See Part 1 (PART TWO)
It is no secret that we love foreign things in Nigeria. Our encounter with modernity, especially the version of it associated with the material trajectory of Western Europe after the Enlightenment and the rise of the culture of late capitalism in the United States after the World Wars, has been a history of uncreative aping of Western culture, tastes, and modes of being. Alas, our knowledge systems are not spared, hence we seek Western paradigms and explanations for things rooted in our own history, culture, and environment. Such is the case with a great deal of the literature on what most Nigerians agree is the country’s most successful postcolonial experience of statehood in terms of the management of resources and human capital. This experience, which has entered the history books as one of Africa’s most successful cases of the harnessing of resources for the betterment of the collective, is none other than the political polity known as the Western region.
If you explore the social science literature on the Western region and why the man at the centre of it all, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was able to record developmental strides for his region that are still largely unsurpassed in our annals, you will find no shortage of Western-derived explanations for what happened in the Western region. You will encounter every Western theory of statehood, especially theories and models of the modern Welfare state, from its origins in Otto von Bismarck’s Germany to Canada via Scandinavia that Obafemi Awolowo and the bureaucracy he harnessed and led for the betterment of
his people were supposed to have mastered. You will even encounter the reflections of a great 19th and early 20th-century German thinker known as Max Weber, whose reflections on the bureaucracy and the legal bases of the Welfare state have led to the emergence of a theoretical construct known as the Weberian state in the social sciences. You will hear that the Western region was a micro-Weberian state at its most successful level of actuation. What you will hardly encounter in the literature on the Western region are studies which trace the origins of this spectacular success to the cultural capital of Chief Awolowo and the energies he mobilized to implement his vision.
It is true that the leader of the Western region was a man of great learning. A polymath whose intellectual depth and erudition are still here with us in his speeches, lectures, and books. Added to his own talent and intellectual capital is the fact his generation of Nigerians is the last generation to have acquired what qualifies to be called great learning. You will understand what I am talking about if your father was roughly in Chief Awolowo’s generation. This is the generation that read the Greeks and the Romans, studied Latin, and
spoke Queen’s English, stressing the proper syllables unlike those of us in subsequent generations who stress every syllable. So, it is true that Chief Awolowo had read Weber and many of the great thinkers of modern welfare statehood. However, Max Weber and European philosophers were not what happened in the Western region. What happened was cultural. What happened to and in the Western region was respect for the covenant between man and Ijapa.
Although the free primary education scheme, which was launched on January 17, 1955, has become a leitmotif in narratives of the Western region’s success, we need to dig deeper to account for the philosophical bases of the vision of the man who dared to dream it in the first place. Let us examine for example the core themes of Awolowo’s 1955 budget speech: “Of our total expenditure of £12.45 million not less than 82.6% is devoted to services and projects which
directly cater for the health, education, prosperity and general welfare of our people. Of this high percentage, 27.8% goes to education, 10.7% to medical services, 5.4% to agriculture”. The key terms here are health, education, welfare of the people, and agriculture. These are all areas directly related to human
However, which humans? That is a logical question because if Squealer was able to perfectly rationalize the fact that all the resources of animal farm were to go towards the health, education, and welfare of the few pigs at the table, the envisioners of the Western region budget could also perfectly have reasoned that human development was synonymous with the welfare and the gastronomic preferments of a chosen and privileged few. So, which humans is a legitimate question. The answer to who Awolowo had in mind as he evolved a carefully-calibrated budget philosophy for the Western region on his
assumption of office lies in his famous three principles of budgeting by which he meant the resources of the region would be expended on human development in the areas of health, welfare, and education. The overall goal of this budget philosophy was freedom of the people from ignorance, disease, and want. In Awolowo’s vision, the Western region was going to be the very embodiment of the collective good and the commonweal.
What was being born in this project, the Western region, was a modern, postcolonial political apparatus whose formal institutions, bureaucracy, and modes of functioning devolved from the legacies of British colonialism. However, the ethos and the vision which transformed the project into a vector of generalized human development were not British. That ethos devolved from the cultural bases of the region’s chief envisioner and his greatest asset – his people. I will elaborate on the point about his people presently. Suffice it to say that the persona speaking in Awolowo’s description of the principles
that would guide the budgeting process of the Western region and become its humanizing foundation is one grounded in the traditional pedagogy of the tortoise. We have explored how the cultural imaginary which produced Ijapa and his adventures promotes a conception of personhood, omoluabi, defined by a subscription to the superiority of the collective good and the commonweal. The budget of the Western region respected Ijapa’s mandate: do not emulate me. Do not plagiarize my actions. Remember, I am all about my belly and how to get more than my fair share of things meant for all of us. You, on the other hand,
are people of the commonweal.
This is the cultural praxis which informed Obafemi Awolowo’s conception of statecraft and shaped what became the Western region. I am saying, in essence, that we did not hear of the welfare state and the social contract for the first time from jean-Jacques Rousseau, Max Weber, and other Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers of Europe. Our ancestors were already using those philosophies to raise their children and forge ideas of society and social responsibility long before our modern scholars and thinkers dragged these Europeans into the argument.
