Authority and Incompetence, By Uddin Ifeanyi

At first glance, at the heart of the #EndSARS movement would seem to lie the process of reconfiguring the relationship between the individual and the state. How else do you explain the fact that the protest’s main target is the state’s main instrument for authoritatively allocating domestic values? Or the vehemence with which the police initially reacted to the protests? Either way, we end up being better served as a people, even if the minimum deliverable from the protests is simply to have drawn attention to how unacceptable the behaviour of some officers and men of the police’s special anti-robbery squad (SARS) was.

A much more efficient result of the protests would be the strengthening of individual rights against the claims of an increasingly overarching state. But given the prevalent consensus on the poor ethics of the SARS, why should this latter goal be difficult to achieve? Look deeper, though, and the ongoing protest extends our culture wars. A central principle of these is where one stands on the question of authority. As subordinates and or juniors, do we defer to it? Or insist that it must be earned? Argued this way, it is not just a question of ensuring that only the qualified get to exercise authority across the land. The argument is slightly more democratic. Insisting that only in such an environment may we tap the latent potentials of our circa 200 million people.

Incidentally, “youth against their elders” is but another way of describing a society’s take on questions of “authority”. And what “authority” is used for. If access to the totems of authority in any society is via a merit-based channel, then authority might better pursue utilitarian goals. Otherwise, the authority of the incompetent will end up promoting lickspittles, and robbing society of both resilience and robustness. In the present example, the police have oodles of authority by definition. And key elements of the force have used it to terrorise young people. In this, though, the Nigeria Police Force are not outliers. For the organisation of our spaces subsists on the denial to the weak and vulnerable of their basic rights.


One reading of this problem begins from the argument that the unequal relationship between our traditional values and Caucasian ones, that is one characterisation of the colonial experience, meant that the prevalence of the atomised view of individual rights and duties over the collective communal was going to breed such tensions. But if the leftovers of the collective communal that we advertise as native to our cultures are anything to go by, subservience to authority is not a chance occurrence, nor an unintended consequence of the clash of cultures underlining the colonial experience.

It is a leitmotif of our “cultures” that shows up most graphically in the “Oga” and “Baba” syndromes at work. The oga is the big cheese at work. And depending on the size of his ego, shows up at just about every cadre. There he’s the new “kabiyesi” – the one who can’t be questioned. His preferred mantra is to “obey first and complain later”, an ethos shamelessly borrowed from the military. The one charge with which he quells original thought is “insubordination”. And his ultimate aim is the zombification (apologies to Fela) of subordinates and juniors.

Since power flows not from a particular set of competences but from access to it, those who wish to make a “successful” career of the system have no choice but to describe a subservient relationship to power centres. In the end, innovation and enterprise choke to death. As does difference. The net result, especially at our formative stages, where primary school teachers use the “uniform” to squelch differences between kids, is that our society is doomed to operate at the level of its lowest common denominator.

About the Author: Uddin Ifeanyi is a journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

Source: Premium Times

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