| THE GUARDIAN
CONSCIENCE, NURTURED BY TRUTH
LAGOS, NIGERIA. Monday, May 26 2003
IN the four decades of Nigeria's political independence we have witnessed a steady decline in values, in quality of governance, in commitment and in the intergrity of our environment. Our society has become negatively permissive and much passes for norm today that would have caused a raising of eyebrows in yonder years. Crisis of transparency rejoice under the different appellations of corruption, gratification, consideration and settlement. Praise-worship in affluent churches lustily harken in their thanksgiving, "Let it be permanent" whilst churches with indigent congregation invoke a different supplication, "Let it not be permanent"!
Many systems start innocently with the best of intentions but are soon abused by devious manipulations. JAMB is a classic example. I can confidently assert, as its foundation Chairman in the late 70s, that the first few years of the Board's activities were entirely barren of malpractices. It took great pains to ensure this although numbers were relatively small.
Today with a million candidates, malpractice has sharply escalated. Parents, students, officials both in JAMB and in the University Admissions Office are all involved in this nefarious activity. There are also the experts at certificate forgery. A parent once sought admission for his son at a university. One of the requirements was a credit in Mathematics. A junior admissions officer knew the candidate was not qualified as he had Es in most of his subjects. He suggested alteration of the score from E to B, a feat that is old hat to forgery experts.
This was done and upon presenting the certificate in its modified form the admissions officer was horrified to note that the fraudulent upgrading had been mistakenly done in respect of Physics and not Mathematics. An argument then ensured with the parent insisting that it was Physics he had heard. Going back now to the forgery expert would incur further charges. The altercation attracted attention, and both parties ended up in the police net.
Of governance we continue to witness abysmal behaviour at all levels. It is both easy and fashionable to blame military regimes, but it is an unfair peg on which to hang our remorseful hats. We are all vicariously responsible and the pilfering index is uniform, civilian or military. Politicians, public office holders, organised, unorganised and disorganised private sector, institutions, corporations and agencies are collectively culpable. And having stolen, the manner in which these persons or institutions flaunt their wealth is unbelievable.
Many have such great respect for modesty that they use it so sparingly. The antidote to this cankerworm is of course severe sanction. The ICPC was well on its way to achieving this when it was blighted by our lawmakers; largely for fear of exposure. I trust the new dispensation will restore that Commission's avowed intention of purging the national stable of our chronic iniquities.
Our individual and corporate commitment to the total national effort has also suffered palpable decline. These days the appetite grows with feeding - the more you get, the more you ask. It is a strange paradox that in the last few years of the present government, wages have quadrupled but productivity has declined. Even in my own turf, academic and non-academic staff go on prolonged periods of industrial action and expect to be paid their salaries on return. In the Teaching Hospitals' circuit, workers picket wantonly and walk away from ailing patients, totally insensitive of their plight; and return to insist on being paid for the period away and on being promoted during their absenteeism. Something has gone seriously wrong with the system.
The integrity of our environment is the most conspicuous evidence of inexorable decay. Regional degradation in oil-laden riverine areas, urban squalor punctuated by heaps of solid waste, cesspools of sewage, air pollution characterised by health-hazardous exhaust fumes from menopausal tokunbo vehicles, all conspire to leave us bewildered. Nigerians are truly unique in practically taking these naked lapses in their stride. They have a tremendous capacity to laugh at themselves and throw up their hands in desperation.
Add to this the epileptic behaviour of our energy system, our near primitive corporate transportation, the uncertain sources of pure water (pardon the Irishism) now often packaged in cellophane bags, the pathos is complete. Yet in the early 50s when our young Gamaliel (Onosode) was cutting his academic teeth in the University College of Ibadan, these monstrosities of environmental neglect had not begun to form.
