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Midnight’s children

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For reasons that I now find to be quite ominous, the British preferred to grant independence to most of her colonial dependencies at precisely the hour of midnight. The Anglo-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie wrote one of his best novels with the title, Midnight’s Children. It tells the story of infant Saleem Sinai, who was born at precisely the moment the clock struck midnight on 15 August, 1947, coinciding with the very moment of India’s independence from British colonial rule. A decade later, Ghana was also granted independence at midnight on 6 March, 1957. We in Nigeria also received our so-called independence on 1 October 1960. In a manner of speaking, we are all midnight’s children.

One of the caricatures made about we Africans is that, like children, we never think about tomorrow. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was a famous Franco-German missionary doctor who spent a whole lifetime serving poor wretched Africans in the primeval tropical forest of Gabon. His remains are buried in the famous hospital that he built at Lambaréné, by the famous Ogowe River. Schweitzer was a Nobel laureate and was one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century; a friend of such illustrious personages as Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell. A great universal genius, Schweitzer earned 4 doctorate degrees in medicine, philosophy, theology and music. Schweitzer used to be one of the great heroes of mine during my growing up years. A Gabonese friend who comes from Lambaréné told me that when he was a child, whenever he was sick he was taken to Doctor Schweitzer who would give him an injection and thereafter give him some sweets to placate him. He remembers him as a kindly old doctor.

Albert Schweitzer infamously described Africans as “children”. In his book, At the Edge of the Primeval Forest (A. C. Black, 1924), he writes: “The Negro is a child, and with children nothing can be done without the use of authority. We must, therefore, so arrange the circumstances of daily life that my natural authority can find expression. With regard to the Negroes, then, I have coined the formula: ‘I am your brother, it is true, but your elder brother’.”

To describe the denizens of the cradle of humanity itself in that manner is, without doubt, one of the greatest racial put-downs of the millennium. But, at the risk of offending the sensibilities of my readers, I am constrained to admit that Schweitzer had a point.

A group of scientists at Oxford recently conducted some experiments on babies drawn from all over the world and across all the races and ethnicities. They made the discovery that babies all over the world, and regardless of race, gender and socio-economic background, have the same cognitive abilities. It is only much later in life that marked differences begin to emerge. But that’s not the issue right now.

One universal attribute of children the world over is inability to think about tomorrow. Perhaps the neurological structure of a child’s brain is never arranged in such a manner that allows them to think in terms of planning systematically for tomorrow. Neuroscientists tell us that the faculty that controls the capacity for ballistics is the same as the faculty that controls speech. Ballistics is a complicated field that requires complex mathematics and ability to think ahead. Such a faculty remains the province of adults. This is why, no sooner have you given a child a birthday or Christmas gift than they are already thinking of when the next one will be. Children’s concept of time is rather limited. This is why they think more often in terms of the here and now.

Culturally and cognitively, Africans are like children in their collective inability to think and plan for tomorrow. Part of the reason for this state of affairs is, quite simply, evolutionary biology. Humans in Africa emerged in a warm, hospitable ecology. Unlike the Europeans, our ancestors did not have to wrestle to survive bitter icy winters. And we did not have an inhospitable environment that would force us to remain indoors to meditate on the conditions and prospects of the human race as did René Déscartes or Thomas Hobbes. The eco-system in which our ancestors lived and flourished was a warm tropical climate that allowed all sorts of fruits to grow in the wild. Man and nature learned to cohabit in a kind of symbiotic equilibrium.

A few years ago I went on an excursion with a group of friends in the interior of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I saw nature in virgin, pristine form. It was the closest I ever came to imagining what the Garden of Eden must have been like. It’s an ideal, even if receding, world for the ancient tribes that have inhabited the Congo for millenniums. In such a world, there is hardly any necessity to worry let alone plan, for tomorrow.

But that is no justification for our collective as Africans to envision a better future for our more than 1.2 billion people on the continent. Since the 16th century, our continent has been forcibly integrated into the global trading and financial system. For better or worse, we are enmeshed in an increasingly integrated global marketplace, with all its opportunities and perils. For more than 400 years, our continent has been the playing field of Empires: slavery, gunboat diplomacy, colonialism and the shadowy world of the vultures and jackals of imperialist inspired wars and viral epidemics. As we enter the third decade of our new millennium, I prophesy that the emerging world order will be even more dangerous and more threatening for Africans. We are entering a new era in which global power elites will rob us of our freedom and hard-won sovereignty through all manner of subterfuge and chicanery. The Anti-Christ will clothe himself in the garb of a highly enlightened genius and internationalist who will convince us that he is fighting for a higher global interest. In reality, he will be a millennial despot who will rob people of their liberties and collective dignity.

What worries me is when we Nigerians and the rest of Africans will stop behaving like children. The Indians and Chinese have understood these mysteries decades ago. They have made plans to overcome poverty, build prosperous societies and create strong nations that can withstand the machinations of iniquitous world powers. I believe that our country Nigeria, together with South Africa, has been ordained by destiny to embody the hope and aspirations of the African peoples. If we make it, there will be hope for the black race. If we don’t, I’m afraid, our continent is doomed.

This is all the more reason why the coming presidential elections in Nigeria will be so decisive for our destiny as a people. We need a new leadership that is purposeful and focused. We need avant-garde statesmen who understand the imperatives of building a one trillion dollar globally competitive economy anchored on human capital development, abundant electricity, world-class infrastructures and an agriculture-based mass industrial revolution. We must create a New Nigeria based on the foundations of democracy, solidarity, genuine nation building, the rule of law, enlightenment and civilisation.


Obadiah Mailafia


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