The Nigerian writer and social activist Wole Soyinka's insistence that the terrorism of Boko Haram is the unanticipated outcome of Nigerian support for Islamic extremism in Northern Nigeria as well as the direct expression of the ambitions of some disgruntled Northern politicians has sparked various kinds of response. Some of these have been dismissive, particularly coming from some commentators from Northern Nigeria.
Soyinka being a writer as well as a social activist may evoke questions about the significance of literature and the arts in building modern societies, particularly in the face of the development challenges faced by Nigeria, since one view holds that modern societies are built on the foundations of science and technology. I examine briefly the nature of science and technology, relate them to Nigeria's most pressing development challenges, and compare the roles of various Nigerian institutions in contemporary Nigerian development. Science, Technology and Nation Building
No society has ever been built primarily on science and technology.
To claim that modern society is built on science and technology is to demonstrate a superstitious attitude to science. To argue that what African countries need to become modern societies is advances in science and technology is to demonstrate a superstitious reverence for science, rather than an understanding of the role of science in building societies. Such superstitious attitudes, based on ignorance on the nature of Western social management and modernity may be partly responsible for African backwardness, even in the face of long standing misguided reverence for science.The fact is that modern societies are based partly on the management of science and technology not on science and technology.
What is Science?
Science can be understood in a broad and a narrow sense. The narrow sense involves the study of the physical character of the universe using methods that can be replicated and assessed by others adequately skilled to do so. In that sense, we have sciences that deal with living and non-living systems, such as physics, chemistry and biology, as well as sciences that straddle both, such as mathematics. I expect Abba is referring to the narrow meaning in his focus on physics, chemistry and medicine.
The essential scientific character of such disciplines is not in their subject matter but in the manner in which they address that subject matter, as Dominic Ogbonna observed in this debate. Over the centuries and even now, various disciplines engage with those same subjects without being understood as scientific.The broad understanding of science is in the adaptation of critical methods associated with science to other disciplines. In doing that, however, it is vital to observe broad variations between the character of living and non-living systems , and broad variations within the character of living systems. Along the lines of adapting scientific methods to a broader range of disciplines, there exist the social sciences of economics and sociology, and even linguistics, described as the scientific study of language.This broad understanding is better understood, not as science, but as the adoption of a critical method to the study pf phenomena. The success of modern Western society is in the adoption of critical methods, not on science, in terms of the physical sciences like physics, or the biological sciences like human biology. The more specific physical and biological sciences and the more general sciences like mathematics are adapted within a social system based on critical understanding of phenomena, particularly the large scale social systems represented by societies. The success of modern Western society is a demonstration of skilled social management, among other factors that made this quality of social management possible in the first place.
What is Technology?
One could describe technology also in a narrow and a broad sense. In the narrow sense, it can be described as the practical application of science, particularly in the creation of instruments. The narrow sense involves the metaphorical adaptation of the idea to involve management of knowledge in general.
I expect Abba is referring to the narrow meaning in his focus on physics, chemistry and medicine. Abba insists that African societies, particularly Nigeria, need to be based on science and technology in order to succeed.
Contemporary Nigerian Development Challenges
Let us run through contemporary Nigerian social/ development challenges and try to see what role science and technology could play in addressing them. My argument will be that science and technology are useful but as methods and insights managed by social managers, not always using the tools and knowledge of the sciences in their core sense. Such social management is not based on physics or mathematics, or biology and medicine, but uses these disciplines to achieve the overarching goal of social management. I also also compare and contrast the Nigerian institutions represented by the oil industry, banking and Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry.
Security of Life and Property
A central challenge in contemporary Nigeria is security of life and property on account of the presence of terrorism, primarily from Boko Haram but also from MEND. Also critical in security challenges is the scourge of kidnapping.
Islamic and Political Terrorism of Boko Haram
The progress made against Boko Haram so far has been though information sourcing and tracking of their members. The role played by science in the sense of the specialized skills of particular scientific disciplines has been in the use of electronic tracking technology through which the terrorists' phones were tracked. Technology also played a role in the weapons used in battling the members of the sect. Does the use of technology in these two forms imply that these successes are due to the use of science and technology? Only partly so, beceause the anti-Boko Haram operation necessarily involves a broad range of methods of which the use of electronic tracking technology and physical weapons are two factors. I expect the operation involves information sourcing by word of mouth from informants among members of the communities where Boko Haram members live. If the fight against Boko Haram is to succeed, such intelligence gathering from within the community needs to be intensified. The fight against Boko Haram needs to won primarily in the hearts and minds of Nigerians, which is the core arena of the war the sect has unleashed on the nation. The sect is seeking to prove to Nigerians that it represents a parallel government that embodies the aspirations of Northern Nigeria. That effort will fail when Northerners can be decisively convinced that Boko Haram represents only themselves and the pauperisation of the North. When people are convinced that they have more to lose than to gain by keeping silent about people suspected or known to be Boko Haram members, and that they are protected in revealing them to the government, then the fight is being won. Until then, even if this group is suppressed, another one might emerge in its place, as has been the pattern for some time in Northern Nigeria, from the pre-Maitasine era to Boko Haram.
