• Monday, December 04, 2023
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“Good afternoon my co-debaters”: How a popular Nigerian school tradition is distorting national discourse (2)

“Good afternoon my co-debaters”: How a popular Nigerian school tradition is distorting national discourse (2)

The Tale of “Master Man”

When I was little, I had a book of African folk tales that I can still clearly recall more than 25 years later. One of the stories I remember vividly is a Hausa folk tale called ‘Master Man.’

In the story, a man who considers himself to be the strongest in the village hears about “Master Man” who is so much stronger than him that he hunts and eats elephants. Our hero cannot accept the affront to his ego so he sets out to challenge Master Man, only to discover that he is over-matched and Master Man is a cannibal.

He tries to make his escape but Master Man pursues him. While running for his life, he encounters another man who asks him why he is running. He replies “Master Man is chasing me!” The other guy responds, “Well I am Master Man so that can’t be right. I must fight this impostor!” Our hero makes his escape while Master Man 1 and Master Man 2 engage in noisy, earth-shaking combat. In the course of fighting, they both leap and keep on rising, eventually ascending beyond the clouds and out of sight.

The noise continues from the sky to this day. When people hear it, they think it is Thunder, but it is really just the sound of two idiots fighting forever to see which one of them is “Master Man.”

Facts have no place in Nigeria’s public discourse once someone can entertain the crowd or pull their emotional lever. We can trace it all the way back to the socio-pathic leadership training we give to Nigerian children in school

What this story says in the typically tongue-in-cheek manner of Hausa humour is that some arguments are so stupid that the world moves on while they drag on forever. The two fools should obviously accept that either none of them or both of them are Master Man, but stupid arguments and debates consume unintelligent people while life goes on around them.

Want to see an example of a “Master Man” debate topic? Check out this doozy from a Twitter user referring to a debate event organised in 2012 by the Federal Ministry of Education.

“In SS2, I represented my school in a debate among Federal Unity Colleges organised by the Ministry of Education in Abuja. Topic – “HIV Does not Exist; AIDS means ‘American Invention to Discourage Sex.’” I was to argue ‘for’ this motion. And I was expected to win.”

In the same decade this shameful “debate” held, a cure for HIV was successfully trialled, so the world has moved on. In the Master Man world of Nigerian secondary school debates, however, the very existence of HIV/AIDS is something to be debated ad infinitum in the context of stupid conspiracy theories. All we need is some thunder when next such a “debate” holds.

I touched on it briefly already, but it bears repeating that arguing illogical or moot points, is hardly an educational experience for a child. The one and only time I debated in high school, I was told to argue against on the topic of former CBN governor Charles Soludo’s reforms in the Nigerian banking sector. In 2004, prior to the N25 billion capitalisation requirement, there were 89 banks in Nigeria, with the vast majority of them just a few hundred million naira away from insolvency and subsequent mass panic.

I was 14, but I read the daily newspapers and watched the news everyday so I knew that banking recapitalisation was in everybody’s best interest. I wanted to argue in favour of the reforms but I was told nope, find an angle to argue against. My team and I ended up delivering a weak argument about how “Nigeria is not ready” and “the new requirements are harsh.” It was a silly argument and we knew it, but we had to stand in front of 200 people and deliver it anyway.

Unsurprisingly we lost, which came with real social penalties in the Lord Of The Flies environment that was secondary school. Till today I cannot identify how standing up to argue an objectively wrong, intellectually bereft position helped me or any of my debate team members, but that is the point about ‘Master Man’ debates. Their entire purpose is to be interminably stupid and to occupy stupid people.

If we are not trying to raise a generation of unintelligent Nigerians, why do we keep forcing them to take part in ‘Master Man’ debates?

Raising Little Hitlers

Perhaps, the most disturbing thing about Nigerian school debate culture is the tacit agreement that certain debate topics and positions are blatantly wrong or offensive, but forcing children to argue those positions somehow helps them become better at “persuasion” and “public speaking.” The idea is that objective truth itself is not so important. What we really want is a bunch of children who can use truthiness and debate hacks to win arguments, because that’s the important thing – winning the argument.

In other words, we agree that we ordinarily have no business touching these debate topics and positions, but the fact that we can possibly train children to lie efficiently and deliver convincing performances while saying nothing of substance is like, totally worth it.

Remember Squealer the pig from Animal Farm? He was the convincing speaker and public debater convincing other farm animals to align with their own exploitation – the bovine Ben Shapiro if you will.

We are teaching Nigerian children Squealer’s skillset, complete with gestures, rhythmic body movement and eye blinking, and rapid fire speech delivery to say the greatest amount of nothing in the shortest possible time. Plus of course, good old lying through their teeth. Hegel’s Dialectic exists to arrive at fundamental underlying truths. Our bastardised Master Man version of it in Nigerian schools apparently exists to train the country’s next generation of Twitter argument-havers and politicians.

Remember Tunde at the outset? He won the debate. He literally missed the entire point of what he was supposed to be arguing for, but he carried the room.

In Nigeria’s debating culture, which extends into our public discourse and politics, that is all that counts. Stuff like factual and contextualised statistics, service records and objective data all go out of the window once someone carries the crowd in a Nigerian debate. This logically carries on into university student politics and eventually into mainstream national politics.

That is why the politician whose biggest claim to fame is singing a song that went viral is preparing a run for governor based on literally nothing at all – and he will probably win too. It’s why a politician in Abuja said that he would “protect Nigeria’s economy with the army, navy and airforce,” and we promptly handed him a $500 billion economy to run. It’s why after two decades of direct and proxy rule over Lagos, where the Island disappears underwater whenever it rains and most of the mainland looks like a battle sequence from Black Hawk Down, a politician in Ikoyi is apparently a “genius,” a “visionary” and a “trailblazer.”

Facts have no place in Nigeria’s public discourse once someone can entertain the crowd or pull their emotional lever. We can trace it all the way back to the socio-pathic leadership training we give to Nigerian children in school. We really have to decide – do we want another generation of leaders who perfect the art of stringing people along with grandiloquent nonsense, or do we want competent 21st Century leadership?

In summary, if we want to make Nigerian school debates relevant to the 21st Century, we need to first of all understand what a debate is and is not. Yes, to Hegel’s Dialectic. No to ‘Master Man.’ We also need to teach students that sometimes issues are more complicated than what a binary debate can capture. They need to understand that it is OK to change their minds in the light of evidence – truth is the goal, not merely having an opinion. They need to understand that the substance (truth) is more important than the form (truthy argument).

And if you get nothing else out of this, then please for the love of Tolégba, let’s do away with those ‘Mother vs Father,’ ‘Doctor vs Farmer’ and ‘Boy Shide vs Gehl Shide’ topics.

And with these 2,800 words ladies and gentlemen, I hope I have been able to convince (and not confuse) you that Nigerian school debate culture needs an entire overhaul.