One unfashionable discipline which has had the most profound impact on me is classics. It is a discipline I accidentally stumbled upon, got interested in, and took out time to study in-depth. At its base, it’s the study of humanity itself-our strengths and our weaknesses as humans, our frustrating mix of the best and the worst qualities, with every perplexing intellectual challenge thrown in for good measure. Far from being the preserve of the elite, classical studies are nothing less than the study of humankind, of all of us.
A case in point of classicism’s relevance is the present, perilous policy road that Nigeria has traveled down in regards to the growing spate of insecurity and poverty, the greatest political risk challenge of my generation. By wilfully and fatally focusing on the specific threat aspects of the ravaging insecurity and poverty to the exclusion of all else, Nigerian leaders have unwittingly made a terrible and real problem infinitely worse by ignoring its devastating impact on civil liberties, economic and social relations, and so on.
The ancient Greeks would have understood this. In Homer’s Odyssey, one of the main impediments confronting Odysseus as he doggedly endured his decade-long sojourn home was to confront the Scylla and the Charybdis, twin monsters guarding the Strait of Messina, separating Sicily from Calabria on the Italian mainland. According to the ancients, ships had to choose between veering toward the six-headed Scylla or maneuvering instead toward the whirlpool Charybdis. We’ve been to the exact location in Sicily where the monsters were supposed to live, and we’ve heard the wind howl in the dead of night, conjuring up the desperate choice ancient mariners were forced to make.
From the Odyssey’s mythos came the modern English expression “being between Scylla and Charybdis,” one of whose meanings is being forced to choose between two equally dangerous extremes; if a policy-maker concentrates too much on one, the other is sure to devour them. An expert decision-maker, like ancient mariners, must instead guide the ship of state between the two dangers as equidistantly as possible.
I don’t think any right-thinking person is in doubt of the dangers posed by the duo of insecurity and poverty. Although both problems have been with us for as long as I can remember, they seem to have gone from bad to worse over the past decade. These were challenges that built up gradually, and suddenly, the consequences are being felt across the length and breadth of the country. There is no doubt that all signs of balance, and the need for policy trade-offs, have been lost. Rising insecurity across the country has totally eclipsed not just poverty, but also a terrible lapse that will literally affect every single person living in the country for years to come.
A series of philosophical confusions have led to this abandonment of policy balance. A utopian preoccupation with living in a zero-risk insecurity and poverty bubble has directly led to massive social costs. Yet, in this irreligious age, there is a dangerous, growing belief that every problem, like risk, can be abolished by government fiat. Politicians, rather than leading, have scurried to meet this completely unsupportable philosophical view, hiding behind security, intelligence, economic, and development experts, who have overly dominated the overall policy trajectory of most developing states.
Nigeria’s approach to tackling the twin crises is no doubt the reverse of how the great Franklin Roosevelt, politically the most successful president of the United States of America (in the modern era), ran things. During the Great Depression, FDR would listen to various teams of experts – economists, labor and trade unions, politicians, and senior cabinet members – one after the other, and then weigh their various proposals, reaching a balanced policy output, as he knew that each, given their specific expertise, knew only one piece of the greater puzzle.
It was FDR, as the great generalist, who balanced these specific (and by design myopic) expert opinions to create a round, comprehensive, effective policy. This is disastrously the exact opposite of what has happened and is still happening in Nigeria today, where the so-called “experts” have been listened to as the gospel, despite the fact that they had no training in systems or complexity thinking approaches to solving what political scientists refer to as wicked hard problems.
Let’s be clear on one point. I am not saying that so-called “experts” should not have been listened to. I am not even saying that the ideas they put forward are not useful, or that all the most relevant measures to contain the twin problems should not have been implemented. In fact, I believe that all of the above, with the limitations I will discuss below, has been extremely useful in reducing the impact, including the death toll and socioeconomic dislocation, of the twin crises.
The point I am making is that policymaking now is far too much the exclusive preserve of experts in one field, making decisions that directly impact many. Listening to anyone’s expert or point of view to the exclusion of all others is a sure way to avoid Scylla and sail straight into the policy whirlpool that is Charybdis. And that is precisely what has happened, and is still happening.
Beyond these confusions, in an effort to decrease inter-generational and inter-regional tensions, Nigeria’s politicians (and policymakers) have been peddling the absurd philosophical notion that everything is under control or we are making progress, a statement that is simply not true, off the bat negating a number of effective policy alternatives that might have helped address the root cause of the problems, sparing the vast majority of the public the pains and hardships of the past years. But the public at large has shown itself to be shockingly ignorant of what statistics mean, the result of which makes it almost impossible to separate the very real dangers emanating from insecurity and poverty from more unsubstantiated fears. The result has been ill-informed policy choices or decisions that have further led to a serious diminution in civil liberties, economic disaster, and social peril for all citizens, irrespective of where they live, come from, or social class they belong to.