Monday, December 6, 2021

Public discourse, media and our sense of nationhood, by Prof. Abubakar Liman

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Jaafar Jaafar
Jaafar Jaafar is a graduate of Mass Communication from Bayero University, Kano. He was a reporter at Daily Trust, an assistant editor at Premium Times and now the editor-in-chief of Daily Nigerian.
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In history, the idea of modern nations started in Europe at that precarious moment of transition with the waning structures of the powerful feudal empires as they gave way to a new capitalist society based on C.B. Macpherson’s notion of possessive individualism. With the birth of modern capitalism out of the womb of mercantilist protectionism of the dying European monarchies, the new European states were solidly built on the ideals of universal suffrage. These were emergent nations growing on the diet of liberty, equality and fraternity. These concepts have in theory and practice evolved into universal values that are repose in the rights and liberties of the individual, which are also gradually transformed into fundamental human rights and democratic values. Those principles were indeed the tripartite gifts of French political philosophy to modern world. Those principles were also the founding values of the new world order that was incubated and hatched just for the actualization of the capitalist ideal. However, even with the promise of freedom of the individual from the yoke of feudalism, modern nations are still arbitrary creations of the powers that be and the interests of international capital.

Capitalism and its social structures are not without their own blatant internal contradictions that are manifesting themselves everywhere. Throughout its history, the capitalist system is moving from one existential crisis to another, albeit through its self-regulating mechanisms. And, what are these self-regulating entities that guarantee the survival of capitalism despite its exploitatively inhuman fangs? These are its wholesale reliance on the principles of pragmatism, its ability to swiftly adapt to different social, cultural and environmental circumstances. This is where it parted ways with the rigidities of other social systems and ideologies like fascism and communism. More importantly, the staying power of capitalist societies should be sought in its liberalism, and in its hegemonic impulses where public consent is sought even in its execution of its inhuman policies. Consensus building is achieved through healthy and rigorous debate rather than constant application of the instruments of coercion as in authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships. Force is always made the last resort. 

In its most sophisticated stages, the liberal ethos of capitalism ensures that its communicative spaces are resolutely open. According to Jurgen Habermas, an atmosphere of free and unencumbered communication in which consent is canvassed, and consensus is built before policy blueprints are made or before taking decisions should always characterize the public sphere. This is how Habermas sees communication as the driving force of civil society in a modern capitalist society. In this logic, no individual or group is denied the right to express views or opinion openly without fear. A good government is one that ensures that the conduct of public discourse is regulated by the observance of fundamental rights and liberties of every citizen, such as unequivocally enshrined in the constitution that was agreed upon by the people. But even with that the civil society itself is expected to form its opinions or becomes the watchdog of the rights and liberties of the individual that have been unambiguously spelt out in the constitution of a modern state. In its operations, the civil society must uphold the constitution by showing unalloyed respect for its provisions. It must also abide by rule of law in all its dealings. By implication, it must avoid anything that may threaten the corporate existence of the state in which it exists.

What then is the performance of Nigeria in its bid to transform into a vigorous modern nation worth its name? As argued elsewhere on this platform, efforts of the civil society to see that Nigeria operates on the sound principles of a modern state are not something new. Successes have been recorded here and there in a number of social spheres.  On the whole, however, the scorecard of our attempts to uphold the national sovereignty of the Nigerian state is abysmally poor. The gains of yesteryears have all been eroded by the cataclysmic global changes that are everywhere demonstrating to entail serious repercussions for the corporate existence of postcolonial Nigeria. The globalizing nuances of capitalism have effectively suffocated attempts to nurture national sovereignty on the basis of older principles of state building. On this note, Nigeria does not appear to be willing to face the challenges of the revolutionary upheaval of the day, and the quantum of social changes thrown up by the forces of capitalist globalization.

As the movers and shakers of globalism seek to systematically undermine the logic of statism, the old ways of doing things through strong institutions and structures of the modern nation-states have now been punctuated by a big question mark. And as states are pressured to hands off playing any meaningful economic role towards the enhancement of the wellbeing of every member of society, more and more non-state actors are clandestinely propped up to take over the spaces vacated by the state, and specifically social roles in the name of a monster called commercialization or privatization of our common patrimony. Welcome to a brave new world that is solely driven by the principles of private enterprise. The only role left in the hands of the state is provision of security and law enforcement in a deregulated environment that is now secured for unbridled capitalist exploitation of land and labor. What most of us have not realized is the fact that globalization has since weakened the powers of the sovereign nation-states. Therefore, the state cannot secure the rights and privileges of all citizens any longer. 

In its characteristic liassez faire approach to social existence, neoliberal capitalism has no answer to the teeming conflicts and contradictions in any society under its stranglehold. Nigeria is one country in which this conundrum is aptly represented. By 1960, we started on some positive beginnings, on collective hopes and aspirations that have been robustly shared by its citizens. The most populous and powerful independent West African country is now lying hopelessly on its back. All efforts are frittered away by widespread sense of disillusionment that arose out of our sheer failure to jell as a single indivisible nation built on the beautiful promise of unity in diversity. Yes, Nigeria is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious postcolonial state, but so were many modern nations of Europe and Asia. Germany in particular is a good example of the triumph of modern nationhood. It is a nation that was cobbled out of several Germanic tribes. However, Germany is today operating on the basis of modern constitutional arrangement that is very inclusive. Nothing therefore stops Nigeria from learning from the successes recorded by Germany in its historical trajectories and evolutionary pathways to becoming a strong and virile nation that has completely transcended its primordial fault lines.

Forging a modern nation is not an easy task. To do that successfully, we must coherently define our national culture, values and institutions that every citizen of Nigeria must approximate to no matter his or her background, location, culture, ethnicity, language, norms and belief system. Nigeria, we must know, is not going to survive on the principles of exclusion of any individual and group simply for the reason of their ethnicity or religion. If anybody thinks he or she can exclude others purely on the basis of identity difference, that person is making a big mistake of his life. It was tried before here in Nigeria. But as we all know, it ended up in great tragedy of serious magnitude. Now that we want to try it again; now that we are pretending to forget the lessons of the past, only God knows what the outcome would be. Nigerian state must rise up to the challenges of its new existential threats. 

Right now, the mainstream media outlets that are operating in total incongruence with our national interest are the major headache of Nigeria. In the last three decades, the print media most especially is not just attacking the soul of Nigeria for some dubious reasons, reasons other than ones that are in the best interests of the nation. Our media outfits are obviously dividing communities and groups along ethnic and religious enclaves. Our media houses are also putting wages on the path of Nigerian unity. Issues that promote national unity are ignored while those that target tearing the people apart are amplified beyond measure. Unfortunately, the social media platforms that are democratizing our communication spaces are, in turn, not helping matters at all. The social media in Nigeria would rather reecho the undesirable style of misinformation being orchestrated by the mainstream media. How can we build a strong and enduring nation this way? I want to know.

Similarly, as the brutal realities of global capitalism unfold, the answer that comes out of us is to further recoil back into our primordial cocoons. If one section of the country were not fighting the other on some flimsy reason, it would be members of one ethnic or faith community against the other. Reality is viewed from the prism of our identity formations. Truth is perceived from the angle of our ethno-religious equations. In the process, the idea of Nigeria and our national values are totally lost upon us. This is the sad state that Nigeria has found itself. Nigeria urgently needs leaders with the gift of wisdom to see through this complexly difficult phase of its history.

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