I used to teach the SATs. And one of the modules that gave my students the greatest problem is the one known as ‘critical reading’. The students were getting those problems because they took those two words, ‘critical’ and ‘reading’ at face value. One of them told me that ‘critical’, meant to always criticize, and to ‘read’ meant to read the words one after the other and very carefully. All this was wrong. In ‘critical reading’, the questions were set on the candidate’s ability to absorb the message a short passage has to offer through certain clues the author left in the passage. Therefore one of the first things we did with the students was that we tried to isolate and zero in on one of the many meanings ascribable to ‘criticize’. From that perspective, we found out that to be critical or to criticize is not to look at things from a horizontal or narrow perspective – that hefty grammar simply means that if we are horizontal in our criticism, we pay a lot of attention to the mundane and refrain from considering the great possibilities that vertical thinking – looking at all angles and shades – brings to the table.
And as matter of fact, a lot of us Nigerians are like my SAT students. If we are engineers, our perspective of life is often limited to constructions and buildings; if we are doctors, our perspective is limited to medicine, and if we are businessmen and women, we see everything as naira and kobo. Perhaps that’s why we all sometimes have very weird and naive notions of opposition and criticizing, and I reckon that if we are going to make any progress in our development as a democracy, we must redefine what it really means to criticize and oppose. In redefining what it means to criticize and oppose, we want to establish an unknown fact, that the greatest critics of individuals, institutions and government are the ones who cannot endure criticism or brook any opposition. This is a universal truism and I have no intention of citing any instances because of the incidence of their proximity to our matrimonial and professional lives.
And another thing we need to look at is how we criticize or oppose. What really does it mean to oppose? Does it mean that you always see the negative things that an opponent says and does and use these things against them? For us to criticize them must we call them names like clueless, incompetent and baboon, (for that is what the Nigerian idea of the opposition really is). Do we recognize and acknowledge any positive thing that our opponent does, say so and proffer our own ideas on how to make the idea better? To oppose or criticize, we have no need to call anyone names or insult them or describe them in derogatory expletives and adjectives. As a matter of fact, name-calling and petty insults are the stuff in trade of the weak. A strong criticism is a balanced one that identifies both the strengths and weaknesses of an idea. If the idea is weak the critic should say so and thereafter go on to say why it is weak and what the owner of the idea should do or should have done to make the idea strong. In doing so, the critic shouldn’t be wary that the person or the authority would steal the ideas of the critic and use them to advantage. If in fact the person or institution being criticized goes on to ‘steal’ the ideas of the critic and uses them, that validates the idea of the critic, and presents the person or institution being criticized that uses the ideas of the critic as indeed weak and effete.
That is what happens in other democracies. The opposition and the critic is respected and courted for the value and strength of their ideas and contributions. But not so here. Even though we borrowed the American system of government and copied and pasted their constitution on our constitution, our perceptions of criticism and opposition are still strangely at variance with the prototype. Let me explain with the unfortunate killing of a teenage black boy in the US. After the boy was killed, citizens took to the streets condemning the death of the lad. They took on the police, the Mayor of Ferguson and the governor of that state. They didn’t begin to insult Barack Obama. Instead they took to the streets protesting against the government on ground. You want to know why – it is part of democratic culture to hold public official closest to you accountable for your security and well-being in your environment. For that is the way it should be – the government at the centre is too far away and it is usually the government closest to the people that takes initial responsibility and provides the platform for the central government to act. Wasn’t that what took place with the Ebola problem in Lagos, Nigeria?
Here in Nigeria however, the exact opposite takes place. Why? Why in hell do we have to run to a president if there’s an armed robbery in a village in Sokoto, and not the councilors and the governor of that state? Why do we insult an oga at the very top if there’s a natural disaster, or if some politicians in league with terrorists are playing Russian roulette with our lives? Some say that the President is commander-in-chief so he must take responsibility. Yet others say that with the huge stash of cash at his disposal, he has no excuse not to be able to throw money at the problem. And by far the most absurd of the reasons being adduced for the traducing of an oga at the top whenever there’s a national calamity is the widely sponsored notion being peddled by the ‘opposition’ that Nigerians voted, and voted for the president to provide security for Nigerians. But this does not make any sense. Nigerians voted for the public officials closest to them didn’t they? Unless we are alleging that these public official closest to the people rigged their way to power, and therefore must not be held to account. And indeed, and as a matter of fact, nobody holds these public officials to accountable for the millions and billions they collect monthly from our common purse for the protection of our lives.
For me, what I think is responsible, apart from the conspiracy by politicians to rubbish the chap at the top, is that we are yet to wean ourselves from the idea of a president as a dictator who rules, reigns and governs with decrees. The inception of democracy in Nigeria in 1999 took off with a president who is a retired general of the Nigerian army. Again, nothing was wrong with this apart again from the fact that instead of promoting on the rule of law, his administration witnessed several dictatorial tendencies which Nigerians applauded and endorsed. Therefore, if his predecessors Yar’Adua and Jonathan are not behaving like modern day major-generals, then they are ‘baba go-slow’ and clueless.