- Without diluting the focus on national integration, new directions should be sought for the NYSC to prepare corps members for entrepreneurship and future leadership. Better alignment of skills and learning under the scheme to national priorities is germane.
- NYSC should work more deliberately to encourage entrepreneurship and job creation through the scheme. Entrepreneurial training should be mainstreamed into all NYSC activities in partnership with the private sector and relevant state agencies such as the National Orientation Agency (NOA), the National Planning Commission (NPC), the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Nigeria Tourism Development Cooperation (NTDC).
- In collaboration with the NYSC, host organisations, agencies and communities should also be compelled to develop work plans which clearly spell out the goals for corps members to ensure that learning potentials are maximized.
- Government, private institutions and other relevant stakeholders must closely engage to define optimal criteria and strategies for deployment of corps members into various sectors of national life. A key priority should be the insulation of deployment from rigging and influence.
Nigeria is among the one hundred and six or so countries with no enforced conscription into its military. However, it has a mandatory civilian service for its fresh graduates who are less than 30 years of age as at the time of graduation and have not served or are actively serving in any state run security organisation. Several countries have the variants of the mandatory national service, with the objectives depending on the national context and needs. Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana are prominent African countries with established national youth service schemes. Several other western nations also have the compulsory civilian service.
Typically, the mandatory civilian schemes focus on improving internal security, nation-building and disaster response as in the case of Kenya. Newly qualified graduates in Ghana and Nigeria are given the opportunity to have practical exposure on the job, both in the public and private sectors, as part of their civic responsibility to the state. This provides host organisations the opportunity to satisfy their manpower needs. Likewise, it affords communities that would otherwise have difficulty in accessing mainstream development initiatives a chance to access improved social services through youth service to the community.
The Nigeria experience
The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) was established in Nigeria as a child of necessity after the Nigerian civil war. The purpose is to inculcate in Nigerian youths the spirit of selfless service to community, and to emphasize the oneness and brotherhood of all Nigerians, irrespective of cultural or social background.
Following Nigeria’s civil war (1967-1970), the country faced numerous problems including poverty, mass-illiteracy, inadequate socio-economic infrastructures, bad roads, poor healthcare services and an ineffective communication system. With a view to mitigate these challenges, particularly to foster national unity and integration and build a strong, self-reliant nation with a dynamic economy, the military government of Gen. Yakubu Gowon established the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) by the Decree No. 24 of 22nd May 1973.
The NYSC mission was mandated to produce future leaders with positive national ethos – leadership that is vibrant, proud and committed to the unity and balanced development of the Nigerian state. In 1993, the NYSC Decree No. 51 of 16th June set fifteen specific objectives for the scheme, summed up as the drive for national unity, even development and integration. With this commendable vision, the scheme has helped in shaping the nation and building more responsible and responsive citizens.
It was estimated that from its humble beginning of about 2,000 corps members in 1973, it grew to an annual figure of 85,000 corps members in 1999. In 2016, it accommodated 260,000 corps members owing to the economic recession. In 2017, it mobilised 297,293 corps members nationwide paying out N67.3billion in allowances. This was apart from the N2.5billion spent on providing kits for the 297,293 corps members and N3.3 billion spent on meals for the 21 days orientation camp for the corps members and about 74,000 camp officials.
Reflecting the importance attached to this scheme, the NYSC act stipulates that a Nigerian graduate who is not officially exempted from being part of the scheme, and does not undertake the mandatory service, is not employable and cannot seek political office in the country. Recently, Nigeria’s former minister of finance had to resign from her position because of her alleged forgery of the NYSC exemption certificate.
Interestingly, the episode made clear that many citizen are not sufficiently informed about the NYSC scheme, including that citizens graduating before reaching 35 years of age cannot be exempted. This is regardless of where they might have undertaken their studies. It further underscores the need for the scheme to do more in ensuring that relevant information about its activities and stipulations are properly disseminated to the public.
Current situation and downsides
According to news report in 2018, the NYSC increased the number of corps members mobilized by 53,000 graduates. This brought the total number for the 2018 cycle to about 350,000. About N83.2 billion was earmarked as allowances for corps members. Each corps member received the sum of N3,200 during the three-week orientation camp and N19,800 in monthly allowance for the service year. About N11.7 billion will be spent on kits, transport allowances and feeding for the corps members.
With the amount of resources invested in the NYSC, it is important that it delivers maximum benefits to the country. However, the NYSC like many public institutions in Nigeria has not been insulated from the ills of society. It has degenerated in terms of management, though its core values of community service, friendship, cultural and language absorption, and national unity remains. Some even argue that the scheme is a conduit for massive corruption, while others see it as government providing cheap labour for the economy.
