Wednesday, 5 August 2015

How Albert Camus aptly captured Nigerian Politics in his Theory of Absurd Life

By Niyi Akinnaso
When Algerian-born French writer, journalist, and philosoph[post_ad]
er, Albert Camus, propounded the theory of the absurd life about 70 years ago, his concern was never about Nigeria but about the human condition in general.
He wanted to explain the existential opposition that arises from the human demand for hope and meaning from a hopeless and meaningless “cosmos”, one that is indifferent to our sufferings and deaf to our protests. In effect, Camus argues, the absurd is the product of a confrontation between our human desire for order, meaning, and purpose in life and the stark indifference of our cosmos, a cosmos defined largely by the political class.
By the absurd life, Camus is referring to the meaninglessness and hopelessness of our existence, as illustrated, for example, by Samuel Beckett in his famous play, Waiting for Godot, in which two characters wait endlessly and in vain for someone named Godot. But Camus did not stop there; he also proposed three possible ways of dealing with the absurd life, namely, suicide; religious escape; and revolt. I shall return to these recommendations later.
It is fascinating how Camus’s theory accurately explains the absurd life in contemporary Nigeria as well as the people’s reactions to it. True, the absurd life is experienced to a lesser or greater extent in every country. What is unique about Nigeria is its scope and intensity because the Nigerian cosmos has been excessively polluted by a political class which has made life meaningless and hopeless for everyone but its members.
In “Nigerian politicians and the myth of Sisyphus” (The PUNCH, May 8, 2009), I invoked the theory of the absurd life to critique our politicians’ behaviour during the infamous Ekiti State governorship election re-run when they engaged in precisely the same electoral malpractices that led to the re-run in the first place. Their behaviour on that occasion recalled the mythical Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to the endless repetitions of the same task of rolling a rock up the mountain only to see it fall back to the bottom, whence he began the same task afresh.
The theory of the absurd life is even more applicable today as Nigeria engages in a free fall due to the endless repetitions of the same mistakes and maladies. Events within the last three months alone reveal three major recurrent maladies, which have intensified the meaninglessness and hopelessness of life for Nigerians. They are: corruption; road and air accidents; and wanton acts of terrorism.
The conviction and sentencing in London of a former Delta State Governor, James Ibori, began the present cycle of high profile corruption cases. You would have thought that the universal condemnation of corruption that followed would be a deterrent. Not for Nigerian politicians and public officials. We’ve since had numerous cases of corruption, including the Police Pensions Scheme fraud; the petrol subsidy fraud; the bribery scandal associated with the House of Representatives’ probe of the Fuel Subsidy management; the Nigeria Stock Exchange fraud; and the corruption scandal associated with the House probe of same. Imagine how motorable and safe the Lagos-Ibadan and Sagamu-Benin Expressways would have been were the trillions of naira involved in these corruption cases deployed to their repair and maintenance.
This leads to the second recurrent malady – the wanton termination of innocent lives on the roadways and in the air. Statistics show that life is meaningless on Nigerian roadways. According to government’s data, 80 per cent of all reported injuries in the country are incurred on the roadways. At least 162 per 100,000 deaths are due to road traffic accidents. It is no wonder then that Nigeria records the second highest rate of road traffic accident fatalities among the 193 or so countries in the world. In addition to lives, huge sum of money is lost in road traffic destruction every year, while valuable man-hours are wasted daily in traffic jams.
The outcome is not any better with air traffic as recently demonstrated by the Dana Air plane crash, which killed all 153 on board along with at least 10 others at the crash site. It was just one of many such airplane crashes in recent years, which have claimed over one thousand lives. Going by the volume of traffic, Nigeria has the highest rate of airplane crashes within its airspace. Operators’ greed is as central to the problem as is official complicity and neglect.
The third malady is recurrent cycles of violence, ranging from religious and ethnic clashes to election protests and outright civil war, each leaving an indelible scar on our national psyche. The end of the civil war in 1970 heralded mass joblessness and unguarded ammunition. What followed was rampant armed robbery, which continues to contribute to the absurd life. The prolonged Niger Delta crisis left a negative legacy of kidnapping for ransom, even after the militants had been placated by an amnesty deal. Today, our lives are further complicated by religious fanatics turned gun trotters and suicide bombers, killing innocent lives in churches, mosques, schools, police stations, and major public venues. That’s why Nigerians today are insecure at home, at work, on the road, and even in the air.
When deficits in other sectors, particularly health care, education, and power supply are factored in, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to escape the absurd life in Nigeria. Camus would have agreed that this situation results directly from the interaction of the political class with our cosmos. Our natural endowment of oil and gas resources was greeted with greed, leading to endemic corruption throughout all branches of government as well as the financial and business sectors. The struggle for power by the elite fractionalised along ethnic and religious lines led to it-is-our-turn-to-eat syndrome and a grab-grab mentality by whichever group is in power. The result is the absurd life we now live. The question now is what to do?
This is where Camus’s three recommendations apply. Not surprisingly, Nigerians have employed all three, some more intensely than others. First, some Nigerians have taken to suicide because they could no longer deal with the absurd life. However, Camus condemns suicide as a cowardly act whose purpose is only to evade the absurd life.
His second recommendation, religious escape, is very popular with Nigerians. Our polluted cosmos is dotted with churches and mosques, which provide false sanctuaries for many a helpless Nigerian. But Camus equally rejects religious escape as a fraudulent solution that only seeks to replace the offending world with a metaphysical one. He views a supernatural solution to the absurd life as “philosophical suicide”, which is as self-destructive as physical suicide.
It is the third recommendation, revolt, which Camus endorses. Revolt in his usage could be physical or metaphysical. The former involves physical protests, which may or may not be violent, while the latter involves defiant acceptance of the absurd life. Both types have been employed in Nigeria. On the one hand, militants, terrorists, and election protesters have employed violent protests, while pressure groups have employed nonviolent protests as we saw during the subsidy protests. On the other hand, the vast majority of Nigerians have adopted metaphysical revolt by pushing on even harder than they complain about their helplessness in an unhelpful political and economic environment.
This leads to two big questions: First, why does the Federal Government continue to play deaf and dumb in the face of the absurd life? Second, for how long could the masses cope with the absurd life without engaging in direct physical revolt? If and when they do, they should know that they have a friend in Albert Camus, and even more friends in the Arab world.
This article was first published on July 3, 2012 but reproduced today because of its relevance to current realities in the country.



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