Nigeria: The Struggle Between Ethical Principles and Morbid Selfishness

Published on 2nd February 2015


This paper discusses the apparent drowning of Communalism - a social order largely based on the values of communal, rather than selfish individual well-being; a drowning by Materialism - a doctrine that explicitly espouses the pre-eminence of personal well-being and material possessions as the greatest good and highest values in life.It examines two opposing views: the first is that of the so-called optimists – the superficial cultural enthusiasts – who take note only of material culture and hold the view that changes in these are not only inevitable but are imperative for national development and progress; the second is that of the so-called pessimists – the profound cultural enthusiasts – who hold that though change may be imperative for material progress, it can lead to acquiescent imperialism which often breeds wild and unjustified aspirations that always sidetracks fairness and equity, national harmony and development. Therefore, to ensure that it does not create more problems than it can solve, change - which is almost always a double-edged sword - should be predicated on “an order of human values” (Weaver, 1964), not on the lure of materialistic progress. The paper hopes that the discussion and critical examination of views on the topic will lead to advancing a possible answer each to the questions: Are Communalistic principles irrelevant in a developing Nigeria?  And in the struggle between Ethics and Morbid Selfishness, where do the media and the Intellectuals stand?


Whenever large-scale tendencies are being examined, facts taken from a superficial level and facts taken from a profound one may conflict or point in opposite directions. Weaver (1964)

About fifty years ago, Richard Weaver said emphatically that irrespective of differences of opinions on the realities involved, no one could deny that there was widespread discussion of the decline of Western culture.  Today, that statement fits, in one very important respect, what is happening about the culture or cultures of Africa. The same sentiment about cultural decline that was felt in Europe, is in the air (in Africa) in Nigeria. There is conspicuous evidence of decline in our culture; and there is substantial change in people’s perspectives about the culture-change interpreted by one group as progressive, but by the other as retrogressive.  However, there is hardly any sustained serious discussion on the topic – not even by intellectuals or by the media. What one mostly hears and sees around the nation, are laments of surrender and shoulder shrugs of despair from a very small minority of citizens; and shouts of progress and breath-sapping rat-race for material possessions from the majority. There is a generalized hunger for anything modern, and an immediate and a near-thoughtless approval of any move to discard old ways of thought and behavior in preference for the new and the modern.

Communalism – the cultural social order of Africa and of more than half of the world, has lost its pride of place in many African countries especially in Nigeria. Many people in this country (where this cultural dimension had existed for centuries) now see it as an anachronism; they insist that it has no place in the modern world where achievement rather than ascription, rugged individualism rather than communal principles, and open and selfish free expression rather than socially ordered way of expression imbued with implied meanings, are now the rules. These modernity-conscious citizens question not only the ‘status’ of communalism which is the foundation of an orderly and community-conscious interaction and community welfare, but they also question the functional relevance of this social order in today’s Nigeria which is in the strong grip of individualism, morbid selfishness and “unrestrained” pursuit of material wealth. For them, this ensuing change is in line with modern perspectives, and therefore is not only inevitable but imperative. But, as Weaver (1964: p.5) has ruefully pointed out, these ‘optimists’ hold strongly to the belief that –

The properly constituted man shuns the red-blooded attitude towards things; he goes along with changes because he realizes that change and progress are the law of life and that, although some valued institutions may be disappearing they will more than be made up for by new ones that are in process of creation.

Silently implied in Weaver observation, is the question: How socially valuable are the institutions and behaviour patterns being created?

These ardent modernists proudly point to what they see as all that development is about – well-paved roads, (where they can be found); ownership of cars, radio and television sets, industrial establishments, schools, colleges and universities, skyscrapers and expensive housing estates….and they wonder why anyone in his/her right mind should complain about modernity, and about the changes in cultural perspectives that have made it possible. The youths, in particular, are extremely elated by what they have called ‘escape from the tyranny of tradition’ and they rejoice over the popular acceptance of the carefree “freedom” which the new perspective has made possible – the freedom which has allowed them to think freely for themselves and to do what they think and feel is good for them, paying little or no attention to impact or consequences on society.