The issues undermining the 45 years old NYSC scheme almost eclipse its achievements. Viewed through this prism, it seems in its present form to have outlived its relevance. The scheme grapples with the untoward rigging of posting for primary assignment. Many participants induce NYSC officials with money to secure posting to major cities like Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja. This to a large extent erodes one of the major objective of the scheme, which is to allow corps members to have experience of Nigerian languages and cultures outside their own areas of origin. This is partly a fallout of the poor remuneration provided to corps members and the consequent desperation for “juicy” postings.
There is also the growing concern over the security of corps members especially in volatile regions. Some youth involved in the program have been caught up in religious, ethnic or political violence in the regions where they were sent. Lastly, there is widespread lack of transparency, which deprives the public of the necessary awareness of NYSC activities.
Retooling for purpose
Whilst perhaps extreme to call for the scrapping of the NYSC scheme, a thorough reassessment has become necessary with a view to reposition and make it more relevant to Nigeria’s prevailing circumstances. Perhaps too much emphasis is being placed on national integration, an objective that has seen limited success. The new direction is to prepare corps members for future leadership and align their orientation and skills to national priorities. In other countries with similar schemes, there is strong collaboration with the host organisations and benefitting communities which Nigeria should emulate.
There should be comprehensive engagement to ensure that the organisations and communities, especially those in rural areas, derive maximum benefits from the expertise of young professionals who are deployed annually by the scheme.
In the face of prevailing challenges including the insecurity of life, properties and food shortage in parts of the country, perhaps it might even be optimal to have a two-year national service. One of those years could be devoted to para-military training. This would ensure that the nation has a pool of trained reservists to supplement existing capacities for emergency response. The military would have to be reorganized to oversee this.
The second year would focus on mainstreaming the corps members into specialized skills in science, technology, education, health, communications and leadership etc. During this period some could be matched to job vacancies whilst others could be encouraged to start-up businesses as individuals or in groups.
The scheme should be restructured to offer a seamless transition from the world of organized learning to the world of work. It should become the major conveyor belt through which all educated young Nigerians are given the opportunity to first encounter and appreciate formal work while offering them an opportunity for national service. It should offer scheme participants clearer guidance to enable them reflect intelligently on their career options.
To this end, the scheme needs urgently to augment its talent pool by bringing in more youth, including young artisans who have acquired vocational skills in the technical, agriculture, fashion, hospitality and entertainment fields. This will help mobilize a greater pool of skills that can be effectively deployed across the country for balanced development.
In reflection of national challenges, the NYSC should move closer to a problem-solving orientation by mobilising the youth to tackle practical challenges head-on. These include the need to reduce youth unemployment and expand the functional public infrastructure stock. The NYSC can do this by engaging relevant organs of state, private institutions and civil society in devising joint strategies to optimise the NYSC scheme and enhance its contribution to national development beyond its present focal sectors.
This will aid better cross-sectorial synergy for development and job creation to benefit the youths. State agencies that can support in this joint revamping of the NYSC scheme include the National Orientation Agency (NOA), the National Planning Commission (NPC), the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Nigeria Tourism Development Cooperation (NTDC). The governing board of the NYSC may also need to be altered to reflect a more entrepreneurial emphasis.
Furthermore, emphasising leadership and entrepreneurial skills through the scheme will directly contribute to the upscaling of existing capacities for grassroots development. NYSC members can and should become more directly involved in the maintenance and construction of public infrastructure especially in the rural areas.
When incentives are provided for corps members to enter into new entrepreneurial fields such as solar power installations and maintenance, this will significantly expand access to power and help kick-start processing and value-addition in the grassroots economy. More joined-up thinking among stakeholders will also help to ensure smoother deployment of NYSC personnel into the vital sectors such as agriculture, food security, health, education, physical planning, civil engineering, water, sanitation and other areas relevant for Nigeria’s socio-economic transformation.
Executive Director & Editor: Dr. Ola Bello
- Government should guarantee the right to vote by providing for it under Chapter IV of the constitution while also making it a civic duty for citizen to vote.
- Nigeria’s political and social stakeholders must work together more concertedly to enable the judiciary’s independence, better to actualise enhanced voting right in a revised constitution.
- Nigeria’s in-coming parliament must expedite legislation to enhance the use of technology in the electoral process, which should facilitate the process for voter registration, the collation of a comprehensive voters register, and make voting more transparent and less onerous.
- Government must explore creative avenues such as partnering with telecommunication companies in order to leverage the information of registered customers, which can be supplemented with the data of citizens without mobile phone access.
The conduct of regular elections and the guarantee of the fundamental rights of citizens lie at the fulcrum of democracy. One of the major problems with Nigeria’s democracy is the absence of a cast-iron protection of the right to vote. The right to vote, though an inextricable part of democracy, is not enshrined in chapter IV of the Nigerian 1999 constitution, alongside the other fundamental rights. In practical terms, this makes the legal enforcement of citizens’ voting right cumbersome.