What then, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, is the missing ingredient? I wager that the answer might be found in philosophy. Whether it is in the temporal packages of the Greeks and their world, Christian era of St. Augustine and the Medieval, the Beginnings of Modern Science from Copernicus to Newton, the Great Rationalists from Descartes to Leibniz, the Great Empiricists from Locke to Burke, revolutionary French thinkers from Voltaire to Rousseau or Germany philosophy from Kant to Nietzsche, we must take our queue from how these various ages conceived of and grappled with integrity, with patriotism, with esprit de corps and with the sanctity of the environment.
For our present discourse I will choose two items from the above menu: the age of Christianity and the beginnings of Modern Science, linking the two to demonstrate the powers of the unseen hand and the ever-listening ear. I know I am in the midst of some classical scholars and must therefore not teach my grandmother to suck eggs. But for a millennium between the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD and the dawn of the Renaissance in the 15th Century, the torch of civilisation in Western Europe was carried mainly by the Christian church. But the writings of the greatest philosophers of antiquity had to be scrutinised to ensure that they would not conflict with accepted Christian doctrines.
The supreme synthesis was achieved by Thomas Aquinas although many philosophers, even to this day, invoke teleological (purpose) cosmological (infinite) and ontological (perfect being) arguments to challenge the proven existence of God. They are careful to say in the same breath that they are in no doubt that God exists, but that his existence is not something that can be rationally demonstrated. Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was perhaps the greatest scientific genius of all time. At the age of 24 he had correctly analysed the constituent properties of light, invented calculus and not only formulated the concept of gravity but built up a system of mathematical physics that enabled him soon afterwards to give a complete and accurate picture of the planetary system. In acknowledging the contributions of his scientific forebears he exhibited true humility by stating: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Williams Wordsworth wrote of him: "Where the statute stood of Newton, with his prism and silent face, the marble index of a mind forever voyaging through the strange seas of thought, alone." And Alexander Pope famously put it-
"Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night
God said, Let Newton be! And all was light."
What Newton did for Science in the 17th Century, Adam Smith in his "Wealth of Nations" did for Political Economy in the 18th. I am in no doubt that the Supreme Being used these geniuses as portals for the advancement of knowledge through the stretching of the human mind. Smith too was a prodigy. He took the Chair of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow at the age of 29 and published his seminal work on "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" soon thereafter. His magnum opus, "The Wealth of Nations", coincided with the eve of American Independence in 1776. Of all his depositions perhaps one that Nigerians may find worth of note even now concerns his observations that,
"Every man is much more deeply interested in whatever immediately concerns himself, than in what concerns any other man. Thus a general disposition to gain approval of his fellows may be inadequate to ensure control over his actions and passions."
Furthermore, Smith observed that because men actively pursue certain paths with the object of bettering their material or social position, the individual may act in ways, which have hurtful consequences for others.
This viewpoint was further amplified centuries later by Jacob Bronowski in his famous book on Science, Ethics and Equality; and I quote:
"Men who purport to be professionals in influencing public opinion have refused to learn that tough lesson. If they are in the practical business of politics and power, they take a short view - the end will justify the means, they hope, before public revulsion catches up with them. And if they are in the intellectual business they are for the most part convinced that science is only a set of techniques and results. Often they do not like what they think to be the results, and so are not averse to having the counter culture flaunt a distaste for science, which they secretly share it does not occur to them that the basic technique in science is simply telling the literal truth, that science owes its unflagging success to that, and that the public has recognised the lesson."
Albert Einstein, arguably the most powerful embodiment of pure scientific intellect after Newton and the pre-eminent scientist in a 20th Century era dominated by the Bomb, the Big Bang, Quantum Physics and Electronics, was a man who combined rare genius with a deep moral sense and a total indifference to convention.
His main forte featured time, space, matter, gravity, special and general relativity. Einstein's unusual career as a rebel was punctuated by renouncing his German citizenship at fifteen, moving to Switzerland's famous Zurich Polytechnic and returning to Germany only to leave again for Princeton, New Jersey, the United States at the height of Nazi anti-Semitism. His unsettled private life contested sharply with his serene contemplation of the universe. He could be alternately warm-heartened and cold, a doting father yet aloof, an understanding if difficult mate but also an egregious flirt. Although many churchmen of his day regarded Elinstein's theory of relativity with deep suspicions (and not a few as ungodly atheism) the scientist always spoke about trying to understand how the Good Lord shaped the universe.