Education, Marriage and Religion in Northern Nigeria
Even after this stage of terrorism in Northern Nigeria is addressed, what is to be done with the region's educational and other social problems that make it a flash point for recurrent social upheavals? There seems to be an educational crisis in Northern Nigeria, with the Islamic educational system favored by many being ill equipped to manage the transition to a modern society. How is that to be addressed? Such issues seem to me to be more in the realm of educational theory and practice and politics, than physics, chemistry, medicine or any of the traditional sciences. What about the issue of the marriage of very young girls, creating a ground for severe physical problems on account of the immaturity of the girls' bodies, removing them from the educational system and severely limiting their opportunities to operate productively in the work place, and ultimately swelling the ranks of the poor? How is the religious background of this practice in the marriage of the prophet Muhammad to a pre-pubescent girl to be addressed?
Northern Nigerian Economy
What about the economies of the Northern states?
Some have called for greater reliance on indigenous wealth generation, as different from depending on oil revenue from the central government. How is this economic transition to be managed? I don't get the impression that physics, chemistry, medicine or any of the traditional sciences is going to be the knowledge base to be used. They can be adapted to the task but those who run those systems must be competent in a range of knowledge and skills, from economics, to social psychology and politics.
How do we address the kidnapping problem?
Part of the problem must be economic. Another could relate to a sense of injustice projected by an awareness of corruption. It is also crucial to identify and destroy the kidnapping networks. How are people to be enabled to gain employment without unnecessary difficulty? How can the cost of living be significantly reduced to make life easier and crime less compelling? How can the corruption be reduced significantly and hopefully eliminated so that people are less prone to consider themselves justified in using desperate methods against a society they see as having betrayed them? How can the kidnapping networks be identified and destroyed? Addressing these questions would span a broad range of skills that go beyond such sciences as physics, chemistry and medicine.
Another challenge is energy, particularly the generation and distribution of electricity, this being critical to running a modern economy and society and to business and research in all fields.Power generation is a demonstration of science and technology. Is Nigeria failing in achieving this basic task adequately because of a lack of scientists and engineers or because of inadequacies in the allocation of resources and their application to the task at hand? Can such failures of allocation and implementation be corrected by science and technology or do they operate in the more shadowy zone of political vision and commitment to the nation rather to political cliques?I don't get the impression that having skilled scientists running the country or even running the power and steel ministry automatically translates into efficient management of these resources. Such skill is necessary but is it the absence of such skill that has led to the country not being able to account for the huge sums of money allocated to developing the refineries and to Nigeria being largely an importer rather than a processor of its own oil? What role does the county and its indigenised companies play in oil exploration and extraction? Are the limitations of the country in this area due more to lack of skilled personnel than to inadequate political will and planning to develop and equip such personnel in the first place?
Nollywood, the Nigerian Film Industry
As it is, the only Nigerian industry in which its citizens demonstrate originality that enables them stand out as group in the global community and earn significant income for the nation on that basis is is Nollywood, an example of the very story telling that Abba derides as not being central to developing a modern society. This is the only industry in which Nigerians as a group demonstrate originality. It is also the most visible original export of the nation. I expect it is the highest foreign exchange earner of the nation from any original achievement of its citizens.
The Nigerian Oil and Banking Industries
The Nigerian oil industry, as far as I know, is largely a buying and selling industry. Selling crude oil, buying processed petroleum. The banking industry is not known for any particular innovations, to the best of my very limited knowledge of banking. I also doubt if Nigerian banks have a significant global reach. To what degree are they engaged in economic activities outside Nigeria and to what degree do they contribute to driving development in Nigeria? Do they fund genuine claims to scientific and technological achievement in Nigeria? To what degree do they fund the obvious success of Nollywood so that the industry can move beyond sheer volume to greater quality that can penetrate global markets beyond what is likely to be its Black African fan base at home and abroad? The stupendous budgets, which allied with a dazzling array of skills, enables Hollywood to rule the global film world must be based to a significant degree on backing by financial institutions. What role are similar institutions in Nigeria playing in this crying need?
Modern Societies as Based on Critical Thinking and an Egalitarian Social Contract
In sum, to describe any society as based on science and technology in the narrow sense of the physical and the biological sciences, talk less of claiming that African societies need to be based on science and technology to achieve modernity, is a very limited understanding of science and technology as well as of social development and management, talk less of the development of civilizations. It is accurate, instead, to describe modern societies as based on critical thinking, based on evidence and aspiration to social ideals that empower as many people as possible. These approaches are focused on rather than on speculation or religious faith. Within this context, science and technology are harnessed in concert with other disciplines in building and running these societies.
The Economic and Social Power of Nollywood Story Telling
To describe the role of the arts in Nigeria, and particularly of story telling, as very limited or irrelevant in relation to building a modern society is to ignore the facts of history, as demonstrated spectacularly in the economic and larger social impact of Nollywood, the most significant industry in Nigeria in terms of originality in relation to global reach.