From the beginning of Nigeria’s 4th republic in 1999, different election cycles have witnessed serious obstacles in the way of the citizens’ right to choose at the polls.
A functioning democratic system of governance must provide an avenue for the larger part of society to take part in choosing political leaders. Arguably, one of the most important role of government is to establish a transparent, well-functioning and participatory electoral system that ensures the universal involvement of citizens of voting age in the electoral process.
The right to vote has its roots embedded in the social contract theory, and it can be argued that this is probably the most important right of all. This is because government is legitimately formed only after citizens have gone to the ballot to choose. The social contract theory prescribes that once members of a society agree to give up some of their rights and freedom to an authority duly chosen by citizens, such chosen authority must in turn protect the rights and freedom of citizens from encroachment.
The right to vote is the foundation upon which this participatory right rests. To be truly part of a given society, members must have an inalienable right to participate in the good governance of that society. Chapter IV of the Nigerian constitution guarantees a list of fundamental rights which are enforceable in the courts. Where a provision of chapter IV is contravened or a fundamental right is trampled upon, section 46 of that chapter allows for citizens to approach the high court for enforcement proceedings.
However, the omission of the right to vote under chapter IV renders this right unenforceable in a strict legal sense. Such an important right that allows citizens to participate in the periodic change of their leaders should be in chapter IV alongside the fundamental rights of all Nigerian citizens.
Although some provisions in law such as section 7(2) of the constitution and section 12 of the Electoral Act may be deemed to have touched on voting, these sections in no way provide a fundamental protection or guarantee of the voting right.
The absence of a guarantee for the right to vote allows for the abuse of this right by the state. Fundamental rights under chapter IV of the constitution enjoy guarantees that protect them from interference by the state and other citizens. Having no form of protection in the constitution for the right to vote therefore leaves room for the government to remain lackadaisical in its duty at actualizing the citizens’ right to vote.
These governmental duties in respect of effective actualisation of citizens’ votes include the efficient registration of voters; providing adequate logistics for voting; instilling the sense of duty to vote in citizens; and such other measures that can make voting possible, meaningful and reflective of the popular will.
Safeguarding the vote
One of the attributes of rights under chapter IV of the Nigerian constitution is that they are open to legal redress, allowing individuals whose fundamental rights have been encroached upon to seek their legal enforcement. With no provisions for the right to vote under the chapter IV of the constitution, there exist no form of legal redress for citizens. Successive administrations since Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999 have done little to address this.
Also, there has been no concrete plan to solve the recurring problems encountered during the registration of eligible voters and collection of voters’ cards. The time usually allocated for the registration exercise is wholly inadequate and the process is cumbersome.
Moreover, electoral malpractices and willful disregard for the provisions of the electoral act have become notable features of the political climate in Nigeria. These are among the most serious obstacles to the efficient conduct of elections.
Election season in Nigeria are often marred by acts of disorder and lawlessness, which act as barriers to citizens’ participation. Most citizens generally view election days as public holidays and stay in the safety of their homes away from voting centres. With the myriad electoral malpractices including voter intimidation, ballot box snatching and vote buying, the feeling among many citizens is that their vote is inconsequential. This widens the gap between the majority of citizens and the governance process.
As a result, turnout during elections is on the decrease. About 43% of registered voters participated in the 2015 general election compared to 57% in the 2007 elections. This constitutional reality of voting as less than a fundamental right contributes to government’s ineptitude, manifested for example in the inadequate logistical provisions for voter registration. In Lagos state alone, the electoral commission reports that about 1.38million permanent voters’ cards are yet to be collected by prospective voters. As a consequence, millions of eligible voters continue to be disenfranchised.
Without any clear avenue for redress, citizens have no way to hold the government accountable for failing to perform its duty with regards to enabling citizens to vote. Assimilating the right to vote into chapter IV of the constitution would open up the avenue to seek legal redress as necessary and also encourage more citizens to see voting as a civic duty that is both incumbent and relatively easy to perform.
The challenge of youth participation
With the youth making up more than half of the Nigeria’s 182 million population, they play a vital role in the electoral process. Before the 2015 election, the youths comprised about 63% of the eligible voting population. However, the influence of the youth in governance before, during and after elections remains marginal. This exclusion of youth from governance, coupled with the high unemployment rate in the country, has resulted in high levels of frustration which may inevitably turn young people to civil disobedience and violence.
With youth unemployment standing at 33.10% as at 2017, most Nigerian youths are caught up in the daily struggle for survival and view political participation as secondary. The system operated by most political parties in Nigeria fails to provide much needed opportunity for youth participation in politics. Although the passing of the “Not too Young to Run” act reduced the age for contesting for various political offices, most political parties are yet to willingly concede their platforms to young people.
Moreover, one of the ways that political parties continue to stifle youth participation is through the high cost of nomination forms for political office. Issues such as this require urgent redress to enhance popular participation in the governance process.
