinue in tow appearing to be doing something by visiting the scene and ‘condoling’ with the victims justice for whom has been made unavailable because the scene has been messed up by the minister’s intervention!

Why do we need any ministerial intervention into a simple bureaucratic-cum-technical snafu at Bauchi Airport? They had equipment that was not operational. The pilot did not know or, what is more likely, pretended he had no reason to believe that he was flying to a destination that was nowhere ready for his flight. Meanwhile, the passengers, all clad in their flowing robes complete with the ‘shmiling’ in the face of ‘shuffering’ that is a hallmark of life in our homeland—apologies, of course, to Fela—had no difficulty defying, yes, defying the pilot. In civilized societies, in those situations the pilot has the last word and whosoever should disobey would have committed a felonious act for which they would go to jail. And the pilot, knowing full well the culture of impunity in which he operates could only shrug and watch his professional integrity flushed down the drain of collective lack of capacity for shame.

Pray, what would the minister’s intervention do that would make a difference? What did interventions by previous ministers do to ensure that what took place never happened in the first place? Sadly, given the generalized illiteracy of our elite and the functionaries we put in charge of our affairs respecting the nature, scope and mechanics of government and its operations, we have no reason to believe that things would turn out differently.

We are already seeing the signs that is one area where change would not occur no matter how many changes of regime we witness. The new minister in charge of aviation who has already put in the ritual fulmination is not likely to step back and ask himself: why is it my business to ensure that things are done right at a regional airport with all the necessary functionaries already in place and paid, no less, to ensure that things are done right? Does the airport in question have a management? What is the management there paid to do? Where is the structure of responsibility? Who ought to have done what and when in the command chain of the airport where the incident took place?

When we have ministers in place who take a deep breath, take a hard look at what they have been appointed to superintend, some of them might begin to wisen up and see how often they play the fool in the name of performing their official functions. It may actually make some of them conclude that it is more honourable for them to decline the fool’s errand that their portfolio has saddled them with. But, first, they must be thinking men and women; nor ‘action ministers’.

Has the transportation minister ever travelled outside Nigeria? Have those trips ever included stops in any major airport in the United States of America? I use the United States because we pretend that our present system of government draws inspiration from and is modelled upon that of the United States. What is more, one can only marvel at how much of our scarce foreign exchange continues to be frittered away on earning American credentials for those who govern us at all levels. And outside of government, as I have said in the past, Nigeria must have the most active alumni associations of elite schools in the United States and the United Kingdom with minimum value added to the lives of ordinary Nigerians beyond the occasional low-paying jobs that the latter have at the regular shindigs hosted by the likes of the Harvard Business School Alumni Association and the OxBridge Club.

Let us go back to our functionaries and their regular visits to the United States. Many of them own property in the United States. Do they make it their business to observe—forget study—how things are done in that country? If they do, is it the case that what they see does not register with them or they are convinced that such things as make life more livable in the United States are beyond their ken or beyond what they themselves, not to talk of ordinary Nigerian humanity deserve to have?

A disclaimer is in order here. What follows is not written to score points. What I say here is so ordinary, all it takes is a bit of curiosity and deep dissatisfaction with our quality of life in Nigeria to wish to see to see similar things done to make living vastly better for all Nigerians.

The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Atlanta, Georgia, United States, just celebrated its 100 millionth passenger. It has not always been that way. Until about fifteen years ago, O’Hare-Field Chicago International Airport was the world’s busiest airport. The City of Atlanta never thought that that was that. Its successor mayors and councillors, its business moguls, its academic elite and all others seized of their civic pride decided that their city was capable of attaining higher heights. Time did not hand over the status of “the world’s busiest airport” to Hartsfield-Jackson. The “federal government” did not pre-select or designate Atlanta as a “centre of excellence” by fiat. The President and Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Republic of the United States of America did not decree that “federal character” should determine at what pace the United States’ cities or states could march towards excellence or decree that Atlanta in the southeast not exceed Chicago in the midwest in the city attainment stakes. Hell, no!

