I was in the bar section of Nicon Hilton Abuja about a week ago to meet a friend. He had called just after a few minutes after my arrival at the hotel to apologize he would be about one hour or so late. That meant I had a lot of time to while away while waiting for his arrival.
As I waited over a glass of red wine, I found myself seated quite close to two gentlemen and a lady. I was not deliberately eavesdropping on their conversations but they were not helping matters by not keeping their voices low. From their dictions and the way they chose their words, they were apparently well educated and well- travelled.
One of the gentlemen, in resplendent designer suit, was talking about the crises that crisscross the country and was making allusion to a supposed American prediction that Nigeria would break up in 2015. “You need to read that book. I was very saddened for days after reading the book. The facts were there and their conclusions were based on facts”, the taller of the two men declared authoritatively. He also volunteered to lend the ‘book’ – I am not sure if he volunteered to lend it to the other gentleman with him or to the lady.
I nearly gate-crashed into the conversation but restrained myself, knowing it would be bad manners to do so.
The gentleman’s authoritative position on the supposed prediction that Nigeria would break up in 2015 however reminds me that there is hardly a day you do not have commentaries in leading Nigerian newspapers and the broadcast media about this phantom American prognosis. Prominent political leaders have keyed into the falsehood, using it when it suits them to showcase their contrived patriotism.
With the conflation of the current crises rocking the PDP, (which has led to the party splintering into two factions) and the aggressive permutations for the politics of 2015, more people are talking about this supposed American prediction.
But did America really make this prediction? The definitive answer is ‘no’.
I have decided to review the document on which this supposed American prognosis was extracted. The gentleman I mentioned earlier who talked about the ‘book’ where he read such and even promised to lend it to his companions simply lied through his tongue. There is no such book. What you have is a 17-page report, a summary of the outcome of a one-day conference of ‘US experts on Africa’ convened in January 2005 and sponsored by the country’s National Intelligence Council to discuss likely trends in Sub-Saharan Africa over the next 15 years. This document is freely available on the Internet and can be accessed by ‘Googling’, ‘Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa’s Future’.
But what do I hope to gain by defending America, especially now that with its impending intervention in Syria, it seems to be returning to its bad behaviour of playing the opportunistic global cop? This is not a defence of America. However by putting the record straight it enables us also to reflect on the processes we use in arriving at our version of truths – compared to the processes used to do so in other climes governed more by rationality. Whereas ‘rational’ societies place premium on critical inquiries in the search for truth, for us we seem to arrive at our own version of truth through what I will call ‘rumour factualization’ – you repeat one rumour or lie consistently enough and it suddenly becomes treated as both fact and truth– be it on our population figure, rate of inflation, number of people living below the poverty line or anything for that matter.
Back to the document, ‘Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa’s Future’. As indicated earlier, participants at the one-day conference of ‘US experts on Africa’ were asked to discuss likely trends in Sub-Saharan Africa over the next 15 years. Quite a number of the predictions were banal, and wouldn’t have required any knowledge of the emerging field of future studies by any average intelligent high school student to predict such. For instance on AIDS, it predicted: “Regarding AIDS, even with relatively optimistic assumptions about a vaccine and the roll-out of antiretrovirals (ARVs), it is clear that there will be very large increases in the number of people who will die in the next ten years given weak medical care distribution systems.”
Though the participants in the conference were obviously downbeat about Africa’s possibilities within the period under focus, they also discussed what they called ‘upside surprises’. These included a surprise improvement in the management of petroleum resources by the oil-producing countries in the continent, scientific advances in agriculture along the lines of those that helped Asia in the 1960s and 1970s and technological breakthroughs that would help to contain the scourges of AIDS, malaria and other infectious diseases.
The famous or infamous prediction about Nigeria breaking up in 2015 is on page 16 of the document under ‘downside risks’. Given the certainty with which many people believe a prediction was made, this is worth quoting in full:
“Other potential developments might accelerate decline in Africa and reduce even our limited optimism. The most important would be the outright collapse of Nigeria. While currently Nigeria’s leaders are locked in a bad marriage that all dislike but dare not leave, there are possibilities that could disrupt the precarious equilibrium in Abuja.
“The most important would be a junior officer coup that could destabilize the country to the extent that open warfare breaks out in many places in a sustained manner. If Nigeria were to become a failed state, it could drag down a large part of the West African region.
“Even state failure in small countries such as Liberia has the effect of destabilizing entire neighbourhoods. If millions were to flee a collapsed Nigeria, the surrounding countries, up to and including Ghana, would be destabilized. Further, a Failed Nigeria probably could not be reconstituted for many years—if ever—and not without massive international assistance.”
It is obvious from the above quote that what the participants did was scenario mappings – as opposed to arriving at a particular conclusion based on deductions from research. The outcome of any futures research (also known as futurology or futurism) and scenario mapping depends largely on the underlying assumption – change that premise and the conclusion changes immediately.
How quickly the tale of America’s supposed prediction of the break-up of Nigeria graduated into the ‘truth’, Nigerian style, reminds me of 1975 when I was in the final year in primary school at Onitsha. Rangers International of Enugu, the darling team of most Igbo at the time, had just been walloped 3-1 by Mehalla of Egypt. It was an exceedingly sad day in Onitsha and beyond with most people wearing sad faces. By the following day however, a consoling explanation had been found on why Rangers, were defeated so resoundingly. This ‘truth’ quickly spread: Rangers lost only because each time the goalkeeper Emmanuel Okala wanted to catch the ball, it would turn into five balls or an elephant, ensuring a goal would be scored whatever his effort. Each purveyor of the ‘new truth’ had ‘authoritative’ sources, with some claiming they heard so directly from ‘close friends’ of some Rangers’ players. Mehalla, in this narrative, had subdued Rangers with very powerful juju, and though there were no mobile phones then, this ‘truth’ quickly spread throughout Igboland.
Instances of ‘rumour-factualization’ in the country are legion: Not long ago there were stories that if you answered a call from a particular number you would die; that if you enter ‘Okada’ motorcycle and wore their helmet you would turn into a yam tuber, that if you shook someone’s hands, the person could mystically steal your manhood. Usually the purveyors of the tales would cite ‘authoritative’ sources – if the person did not claim being an eye witness to the event.
Now compare our process of truth discovery through ‘rumour factualization’ with just one instance of what happened in the United Kingdom in the 1950s when one ‘Dr Carl Kuon Suo’ was peddling a manuscript called Third Eye. Just before the manuscript was published by Secker & Warburg in 1956, its author changed his name to Tuesday Lobsang Rampa. In the book, which turned out to be an instant best seller globally, the author claimed to have been a lama in Tibet and narrated a purported experience of growing up in a monastery there from the age of seven. Dr Rampa also claimed that during that period a small hole was drilled into his forehead, which aroused his ‘third’ (or ‘inner’) eye, giving him very strong powers of clairvoyance.
The spirit of critical inquiry forced Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer and Tibetologist, to hire a private detective, Clifford Burgess, to investigate Dr Rampa and his claims. The detective was able to unmask Dr Rampa as Cyril Henry Hoskin, an Englishman who was born in Devon, and whose father was a plumber. It was also found that contrary to the claims in the book Mr Hoskin had never been to Tibet and spoke no Tibetan. Caught red-handed, Dr Rampa did not deny that he had been born as Cyril Hoskin, but claimed that his body was now occupied by the spirit of Lobsang Rampa. Curiously as an undergraduate in Nigeria in the 1980s, Lobsang Rampa’s Third Eye was a sort of fashion accessory to a certain category of students who claimed to be seeking spiritual enlightenment.