As the 2019 general elections approaches, the general tendency for government is to focus on winning at the polls. However, one duty that remains sacrosanct is for the government to ensure successful conduct of the polls in a free and fair manner. In the bid to achieve this, the right of every citizen of voting age to vote should be protected and guaranteed by the state, preferably in the chapter IV of the constitution alongside the other fundamental rights. Effective participation by citizens during elections, and their involvement in decision-making even beyond the elections, remain fundamental to foster good governance.
The right to vote is recognized under Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right (UDHR). Article 21(3) which states that: “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government. This will be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures”.
Taking steps to enshrine the right to vote in the chapter IV of Nigeria’s constitution will open up avenues for citizens to mount effective pressure for the actualization of voting right and the establishment of a more transparent and accountable system of government.
African Dialogue: The programme discusses current issues pertaining to South Africa and the continent as a whole. The talk show hosts various experts on interesting and important issues affecting Africa and the globe.
Nigeria gained its Independence from the British on 1 October 1960. Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, yesterday, assured that Nigeria will be great again and that the season for Nigeria’s promotion and progress has come. Osibanjo was quoted as saying that the 58th year of Nigeria’s independence will mark a great new beginning of peace, prosperity and abundance.
To help us unpack the discussion for the day, we are joined by:
- His Excellency Godwin Adama: Consul General Nigeria
- Dr Ola Bello: Executive Director at Good Governance Africa (GGA) in Lagos, Nigeria
Click here to listen
Many aspects of African culture can be used to support development, but others have delayed progress
Africa is a vast continent with a diversity of cultures. Rather than see this as an impediment to development, the continent should take advantage of this rich cultural diversity in its quest for economic development. It should change the attitudes of its people towards work, interpersonal trust, time, youth and women.
There are probably as many different definitions of culture as there are different cultures. According to a 2017 article by Kim-Ann Zimmermann, “culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habitats, music and arts”. In 2016, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a broad definition stating that culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by (a human) as a member of society.”
Film crew at a Nollywood film shoot, Akwa, Nigeria. Photo: Bestvillage
Some scholars maintain that culture is closely entwined with economic development, while others fervently disagree, arguing that the effects of geography and climate are the most significant factors in shaping global economic development. Jared Diamond supports this theory in his 1999 book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, where he argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world.
This implies that the striking differences between the long-term histories of different people on different continents are due not to innate differences between the people themselves but to differences between their environments. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the exceptions to Diamond’s rule are too numerous for us to accept geography and natural resources as the only explanation for differences in history and culture. Take, for example, Russia, which occupies the same latitude as highly prosperous northern Europe and Canada. Look at Singapore, which lies almost on the equator and is most definitely in the tropics, along with many of the world’s poorest nations. Consider Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, which sits on some of the world’s largest diamond deposits.
In consequence, it is difficult to arrive at a single, uniform definition of culture, in particular insofar as it relates to development, because the concept is so fluid and dynamic. This constraint notwithstanding, several examples exist of best cultural practices in development. An interesting case study of the role played by cultural values in development is provided by Japan and its history of economic success.
In Japan, a combination of cultural values and practical business transformed a relatively backward economy into one of the most prosperous nations in the world in less than a century, with the majority of the gains achieved during the past 50 years, largely on the back of an aggressive export trade policy. In the aftermath of World War II, Japan’s emphasis on trade stemmed from the country’s lack of the natural resources needed to support its industrial economy, notably fossil fuels and most minerals. In addition, the limited amount of arable land forced the country to import much of its food needs.
The values central to Japan’s spectacular achievements and rapid elevation to the world’s third-largest economic power include, but are not limited to, its strong work ethic; an entrenched sense of group responsibility; company loyalty; interpersonal trust; implicit contracts that bind individual conduct; and commitment to education and investment in young people.
Can we, as development planners, take lessons from the example of Japan? One thing is clear; we cannot take a set of cultural values from one country and hope to implant them in another society. Japan was successful because it built its economy on its own home-grown values. Looking specifically at the development trajectory of Africa, we are forced to conclude that while there are many aspects of African culture that can be used positively for the development of the continent, some aspects of African culture have delayed progress.
Successful organisations believe in competition and rely on the hard work, commitment and loyalty of their employees. Interestingly, many African employees of major multinationals have given exemplary service, which has helped to make these companies profitable. Among these are mining companies in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia.
Foreign mining companies in South Africa, such as De Beers, were traditionally keen to recruit Basotho workers and nationals of other neighbouring countries to work in their mines because they saw them as dependable and hard-working. Yet when these Basotho miners and those of other nationalities returned home in 1994, many of them failed to find work because they had no experience in areas outside the mining industry. As former miners, they were unable to adjust easily and take on other, unrelated but available jobs without having to upgrade their skills.
