My first introduction to formal logic was Lionel Ruby’s The Art of Making Sense, just after secondary school. To illustrate the logical fallacy of ‘petitio principii’, commonly called ‘begging the question’, or the fallacy of the circular argument, he related the story of the Jew who was bragging about his saintly rabbi to a sceptic. ‘My rabbi is so holy, he dances with angels at night,’ he said with eyes shining with enthusiasm.
‘Do you know this for a fact?’, the sceptic asked. ‘What if your rabbi is lying?’
Indignantly the Jew rounded on him: ‘How could a man who dances with angels at night possibly tell a lie?’
Now I don’t know if it is a fact that President Jonathan travelled to New York for the UN General Assembly with a mob of 600 hangers-on as reported by Sahara Reporters. I do know that it would take more, much more, than a combative denial by Reuben Abati to make me conclude that the story is false. I have not yet been brainwashed into believing whatever ‘Gofment’ says merely because ‘Gofment’ said it. I believe that as special Adviser to the President on Public Affairs he has access to key documents that would help him do his work, such as the manifest of the plane flights conveying the President’s team, which would effectively debunk the story carried by Sahara Reporters. If he chooses not to allow public scrutiny of such conclusive evidence, he can hardly blame us for choosing to believe that he and his paymasters have something to hide, until they prove the contrary. They simply do not have the reputation to require of us that we believe them just because they said so, like the Jew in the story, or Boxer on Animal Farm declaiming: ‘Napoleon is always right!’
As to why I lean towards not believing the government until they furnish hard evidence, another story is apposite. It’s told by Richard Wurmbrand (I forget which of his books). A Jewish rabbi was on trial for a serious crime, and his lawyer was was making a submission in support of his good character. ‘My Lord,’ the lawyer said. ‘My client could not have done something so wicked. He is a good man. To show you just how good he is, I will tell you a story they tell about him in the community. They say that once, he came to the synagogue only to find a thief sneaking out after having stolen money from the safe. He gave chase, but the thief refused to stop. In the end the rabbi called after him: ‘I’m not chasing you so as to deprive you of the money or to arrest you. God knows that if you were so desperate as to break into His house your need must have been great. I only wanted to stop you so as to give you the money you had taken, so that you would not be a thief. Take it, and go in peace.’ ‘
The judge asked the lawyer: ‘Do you believe this story?’
The lawyer answered: ‘Quite frankly, I do not.’
The judge was angry: ‘So why did you waste my time telling such a wild tale when even you do not believe it?’
The lawyer answered quietly: ‘Sir, nobody has ever told a story like that about me. I warrant that nobody has ever told a story like that about you. Why? Because if somebody tells a story like that about either of us, they would be laughed to scorn. Our characters do not accord with such goodness of heart. The only reason why this story is told about this man is that his character is such that it would be readily believed. He is the KIND OF MAN about whom such stories are told.’
And there’s the rub, dear government apologists. GEJ’s administration is the kind about which such wild stories of fiscal recklessness are readily believed, not out of malice (though I grant that there are people who have always hated him on sight) nor out of tribalism (though we are cursed with ethnic blinkers that prevent us from sincerely seeking the national good) but because the reputation he has established since acceding to the Presidency is one of wanton profligacy in the midst of widespread squalor. Pray how much can be wasted on this jamboree which could even compare with the billions budgeted for the constitutionally unrecognised office of the First Lady this year alone? That GEJ’s hotel accommodation is reported to cost $10,000 per night should not raise anyone’s B.P, set beside reports in 2007 that Aso Rock spends $50,000 per day on ‘Entertainment’.
You see, to disbelieve a thing merely because it is too senseless for a normal person to contemplate is a dangerous principle to apply when the alleged perpetrator is the Nigerian government. If you had not heard it from GEJ’s mouth himself, how many of us would have actually believed that the President spends NGN1 billion on feeding alone? The air of injured innocence they regularly put up when we show we actually believe the bizarre tales of wickedness and cluelessness told about them does not hang very well with the negative reputation they work so hard to establish about themselves, day by day. As my Yoruba elders would say: ‘Ko to ise e yin.’ It is well within your competence! Now when you try and convince me that you are other than your reputation tells me about you, without hard extraneous evidence to back it up, I stare at you blankly in disbelief. Precisely what kind of an idiot do you take me for? I disagree with Churchill when he said: ‘In war, truth is the first casualty.’ I actually think that the first casualty is commonsense, from my survey of Nigerian politics, for it is here that people expect you to suspend the exercise of your reasoning faculties in order to believe the crap they insist you must believe about them.
In the final analysis, I’m not too concerned about whether the precise number of the presidential retinue is 600 or if the government eventually proves it to be ‘only’ 550 (as my savvy FB friend Obinna Okoro so wickedly put it). The Nigerian government is what it is, and we know it for what it is, and they know that we know it for what it is, all protestations to the contrary. We are still faced with the monumental task we were faced with yesterday and the day before: retooling our power structure and leadership values in order to ensure that we the people are not regularly defrauded by public officials who are incapable of telling us the truth.
If I had some positive advice to give the President and his advisers it would be brief: ‘The first step in sincere image laundering is a simple one, but very effective – step out of the mud!’ But I fear to give it. I don’t enjoy conversations with the deaf, especially those to whom deafness is profitable. I will take refuge in the admonition of the Great Teacher though: ‘Those who have ears, let them hear’