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Skill increases, wisdom fades

Thinking about some phenomena in modern day Nigeria, I remembered a brief passage that I read three decades ago in British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s 1961…

Thinking about some phenomena in modern day Nigeria, I remembered a brief passage that I read three decades ago in British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s 1961 book, Has Man a Future? He had, in the book’s prologue, summarized the history of the human race, from the human’s vulnerable early days to the taming of fire, domestication of animals, invention of agriculture, possession of speech which enabled the transmission of experience, invention of writing which enabled the creation of storehouse of knowledge, and steadily increased human control over nature through acquired skills handed from generation to generation through tradition and education.

He was writing in 1961, a time when he said human material progress in the previous 500 years surpassed all the progress recorded in the earlier 5,000 years. If Russell were writing this year, he might say that human technical progress in the last twenty years, especially the coming of the personal computer, internet, robotics and artificial intelligence, almost surpasses the progress made in the previous 200 years. Russell however added a sentence which left me wondering for many decades. He wrote, “One of the troubles of our age is that habits of thought cannot change as quickly as techniques, with the result that as skill increases, wisdom fades.” Which is why, he said, when humans increasingly freed themselves from the vagaries of nature and the dangers posed by wild animals through improved social and technological techniques, they instead transported the same instincts fit for survival in the wild to the social sphere. They attempt to dominate other human beings, leading to a 6,000 history of organized warfare.

In saying that wisdom fades as skill increases, Russell might have been thinking of crime fighting in Nigeria. These days when the government has a dozen huge security agencies, with hundreds of thousands of men and women and lots of vehicles, computers, guns and even aircraft between them, their collective ability to fight crime is less than that of the old Native Authority police. Our many security agencies have acquired a lot of crime fighting skills and equipment over the years but too many criminals get away with mass murder, banditry and treasonable felony right under their noses.

Fifty years ago, there was but one local judge in many a Nigeria town and only a few High Court judges in regional and state capitals. Today, when there are thousands of judges and magistrates in the country, they are having serious trouble containing the conflict for land and water between farmers and herders, which has set the whole country on edge. Their tools and skills have increased but their wisdom, so essential to determining guilt and innocence, has diminished.

Few judges these days have the wisdom of the judge we read about in the primary school book Magana Jari Ce, who had six Fulani men brought to him as suspects in the loss of a cow. When none of them confessed to the theft, the judge cut six sticks to equal length and gave one to each of the suspects. He said by tomorrow morning, the culprit’s stick will grow by a few inches. Back in the ruga that night, the restless culprit decided to cut his stick by a few inches so that when it grows by a few inches as the judge threatened, it will be back to normal length. Hence, when they appeared before the judge the following morning, his stick was the only one that was short!

Not only crime fighters, but our school teachers these days have a lot more skill and teaching aids than obtained in the past. Teachers of old had only a black board, chalk and duster. Although today’s school teachers have computers, electronic boards and game consoles, it is doubtful if they impart knowledge to students as effectively as the old teachers did. I recently saw on the net a 1946 Northern Region Middle School exam question paper. Phew! Few NCE teachers can pass that test today.

Nigerian civil servants of today have also exchanged wisdom for tools. Thirty years ago all government offices had manual typewriters and cyclostyling machines. All file retrieval was done manually by clerks; all dispatch of letters and movement of files was done by messengers. Back in the 1970s, all the Native Authority staff in my hometown received their salary through a man called Jakada, who went to Birnin Kebbi in a commercial truck at the end of every month to bring back their salaries. These days when the civil service is computerized, it is much slower, less efficient, less committed and has much less integrity than in the olden days. It has exchanged wisdom for skill and tools.

Or maybe Russell was thinking of Nigerian politicians of the modern day. These days ruling parties have a lot of money, a lot of logistic support including chartered aircraft and a lot more television space at their discretion. What they gained in skill and tools, they apparently lost in wisdom. Few Nigerians are passionate about political parties anymore. Twenty years since the return to democratic rule, the parties have neither ideological orientation nor solid programs. It also speaks about their effectiveness that nearly two months after inauguration, 26 state governors are yet to constitute their cabinets.

It is doubtful if many of today’s traditional rulers in Nigeria have anything like their ancestors’ wisdom, even though today’s royal fathers ride in posh limousines while their ancestors rode on horses and camels. In the olden days, an emir could be relied upon to fulfill a promise made by his grandfather. He didn’t even need to know about it; you only have to approach him and say, “Your grandfather promised me this…” and he will fulfill the pledge. This made them very different from politicians, whose first duty when they are elected is to repudiate all the legacies of their predecessor. But with the influx of policemen, Customs officials, bankers and businessmen onto the thrones, many royal fathers today are indistinguishable from politicians. Much of the wisdom of over 500 years has been thrown overboard.

I am not trying to stick a sharp knife into my own stomach but I think one of the most notorious cases of exchanging wisdom for tools and skill occurred in the mass media. The social media revolution of the last ten years enabled everyone with a message to circumvent editors and reach large audiences, immediately, without establishing the authenticity or propriety of the message he or she is sending. People will post a message on Facebook saying “so-so person has died” and then add, “Please confirm.” Privacy and secrecy were also thrown away in favour of a tool; a young person going from Wuse to Kubwa will announce it on Facebook before embarking on the journey.

While the overzealousness and lack of wisdom in the social media is understandable because of the nature of its audience, exchanging wisdom for skill and tools also occurred in a dramatic fashion in the mainstream Nigerian news media. Reading through many leading newspapers these days, you get the impression that political agitators, rather than journalists, are in complete charge. Stories are deliberately slanted to fit into regional colourations and stereotypes. People are openly profiled, something we were once taught never to do. The media creates phrases and terminologies designed to spread profiling and promote allegations to the level of truth. Wild agitators who rush to judgement over sensitive issues find willing collaborators among editors who rush to town with the “story” without the slightest effort at fact checking, balancing, good taste or regard for public safety.

Old man Bertrand Russell saw modern Nigeria 58 years before it arrived. Our public and private agencies acquired a lot more skill and tools, and threw wisdom out of the window.

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