Africa has many cultural values and beliefs. By and large, there are marked differences between the working attitudes and values of those Africans who have worked for foreign companies and those who have always worked for themselves. Specifically, Africans who worked for foreign employers learned discipline and commitment to the companies for which they worked, and this helped them to manage their own businesses as individuals. Moreover, certain African communities are reputed to have great business acumen or entrepreneurial skills, with their members showing versatility in various sectors of their economies. Examples include the Chaga in Tanzania; the Serahule in the Gambia; the Fula in Guinea, Mali, the Niger and other nearby countries; the Ibos and Hausas in Nigeria, and the Kikuyu in Kenya.
In his book Africa at the Crossroads: Philosophical Approach to Education (1974), Festus Okafor noted that in the rural areas of Africa, in days gone by, when a job had to be done the whole community would turn out with supplies and music and proceed to sing and dance through to the successful conclusion of each particular chore. In those days this generous solidarity brought the community together. This sense of solidarity, however, has declined over the past few decades.
According to the Japanese, interpersonal trust is an important cultural strength, especially in large corporations; if a person loses this trust he or she brings shame to the entire family. There have even been occasions where people have felt obliged to commit suicide. In Africa, as a consequence of colonisation, most traditional cultural values have been eroded or weakened, in particular, the concept of trust. In many African countries people do not trust their governments because they feel that they are not doing much to reduce unemployment and poverty or to combat corruption. In Japan, if a senior government official is accused of corruption, the official will face the law and have to resign. In Africa, nobody resigns; if anything, they fight back, claiming that their detractors are on a witch hunt.
In Africa, at the business level, the concept of trust is selective. For example, in fields such as law and medicine, some professionals will share facilities but maintain separate and distinct accounts. In family-owned small and medium-sized enterprises, it often happens that family members find it difficult to get along together once the head of the family dies. In some cases, siblings and children start fighting, resulting in protracted legal suits. In general, there is much suspicion and mistrust in many African societies, particularly in the area of business, leading business people to keep everything within the family rather than seek productive and forward-looking partnerships, as is the successful model in developed countries.
Developing societies cannot afford the luxury of a social-welfare system. As Okafor pointed out in his 1974 treatise, in African society everyone is accommodated through the extended family system. Consequently, if a family has one relatively successful member that fortunate person is expected to provide school fees, medical care, clothing, housing, and even pocket money for many others. While this system has merits – it encourages a charitable disposition and fosters cohesive family loyalties – in some instances it is exploited and abused by members of the family.
The extended family system can create dependency instead of encouraging siblings to stand on their own two feet. Moreover, these siblings are rarely appreciative and they may even gang up on their beneficiary. This is a narrative sometimes employed in Nigerian films of the “Nollywood” genre: when the “big man” dies, his kinsmen try to take his assets from his wife and children. Moreover, the demands of the extended family may prevent a successful family leader from investing in a way that could permanently improve the living standards of the entire family. When poorer relatives become envious and want a share of the successful family member’s properties and assets, the successful family member becomes isolated, which can discourage him or her from further helping the extended family.
It is often remarked, anecdotally, that the concept of time in Africa is somewhat flexible by comparison with that of developed countries. There seems to be some substance to this popular cliché. Several African scholars argue that Africans as a rule are not good at keeping time – despite the importance of timekeeping in some traditional customs. In their traditional milieu Africans were often compelled by certain routines to strictly respect time. For instance, there were particular times when certain rituals had to take place, such as a sacrifice. That said, many things have changed in post-colonial Africa, including attitudes to timekeeping. Those working in the private sector who must reach work on time are placed under particular pressure by this rather common post-colonial lackadaisical attitude.
Noticeably, those working for the public sector do not always observe the same constraints. Thus, if a good turnout is needed for planned meetings, constant reminders must be sent and follow up is essential in all areas of interaction. In some African countries, participants in workshops or seminars have to be given incentives – not only to attend but simply to be on time. Meanwhile, in most developed countries people expect that activities are begun and completed in a timely fashion. Consequently, many African business people find it difficult to compete on the global market, with some losing contracts because they have not met their deadlines.
Until recently, there were some jobs that Africans would not take. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s many Africans in major towns and cities had a tendency to avoid particular jobs because of cultural or sexual stereotypes. Men were reluctant to work as cleaners, cooks, janitors or waiters in hotels, for instance. When they did so, they would say that they were merely doing a temporary job while they looked for a permanent one. Mostly, they hoped to be clerks, soldiers, policemen and drivers. Given our weak economies, featuring high unemployment and poverty, all available vacancies or jobs should be highly competitive and should be filled by willing recruits without discrimination as to gender or cultural considerations.