The reason all the preceding did not happen is awfully simple: Atlanta is a city, incorporated in its own right, with a right to home rule, able to parlay its local wealth in land, infrastructure, quality of life for its citizens, and taxing powers, combined with solid political leadership and sound management of its resources and able to determine how high it wishes to fly. Additionally, its relationships with its neighbouring municipalities, the government of the State of Georgia where it is located, and the federal government of the United States, are all imbricated in a network of conventions, laws, regulations, political culture, all of which are modulated by serious philosophical principles respecting separation of powers, sovereignty of the person, limits on the powers of the state, and so on. What is not obvious in all this is the sense on the part of everyone that it takes everyone doing his or her own part in this delicate choreography of modern living in order thereby to ensure for all the kind of life befitting their status as citizens and, more important, human beings.

Why bother with all I just said? I wonder if we are not, on our junkets to other parts of the world, those proverbial strangers that Yorùbá say have eyes but don’t see with them. When you go to the website of Hartsfield-Jackson, under ‘Airport Information’, the top link is “Welcome from the Mayor” and the second is “Welcome from the G[eneral] M[anager]”. No message from the State Governor? No mug of the President? And consistent with this, when anything happens at the aiport there are procedures in place for the different subordinates of the General Manager, each of whom has clearly delimited functions and responsibilities and would be sure to be called to account when anything goes wrong at the airport.

Most important of all, the airport is owned and run by the City of Atlanta. Say what? A city owning lock, stock and barrel a major airport? Yes, the Mayor of Atlanta and his City Council are jointly the final authority on what happens at the airport and no federal authority or state authority would dare interpose itself in the business of that airport without risking illegality.

Now, I suppose it would be asking too much of my VIP compatriots to burrow into websites of airports. But do they notice the ubiquitous signs outside those airports announcing: “Mayor Kasim Reed Welcomes You to Atlanta”; “Mayor Rahm Emmanuel Welcomes You to Chicago”? If they do, does the message of those signs ever resonate with them? If any evidence be needed, many people were surprised that they did not notice any incongruity in a group photograph taken at a conference of the world’s mayors with Babatunde Fashola as a participant. I am surprised that there has been no pushback from any corner of the ex-governor’s team against his being repeatedly identified in publications as “mayor of Africa’s largest city Lagos”. I am even more so that he did not see anything wrong with attending a mayors’ summit as a state governor. But that, precisely, is the problem.

Thanks to the march of illiteracy in our ranks, we no longer have cities in Nigeria. All the things that municipalities are supposed to do as the first, most-proximate-to-the-people tier of government have become buried in some nebulous, completely unimaginative, almost no-name “Local Government Councils”. No state government dare try to change the arrangement. And no municipal governments dare think of working out arrangements with one another to secure the synergies that cities can create to make the likes of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport happen.

It was 1997. I was having a conversation with one of my old peers at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, regarding the state of our universities. Of course, those who know me from my days as a teacher at Ife know that I did not back then think anything good could come out of the penchant for centralization and micro-management that was beginning to characterize the operation of the National Universities Commission {NUC) back in the late 1980’s of the last century. So I asked my friend, while making a case for dismantling the NUC, how much sense it makes, in a federal system, for a state to set up a university and put it under the authority of a federal institution like the NUC and its twin, Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board.

Does anyone suppose that our deservedly celebrated ex-governor who is now a new minister is thinking of how to dismantle the behemoth that stands in the way of Nigeria realizing its historical destiny?

Sadly, the signs we see are portentous. Nothing in the mantra of change of the present administration suggest that the governing party and its newly-minted bevy of degree-wielding functionaries all along the line think there is any problem with the structure of things as they are. This is where the full picture of the confederacy of illiterates that we call government and its functionaries emerges. I have merely used the Bauchi Airport incident and the contrast with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to set up the big indictment that is at the heart of this essay.

