By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
In September 2004, Mr. Jeremy Weate, co-owner of Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria, wrote a thoughtful and perceptive essay titled “The closing of the African Mind: A walk through the University of Ibadan.” It was about the depths to which many Nigerians have sunk in the nadir of superstition and backwardness. He concluded that “the biggest threat to any constructive and progressive future for Nigeria is more metaphysical than physical.”
The truth in Weate’s observation painfully endures nearly 10 years on. The vast majority of Nigerians are still stuck in a prescientific mindset. They stand in uncomprehending awe before the littlest natural complexity and quickly take recourse to mythic, superstitious explanations for confounding but knowable phenomena.
This attitude played out in the recent Malaysian Airline tragedy. Many Nigerians on social media not only proclaimed, with annoyingly cocksure certitude, that the airline had been hijacked by invisible, extra-terrestrial beings; they also used the tragedy to pooh-pooh science, to call attention to what they said were the unraveling of the arrogant, omniscient pretensions of science and technology. Several suggested that the international aviation community should simply give up their search for the airline and come to terms with the limits of science and the omnipotence and inscrutability of “God.”
The backwardness of these thought-processes is mind-boggling for so many reasons. First, the medium they deployed to spew this unreflective ignorance is the product of the same science they ridiculed. The dizzyingly instantaneous, point-to-point communication that the Internet enables across unimaginably vast distances is the product of science, not some backward, superstitious mumbo-jumbo.
Second, it speaks to the severity of the incuriosity that afflicts the Nigerian mind. You don’t stop searching simply because the object of search seems indiscoverable at the moment. But that is precisely what Nigeria would have done had the airline been a Nigerian airline. Nigerian leaders—and followers— would have called for “prayers” and “surrendered everything to God.” And that would be the end of the story.
Third, that thought-process betrays a lack of compassion that is cloaked in superstitious drivel. The relatives of the victims of the aircraft need closure, and closure can only come from knowing what exactly happened to the airline.
It is the same insouciant, superstitious mindset that explains why Nigerians give “testimonies” of “God’s mercies” on them for surviving car crashes in which others perished. They imply that God hates the people who die in car accidents.
When it emerged that the science they had scorned had finally succeeded in locating the airline in the Indian Ocean, they went awfully quiet, but a few doubted the authenticity of the discovery.
This doesn’t surprise me. After all, as Weate noted, “This is a country where the majority of people believe that evil spirits can be transmitted via a mobile phone.” Indeed, this is a country where a “professor,” former university vice chancellor and current minister of power told the nation’s senate that power outages were caused by “witches and demons” and that “If the President deploys me in the power sector, I believe that given my performance at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, where I drove out the witches and demons, God will also give me the power to drive out the demons in the power sector.”
A year earlier, a minister of state in the Ministry of Power told a South African delegation that “evil spirits” were responsible for Nigeria’s perpetually capricious power supply.
This is a country where many people still believe that one can become wealthy through the ritual murders of other humans, where deaths, including car accidents, are attributed to witchcraft and sorcery, where the ability to perform cheap magic tricks is invariably associated with the possession of supernatural powers.
Sadly, in Nigeria, superstition and anti-scientific attitudes often take refuge under religion so that an attack on superstition and pre-scientific attitudes is usually mistaken for an attack on religion. But that’s a fallacious association. Both historical and contemporary examples show that religion and science can co-exist.
For instance, many of the scientific discoveries that define our modern life have foundations in what has been called the Islamic Golden Age, which started from the 8th century to the 11th century. To give just one example, Ibn Al-Haytham (known in Western literature as Alhazen) who lived in what is now Iraq is often credited with inventing the scientific method, leading the BBC to call him the world’s “first true scientist.” He was a devout Muslim.
In any case, the Malaysians who never gave up in their determination to find out where their aircraft was, who used every scientific help they could get to locate their missing plane, who never surrendered to superstitious nonsense, are Muslims.
And in America, the world’s current leader in scientific research, nearly 80 percent of people say they are religious.
So religion isn’t necessarily synonymous with superstition, nor is science necessarily the anti-thesis of religion. Superstition, belief in witchcraft and sorcery, and a disdain for the scientific method represent the infancy of human reasoning. It’s sad that many Nigerians are still stuck in a prescientific mindset.
Weate was right when he observed that throwing technology and “capacity-building” at Nigerians without first dislodging the pernicious mentality of superstition and ignorance, what he called the “ideological heat-death” of irrational and prescientific beliefs, that afflicts them would amount to nothing.
Nigerians need to imbibe a scientific mindset which, according to The Zeitgeist Movement Official Blog, consists of the following:
1. “The ability to say, ‘I don’t know,’ leading to what can be termed as an ‘open mind.’
2. The constant urge to observe and understand the nature of things around us.
3. The resolve to make all decisions based on facts and evidence.
4. The ability to let go of old beliefs and accept new explanations when evidence to support them is presented.
I have no doubt that unthinking obsession with supernaturalism and metaphysical claptrap is Nigeria’s, nay Africa’s, biggest stumbling-block to progress.