On the positive side, there are some areas where the African people display their cultural talents and are making very good progress, namely in music and cinema. To do this they have had to embrace western norms of cooperation and partnership, as well as of creativity and innovation. For example, during the fight against apartheid in South Africa freedom fighters sought unity in their songs in the battle against their oppressors. Most of the former political prisoners on Robben Island, such as former president Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, acknowledged that liberation songs were morale boosters that helped to unite them in the fight for freedom. Southern Africa abounds with talented musicians and dancers, and this asset has been harnessed in scaling up the country’s creative economy. Moreover, it is a cultural tradition among Africans that whenever a community assignment needs to be performed, community members will come forward with their musical instruments, including drums, and play and sing to their kinfolk working on the task and encourage them to get the job done.
Another example of the valuable cultural capital inherent in African societies may be seen in the DRC, which continues to produce talented and gifted musicians, among them M’bilia Bel, Koffi Olomide and Papa Wemba. With the support of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko they were able to engage in cooperation and partnerships among various Congolese music groups to spread their music all over Africa and into Europe and North America. As part of this cultural revolution, their music became a source of pride and patriotism in their country, which had suffered brutal civil wars since independence in 1961.
According to the SXSW Schedule (2012), over the past few decades the African music industry, both traditional and modern, has grown exponentially, with a direct impact on African economies. Small-scale vendors have established local studios to produce music for the commercial market. Despite the low market prices, music has the potential to create jobs, which in turn will reduce poverty.
In this connection, African governments should take advantage of this huge asset and support African music, both traditional and modern, as part of their cultural reforms. If Africa is to reap the considerable potential benefits of this great asset, however, it will need not only to strengthen its copyright laws to prevent piracy, but also to enhance its partnership and cooperation with the private sector to scale up this sector.
Another cultural manifestation that merits closer consideration is African cinema. According to former UNESCO Director-General Kōichirō Matsuura “films and video production are shining examples of how cultural industries, as vehicles of identity, values and meanings, can open the door to dialogue and understanding between peoples, but also to economic growth and development” (2009). African cinema is an expression of the continent’s cultural identity, and demonstrates its endeavour to overcome foreign influences and develop its own voice. Moreover, African films have enabled many people to gain insights into Africa’s creativity, innovation and talents.
Certainly, the film industry in Africa faces constraints – including financial constraints, piracy, problems in distributing films to the market, and the lack of a proper regulatory framework. As a 2013 article by Rebecca Moudio shows, African film is not only an entertainment industry; it is an important money-maker. This is certainly the case with the Nigerian film industry, which currently employs more than one-million people, making it the country’s largest employer after agriculture, she writes. In addition, the output of the Nigerian film industry – known as “Nollywood” – has a massive following in Africa and among the African diaspora around the world. The former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan was a great supporter of Nollywood and proclaimed it as the country’s shining light, and he insisted that every effort be made to ensure this light continued to shine.
The film industry has continued to grow in other African countries such as South Africa, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Egypt, Morocco and Angola. South Africa has seen a steady rise in both the quality and reputation of its films. A South African film – Tsotsi – won the 2006 Academy award for the best foreign-language film. Because of its favourable weather, South Africa has provided locations for a number of major blockbusters, such as Blood Diamond (starring Leonardo Di Caprio), and Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood, as well as numerous television series.
These are all positive signs that the African film industry is breaking its traditional cultural boundaries. What the industry needs now are cultural ambassadors and strong political support and will, as well as financial support from the continent’s private sector and its development partners. The support extended by Goodluck Jonathan to Nollywood is particularly instructive in this regard. There can be no doubt that if African leaders encourage and promote African films the benefits will be immeasurable. Across its many countries, the continent represents an enormous market of over one-billion people. This offers an unprecedented opportunity for Africa, which it should not neglect. It offers prospects for reducing unemployment, in particular among young graduates. This, in turn, will reduce poverty and raise living standards in the countries concerned. With small budgets, the African film industry has been able to embrace some of its cultural talents such as teamwork, creativity, and innovation.
Culture is indeed a vital factor to be taken into consideration when discussing or contemplating action in development. Africa is a vast continent with a huge diversity of cultural norms and practices. There are great variations among its regions, countries and ethnic groups and this needs to be recognised.
Successes in Botswana, Mauritius and other countries prove that Africans can be punctual, innovative, entrepreneurial and forward-looking. In addition, much greater use should be made of the creative talents available on the continent, of its drama, films and music as effective tools for raising awareness among African people of the need for education and for a change in their negative attitudes and values to boost their economic development.
At the same time, we must accept that the attributes, which underpinned the rapid success of countries like Japan and other developed countries will take time to take root in Africa. To improve its economies, the culture of good governance cannot be seen as a distant luxury to be aspired to but avoided in practice. To boost economic development, all-important cultural values must be in place, which must be governed according to the values of transparency, accountability, trustworthiness and empowerment. Like Japan, each individual African country should build its own economy based on its home-grown cultural values. The successes of African films and African music are instructive.
