By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
The other day I was reflecting on Nigerians’ new favorite pastime: endless griping about the increasingly disabling dysfunction of the country. And I realized that one theme that often stands out when we bewail our present conditions is that we almost always sentimentalize the past.
In other words, many Nigerians find relief from the worries of the present by taking a mental escape to the past.
For instance, when Nigerians bemoan the “indigene/settler” dichotomies in many states of the country, they like to recall, for example, that as far back as 1956, a Fulani man from Sokoto by the name of Malam Umaru Altine was elected the first Mayor of Enugu, the political capital of Eastern Nigeria. His religious and ethnic identity didn’t stand in the way of his election—as it certainly would in contemporary Nigeria. They also remember that when the late Alhaji Abubakar Rimi was governor of Kano State in the Second Republic, he appointed many non-Kano indigenes, including Christians from the South, as commissioners. There are several other examples of inclusiveness from the past that we invoke to deplore the politics of intolerance and exclusivity of the present.
And when Nigerians bemoan the worsening insecurity in the country, especially in the northeast, they never fail to recall that Borno State, the main theater of Boko Haram’s unceasing carnage, used to be so peaceful that its license-plate slogan is “home of peace.” Now, that slogan reads like a cruel joke.
On almost every imaginable subject—infrastructure, electricity, standard of education, tolerance, security, governance, leadership, etc.—our past has become our refuge from the scourge of our present. About the only thing that Nigerians don’t look to the past for inspiration is in telecommunication. No one looks back to the days of NITEL with nostalgia even in the face of the crappy GSM services that private telecom operates provide now.
I know of no society that valorizes its past, in even the most trivial indices, with as much wistfulness much as Nigeria does. Here in the United States, to give just one example, rather than a sentimental longing for the past, I notice a tendency toward chronocentricity, that is, the notion that the present is superior to anything that preceded it. For instance, when Americans discuss race relations, they look back at their past with disdain. Even though they are far from achieving racial equality, they all seem to agree that they have come a long way; that every subsequent generation is more racially tolerant and broadminded than the one that anteceded it.
As President Obama said in one of his speeches, the fact that racial incidents like the Trayvon Martin murder case captured the national imagination and became the subject of intense national debate speaks to the unusualness of such cases and indicates how much progress has been made in race relations.
Although Americans also complain about declining standards in education, it isn’t as much a national obsession as it is in Nigeria. In fact, studies now show that young Americans actually read more print (and—obviously—electronic) books than previous generations.
In many societies, people say things like “this is the 21st century, for God’s sake!” to rail against people who are narrow-minded, who are ensconced in their primordial cocoons, who are opposed to progress. Implicit in this utterance is the idea that the current age is an improvement on the previous ones; that history proceeds in a progressive, not recursive, direction. Of course, this is not entirely accurate, but it does capture a certain level of confidence about the present—and optimism about the future.
Nigerians don’t have even this illusory luxury. The past is a lot more comforting than the present and is therefore a better template for the future. But why wouldn’t it be? As a nation we seem to be moving from bad to worse in almost every sphere. At a time when most closed societies are opening up and open societies are becoming even more open, we are becoming more wedded to subnational loyalties than ever before. Citizens of Nigeria habitually get “deported” from parts of the country where they are not considered “indigenes.”
Corruption has reached such crushing heights that even the president of the nation says stealing is not corruption. And stealing of public money no longer makes headlines news unless it’s in billions of US dollars. What is more, we have become so desensitized to death that unless people die in their hundreds newspaper editors don’t put it on the front page.
Even universities that are called “ivory towers” because of their putative insulation from the reality of everyday life are affected by this emergent national culture of worshipping the past. University teachers look to the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to reclaim the idea of the university. I have never heard or read any Nigerian university teacher brag about improvement in scholarship and pedagogy in the universities in the course of the years.
No future can be envisioned out of this depressingly dark present. That is why we glorify and idealize the past. But a country whose past is better than its present in most indices of human development is in a bigger trouble than it realizes. And, most certainly, a country whose future lies in its past has no future.