In my own profession of medicine the fascinating story of Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin bears the same stamp of serendipity-largely a matter of chance. In all of this therefore there is a flavour of uncanny simplicity in making earth-sharking discoveries. But the timing, the circumstances, the opportunity and the eagle's eye of the observer all have to be right for the world to register that leap-frog advance. The concept of cloning, and even more recently the genome project, have brought us all closer to the realisation that the Almighty permits only when He deems fit, the window of knowledge to open a little further to accommodate the capacity and depth of understanding of the human mind. I cannot, even as a medical scientist, help feeling that if cloning were to be desecrated and abused, that window will automatically shut to make further exploitative research unachievable.
We might ask: How is it that the major scientific advances through these centuries have eluded Africa, having regard to the fact that knowledge in its varying dimensions and complexity has never been a permanent monopoly of any cultural, economic, sociological or political group? The low level of education, poor infrastructural facilities, generally unhealthy environment and unbridled increase in population must all be held responsible. But we might pause to task: Can limitation of resources be a valid apology for a minuscule contribution of the Third World to medical science over these centuries?
Do we need to adopt or even adapt methods that have been tried and tested in industralised societies to our own peculiar problems? How much budgetary outlay does a mass immunisation programme or an education programme in family health require to make the desired impact on a remote community?
Does it require great expertise to gather simple baseline data in selected samples of large populations to determine the burden of illness and devise a strategy that deals effectively with the major community health problems?
Might it be that we make too much song and dance of inadequate resources, and that instead, we should be aiming at how to make maximal use of ever-dwindling assets and, in the fashion of Schumacher, how to make small beautiful?
In our society the competing claims of social justice demand an egalitarian approach to education and the provision of a basic infrastructure to enhance the quality of life. The work of medical scientists in our own setting will have little relevance if all our energies are spent in acquainting ourselves with the work in developed countries and imitating it. What is needed is extension and enrichment of our own tradition by a creative assimilation and adaptation of the modern intellectual traditions. Our medical scientists should concern themselves with work that is relevant to our environment and to situations in which local cultural values and traditional characteristics can be made to relate our scientific efforts to the inevitable modern world of rationalistic empiricism. That is our only durable passport to creativity and intellectual empowerment.
What I have said of sciences applies mutatis mutandis to the liberal arts and social sciences. John Kenneth Galbraith has analysed the basis of mass poverty and his treatise is as relevant as it was in 1979. More recent scholars such as Amyrta Sen, the Indian Nobel Laureate, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and the so-called Father Theresa of Economics, have taken the science of poverty further along to remind us of the abiding vicious coupling with ignorance and disease.
Whichever way, in today's Nigeria, we can begin to see the pervasive influence of an omnipotent and witness in all its ramification the effects of the weapons of mass salvation.
Of governance we continue to witness abysmal behaviour at all levels. It is both easy and fashionable to blame military regimes, but it is an unfair peg on which to hang our remorseful hats. We are all vicariously responsible and the pilfering index is uniform, civilian or military. Politicians, public office holders, organised, unorganised and disorganised private sector, institutions, corporations and agencies are collectively culpable
Many have such great respect for modesty that they use it so sparingly. The antidote to this cankerworm is of course severe sanction. The ICPC was well on its way to achieving this when it was blighted by our lawmakers; largely for fear of exposure. I trust the new dispensation will restore that Commission's avowed intention of purging the national stable of our chronic iniquities
The integrity of our environment is the most conspicuous evidence of inexorable decay. Regional degradation in oil-laden riverine areas, urban squalor punctuated by heaps of solid waste, cesspools of sewage, air pollution characterised by health-hazardous exhaust fumes from menopausal tokunbo vehicles, all conspire to leave us bewildered. Nigerians are truly unique in practically taking these naked lapses in their stride. They have a tremendous capacity to laugh at themselves and throw up their hands in desperation