World renowned photographer Malick Sidibé outside his studio, Bamako, Mali Photo: Graeme Williams
Contrary to popular belief, Africa’s fortunes and modernity have been intertwined for at least two and a half centuries
Africa’s challenge to modernity – and the continent is by no means alone in this – should be understood in terms of the following: (1) what have been the relations between Africa and modernity? (2) how has Africa and its phenomena featured in the discourse of modernity? and (3) why should we care about these questions?
Modernity refers to that movement of ideas, practices and institutions that originated in Europe and filled out with accretions from across the globe. This means that we should not conflate modernity with westernisation. Modernity’s philosophical discourse interests us because, ultimately, its most lasting impact has been the creation and wide dissemination of a new and radically different view of human nature unique to it, as well as pertinent values, practices and institutions that have promoted the efflorescence of this philosophical anthropology.
We identify three core tenets: individualism, the centrality of reason, and the idea of progress. The notion of the individual that is dominant in the modern age is without precedent, at least in the Euro-American tradition from which the remaining parts of the world that have embraced modernity extracted it. Under modernity, individualism is the preferred principle of social ordering and almost everything else is understood in terms of how well or ill it serves the individual. In the modern epoch, the individual is not merely supreme; whatever detracts from the rights of the individual is, precisely for that reason, to be rejected. Individualism underpins the most dramatic innovation introduced by modernity: the principle of governance by consent. Under this principle, no one ought to acknowledge the authority of, or owe an obligation to obey, any government to which the governed have not consented.
The second core tenet is the centrality of reason. The modern age is where knowledge is founded, not on revelation, tradition or authority, but on conformity with reason. Here, the claims of tradition and authority do not mean much, and every truth claim must be authenticated by reason. Whoever can show that she has superior knowledge commands our assent and respect.
Modernity is a horizon of time. It is a horizon that is always open to the future; one in which things never are, they are always becoming. This yields a near obsession with the “new”. Change is celebrated for its own sake, an orientation marked by an abiding faith and singular commitment to progress. The belief in the desirability and possibility of progress underpins the restlessness of the modern age in which nothing is regarded as settled and the best always is yet to come.
We may now respond to the first of our three questions: what have been the relations between Africa and modernity? Rocky, to put it mildly. This is partly traced to our misapprehension of the timeline of modernity in our continent, especially in West Africa, when we ascribe its induction into our continent via colonialism. We are often led, erroneously, to dismiss modernity as part of the colonial legacy. However, I would argue that modernity being on offer in colonial Africa would have made for a better life and more salubrious history than what colonialism actually bequeathed to its victims. Given the quantum leap forward that modernity represented in humanity’s evolution towards ever more humane ways of living and being human, I believe a modern Africa would be a better place to be than Africa now.
To take modernity seriously we need a different genealogy of it in Africa. Historically, specifically in West Africa, Christianity was the vector for the introduction of modernity. Contrary to accepted wisdom, colonialism aborted the transition to Christian-inspired modernity that was afoot, under native agency, before formal colonialism. This means that when we think of the history of the relations between Africa and modernity, we should do so in terms of the Africa-modernity relation before colonialism and the same relation after colonialism. Our attitude towards the Africa-modernity relation is conditioned by whether we accept this timeline. If we do, some of the conundrums associated with the relation will begin to make sense.
First, the near total absence of African intellectuals’ contributions to the discourse of modernity will astound even more profoundly once it becomes clearer how the absence was constituted and why it persists. It will also clarify why it seems that the only relationship that African intellectuals now can or do have with modernity is one of conflict rather than embrace. Finally, it will enable us to retrieve more aggressively those works by Africans of the period before colonialism who had made modernity their own and sought to remake their communities in its image.
Africa’s challenge to modernity, in part, requires African and non-African scholars of modernity to explore in more depth the works of Africans who, under the tutelage of Christian missions, had been inducted into modernity and had become apostles of the way of life it enjoined. Among them were Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the first African-Anglican bishop and a polymath, James Africanus Beale Horton, a surgeon, scientist, soldier and philosopher, and Samuel Richard Brew Ahoh-Ahuma, a journalist, writer and politician. They were frustrated in their efforts once colonialism was imposed and, unfortunately, our current understanding of the relations between Africa and modernity has been framed by this colonial inflection.
The latter cohort of administrators and missionaries, and from the third quarter of the 19th century onwards, denied the humanity of Africans and deemed their societies backward. Gradually, modernity in the African imaginary became one with that in the name of which Africans were imperialised and brutalised. Racism-dominated colonial education ultimately extirpated the memory of the earlier African converts to modernity. That very few Nigerians know more about Samuel Ajayi Crowther than that he was “the slave boy who became a bishop” is the ultimate testament to how completely colonial miseducation structured the collective memory of educated Nigerians. Post-independence African scholars are yet to remove this mind block that dissuades them from embracing modernity as a matter of principle, rather than as a matter of expediency. That attitude permeates the continent.
