As the Nigerian government continues to flounder on how to deal with the threat posed by Boko Haram, whose name means Western education (“boko”) is forbidden (“haram”), the real obstacle in addressing the challenges facing the country is ignorance.
The late Yusufu Bala Usman, an inspirational and legendary professor of history at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria once wrote:
“Ignorance is not the same as illiteracy. Knowledge is not the same as literacy, or, even the same as the acquisition of educational certificates, or, academic ranks. Some of the most highly literate Nigerians, and the most highly educated, by virtue of their certificates and ranks, are some of the most ignorant over many crucial areas of natural and human existence and over our national life, like our geography, history, economy and politics.”
The ignorance of many of my fellow Nigerians can be indeed staggering. This cuts across all ethnic groups, the entire social spectrum and all walks of life. It can be found in any corner of human activity across the country. In academia, the media, the professions, the bars, internet discussion forums, the blogosphere, etc. The ignorance of the majority provides the cover that the tiny minority that holds sway in the country needs to operate with impunity.
Historian Mark Curtis wrote in his book Web of Deceit about the “mass production of ignorance”, in which “people are being indoctrinated into a picture…that supports elite priorities”. This includes the media ignoring publicly-available information that would better inform their readers, presenting chronically terrible governance as the natural order of things, acting as a mouthpiece of the government, etc. On many issues that affect the population, the media fails to inform the public of their rights, the options, the real issues at stake, etc.
When Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola decided to demolish slums in Lagos to make way for rich property developers, there was hardly any mention in the Nigerian media of the fact that the governor has a constitutional obligation to provide shelter for the people of Lagos State – despite copies of the Nigerian Constitution being readily available online.
In a similar vein, there was a resounding silence from much of the Nigerian media on the unconstitutionality of Governor Theodore Orji’s mass sacking of “non-indigenes” in the Abia State public sector.
We can not have a functioning democracy in such an atmosphere of ignorance. People need the right information in order to be able to make the right choices and in order to hold their leaders to account. Like the American syndicated columnist Ted Rall once said: “Where evil men rule, the law cannot protect those who sleep.” Way too many Nigerians have become wilfully blind or have been hypnotised into a trance of ignorance. This is a climate in which ignorance and mediocrity are celebrated and the knowledgeable are ridiculed as “ITKs” (I too know).
Where ignorance is so pervasive, prejudice, xenophobia, ethnic and religious chauvinism move in to fill in the gaps. People are fed all manner of rubbish by religious and secular charlatans masquerading as leaders, and they swallow it without question. Congregations are being fleeced by their pastors’ distortion of selective texts from the bible and they don’t bother to try and read it for themselves and in context in order to gain a thorough understanding of the message.
In the current climate of Boko Haram terror many Nigerians have not bothered to find out more about the group, its origins, the roots of the crises, what exactly are its aims, despite the many credible reports on the issue.
The Nigerian media hardly helps in the search for better understanding. We have little chance of succeeding against such grave threats with so much ignorance about the nature of the threat. We can’t afford to ignore the advice of Mozambique’s liberation hero Samora Machel: “know your enemy and you will be capable of using your enemy’s dynamics in your favour”. We desperately need to start seeking and embracing knowledge and challenging what passes for received wisdom.
Igbo people have a saying that “he that asks never gets lost”. With the conspicuous absence of an enquiring mind many of “my people have become lost sheep, their shepherds have caused them to go astray”.