Hardly a day passes without some members of our confederacy venting on the issue of federalism, how we need fiscal federalism, how true federalism is the way to go and so on. But with very rare exceptions, few are those who go to the very heart of the matter and show some awareness of how radical the idea of federalism is in practice. That is, many who canvass federalism do not seem to realize some of its most radical ramifications. And it is our illiteracy concerning this mode of organizing our politics that explains our repeated failures post-Civil War to make our country run better for the benefit of all within its borders.

Let me recount another incident. It was 1997. I was having a conversation with one of my old peers at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, regarding the state of our universities. Of course, those who know me from my days as a teacher at Ife know that I did not back then think anything good could come out of the penchant for centralization and micro-management that was beginning to characterize the operation of the National Universities Commission {NUC) back in the late 1980’s of the last century. So I asked my friend, while making a case for dismantling the NUC, how much sense it makes, in a federal system, for a state to set up a university and put it under the authority of a federal institution like the NUC and its twin, Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board.

My friend was genuinely surprised. He had never thought of it in those terms. Then I reminded him that federalism is a model of conflict management in pluralist societies, that the ultimate authority on any issue under state jurisdiction in a federal system is the state governor and the state legislature. End of story. If there is any conflict with another state, a municipality within the state or the federal government, it is for the courts charged with constitutional interpretation to resolve.

My friend is not atypical. This partly why I decided that we are either illiterates or frauds. But I don’t think that we are frauds. I sincerely think that many of us who run our affairs are somewhat not up to speed where it concerns what the institutions of foreign provenance that we insist on running our affairs through are or require for their successful operation. That is why we would have governors who shout about true federalism but think the idea of local government or municipal autonomy is anathema to them. It is why we would enter government and just go blindly shooting darts in the dark hoping something might stick, never pausing to find out why some of our best brains shipwrecked in government in the past. And I am not talking of the light-fingered office holders.

I see some of us in the current administration going down the same cul de sacs. What is the business of the federal government running retail educational institutions like high schools? What are “federal medical centres”? Why do they exist while the big, necessary institutions needed to set the parameters for lower level institutions and train staff for the latter as well as generate research results the lower tiers could profit from are languishing? Why dissipate scarce energy and resources on small fry when the federal might such as it is is better utilized on broad policy and macro-management models? Why is it a federal responsibility to monitor traffic on our roads? Why have been contented with continuing military rule in mufti? That is all we have done since 1999. Why is the registration of vehicles, one of the best revenue earners for state and municipalities in other climes, a federal responsibility? Why do our governors think it is a good investment of their scarce time hosting carnivals and carol services?

How can we be a secular state but open legal years with religious services? Why is the judiciary of a state under the thumb of a so-called “National Judicial Council”? Why is it necessary for an Inspector General of Police in Abuja to be the one to decide how many police officers are needed in Ògbómòsó? Why can’t people in Òkè Ògùn, through their incorporated municipalities, use their land as collateral to raise capital to generate power from their thermal energy resources without having to have a minister in Abuja poke her nose into their affairs? Why does a state governor have to humiliate himself before any national assembly to obtain approval to raise a bond to build his state?

Such is the regime of illiteracy under which we live that its functionaries do not pause to ask some of the preceding questions before they enthusiastically plunge into muck that is government under the present dispensation in Nigeria. What all this points to is that, as things stand right now, the military never left and only the illiteracy of our confederates and lucre that accrues to many of them stand in the way of their realising that, in spite of occasional successes, the repeated need to come up with new blueprints for power and housing, solid minerals and railroads, agriculture and education, after each change of administration, points to the inevitability of failure until we decide to act as if we know what the true nature, level, and function of government is in a federal state.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.

Join The Conversation

One Comment

  • Zoemed says:

    Wow Prof Taiwo. Every line is worth pondering and demands resolute action. But then what? Block headed as you have implied are our leaders and the citizenry pulled about with their noses acquiesce too easily and without thought to every government action and inaction. Things can only get worse and I shudder to even contemplate what that could be like. Thanks for this most thoughtful piece.

  • What do you think?

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.