Opposing this ‘optimistic’ view and behavior towards solely socio-economic change devoid of positive socio-cultural base is a small group of citizens - sarcastically referred to as the “pessimists” - who are concerned with the fundamental issue of the good of society and the importance of value. They agree with the Second Vatican Council that “when the scale of values is disturbed and evil becomes mixed with good, individuals and groups consider only their own interests, not those of others.” And   they argue that the optimists have taken their facts from the superficial level of the socio-economic and cultural environment, ignoring the profound level, which takes an order of human values into account. Holding strongly to the view that communalistic social order is not antithetical to change and progress, they warn that ‘change’ for the sake of change, especially change motivated by morbid selfishness, burning desire to take advantage of the other person, and the marginalized, and the lure of materialism, is insidiously dangerous, and inevitably leads to socio-cultural and economic decadence.

The type of change which they support include those that have already been made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to wit - stoppage of human sacrifice, ownership of indentured slaves, the subjection of widows to unsanitary conditions for months or even years after the death of their husbands; the denial to women, of the right to leadership or to participate in the government of the community or to own property, and the acceptance of formal education and healthcare services – to mention a few. These changes and many others are seen as justified because the mere fact that something exists gives it no special claim to value. Any claim to value must be determined by level of relevance and depth of utility based on socially approved ethical standards.

These culture-and-value-conscious individuals – who are the so-called ‘pessimists’ - agree that strict traditional anachronism has no place in  today’s world; and they acknowledge that there has been marginal material and physical improvement to both the environment and the living conditions of the people. But they argue that such improvements could still have been made without abandoning completely the basic principles of the people’s socio-cultural imperatives. The material progress made would have been quantitatively higher and qualitatively better if sufficient relevant elements of the imperatives of traditional culture as opposed to acquiescent culture had been taken into account. The socio-economic and political progress we have made would have been very much higher if a very substantial part of the nation’s financial resources had not been mismanaged and/or cornered into private pockets. No wonder more than three-quarters of the nation is still very rural, and the number of Nigerians living in abject poverty is increasing rather than decreasing.

Ladies and Gentlemen – intellectuals of media training and media practice - educate me: which of the above-mentioned deplorable conditions in the country have the media or the intellectual community tackled with the force and sincerity of media advocacy?  We have become, as Bishop KUKAH has pointed out, “a society with very poor record of robust intellectual engagement and debate over crucial issues of national importance.” Yes, we talk about these issues but only when calamity strikes; then, we give some news items and one or two news-talks – but hardly any sustained intellectual debate, Commentaries or News Analysis. Then we forget about them until another calamity (God forbid) strikes.We seem to forget that the media are not only watch-dogs for the government; they are also watch-dogs of the government. This implies that, in their service to the nation, the media are required to strike a happy balance between the government’s right and duty to govern and the people’s right to know and to be treated fairly and equitably. This is particularly important for the marginalized population, for whom “to know” is not just to be told, but to be well-informed so as to understand. They are looking not just for mere information but for communication on the information they have received and those they have made available about themselves, their needs and aspirations and their views and opinions about the nation.

Today, the media generally dump information and messages on the people especially the rural marginalized majority. They show and publicise life in developed countries, glossing over the underpinning sacrifice, actions and behaviour that facilitated what they show and tell the people about, thus leaving the people “each to count his/her own teeth with his/her own tongue”, that is, to go get it. As a result, the media unwittingly create rising aspirations without substantive information on how to honestly obtain the resources to meet those aspirations. They seem to forget that when a people borrows from another culture, they instinctively always lay emphasis on the visible factors (the flesh of the culture) and not on the invisible underlying and sustaining factors (the soul of that culture), thus ignoring the individual and community sacrifices behind the visible. 

The inevitable consequence of borrowing what has been referred to as the “chaff” of a foreign culture without taking cognizance of its “seed” has been failure of many national and individual development efforts and widespread national frustration - the spread of rising frustration with all its negative ramifications. In addition, material progress achieved in disregard of the entrenched cultural values within the socio-cultural environment in which the progress was made has always faced difficulties of sustenance and consolidation, while unwittingly creating more problems than it originally seemed to have solved.  We are all living witnesses! It is the essence of culture - any culture - to feel its own imperative and to believe in the uniqueness of its worth. 

To be continued

By Andrew A. Moemeka (Ph.D)
Professor Emeritus, Department of Mass Communication
Covenant University, Ota, Nigeria.

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