Trapped Between Tradition and Modernity

April 1, 2011
7 mins read

“If you see a film about the Vikings of olden days, you can see them with great horns on their heads and amulets on their arms, setting off for war. And they would not set off for war without their great horns on the hear. No one should think that to be African one must wear horns on one’s chest and an amulet round one’s waist. Such persons are individuals who have not properly understood the relationship between man and nature. The Portuguese did the same; the French did it when they were Franks, Normans, etc. the English did it when they were Angles and Saxons…. We must have the courage to state this clearly. No one should think that…what is really African….is our weakness in the face of nature. Any people in the world, of whatever status, have gone through the state of this weakness, or have to go through them.” – Amilcar Cabral.


One of the greatest African political thinkers, Amilcar Cabral, trained as an agronomist, but dedicated his life to the liberation of the peoples of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, from the most backward of the colonial regimes in Africa, Portuguese, fascist colonialism. As I ruminated over what to write this week, I searched for the quotation of the head of this column from the collection  UNITY & STRUGGLE, which brings together a selection of his writings and speeches.


Cabral had been the founder of the PAIGE, the African party for the liberation of Guinea and Cape Verde, which led the war; but at a particular point, a debate ensued within the movement, about the efficacy of amulets, religious symbols, traditional drinking portions etc, in the liberation war. Some of the leading cadres wanted the idea to be discouraged frontally, because reliance on these symbols leads to false ideas about invisibility in warfare, resulting in carelessness and fatalities. Others who believed the idea was African did not want any struggle against the practice. Cabral  who led the movement felt it was important to expand the horizons of knowledge of his comrades to gradually wean them from dependence on these things. It was clear to  Cabral, that the use of amulets, etc, was not  inherently African; it belonged to a level of human development, when understanding of the laws of nature was still quite underdeveloped and with greater knowledge and the method of science, humans transcended the need for such dependency.


I have ruminated on these points, because of a number of issues that came to fore in Nigeria. A few weeks ago, the story broke that the Chairman of the Niger Delta Development Commission stole a whopping sum of N800 million and spent hundreds of millions to get an herbalist to do some form of bidding or the other. Many people have been scandalized that huge sums of money that could have been used to equip at least a few schools and hospitals was so wasted. However, there is a trend of events of this nature almost every day in our country. On the internet journalism site of Sahara Reporters, there is posted the picture, near naked, of a man said to be the current governor of Abia State, Chief Orji, propitiating the gods of Okija shrine. The story was that he had been taken by by his predecessor, to swear to an oath of loyalty!


About two months ago, Nigerian newspapers carried the report and some had the picture of a brutalized and bloodied woman, who was alleged to have been a cat but then turned to a woman in Port Harcourt. The story went that the cat had been sent from Abuja to kill some people, including a pastor. I entered an argument with some of my colleagues wondering how anybody would believe such in the twenty-first century! Anytime you doubt such ridiculous stories, they retreat into religion, reminding us that even the Holy Qur’an recognizes the existence of mysterious forces, to foreclose debate and subtly intimidate!



There have been related stories within the political leadership of our country. In 1999, Chief Olu Falae swore to an affidavit that General Olusegun Obasanjo was not fit to be president of Nigeria, because he is a member of the Ogboni fraternity! Just last week, Al-Jazeera television carried a report of the very troubling killings of Albinos that has become rampant in Tanzania; their legs were alleged to be very useful in money-making rituals, and it became more bizarre, when the spates of killings, were directly linked to the widespread dissemination of Nigerian home movies, with their well-known ritual scenes. Of course, we read almost every day in our papers, the arrests of herbalists and their clients, caught with human organs freshly dug from graves; while soft-sell magazines frequently report ”big boys” caught in the middle of the night, having sex with mad women!


There is clearly a lot that is wrong, and as is our wont, we hardly ever interrogate these issues, to draw relevant sociological lessons for the progress of society. A couple of years ago, Professor Ali Mazrui, ran the very successful television documentary series, THE AFRICANS. The central thesis was that within his consciousness, and in his lived reality, the African carries the baggage of traditional belief systems as well as those of Islam/Christianity and elements of modernity. I think there is a lot that speaks for the multiplicity of identities which Mazrui spoke of. But my take on it, is that there is a sense in which we live in a society of arrested modernity, where there has never been a revolutionary rupture between the consciousness which are located in the past, and whatever is supported to be a definitive arrival into modernity. In some instances, the resurgence of traditional mores actually reflects the profound crises of the past twenty-five years in many of our African societies.


