Justice Ayọ Salami and Nigeria’s Moral Burden, By Adeolu Ademoyo

Adeolu Ademoyo

“…Nigerians do not naturally want the truth to be told. Whoever dares to tell the truth is marked for destruction…” Justice Ayọ Salami (Lagos, Nigeria, January, 2014).

As a teacher, I am often interested in the meaning of words and how words sometimes say more than what we mean, and how words might mean more than what we say.   This is the case with Justice Ayọ Salami’s recent characterization of “the Nigerian”. Mr. Ayọ Salami is not an ordinary person. He was a judge of the Federal Court of Appeal. Therefore, I will take him seriously for I think he knows what he says.

As an old judge who belongs to the old tradition of scholarly rigor, Salami would know the origin of ideas and how these ideas affect human actions. At the 10th Gani Fawẹhinmi Annual Lecture recently in Lagos he asserted: “…Nigerians do not naturally want the truth to be told…” Two words, “naturally” and “truth,” are relevant in his assertion because what sustains a family, and a country, are the untruth we defend publicly and privately, and the truth we refuse to uphold publicly and privately.

Though Justice Salami was addressing a specific issue, his claim is a trope that helps unravel “the Nigerian” persona. On reading him, my mind ranged through the scope of Nigerian, and African history. Was Justice Ayọ Salami right that “…ordinary Nigerians do not naturally want the truth to be told…?

Ayọ Salami has unconsciously touched a crucial issue; the question of ethics for truth saying is often bounded with ethics-at least in African thought. He was talking about the ordinary Nigerians—you and I. If Ayọ Salami is right, it may mean that the “Nigerian character” is “un-ethical” about certain things that require saying the truth.  This is grim.

But take the amalgamation, the struggle for independence—who did what and who did not do what? Take the unfortunate civil war—who did what, who did not do what, how was the story told, by who and to whom? Take how we ignorantly and with prejudice account for the leadership strength and vision of Nigerian political and historical leaders, our founding mothers and fathers –past and present without having read their books thoroughly.

The Nigerian will make voluminous categorical pronouncements on Tafawa Balewa, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Margaret Ekpo, Funmilayo Kuti, Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello etc. But ask him/her if they have read any book written by these founding mothers and fathers where their thoughts are contained they look askance. But how do they know what they claim? Obviously from ethnic hearsay, and not independent reading!

So is there a reason that in spite of the fact that some of them are recognized world leaders and thinkers in their own individual rights, none of them is a national hero in Nigeria?

Let us introspect a bit, and look within our minds to the seat of ideas.  Can the fact that none of these men and women is national heroes today in Nigeria be accidental? Ethno-national blinkers may be the reason there is some truth in Ayọ Salami’s assertion with regard to matters beyond what he said. It seems obvious then that ethnie [the essential, irreducible element in ethno-nationality] ultimately defines ethics in Nigeria, hence we naturally do not want to say the truth, and are incapable of imagining heroes and heroism if it does not come from our ethnic group.

We are searching for “our Mandela” our hero, but because we are incapable of saying the truth, we are scared to look within because the “Mandela”, the hero we will see will not fit our ethnic expectations, after all, for us, ethnie is the driver of our ethics!

Again, take the issue of corruption, by presidents, Governors, ministers, local government chairpersons, government officials etc. Take how our politicians forge certificates.  Take how our ministers claim degrees they never have etc. Take the defense of such or explanation of such on ethnic grounds by ordinary Nigerian folks that Ayọ Salami talked about.

In all these cases, you will see the legendary natural tendency of the “Nigerian” to evade the truth.  This is what I call “The Forged Certificates, The Relativity of Truth in Nigerian History.”  It is all around us.  All you need do is take any book, or literature, on Nigerian history, and you see such blatant relativisation of, and retreat, from truth.  The truth about Nigerian history and events are often narrated privately to children and publicly from a standpoint such that we naturally we evade the truth because in most cases the ethnie defines our ethics!   “X is good because X belongs to Z’s ethnic group” or “Y is being said to be corrupt because of Y’s ethnicity”.

At least someone has put a dark humor on this grim natural tendency, this characterization of “the Nigerian.”  He is no other than Dokubo-Asari.  Rationalizing the theft in the oil industry, Dokubo-Asari asked how anyone could call taking what rightly belongs to the Niger Delta person an act of theft or corruption! In other words, according to Nigerians of this frame of mind, the corruption under President Jonathan is not corruption because the act and art of stealing public money is taking what rightly belongs to those who take it.

Justice Ayọ Salami might have unknowingly touched something important and hidden. To naturally evade the truth may mean, it is in the nature of the way things are constituted. We need to therefore look into how those things have been constituted.

If Justice Salami is right, it gives fillip to two types of skeptics (i) about the possibility of Nigeria and (ii) about doing public good in Nigeria because the philosophically muted, the philosophical un-said, drills deep in the definition of reality.

However on truth, Ayọ Salami is not all skepticism. He betrays a Heidegerian streak when he concludes,  “… history and posterity will bring out the truth and eventually unravel what went wrong in the fullness of time…” This is the errancy in truth; that is to say we continue to struggle with it, to reach it.

But there must be a space for this pursuit to happen hence Salami’s deep moral that “…The elite must have a rethink if Nigeria is not going to collapse.” In other words, truth is when it is a nation.  This must set everyone thinking. What do you think?

Adeolu Ademọyọ  aaa54@cornell.edu is of Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.


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