Denying the Message and Villifying the Messenger, By Umar Yakubu

The human mind isn’t a terribly logical or consistent place. Most people, given the choice to face a hideous or terrifying truth or to conveniently avoid it, choose the convenience and peace of normality. That doesn’t make them strong or weak people, or good or bad people. It just makes them people. – Jim Butcher

In the social psychology of studying human behaviour in groups, there is a concept that describes a situation where large groups of people refuse to accept an empirically, verifiable, factual reality. That concept is called denialism. It’s basically the denial of overwhelming evidence of a matter. Of course, like most issues dealing with human behaviour, denialism is primarily caused by self-interest. It’s the primary motive that drives people to reject facts and figures.

Some decades ago, in South Africa, educated citizens, senior judges, academics, and even the then president denied that HIV existed. Thabo Mbeki, the then president, proclaimed that AIDS was caused by poverty. During his presidency, about 365,000 people died from the scourge because no action was taken. Estimates indicated that about 343,000 could have been treated with medication if there was no denial of the disease and its pathogen.

Recently, President Trump of the United States led a pack of people who denied a 1650-page report on climate change. Thirteen different well-funded federal government agencies had prepared the report. Despite all the evident adverse effects of climate change, about 85 per cent of Republicans still deny it, and hence there is no political support for the fight against global warming from the Presidency.

There are multiple kinds of denialists: From those who are skeptical of all established knowledge, to those who challenge one type of knowledge; from those who actively contribute to the creation of denialist scholarship, to those who quietly consume it; from those who burn with certainty, to those who are privately skeptical about their skepticism. What they all have in common is a particular type of desire. This desire for something not to be true is the driver of denialism. Denialism is not stupidity, or ignorance, or deception, or psychological pathology. Nor is it the same as lying. Of course, denialists can be ignorant. But, the truth is, denialists in Nigeria are people in a desperate predicament.

The current wave of denialism is on-going in some Sahel states of Nigeria. Some weeks ago, the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II gave a 21-minute talk about issues bedeviling a number of these states. He spoke, as usual, in a calm, coherent, logical, philosophical, intelligent and respectful way; on banditry, kidnapping, education, insecurity, unemployment, over-population, and highlighted the need for responsible parenting. What calls for concern is not the attack and backlash he got, but in what area. The denialists were more concerned about the issue of polygamy! Of all the things he said, they tagged him as hypocritical and withdrew him the right to speak on that since he was polygamous. No other issue was bad enough to draw their anger.

As with most denialists, denialism can be as simple as refusing to accept that someone else is speaking truthfully, and hence, the core issues were never discussed. Those that called for his head included educated people from all walks of life. People who know the value of research and statistics. Well, the statistics have not changed. The poverty index for Nigeria has a total of 11 indicators covering four equally weighted dimensions of Education, Health, Living Standards and Unemployment. We may decide to deny the research methodology used but the facts are undisputed.

The pervasive incidence of deepening poverty across the Sahel states goes as high as 80 per cent! Bauchi, Kebbi, Zamfara, Jigawa, Gombe, Katsina and Sokoto States all have more than 70 per cent of their population categorised as existing in abject poverty. Specifically, Zamfara’s lot is 92 per cent; Katsina, 82 per cent; Jigawa, 88 per cent; Gombe, 77 per cent; and Bauchi, 87 per cent, yet we think the main thing to discuss is the issue of polygamy! The most impoverished State in the South of Nigeria is Ebonyi, with a 56 per cent incidence, meaning that it would be the one with the least incidence if it were in the North. No other South-West or South-East state has up to 30 per cent of its people ethrenched in poverty and yet the Emir shouldn’t talk?

These are the statistics he wakes up to every morning and why he sees no reason for any leader or follower within the region to be happy. He sees thousands of helpless people every day with financial and medical requests. He has witnessed babies die because the family couldn’t afford N3000. The denialists want him to sell all his belongings and feed the poor to prove himself. Since most have poverty of the pocket and of the mind, they would prefer he comes down to their level, rather than aspire to exceed him. No matter what, Emir Sanusi has been consistent in his objective criticisms for more than 20 years and has fought and striven for solutions to many of our social malaise. He certainly does not need to publicise his contributions to society because many can’t comprehend his genius or methods. He owes no one any explanation and would certainly not defend himself because he has proved that with deep thinking, hard work, dignity and grace of God, one could accomplish all goals that one has set for himself. And in achieving his global laurels, he didn’t join the bandwagon of so many from the region who can only survive through a rent-seeking system, without any reasonable value addition to the North.

The truth is, AIDS is real and with no known cure yet, but concrete efforts are being made to crack its mystery. Climate change is real, and steps are being taken at the global level to address it. What is currently ravaging the North is worse than the duo. No need to offer statistics on the by-products of poverty, such as crime, here. The poverty statistics in the North are FACTUAL and most of the current political leaders are either in denial, benefitting from the situation, or lack ideas and competence to handle the situation. One recently, and irritatingly, brandished his four wives on the floor of the national legislature and boasted about having dozens of children. Ask them how they make a legitimate living or to prove their sources of income, and they will make claims of family inheritance. It is way overdue for the abolishment of the rent-seeking political system in the country. Also, remove the quota system and you will see that not all that glitters is gold. Without free access to public funds, most of our politicans and public servants cannot survive. For the North to be viable in a country where the South is growing faster, and the world is moving at a super-sonic speed, radical thinking, coupled with drastic changes, need to be activated. Sanusi is intellectually qualified to lead that thought process and press for change, for our own good.

Umar Yakubu is with the Center for Fiscal Transparency and Financial Crimes Prevention.

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