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Our blame-game culture

One way to describe Nigeria is call it a ‘blame-game’ country. Everyone is blaming another for everything, and the solution to any situation is to…

One way to describe Nigeria is call it a ‘blame-game’ country. Everyone is blaming another for everything, and the solution to any situation is to lament it further, to pass the buck, to blame somebody else. But the blaming phenomenon, it turns out, has been studied by sociologists, economists, political scientists and even literary critics. What these various fields have to say might interest us in Nigeria.

The whole point of blame, social scientists say, is to help society make sense of social events, particularly those with negative outcomes—bad roads, economic or financial collapse, Boko Haram, banditry, secessionist agitations and the violence associated with them, rising food prices or falling value of the naira—to mention a few in the case of Nigeria, in order to establish responsibility for these outcomes, and therefore, to help resolve or avoid these outcomes in the future.

Society, for example, can learn lessons from negative outcomes; punish offenders for these outcomes (legally as in prison sentences or politically as in the resignation of high-profile officials or defeat in elections). But what happens when blaming is generalised across all strata of society and against no specific negative outcomes but everything? This is the case with Nigeria, but we can leave that  answer for last.

Blaming others is probably the most common Nigerian social and political practice. It is pervasive everywhere and practiced by almost everyone, from sitting presidents down to the man in the street. But let’s locate our blame culture in specific spheres. The first of these is among people who themselves have been in government before. The number one player of this particular game is, for sure, former president Olusegun Obasanjo.

The former president is 84 years old. That means he’s spent about 14 per cent of his entire life as president or head of state of Nigeria, having held the top office in the land twice for a total period of 11 years and seven months. He has also been on the payroll of government collecting salaries or pensions for 63 years or 75 per cent of his whole life on earth to date. He has been directly or indirectly involved in the election of all three presidents that have succeeded him since 2007. Yet, he has not spared any of them from the whipping stick of blame for why Nigeria is where it is today.

Still, Obasanjo is only symptomatic of this category of Nigeria’s blamers. Every day in our news media you will see a former minister, governor, commissioner, director or permanent secretary, military or police officer, and so on, blaming ‘government’ for what is wrong in the country, without giving details about how they performed differently themselves while in government. President Buhari himself practiced this blame craft for 16 years. But even now, more than six years in office, he still blames others before him for everything wrong with Nigeria.

So, the blame game is a prime occupation of those still in government too. Of late, the Southern Governors Forum and the Northern Governors Forum blame each other for why things are the way they are. Ministries, agencies and departments of government, at federal or state levels, blame each other for the dysfunctions in governance or provision of public services. Meanwhile, Nigeria remains the way it is.

Yet, people in government, current or former, are not the only practitioners of the blame game in Nigeria. Those outside government practice it too. University lecturers, particularly those associated with their union, ASUU, explain all of Nigeria’s problems by simply blaming them on the ‘government’, ‘politicians’, ‘leaders’, ‘elites’, ‘corruption’, ‘colonial masters’ or IMF and the World Bank, even for the things that go wrong in their own classrooms and offices. Never mind that at any given time, there is a large pool of professors and academics in government at all levels.

The media, everywhere, have been known for what studies of blame game call ‘negativity bias’: the tendency for journalists to focus only on the negative aspects of any issue or event, particularly about government. The crudest forms of this bias must be found in our media and ‘civil society’ who have taken blame-game to ridiculous extremes. In these spheres, all problems are caused by the government and all solutions lie with it. Specifically, our media and civil society everyday lament government corruption or incompetence. In reality, however, competence and ethical behaviour in these spheres are not much better than in government.  

Then, of course, you have the ‘ordinary citizen’ in the street. This is where the blame game assumes truly frightening proportions in Nigeria. For example, look no further than the traffic in any Nigerian city or town. Our traffic system is chaotic and disorderly, often at great costs to life, limb, and property. But who is to blame? The driver behind me or in front of me or beside me, but never myself. Everyone is blaming everyone else for the things everyone does all the time. Yet, the disorder and the chaos—and their consequences for us all—remain.    

The point should be clear by now: we have a crude and pervasive blame culture in our society. But how do we explain this culture and its consequences on our national life? In The Blame Game: Spin, Bureaucracy, and Self-Preservation in Government, for example, the Oxford professor of public policy and government, Christopher Hood tries to explain how blame game works in politics and public organizations, and its consequences for ‘good governance’ and democracy.

His core arguments are three. First, ‘blame avoidance’ as he calls it (by blaming someone else you are avoiding it yourself), has become the predominant form of governmental practice in the modern age. It permeates every sphere of government from presidential or prime-ministerial offices, political parties, bureaucracies and legislatures to everyday routines in any government office, large or small. Everyone is trying to avoid the blame for why things are not working well or not working at all.

Hood claims, secondly, that there has been a marked growth in what he calls the ‘blaming professions’, lawyers, journalists, academics and watchdogs whose primary job is to find blame for something wrong somewhere, even if in the name of ‘research’ or ‘advocacy’. This, in turn, has led public officials and bureaucrats to devise many different strategies for fending off blame in advance, such as emails signed simply as ‘The HR Team’ or ‘Management’, rather than the individual who wrote or ordered them to be written.

Finally, Hood argues that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ blame avoidance. Trying to avoid blame might make leaders more careful in designing or implementing policy, or by appointing more competent hands to government, or by generally making public institutions more inclusive. But a rampant culture of blame avoidance, Hood warns, stifles institutional and individual creativity, learning, initiative and innovation and productive risk-taking, and hence, institutional or social stagnation. A culture of blame, in other words, has serious consequences for the fortunes—misfortunes more precisely—of a country because it pervades political practices, policymaking outcomes, news reporting frames, street-level public discourse, and invariably even individual choices.

This last point, I think, matters the most for Nigeria. Our blame culture is not to help clarify problems, identify solutions or even punish offenders for what is wrong with our country across all sectors. Our blame culture is merely a sign of intellectual laziness, of the unwillingness to accept collective responsibility for the state of our country, and of the inability to generate new problem-solving ideas and enforce them. Our blame culture is a psychological balm that makes it easier for us all to accept the deep-seated cynicism that things cannot be better in these shores. It is also probably the biggest social and political problem in Nigeria. Maybe we all need to be humble for once.    

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