Let’s take the Tazanian albino story which I cited earlier; an anthropologist reminded that under President Julius Nyerere, an effort was made to invest heavily in education, to encourage rational thinking and discourse as well as build an inclusive, socialist society. Under that regime, the Tanzanian society did not witness albinocide, to make money. But the  dismantling of the welfare state, went hand in hand with privatization, the implementation of neoliberal reforms; the emergence of fundamentalist religious groups; the deepening of the divide between the tiny elite of millionaires and an increasingly desperately poor majority. It is this that has thrown up the regress into rituals and the killings of albinos for get-rich-quick delusions! In the meantime, the social gains made in education plus a politically conscious population, have collapsed under the weight of neoliberal capitalism, fundamentalist religion and traditional mumbo-jumbo!


Nigerian’s case has not been better. The mid-1980s were the major turning point in our  national life, with the implementation of structural adjustment policies. It is now accepted that we lost the entire decade of the 1990s, as a result of these policies as well as the neo-liberalism of the Obasanjo years; the removal of the state from the provision of social nets, the transfer of national assets into the hands of a tiny elite of the super-rich, the deepening of corruption; the criminalization of the state as well as the emergence of non-state actors in religious and ethnic organizations that took over the spaces vacated by the state. There is the near complete collapse of education and rational thinking or discourse and the triumph of traditional beliefs and mumbo-jumbo plus the wide spread dissemination of their methods, including their tyranny!


It is within this broad context, that we must locate the surge of bizarre rituals, killings of albinos; the theft of human parts, etc. ours is a society of incomplete and deformed modernity which never experienced a renaissance as the societies of Europe did at a certain point in their history. It is this within this that we must place the absurdity of a naked governor in a shrine; a former ambassador burning money naked in the middle of the night in a cemetery or even students, as happened at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile Ife, withdrawing into the bush, to expect the end of the world! it is poignant that if one approached the campuses of almost every Nigerian University today, the sign posts which greet one would be those of ethnic or religious organizations. The days when universities were centers of debate, dissent and intellectual engagements seem to belong in the past. As I have written on this page in the past, education is being “reformed” to purge it of any critical content. In its place, imperialist organanizations spend a lot of money to teach “entrepreneurial skills” or bend the minds of the young graduates towards becoming the docile worker, helping to keep capitalist exploitation alive; and who says such individuals will not be trapped in the systems that help to reinforce mysticism?!


Every Tuesday, we hold our Editorial planning meetings with which we evaluate the stories we did in the previous week…….. what will be in our weekly titles for the new week. A trend of presentations of off-beat, often mysterious stories about a person who was bitten by a “mysterious snake” or man who dies in some circumstance or the other invariably enters the mix of stories. Of course, we must report such stories; but he problem is that for explanations, we tended to get only the view point of religious leaders. It was a battle to find rational, scientific explanations for some of these phenomena. Once man was said  to have burnt, and promptly, a religious leader prof……….. opinion on the likely cause of the mystery, except that we did not explore what scientists have called spontaneous human combustion! This is just an example, but the tendency to reinforce my………… around us. The people desperately want answers for all ……………..problems and in the past few years rational attitudes have …….problems and in the past few years rational…….. retreat.


The ruling elite deceive itself that it is preparing Nigerian to become one of the biggest economies by 2020. Yet, there is no systematic investment in basic education or science and technology and the ……….of society, which can facilitate a more rational attitude to the phenomenon of nature, society where leadership does not inspire the change that can make modernity work meaningfully for the Nigerian people, for that long shall we have to deal with the absurdity of highly-placed government officials taking money that can help to make life a bit better for the people for ritual purposes. Similarly, citizens will also look for human body parts in an eternal search for wealth, while the true wealth of the nation: its people and natural resources will remain unharnessed!


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