Something else is often left out in narratives of the Western region. I prefer to frame this second omission in the interrogative mode. Why did Awolowo’s vision and altruism work in the region? To render unto Ijapa what is Ijapa’s is to subscribe to the supremacy of the commonweal by not plagiarizing the trickster figure’s selfish and individualistic proclivities. My submission is that that is exactly what Awolowo did but was this adherence to the collective good the only ingredient of his success? The answer, evidently, is no. For Awolowo’s budget philosophy to be successful, those who were helping him run the vision and examples he was setting in Ibadan across the entire region would have had to be believers in and subscribers to the same ethos of the commonweal. His role was to provide the vision, leadership, sense of purpose, and example but all these would have come to naught if he wasn’t leading a people who subscribed to the same ethos of the collective good. Awolowo’s greatest assets were, therefore, his people and the ethos of the commonweal to which they collectively subscribed at the time.
The success of Awolowo’s lion share budget for education depended on implementers of that budget across the region. If they did not share his ethos, if they decided to behave like Ijapa and steal all the money, if every time they received allocations for education supplies across the region, they burst out singing:
Ori mo so
Ori mo so
Gbogbo re ba ja lu mi inu mi a dun ori mo so
What do you think would have happened to free education? Do you want
me to go on still? Nobody is bored to death yet? Okay, here is part
The ethos of the collective and the commonweal as I have explored it above is not an exclusive preserve of any people in the immediate afterlife of colonialism in Nigeria. The landscape I have been mapping in terms of the cultural values that regulated one’s relationship to society in the period of our national history under discussion must be familiar to everyone, irrespective of your ethno-geographic belonging in Nigeria. I may have tried to explore the foundation of our national civic process during the era of the regions from the purview of my own culture, I am sure you have all followed my train of thought thus far, drawing parallels between the scenarios I have sketched out and what obtained in your own corner of Nigeria. North and south; east and west, Nigeria was once relatively a postcolonial space for ethos of
the collective good and the commonweal. This explains why Nigerians of a certain generation look back and wax nostalgic about that era, irrespective of our deadly faultlines of ethnicity and religion.
I am harping on these two concepts – collective good and commonweal – to underscore the point that the physical and material fact of modern statehood, of modern political arrangements, are just as important as the metaphors with which citizens conceptualize such polities at the symbolic level. As strange as this may sound, metaphors of self-fashioning are in fact what give solidity to the political identities we refer to as nation and state. Such metaphors may be foundational, coming from myths and legends passed on across the
generations, as is quite often the case here in Africa. A good number of Western thinkers of nation and nationalism also understand the centrality of metaphors and myths to national identity. Ernest Renan understood this in his famous treatise, What is a Nation? Ernest Gellner also understood it in his master opus, Nations and Nationalism. And so did Benedict Anderson in his influential book, Imagined Communities.
By defining a nation as an imagined community, Anderson was stressing the importance of the collective mental image that the people have of their nation and hold dear. That mental image, more rooted in metaphors and myths than in concrete actualities, defines a people. When members of a nation speak about “who we are” or “our values” – you’ll get an overdose of these if you listen to American politicians in an election cycle – they are talking about the time-tested metaphors and myths of self-fashioning to which they collectively subscribe. This is what gives vigour to their peoplehood.
One of the most significant metaphors of American self-fashioning is the concept known across the world as the American dream. Such is the mobilizing power of this metaphor that nobody is indifferent to it – whether we are Americans or not. A visit to the gate of the American Embassy here in Lagos will give you a window into the sub-human indignities that Nigerians endure from rude and insufferably imperious American embassy officials just to get a chance to gain access to that dream. And we know that in the tortured logic of Al-Qaeda, it is better to die through self-immolation than hang around here and deal with the inevitability of the American dream.
So, what do Americans throw into the philosophical cauldron of a concept which represents the heart and soul of their nationhood? They throw into it their freedoms and the institutions which underwrite them; they throw into it their self-awareness of being the authors of a system which invests the most in the infinite possibilities of the human spirit; they throw into it the unquenchable optimism of the can do American spirit; they throw into it the idea of the fair shot which guarantees a certain level playing field for the pursuit of happiness; they throw into it their faith in a system which makes it possible to take out a car loan, a mortgage, and the occasional vacation if you work hard; they throw into it their faith that America’s got your back, always ready to do right by you.
These metaphors of national self-fashioning can mobilize even more effectively than the material manifestations of nationhood and statehood. The American flag as a concrete symbol is important but what drives those boys in Afghanistan is their belief in the need to lay down their lives for abstract notions such as “our values”, “our way of life”, “who we are”, in short, the American dream. They are defending not the American flag but the American dream. Where the American boasts the American dream, the French man responds with “impossible n’est pas français”. Impossible is not French. Time and space will not permit me to fully explore what this self-fashioning does for French nationhood so let me just quip that it does for the French what the American dream does for the American.
Like the Americans and the French, the metaphors of the commonweal and the collective good once defined us as Nigerians building the country, building nationhood from our different ethno-regional locations. Then we had coups and countercoups. Then we shed blood, a lot of blood. And we lost the regions to our self-inflicted follies and gained a perverse form of federalism via military fiat. And things fell apart. No, I am not talking about the civil war. I am talking about what we lost symbolically in our transition from regionalism to federalism. Do you want me to tell you what we lost? Okay, you must wait for the answer in Part Four.
[Being the second and third part of the Save Nigeria Group public lecture delivered by Pius Adesanmi in Lagos]…Concludes here