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The Miseducation of Nigerians


It is never enough to focus on the construction of physical infrastructure alone. Social re-engineering, which consists of the building of values, like patience, kindness, love and unity, is just as important for the sustenance of democracy.

When I was an eight year old child in the Staff School, University of Ibadan, I was taught that there are two types of education: formal and informal. While formal is obtained through schools, informal is acquired passively through society and family. Both types are important for the formation of a complete person.

I grew up on a world-class education system, acquired entirely in Nigeria. In the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, getting educated in Nigeria made you as good or better than anyone anywhere in the world. The standards were serious. However, I’m beginning to think I was lucky, because today, education in Nigeria is a farce. If you don’t know what farce means, you are part of the problem. After the 90s, it seems there has been a remarkable downturn in the quality of education in Nigeria.

An introspective appraisal of 5 sectors of public life will provide insight into how our persistent dysfunction can be traced back to negligence of education and maladaptive training of Nigerians.

1: Education in schools & youth unemployment

Youth unemployment is a huge problem in Africa. One reason is that during recruitment, companies often find that candidates with traditional management skills—such as the ability to drive change or build teams—are in short supply. This was the conclusion of a December 2015 report on finding executive talent by Russell Reynolds Associates, which surveyed 230 senior leaders and recruiters in Africa. To their dismay, recruiters and researchers realize that nurturing talent is hard in Africa. They say the scarcity of a reliable pool of local business leaders can be traced back to a lack of top quality schools.

The quality of education in Nigerian schools, in particular, is diminished by a culture of fear and repression. From primary to secondary schools to universities, overt and covert bullying are the norm. Seniors assert their power over juniors in brutal ways, and teachers are no different. The severity of bullying varies from school to school, but it is a commonly accepted part of going to school. This bullying continues after graduation, in workplaces. Bosses exert their power over employees. All this culture of fear results in a lack of critical thinking capability as children grow up in Nigeria. By default, they are trained to be afraid, to show respect for seniority. By extension, the cycle is perpetuated and successive generations experience the same meanness.

Read also: Nigeria – Divided We Stand

Lack of critical thinking leads to subsequent unemployability. Rather than becoming mentors, teachers and bosses become oppressors. This is in sharp contrast to the way that children in western society are encouraged to question everything and break free of mental barriers to discover their unique identities. In addition to this culture of fear, school curricula are still largely stuck in the eighties, and need to be updated to reflect the employable skills of the future.

2: Religious indoctrination

That Nigerians are highly religious is no secret. Commonly among Nigerians, every 2nd or 3rd sentence is punctuated by a reference to God or faith: “God will help us”, “Amen”, “By God’s grace” or “Allah”. While this state of mind seems completely natural to the average Nigerian, it becomes clear how unique it is when one steps out into more secular cultures. Faith is not a bad thing, but when combined with low enlightenment and a culture of fear and repression, it can be toxic. In Nigeria, religious faith is both a positive outlet for emotional pressure and a limitation to critical political reform. The unquestioning nature of religious belief leaves Nigerians as sitting ducks while their murderous leaders and greedy elite plunder their resources and misgovern them. Religion provides perpetual hope that things will get better without any active intervention. On the other hand, religion also breeds intolerance. As fundamentalist culture becomes more mainstream in Nigeria, religion is less of a social glue and more of a unique identifier that breeds unhealthy rivalry and sometimes violence. Secular freedoms are obscured through conservative religious lenses and rationalization of debates is often impossible. These are challenges for building a modern democracy. Democracy thrives on critical thought and a degree of amorality: Not immorality, just amorality. The principle of  “separation of church and state”.

In January 2016, world leaders gathered in Davos, Switzerland to discuss the Fourth Industrial Revolution: a new global economy which will be driven by the changing applications of digital media and the use of the Internet. The steam engine, electricity and the computer drove the first three industrial revolutions, from the 17th century onwards. Africa did not participate in any of those revolutions. The industrial revolution is the reason why Europe and America are technologically and economically ahead of Africa.

