In Search of African Avatars By Tatalo Alamu

(imageWhy the Third World is the lost world)
With the dramatic ascendancy of General Mohammadu Buhari in the Nigerian presidential sweepstakes and the restoration of electoral normalcy in a larger chunk of the nation, it has become fashionable to dream again about the possibilities for Nigeria in particular and the lost continent of Africa as a whole.
As this column keeps hinting, the omens about the Buhari administration itself are still not very clear. While some encouraging signals are coming from the retired general and former military autocrat, the incoming administration appears swamped and besieged by some deadwood and dinosaurs from the old order who are bent on stamping their accursed imprimatur on what should be a new beginning for Nigeria.
From the old volatile west, there have been some rumblings. Some starry-eyed idealists in league with cynical revanchists of the defeated ancien regime are dropping the heavy hints that the dominant political group in the west has sold the Yoruba nation to the Hausa and Fulani feudal oligarchy. It is alleged that a frenzied and wholesale northernization of the power apparatus is proceeding apace while ambitious and perfidious lieutenants of the man known as the Lion of Bourdillon are sharpening their knives for an inevitable confrontation.
Some of these political anxieties are worthy of analytical consideration. In and out of power, it is normal for any cohesive and organic power formation to bind and bond together. This resilience which comes from strong feudal ties and alliances and the superior capacity to organize itself and disorganize others as the occasion warrants is the secret and source of the strength of the old north. Once it identifies its interests, no other power formations in the nation comes close to the north in projecting and protecting its own.
Be that as it may, it will be very foolish and strategically shortsighted in post-military Nigeria for any power formation however dominant to imagine that it can impose its will and political eccentricities on the rest of the nation. Nigeria can never return to that past. Those who believe that this is still possible after Abiola and Abacha as well as those who raise the bogey of renewed ethnic domination are merely incapable of dialectical reasoning in all its rigorously paradoxical possibilities.
Rather than pointing at the inevitability of renewed ethnic domination, the political resurgence of General Buhari merely points at the ineluctability of a new beginning. Until things finally fell into place, the general had been at it for quite some time without any possibility of success even as his adversaries actually imagined that they had seen the last of the old warrior from Daura. While the block voting from the core north certainly helped, it was the explosion in national consciousness and the dramatic expansion of public space and the global means of communication and public enlightenment that set the pace.
This is why this morning, this columnist solemnly appeals to the general not to allow himself to be captured by ethnic hawks and other tale bearers. The general should see himself as a product of a national upheaval, a pan-Nigerian coalition against evil governance and authoritarian misrule represented by the outgoing PDP government. If by any chance, Buhari is unable to fulfill his destiny as the man to lead Nigeria out of the wood, such is the current political ferment in the nation that many rival claimants would be thrown up by the crucible of contradictions.
One of the key areas that must command General Buhari’s attention is indigenous knowledge production. Buhari will be the recipient of a thousand papers about how to reform and revamp our educational system but all this will come to naught if there is no fundamental capacity building attempt to indigenize our knowledge system. This is the key to all successful societies and nations from the western powers, China, Japan, India, the Asian Tigers and the advanced societies of the world.
The largest chunk of the Third World is powerless and backward and will continue to be powerless and backward because it lacks the production of organic and indigenous knowledge to power its political, economic and technological development. Yet, the very notion of a huge chunk of Africa and some parts of Asia and Latin America as the Third World is steeped in remarkable ironies.
Before it became a veritable and enduring marker of backwardness and underdevelopment, it was the radical and progressive leaders of these countries such as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Surkarno who proposed the term at the Bandung conference as a way of distinguishing countries within their spheres of authority which pursued a middle road policy of mixed economy as against capitalist and socialist countries which belong to the first and second worlds respectively.
Yet after the collapse of the Second World and actually existing socialist countries, one would have thought the term Third World would itself disappear, but it has clung to these countries like an ugly limpet. The fact is that if knowledge is power, the production of knowledge is the production of power. Those societies that cannot produce organic and authentic knowledge will only produce powerlessness and utter poverty. This is because poverty of knowledge cannot lead to knowledge of poverty.
This poverty of knowledge is at the roots of Nigeria’s abysmal poverty and its continuous production of powerlessness in all its dimensions and ramifications despite outlandish oil riches. Unfortunately as the dismal career of our current economic witchdoctor, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, attests to, and as the large scale looting of our national patrimony and the utter ruination of economy confirms, you cannot redeem poverty of knowledge or gain knowledge of poverty by importing clever examinees from Harvard and other western citadels and sanctuaries of knowledge and power production. They will simply chew the cuds.
Unless they retool themselves or readapt their analytical skills, Harvard products must reproduce Harvard productions. These glorious citadels of western knowledge and learning and their productions are not meant for the easy consumption of non-western societies. They were not established to help Africa solve its spiritual, economic or political problems.
Knowledge and power production is not a charity ball. Every society must lift itself up by the bootstraps. Establishing ascendancy in human society is not a tea party. In the brutal and unremitting battle of knowledge production and its concomitant production of power, human societies without organic capacity for indigenous knowledge production must fall by the way side.
