By Ayo Sogunro
I may have lost my sanity at some point this week.
This is one explanation for why I think the “accidental” bombing of Nigerian citizens by the Nigerian military is a very serious event in our Nigerian experience whereas other people seem to be calm enough about it. Another (and longer) explanation is that “other people” are simply irrational. Considering that, in the last four weeks alone, hundreds of Nigerians have been killed from attacks in Southern Kaduna and continuing Boko Haram violence, I would say there is enough reason to panic. If you dare, add these casualties of armed conflict to those who are still dying from road accidents, armed robberies, urban and domestic violence, illness and diseases, and even starvation.
It is fairly safe to say that most of the violent deaths in Nigeria is caused by either the brutality of government or the inefficiency of government. I am not hesitant to say that our government’s approach to social disorder is to either: (i) ignore the problem; or (ii) kill the people triggering the problem. Except, of course, where (ii) will involve those who support government. The consequence of either attitude is always more deaths.
But what shocks me more than government inefficiency is our growing rationalisation of this inefficiency. Rational is a nice word: rationalisation is not. Rationalisation is when you—an ordinary Nigerian—defends or justifies a horrible event, to quote Wikipedia, “in a seemingly rational or logical manner to avoid the true explanation”. We try to make sense out of things that make no sense in themselves. And so, rationalisation (and other thinking biases) is why, after news of violence, we hear some Nigerians saying shit like:
– “It was only 500 people that were killed, two years ago it was 510. Government is improving.”
– “It is better for the army to make mistakes than for us not to have an army.”
– “If the protesters had left the road, they would not have been killed by police.”
– “We should celebrate the good news not focus on the tragedy.”
– “Let us await investigation before making any conclusions.”
– “People die in America too.”
First, the true explanation is that, since 1900, the Nigerian government has been run by a continuous combination of blockheads, scoundrels and sycophants. Second, this is not illiteracy. These excuses have become so common among supposedly educated Nigerians. Illiteracy is when someone doesn’t know. This is not illiteracy, this is a crossed wiring in our thinking systems. Third, this bad wiring is not new. What is frightening is that it is now being applied freely to the issue of protecting human lives.
Let us dwell on this third point a bit. We Nigerians have always rationalised unpleasant social situations and adjusted accordingly. We do it for infrastructure, electricity, fuel subsidies, education, and health care. Consider fuel prices. In January 2012, people rioted against increase in pump prices via subsidy removal. A few years later, after a period of consistent scarcity, people thank the government for having fuel at any price with or without subsidies. This is how to break a country.
Consider electricity. I too, have thanked “NEPA” for giving me light. I consider myself as a fully functional human who understands the duty of government and the rights of citizens. Yet, after two weeks of blackout and generator headache, I have been grateful to the gods of electricity when they restore power. I can see how some will, afterwards, support an increase in electricity tariffs. This is what we allow our government do to us.
When we justify the deaths of other Nigerians, we are thanking the government for not killing us yet. But, judging the government only by our individual experiences is a failure to recognise the duty of government to all society. It is silly that I have to ask you to put yourself or your relatives in the situation to understand the problem. Yet, because our reasoning process is broken, some of us cannot make the connection between the killings of people in Southern Kaduna or Zaria and the possibility of our own hastened death. I cannot understand how our wiring can be so bad that we cannot see our own death approaching. I am genuinely baffled by how we can be so irrational that we can justify our own murder.
When I wrote “Everything in Nigeria is Going to Kill You” almost three years ago, I thought I could stir our consciousness into placing more value on our lives. Instead, in those three years we have become shockingly accommodating of violent deaths. We rationalised the Shia massacre; we rationalised the killing of Biafra protesters; we rationalised the Agatu crisis; and we are still rationalising Southern Kaduna. The incidents that would have shocked us a decade ago are now considered “normal”. And seemingly intelligent people go on media to provide us with rationalisations disguised as explanatory analysis.
Today, the only deaths that we are encouraged to protest are the deaths of soldiers and police officers. But the right to life belongs to all. We are sinking the bar into a one-sided appreciation of lives. We have locked ourselves into a false choice where we have to either support the troops or criticise their actions. We act as though we cannot do both. We act as though it is impossible to appreciate military effort in the battlefield while calling for higher standards in war and discipline. In fact, we rationalise military misbehaviour as justifiable or even necessary.
As cognitive scientists will tell you, if you keep hitting some people on the head with a stick for long enough, they will eventually write articles and form theories to explain how being hit on the head with a stick is a good and necessary thing. Nigerians are being hit on the head with a stick and our collective brains need reworking—and quickly too before our children start thanking their government for not being killed. There is so much evidence that we are becoming—if not already—a country of mentally disturbed people. We need to remind ourselves of how to get angry with government. Nothing is too small to ignore. Nothing is too large to dismiss. Nothing in governance requires our patience. Only self-serving people and sycophants will tell you to be patient with your government.
This is an age where citizens of other countries have their government inquire into failure to prevent deaths from an earthquake. Our own standard cannot be the acceptance that the “accidental” killing of its own citizens by a government is an inevitable part of government. And the next time some pro-government smartass tries to give us the lowdown on the inevitability of a disaster, we should be able to say: “Shush. You’re rationalising”.