The industrial revolutions were preceded by a period known in history as the European enlightenment. This period was marked by the advance of philosophical thought. There was a breaking away from religious ideas and the interference of the church in the affairs of the state. To an extent, such freedom to think and rebel against the existing order was necessary for growth. However in religious environments such as Nigeria, to think differently from the majority may imply that one has been possessed by devils. What people should not forget is that any type of mass orientation or belief system, including religion, is always limited by human weakness and hypocrisy. Like my mother used to tell me, “all lizards crawl on their belly therefore it is difficult to tell which one truly has stomach ache.”

3: Ethnicism

Since the 1967 civil war, Nigeria has been afflicted by a divisive ethnicism. It is a sore that has refused to heal. Thus is partly due to the failure of successive administrations to address the injustices of the war. As a result, the people of eastern Nigeria in particular, are very sensitive about political marginalization. However the fallouts of Nigeria’s disunity affect every ethnic group.

It’s a sad pity that even children born 30 years after the civil war are carrying on the proxy war as taught by their parents. Going though the comments sections on social media pages, one not so amusing trend among young Nigerians is the tendency to resort to ethnic insults. Every type of serious discussion is quickly diverted into an excuse for name-calling and mudslinging between the 300 ethnic groups that make up Nigeria, and the Big 3 in particular.

It needs to stop. The potential greatness of Nigeria is tied to the unity of its nearly 200 million peoples, and time is running out for us to harness this latent power for our political and economic development.

4: The Military and Police

In Nigeria, might is right. Corruption in Nigeria’s security services and human rights abuses committed by them led to an Amnesty International investigation published in 2014, which accused Nigeria’s police and military of routinely torturing women, men and children as young as 12 with beatings, shootings and other forms of abuse and violence. It’s an open secret, but was resisted and denied by the Nigerian authorities.

Police brutality in Nigeria can be traced back to the training that they receive in Nigeria’s police and military academies. There is a culture of animalization and dehumanization of recruits, designed to deliberately render them antisocial and heartless towards civilians. No dignity is attached to being human. Thieves when caught are treated like they have no human rights. Innocent people do not fare better. It is common place to find military and police officers flogging civilians in public or commanding them to do do frog jumps or lie on the ground. By extension, civilians likewise are barbaric in their treatment of people caught in crime or alleged to have committed crime. Mob justice is a recurring theme of social violence in Nigeria, and people often take laws into their own hands, either because they do not trust the officers of the law, or are simply brutal by nature.

Several photos and videos can be found online depicting the primitive behavior of all cadres of Nigeria’s defense forces, however a short clip published last week by Sahara Reporters shows a female cadet torturing a male civilian because he commented on her beauty.  In the weeks before that, a photo went viral of a Nigerian officer wiping a minister’s shoes during a public function. The morale within the armed forces is often low. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s former National Security Adviser is on trial for diverting a staggering 2 billion US dollars meant for the fight against Boko Haram.

From an obscure rag tag rebel insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast, the homegrown Boko Haram has become the world’s most destructive terrorist organization in just 5 yaers. It seems even ISIS has to take lessons in murderousness from Nigeria’s Islamist extremists these days. The origin of the current scale of Boko Haram can be traced back to an incident if police brutality that occurred in 2009. The group’s former leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was tortured and killed by police in public view while being held in custody in Maiduguri. He was soon replaced by the far more virulent Abubakar Shekau. The escalation led to suicide bombings, an attack on the United Nations building in Nigeria’s capital, the death of more than 7,000 Nigerians, the displacement of 2.3 million people and the mass abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in April 2014. By mid-2014, the militants had gained control of swathes of Nigerian territory estimated at 50,000 square kilometers, or the size of 3 small countries.

If the anti-human mindset within Nigerian security sector is not completely overhauled and these barbaric training traditions extinguished, we can never be a modern democracy. That reform must be done from the ground up, and is not a task that can be performed by casual sleight of hand.

5: The Political class

Finally, let’s consider the real culprits: Nigeria’s political class. That Nigerian politicians are thieves is an understatement. Why is mediocrity and fraud so endemic within Nigeria’s political class? This can be partly traced to lack of preparation for office and a culture of miseducation. It seems no standards are set for people who aspire for elections, apart from having their hands in the public purse and amassing ill-gotten wealth. People of mean character who are unfit to occupy the lowest strata of animal life are in the highest echelons of public responsibility in Nigeria.