Many of us Africans are afraid of autonomy, the very core of individualism. It is a double-edged sword. When one messes things up, she must take responsibility for her actions. Are Africans so ready? I always marvel at the ability of African leaders to bask in the role of the appointed beggars to the world. They never dream big dreams. They take no big risks. They are always satisfied with the handouts from their erstwhile imperial rulers, forever begging for increases in their pocket money, welfare amounts, call it what you will. Either they have forgotten or, worse still, they never learned how to be subjects and cannot be bothered to acquire the sense of being one. I am glad to report that Ethiopia seems to be bucking this trend.
In lieu of autonomy and the risks that it entails, we have persistently embraced the aid model fashioned by colonialism, which denied our basic humanity. It put us on aid, atrophying our subjectivity and weakening us enough that we hardly ever think of solving our problems ourselves without reference to Europe, America and, now, Asia. Our will is bent by our donors; we require their approval for the minutest changes in direction in running the affairs of our so-called sovereign countries. It is a mark of how inured to aid the continent has become that we do not see Africans, especially their intellectuals, thundering against the indignity that comes with our being the appointed mendicants to an increasingly affluent world. Africa’s leaders dutifully troop out to wherever anyone promises us alms.
This brings me to the second of our questions above. I will be brief here. How have Africa and its phenomena featured in the discourse of modernity? Looking at the narratives of modernity’s discourse, Africans seem to have only ever been victims of modernity – not theorists of it or contributors to its construction. Nothing could be further from the truth. But the reason for the absence is easy to fathom. Given that by the time of independence in various African countries, the mode of education had become completely dominated by the tropes of colonialist pedagogy and historiography, African intellectuals trained under that regime were, for the most part, amnesiac towards their own heritage or thought lightly of it. Those who thought highly of it paid a stiff price in denials of opportunities for advancement, especially in African institutions. African graduates continue to have the most perfunctory understanding of the contributions of our own intellectuals, past or present.
We should acquaint ourselves with the heritage of intellectual ideas in the global African world, regardless of the judgment of Euro-American institutions and scholars. If you write, read, and discuss it among yourselves, they will read and discuss it, following your lead.
Many countries in Africa are instances of what are called newly democratising countries, trying to install modernity-inflected liberal representative democracy. But the debates taking place in the continent hardly reflect any serious engagement with the philosophical template on which this democracy is based. We hardly ever have debates about the freedom of the individual, about the rule of law, about taxation and representation, about the responsibility of the governors to the governed, or the basis of governance in the consent of the governed. All of these are supremely modern principles that, curiously, no longer feature in the political discourse in our lands. This has not always been the case.
In the immediate post-independence period, multiple parties contended for votes, before the scourge of single-party rule and the cancer of military rule combined to arrest the continent’s development in all directions. Parties – and their leaders, in many cases – fought elections and canvassed their respective electorates on the basis of ideological divisions based on philosophical orientations regarding human nature, the nature of society, the appropriate relation between the individual and the state, the grounds of legitimate power in the polity and the privileges and forbearances of citizenship.
Current African political leaders and intellectuals either believe that the philosophical template is already realised in contemporary African polities or do not think that such themes are relevant to their thought and practise of democracy. What is clear is that African politics has become reduced to “ethnic balancing”, “religious permutations”, “feeding the people”, and other such inanities. For the most part these days, political parties in African countries exist to win elections so that they can become the sole distributors of largesse. There is hardly any debate about the core questions of political philosophy, and the parties are nondescript patchworks of personal and regional interests dominated by moneybags and their sycophantic hangers-on.
The rich legacy of freedom and self-determination bequeathed by earlier thinkers has been dumped for an obsession with just keeping life going! African politicians and intellectuals must re-engage the issues of freedom and self-determination, of building knowledge societies dominated by reason and an abiding faith in our capacity to build a better and more humane world for all within our borders.
To the extent that we reintroduce the attainment of these ideals as a metric by which to judge the quality of our polities and the performance of our politicians, to that extent would we be restoring to the centre of our concerns the dignity of even the lowliest Africans and their capacity to lead lives marked by self-control and beauty. Hence, to the question of why we should re-engage with modernity in the contemporary world the answer is simple: doing so promises a better life for Africans than what is on offer at present.
In conclusion, in talking of the challenge of Africa to modernity, the most important issue is not to talk as if Africa is squatting outside of modernity and is to be understood as asking modernity to show why she should do business with it. Africa’s fortunes and modernity have been intertwined for at least two and a half centuries. We must fight those who seek to keep Africa apart from the rest of humanity and under some or other system of patronage, while at the same time forcing the world to see what the African world has made of modernity in her own idioms and invite the world to drink from its wisdom, of which there is abundance. A culture of hope must supplant the current philosophy of limits.