ast year October, about a week after the nation space that we have generously agreed to refer to as Nigeria, celebrated her 59th year of Independence from colonial rule, I found myself at the Athens Democracy Forum, Athens being of course that former nation-state that claims the honour of pioneering a system of governance that we all today, celebrate under the name – Democracy. I have no intention of challenging Athens on her claims. What is of note in that claim is simply that the Greeks consider this system of socio-political arrangement of such primal validity, despite numerous challenges and setbacks, that they continue to flaunt it at the rest of the world as the ideal to which all of humanity should aspire. What is even more striking is that much of the rest of the world continues to fall in line, join in the exercise, and propagate its virtues.
Two weeks after that conference, I was back on this soil of our own continent on an allied interrogation of history generated concepts. The venue of the second encounter was Dar-es-Salaam, the occasion, the bi-annual Conference on African philosophy. My remarks today derive largely from issues raised by those earlier exchanges. There is a coincidence of timing and relevance for our present gathering here, both thematically and historically, a coincidence that almost qualifies as a gift of Providence, since all three encounters are geared towards the historic search of humanity for existential choices based on the exercise of collective wisdom. I do not speak of wisdom as an abstract pursuit, a lofty aspiration that exists in a rarefied realm of its own, but wisdom as the very manifestation of the human ability to seize both phenomena and experience by the throat and squeeze them of any lessons they have to offer us in amelioration of human existence.
That claim is justified by the very theme of this encounter: NEVER AGAIN. It is not the first time most of us here have heard that expression. It is, unfortunately, also not the last time such an exhortation will echo in human caucuses, structured and/or casual, organized or improvised. It is both sentiment and pragmatism, an admission of an error, of an anomaly, of a less than desired expectation of ourselves, what we believe we are capable of, what deficiencies in judgement we consider we are capable of transcending. It is, to sum up, indication of our capacity for vision, a refusal to be stuck in a mode of thought that discountenances the possibilities of human transformation, of possibilities of transcending present limitations. That resolve may emerge from individual or collective experience. Let me bring it down to the most mundane, accessible level. Let us say, in a foolhardy moment, we have exceeded the dictates of prudence in spending, overshot one’s budget. What do we swear when the moment of realization descends? Never Again! Or perhaps – a more literally sobering experience – who still recalls his or her first hangover the morning after a night of over-indulgence? The very first words that emerge in that first flush of sobriety? Again, the two words: Never Again!
The trouble of course is that humanity tends to forget such lessons too soon, and will be found pursuing the same course of action again, all over again and again. We become inured to what we consider our capacity for recovery, even boast of our increasing resistance to the effects of the night before. However, we know only too well that, side by side with that seeming capacity for recuperation, there is a steady erosion of the physical constitution that comes from excess. Sooner or later, the liver – among other vital organs – will take its revenge.
That latter analogy is quite deliberate. Power intoxicates and, in that drunken state, human beings become mere statistics. Some people remain in a drunken stupor for years, alas, intoxicated by the sheer redolence of power and cheap access to the instruments of force. And so I evoke that analogy to bolster those sober and anxious voices that warn, from time to time, that no nation has ever survived two civil wars. The claim that no nation has ever survived two civil wars may not be historically sustainable but, it belongs to that category of quest that I have referred to as the pursuit of wisdom – in his case, we may equate it with the wisdom of not holding a bank note over a flame just because the Central Bank claims that it is fireproof. Or attempt to hold an exposed electric wire, just because NEPA is notorious for electrical incapacitation. Correspondingly, our analogy is sternly directed as a mirror to those contrary voices which boast: “I have fought a war and put my life on the line to keep this nation one, and I am ready to do it all over again.” That bravado, by the way, conveniently overlooks the reality that a parallel, often more devastating toll in human lives and lingering trauma is also exacted from untrained, unprepared non-combatants, burdening the future with a more unpredictable, indeed even irreversible hangover.
And that introduces us conveniently to my second conference in Tanzania for which my contribution was titled: When is a Nation? – with the sub-title, Power, Volition and History’s Reprimand. I believe you have begun to grasp the connection. If not, let me remind you that Tanzania was one of the five nations that recognized the breakaway Republic of Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War. Finding myself in that setting, among products of a very special historical formation – pre- and immediately post-colonial African – despite variations in detail, if was an opportunity to interrogate what, if any, could be considered a philosophical or ideological extract from a human event that consumed – it is estimated – two million and a half lives within two years. One of the preoccupations of philosophy is of course to immerse its processes in what actually makes humanity – tick.
So, there we were in Tanzania, a crucial player in the Nigeria – note, I do not say Biafran but – Nigerian tragedy. Regarded as a progressive nation, with a track record of support for liberation causes both within the continent and outside – such as the Palestinians struggle for nationhood – serving as a front-line buffer against apartheid South Africa and thus incurring punitive attacks from that racist enclave, Tanzania nonetheless chose to go against the tide of opinion within the then Organization of African Unity. She recognized a secessionist state at a time when such a position was not only unfashionable, but was even regarded by many as an act of race treachery, a rupture of the not-for-discourse, not-for-consideration political ‘absolute’ named: African Unity. Yes indeed, that was the conjure word: African Unity. Unity as in non-fragmentation, non-divisible, was a proposition in transcendentalism, an absolute. A modern continent, offspring of multiple rapes – or indecipherable trading treaties – and externally imposed distribution lines, was to be weaned on the milk of a foster mother named – African Unity
So let us consider the implications of that collective position. In objective terms, what exactly was it? A historic irony, I propose. We are introducing here a very plain issue that goes to the heart of national coming-in-being of any people, that issue being a polarity between volition and – dictation. Perhaps you will now admit the relevance of my commencing reference to that other conference that occupied itself with the ancient socio-political system known as – democracy. The Yoruba have a proverb for that implicit lesson in contradictions – it goes: won ni, amukun, eru e wo, o ni at’isale ni. Translation: The knock-kneed porter was told: that load on your head is skewed. His reply was – ah no, the problem lies at the base, at the beginning, not, in the consequence. And so, the question is thrown open as a fundamental proposition: is democracy itself not vitiated, not a sham where the roots of coming-in-being of a people spell dictation, coercion as opposed to – choice? Volition? Consent and Participation? Those are the building blocks of democracy. Democracy is manifested in act, not in the rhetorical flourish. That is the irony to which I refer, an irony that commenced when the Organization of African Unity adopted the very protocol of the inviolability of national boundaries – that is, the sacrosanctity of given boundaries, dictated, imposed, arbitrary and artificial boundaries, and its members resolved to defend those boundaries to the last drop of our blood.
Now, a pause here is mandated. Tomorrow, I know that I shall open the pages of the newspapers and read that Wole Soyinka has advocated the breakup of Nigeria. One reporter will deduce that from an underlying principle I have just enunciated, jot it down in his or her notebook, and others will copy that conclusion verbatim. Too bad for the nation’s Intelligence Quotient – known as I.Q. I have long given up, and will proceed – as I always have – on my own terms, with my uninterrupted dialogue with history, and in my own mode of expression. Those who wish to catch up can do so in their own time. My extract from that Civil war remains what it always was – a simple self-interrogatory: Have we been had? Absolutes tend to resound with a clarity, an exclusionist proceeding that does not tax the brain. Absolutes readily corral even millions into a comfort zones of unquestioning receptivity, simply from fear, or even just from the way they sound, not for the implications of their content.