As an example of what is possible, one of the political parties in the Netherlands offers monthly classes to its members who are aspiring for future office. Over many months, they are taught the philosophy and principles of the Socialist Party, and what makes it different from any other party. When Chief Obafemi Awolowo was leader of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria, he would teach his officers to be modest and eschew immoral conduct. What he taught, he also practised, so he wasn’t difficult to follow. For instance, he forbade anything except water to be served at his meetings. He also researched extensively about the sectors of public life he wished to reform.

Nigeria’s political class needs to be undone, then redone. If we don’t reinvent Nigerian politics, none of the other reforms that are necessary for our development will be sustained.

In conclusion

The root of the word education is the Latin educere: it means to draw out. A “duct” is a narrow tube through which substances may be extruded from one place to another. Other English words like ductile and induct are also derived from the same Latin root. Basically, you never really teach anyone anything. What education does is “draw out” the potential that is inside you. Think of a potter and his clay. He fashions out an object from within the clay. That object was not introduced into the clay – it already exists within the clay. Just that it was formless.

When I was in secondary school, we were told about a computer algorithm called GIGO- meaning garbage in, garbage out. That metaphor works in other situations. Human beings are like computers. What you program into them is what you get out.

Right now, everything we want to achieve as a nation is at risk. From economic to political to social and military goals, Nigeria will never sustain a democratic evolution unless its citizens are first of all reformed. The social re-engineering of Nigerians through their minds, attitudes, beliefs and values is critical to our future aspirations. As we build roads, bridges and banks, so we must build our human souls. Our combined educational condition is a social emergency. For now, it seems to be almost entirely toxic and full of mental and psychological trash. That has to be changed.

Why is social re-engineering so important?

Building the hearts and minds of people is important, because people sustain things, and education of people drives development. In the 1960 and 70s during the 1st oil boom, Nigeria built most of the infrastructure and cities we now have. Where are all those things now? The people have destroyed them. We might also argue that we needed to have built more to keep pace with development. However once the people and politicians that should build more are miseducated, they will either destroy what they have built or fail to build more.

The antidote for Nigeria’s miseducation is social reengineering. It means engaging the hearts and minds of people through both formal and informal education, and seeking to change their values. It takes place over time. It is not fast, but it is gradual. It is not cheap. It costs money and mentorship, both of which Nigeria has in short supply. Now Nigeria has a lot of religion and that should make us all good and wise people but it can’t. And too much religion can be like too much salt. It loses its value.  Nigerians can’t eat tasteless food.  Just like tasteless food, eventually, people throw out salty food and it gets trampled upon in the streets. Likewise, when religion is excessive, people trample on other peoples human rights.

Religion cannot take the place of reengineering because religion is subjective. While religion focuses on the heart, social reengineering focuses on the heart and mind. Religion may affect the mind but it tends to close it, not to keep it open. Religion is personal, but reengineering is public. Religion is the responsibility of the individual bit social reengineering is the responsibility of the state. Otherwise we’d have a theocracy. Religion focuses on morals, but social reengineering considers the total man and focuses on values and the public good. Again these are subjective and depend on personal interpretation. Now there are at least 3 religions in Nigeria – and for change to encompass the entire nation social reengineering has to be primarily the responsibility of the state.

So it is never enough to focus on the construction of physical infrastructure alone. Social reengineering, which consists of the building of values, like patience, kindness, love and unity, is just as important for the sustenance of democracy. It is not that we don’t know what ought to be done: it is written on Nigeria’s coat of arms: unity and faith, peace and progress.But writing is not the same as doing. The same way we are investing in modern infrastructure, it will take time, money, mentorship and deliberate effort to reclaim the hearts and minds of Nigerians from years of torture, unintended malfeasance and deliberate abuse. We have to build the nation we need to get the nation we want, which is a modern Nigeria where peace and justice reign.

Ayo Adene is a medical doctor and he writes from the Netherlands.

Follow him on Twitter – @ayoadene

Views expressed are only those of the authors.

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