In Praise Of Mediocrity

I have been fortunate to have done quite a bit of overseas travel compacted over the summer months and coincident with the long holiday break in the school calendar.  As I look back, exhausted and trying to catch my breath inside the salt mines of Lagos, I realize that all the trips I took were somehow related to a venture quest of sorts in search of knowledge. It seemed as if the Universe had pleasantly conspired to temporarily take me out of the stridently anti-intellectual maw that is Nigeria, intent on giving me some fresh perspectives to appraise this glorious country hell bent on self destruction.

Not to want to further antagonise the teeming Nigerian philistines out there, I will only say that I variously attended an executive course in Southern California at the home of the Trojans, and then a month thereafter, I attended my reunion at The Farm in Palo Alto.  However, the icing on the cake was my recent ‘Sea to Sky’ trip to Whistler in Vancouver to attend a TED Fellows Retreat. It is really difficult to convey the experience of spending five glorious days of fun, games and serious stuff (yes serious stuff) interacting with 200 of some of the smartest, creative and over achieving people on this planet with the common denominator and currency being only ideas; precisely ‘ideas worth spread.’ (See for more serious stuff)

At one point in swank down town restaurant over some robust red wine and canapés, I found myself blissfully trapped in a clutch of physicists discussing the ‘nature of reality’ which I was told consisted of particles and force fields, which somehow elegantly all comes together in the quantum field theory. Since then I have not contemplated my big toe or looked at my hand in quite the same way.

In another appropriately vertiginous moment swaying in a ski-lift gondola precariously wending its way up the Whistler Mountain was another interesting encounter with a space-bound biologist. He had just returned from leading a four-month NASA mission cloistered in a mock Martian terrestrial base station, totally cut off from humanity and situated at the craggy and inhospitable mouth of a volcano in Hawaii, all the better to simulate living on the red planet.

Another more down to earth presentation was one on new and cheap waste human management technologies being deployed in parts of East Africa, with presenter gleefully and with mischievous twinkle in his eyes describing his erudite scatology as ‘talking shit.’  In the African discussion forum, some of the discussion centred on the absurdities of Pan African integration, specifically on why it is so difficult for Africans to visit each other in their respective countries partially because of visa restrictions that in some countries are entirely waived for western countries.

For the handful of Nigerians who managed to overcome the Canadian visa ‘wahala’ to make it to the event, we would periodically huddle to discuss, (in between the many interesting work and recreation activities) well, what else, Nigeria. The consensus was that the Nollywood and increasingly Afrobeats and Naija Hip Hop music were the only global products that Nigeria currently produces.

True, but what about our human and intellectual capital residing mostly in our far-flung Diaspora? In the United States for example, year on year, Nigerians emerge as the immigrant group with the highest educational attainment. Loosely translated, it means that Nigerians in the US are among the most highly educated people living and working in that country and the same can be said for Nigerians in other parts of the western world.  We have everybody from that urban legend, the Nigerian Ph.D. driving a cab in Boston, to yes, actual rocket scientists, respectively eking out a living and contributing to putting man on Mars. And in my own experience, some of the smartest people I have encountered in my life have been Nigerians.

Since my return back to earth from the rarefied parallel universe that is the TED Ecosystem, I have been pondering this paradox. Precisely, how such a country so rich in human capital can be so, so poor in its management of itself, lead in the main by a cabal of self-important and mediocre carpetbaggers? How, and equally important, why?  After a long head scratching session I have come up with some ideas, and with your kind permission, I will share some of them.

As any international traveller will readily attest to, the moment you cross the airport threshold into Nigeria, you are immediately transported into a refracted, reality-bending universe, in which some of the known laws of Newtonian physics do not apply. Welcome, you have just entered the Nigerian Reality Distortion Field (RDF) in which aforementioned particles and fields are arranged in a counter-intuitive and illogical matrix that constantly defies plain common sense or science. In this pre-rational, and pre-scientific chaotic world, the rule of thumb is to understand that a straight line is NOT the shortest distance between two points as previously thought, well, so much for Euclidean geometry.

To understand this world is to have a native and intuitive grasp of quantum physics, and I hasten to add, ‘Nigerian’ quantum physics. Since Nigerians seem to have wilfully created their own version of reality, separate and apart from the rest of the rational world, anyone who enters this reality distortion field must understand that Nigerians do not really believe that the laws of physics apply to them.

As I pondered deeper as to why and how we got to this stage of our underdevelopment, it occurred to me that beneath all the chaos, bluster, and our hidebound ignorance about our true state of being, we were actually a product of the Darwinian logic of natural selection. Let me explain. According to a handy definition, natural selection is the process in nature by which, according to Darwin’s theory of evolution, only the organisms best adapted to their environment tend to survive and transmit their genetic characteristics in increasing numbers to succeeding generations while those less adapted tend to be eliminated.

Aha! My Eureka moment! So what we have in Nigeria today are organisms (read Nigerians) that have fully adapted to this environment and they are breeding and creating more of their kind to the detriment of other organisms that are eliminated or if lucky escape to more hospitable climes. In my books this explains why there are so many smart and capable Nigerians living abroad. Now for the rest of you stubborn, hardy and thinking organisms that remain in Nigeria constantly befuddled by life in the reality distortion field there are a few things you need to know.

Lesson one. Please understand that presently Nigeria is trapped in the full crushing grip of a venal, capricious culture of mediocrity that eschews ideas, enlightenment or reason.

This seems to be the key genetic characteristic that is being transmitted to the present and succeeding generations. The present Nigerian political system is actually a ‘Mediocracy,’ which is a government of the mediocre, by the mediocre and for the mediocre.

Lesson two. Nigeria’s ‘Mediocracy’ is part of an evolutionary political process that started some one hundred years ago in 1914 and matured at independence. It is the transitional bridge between the familiar ‘Kleptocracy,’ which is a government of thieves and its ultimate evolutionary destination, which is a ‘Kakistocracy,’ sadly a government by the worst elements of society.

 In cold harsh light of this reality, what is a self professed thinking man to do? Well, now that I have a better understanding of Nigeria’s ‘Mediocracy,’ I have decided to renounce any pretensions to being a man of ideas. Henceforth, there will be no lofty transformational ideas, no intellectual thoughts or discussions, and certainly no writing about stellar ideas worth sharing-at least not when in Nigeria. To complete my apostasy, I want to join the rousing chorus of tens of millions of Nigerians in the fulsome praise of meritocracy, sorry, mediocrity.

Original Post Appeared on The Guardian


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