The idea that society and, by extension, government developed via what is called a Social Contract between the people and those who rule over them has been in philosophical musings for hundreds of years. The premise is simple; people in a society relinquish certain freedoms and controls, all agreeing to grant mighty powers to a person or group of persons, who then exercise that power not only on behalf of the citizens, but also on them. How or when this contract was signed hardly matters in this case, I just want to look at how the concept of a social contract applies to Nigeria.
In this first article, I will run through some of the ideas behind the social contract, as well as a couple of concepts that I think are interesting enough to be examined. In the next few articles, I will consider what exactly it means for the relationship between the Nigerian government and the Nigerian people if this social contract is indeed a thing.
A more in-depth explanation of what a Social Contract is, how the idea developed, and some of the interesting views by philosophical thinkers over the centuries is too much to go into here (Google is your friend). To surmise, though, two of the greatest proponents of the social contract philosophy are Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who both agree on certain things, but are very much polar opposites on others.
The most important distinction between them, for our purpose here, is that they disagree on (essentially) whether man is inherently good or evil. Hobbes espoused the position that without the state to rule over him, man is in a constant state of war with his fellow man and cannot therefore be trusted to do the right thing. He believed that it is the state which determines for man what is good or evil because man himself would simply spend his days attempting to exercise undue control over his fellow man. Locke disagreed, however, positing that we are all subject under natural law (nature, or a deity) and therefore we not only have some inalienable rights, but we also know intrinsically the difference between good and evil and are capable of choosing to do the right thing.
And now finally I can get to my point. If you look at this chart, I think that most people, like myself, would agree with some Hobbesian views, some Lockean views, and basically cherry-pick among them. But when you add up the sums at the end of the chart, where do you stand? Don’t answer, it’s a rhetorical question.
The Nigerian government, however, appears to be more Hobbesian by nature. I like to think that Locke’s views have had something to do with the presumption of innocence enshrined in the constitution where everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, in this country it works the other way around; you are always guilty until you can prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you are innocent. And even then, we will continue to watch you with suspicion. This ties in with Hobbes’ view that everyone is inherently evil and therefore cannot be trusted to not be plotting in their heart of hearts against others.
The irony here is that the same government which encourages us to believe in everyone’s evil nature and immediate guilt is made up of Nigerians just like us. But somehow, through the power of their office I guess, or maybe by their supernatural ordainment, they are always innocent and anyone who accuses them of wrongdoing is an agent of their “enemies.”
And so when your friendly neighborhood EFCC spokesperson calls out suspects in the national media, quoting incredible sums of money allegedly found and/or misappropriated by them, he/she is basically encouraging us all to realize that this person is clearly guilty of some crime. I say “some crime” because a lot of the time this drama takes place against people who have not even been charged to court yet and so are supposed to be innocent in the eyes of the law. But it’s not just the EFCC that employs such tactics; the Nigerian police also do it when they “parade” suspects in front of television cameras, telling us all that the men and women pictured are criminals, all the while ignoring the fact that only a court of law can decide who is or is not a criminal.
So the next time that the government, or any of its agents, attempts to draw you into believing that anyone can be presumed guilty or declared a criminal without ever having been so convicted by a competent court, I encourage you to recognize that the implication here is that you yourself have a desperately wicked heart and they are really just waiting for you to display the first signs so they can lock you up too. A little bit like a wild animal.
State of War
The one thing that both Locke and Hobbes seem to agree on, however, is that without the state acting as arbitrator of justice and securing the rights of every citizen, society will be chaos or in a “state of war.” That is to say, when the state fails in its duties to the citizens, it places each of us in a place whereby an act of infringement by our fellow man puts us in a state of war. It sounds far-fetched but, if you consider the instant mob violence that ensues when a thief is supposedly caught, or someone allegedly desecrates something holy, it would be hard to argue against the point. More on that in an upcoming article.
So anyway, while Hobbes declines to provide a solution for such a scenario (he believes the state should have absolute power, after all), Locke’s view is that it becomes the right, even duty, of citizens to revolt against the government and establish in its place one that does uphold their rights and freedoms. Through this Lockean lens one can begin to understand (though not necessarily sympathize with) the various secessionist movements and calls that have plagued Nigeria over the years and continue to do so. It is something the current administration would do well to consider the implications of as it fights to keep both the Southeast and Northeast in the fold, as well as the Niger Delta, who have grown increasingly disenchanted with the Buhari administration.
But leaving aside philosophical musings, as a matter of practicality you would want to reward, encourage or at the very least, show tolerance for, certain behaviors while at the same time punishing, discouraging or otherwise finding ways of making certain other behaviors to be less desirable to groups or persons. Like it or not, actions and utterances are symbolic as well. And so, by allegedly paying off murderers while at the same time completely ignoring lawful decisions of the courts, the government is declaring exactly what sort of dissent it will recognize and what sort will be faced with scorn.
“Your actions are screaming so loud, I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
Anyway, this is all just a preamble to lay some groundwork. In the next couple of articles we get to the fun part – what this all means in the everyday Nigerian context. If you’re the type that likes a little homework before the next class, I’m linking to some light reading below. Alternatively, you can go straight to the 2nd episode, where we examine further Nigeria’s broken social contract, and then to the final episode and our being in a state of war.