But you do not have to reinvent the wheel. The evolution of human society is marked and characterized by cross-fertilization of ideas with insights from one society or civilization acting as prodding insight for other human communions. Western knowledge production benefitted a lot from Arabic sciences which arguably took its impetus from Egyptian civilization.
The infusion of philosophical ideals and injection of scientific knowledge which allowed the West to overcome the Dark Age came largely from intellectuals, scientists and philosophers fleeing the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. When a set of ideas is forcibly imposed on other societies such as we found in Western colonization, it is the equivalent of epistemological rape.
Yet rape victims often survive to play first violin. It is only in Africa that they appear unwilling to do so. Let us look at the career of two of the Third World avatars who made momentous contributions to springing their respective societies from western knowledge-trap. Although a Cambridge graduate, the late Lee Kuan Yew related to western ideas with considerable aplomb. He was not averse to cocking a snook at western civilization or sneering at what he considered its dubieties. As far as he was concerned Singapore is not America or England.
He once confessed to an interviewer that his greatest luck was that he was able to identify other colleagues who had the intellectual confidence and self-assurance to take apart any western concept or idea and then see how it can be adapted or discarded in accordance to the Singaporean reality.
With that, he was able to boost the indigenous knowledge production which transformed Singapore from a Third World colonial backwater to gleaming and glittering First World in one generation. It may help to recall that Yew was of ethnic Chinese stock. The Chinese often view western arrogance with the sublime contempt of the bearers of an older human order.
The other avatar is our own Obafemi Awolowo. Although a private student, Awolowo gained a degree in commerce in addition to his legal qualification. Yet through sheer mental discipline and extraordinary willpower, he was able to acquire a formidable knowledge of western society and institutions and by leveraging the insights gained, he acquired knowledge of a former colonial dominion which remains unmatched in its penetrating acuity and originality.
When Awolowo applied the knowledge acquired to his Yoruba people, he was able to frog march them to the frontiers of western modernity within a momentous decade. In terms of knowledge production and political consciousness, this epochal boost has placed the western region of Nigeria at the cutting edge of political sophistication and intellectual awareness. Perhaps the best compliment the west could pay to Awo was when a British prime minister described him as belonging to the first rank of administrators anywhere in the world.
Yet it needs to be stated that there is nothing preordained and inevitable about the ascendancy and triumph of western modernity over its other rivals. It was a function of random contingency, geography and the spectacular role sheer luck often plays in human and societal affair.
By the end of the tenth century China was the leading empire-nation in the world with its ocean-going liners and their fabled mastheads described by spellbound observers as huge clouds unfurling in the skies going as far as the port of Mombasa in contemporary Kenya. Artifacts recovered in that ancient port suggested Chinese presence dating back to the seventh century.
By the beginning of the twelfth century, Portugal had emerged as the first truly modern nation-state. But it was precisely at this point that the Chinese mandarinate became embroiled in a murderous power struggle with the feudal dynasty over the destiny of the nation which led to China being closed off to the outside world for centuries.
By the time the veil was lifted, the world had moved on. In the case of the Portuguese, geography and location led the intrepid sailor, Vasco da Gama and his successors, towards Africa and India rather than towards Latin America and its vast riches and vaster colonial possibilities.
Even then, the race to full western modernity was a ding-dong affair among western nations, with Portugal yielding ascendancy to Spain and with Holland economically trumping the Spaniards barely sixty years after gaining independence. England completed the military and economic rout of the early colonial powers only for England in turn to be militarily and economically shellacked by the emergent American superpower. In all these struggles for ascendancy, it is the nation with superior knowledge that always prevailed.
If it is of any comfort, we might as well add things have not always been this bleak and dreary in Africa. When the Portuguese adventurers arrived in the old Kongo Kingdom around present day Angola, they met a society vastly superior in organization and cohesion to the one they left behind at home. They loitered around listlessly a bit, hoping to encounter the mighty army which underwrote this might empire.
Alas, there was no army, only a loosely coordinated and rudimentary fighting force not much better than a hunting pack. The emperor had no clothes on. The Portuguese could not believe their luck. They then proceeded to sack the empire with clinical cruelty. In the next few decades almost all the surviving inhabitants were captured and transported as slaves to the new colony of Brazil through the new slave port of Luanda.
The lesson to be learnt from all these encounters is that knowledge matters and human capital is the driving agency behind all societal advances. It will take at least three decades and three generations of unbroken progressive leadership to reverse the damage done to Nigeria and its capacity to produce its own organic human capital. We will be lucky if the damage is not more fundamental and irreversible.
It may well be the time to resume the search for African avatars all over again. Pandit Nehru once ordered that if India could not clothe itself, the proud nationals of the new country should go naked. Within a few years, India had achieved self-sufficiency in the production of apparels. Nehru was tapping into the subliminal pride of the people of an ancient empire. They would have recalled that Indians used to joke about the poor quality of western fabrics when western adventurers finally made it to the Indian subcontinent five hundred years earlier.
At this critical point, Nigeria and Africa need leaders who will mend the broken spirit and resuscitate the collapsed morale of the founding continent and original cradle of mankind. This is the crucial significance of what appears to be a new beginning in Nigeria.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *