A second look at traditional African values and societal decay in Nigeria

Henry Chukuwuemeka Onyeama source
Lagos, Nigeria
Wednesday, January 9, 2007

Over the years (at least since the 1970s), it has become fashionable among social commentators to lament the decline, if not erosion, of traditional African values in modern Nigerian society, particularly among the youth. The widespread notion is that this situation is largely responsible for the social malaise plaguing our society. Thus a return to these ‘positive' values will commence the detoxification of our diseased social climate.

Are they correct? Given that the so-called traditional values are, in themselves, double-faced Janus this question is necessary. What you see is not always what you get and our hypocrisy will debar us from telling ourselves the truth.

First, what do these pundits really mean when they mouth the phrase ‘traditional African values'? Definition of terms is necessary if we are to avoid being muddle-headed. Honesty, hospitality, kindness, concern for family, etc. are by no stretch of the imagination exclusive to Africans. So what is so special we have lost and must regain for our society to move forward? Nigeria, let alone other African countries, is a tangled web of nationalities with different cultures and world-views. I am Igbo and it is not a positive value for me to allow anyone dictate to me or ride roughshod over me just because he or she is of royal blood. Another Nigerian from another cultural milieu might see things differently.

The clamour for positive African values by some self-appointed sentinels of our society is coloured by a romantic view of pre-colonial Africa (narrow it down to Nigeria). To these sentinels, the coming of the white man disoriented a glorious system of values embedded in rich tradition and custom. Maybe they have a point. But the coin has another side: our fathers killed twins in certain places; had caste systems in others; occasionally ate strangers and travellers in their domain; treated women like dung in some societies; and practised what we euphemistically label African Science. Nudity or near-nudity (which these traditional African cultural advocates blame on foreign importations like Big Brother Africa) was (and still is) a way of life in some of our ‘glorious' cultural settings.

Truly, the coming of the Europeans, to paraphrase Obierika, a character in ‘Things Fall Apart' ‘put a knife through the things that held us together and we fell apart.' But no civilization stands forever, and why could our ‘great' value systems not withstand the ‘oyibo' onslaught?

The bottom line of the current sad pass in our society lies in the following:

Generational conflict has always existed, but many Nigerians, especially elderly ones, dislike this fact. Those who bemoan contemporary ‘vices' like fashion styles, love for American music, easy sex before marriage, and the dubious romance with the internet had their own vices 30-50 years ago. Some of them eventually became worthy adults; some did not. Many of these pundits bestride our public life like the colossus. See the good they have done for Nigeria with their lifestyles of traditional African values.

These traditional values are at times foundations for our contemporary woes. One example: traditionally (at least in many pre-colonial Nigerian societies) the ‘Big Man' syndrome was supreme. The ‘Big Man' was powerful, rich and famous. He had all the titles. He appropriated the choicest of lands and the juiciest of women. True, there were correspondingly high standards expected of the ‘Big Man' but he was the lord, and the ultimate aspiration was to be like him or be in his shadow. Transport this traditional mindset into our contemporary society and you get disdain for the rule of law; ingrained belief by certain people that they are born to rule; treating of the national patrimony as a private estate, just to mention a few. The oil of foreign religion, education, commerce and government only greased the evil inherent in the ‘Big Man' syndrome. Go to our villages during the festive season and see how we worship the newest ‘Big Man' irrespective of his source of wealth.

The way most Nigerian men perceive women and even most Nigerian women see themselves in this age of Microsoft is rooted in our traditional values. Disparaging of the female folk is not solely African–even those who gave us Christianity and Islam twisted the words of Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammed to suit their prejudices–and records of the feats of Nigerian women in history are well known. However, many of the traditional values about men–women roles/places in the society, which we have carried into our time are, underlined by these assumptions:

The man is the lord and master, even when he does not deserve to wear the pants of authority;

Women should take anything from men in a spirit of humility;

Marriage defines a woman's status;

Childbearing is a woman's central vocation;

Customs and traditions must hem a woman in because she is potentially bad.

There are many others. Any wonder many Nigerian men are not at ease with the likes of Chimamanda Adichie, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Lara West, Ofunneka, etc. who repudiate these values.

Our conformism is rooted in a traditional mindset, which dared not break out of line, even if doing so will bring positive societal transformation. Who dared question the oracle's pronouncement back then? Even when they knew the decision was made by rapacious priests of an unjust idol? The elders spoke, the youths obeyed, case closed. Deviants got harsh desserts. Any difference in our times when people like Shehu Sani, Gani Fawehinmi and Ralph Uwazuruike are heralded to Golgotha because they dared have conviction? Conformism rooted in mindless religion and custom still hold us from breaking the shackles of oppression, and changing our destiny. Our copying of ‘oyibo' ways does not extend to the dare to question the wisdom and shackles of the ages.

Hypocritical cover-ups and hang-ups about sex and sexuality that afflict many Nigerians are embedded in a culture, which denies that what a man and a woman do behind closed doors is an integral part of life. Why must a titled man who would not hesitate to mount her under the cover of night declare a menstruating woman unclean?

These are a few of the realities we like to lock away in our cupboards. But moral realignment is only achieved by staring honestly into reality's eyes. That we are now part of a global hamlet only expands the frontier of challenges and conflicts. Contemporary Nigerians are a hybrid, despite our black skin. We are the products of several influences. Harping back to the antediluvian ways of our fathers will not solve our societal problems. The earlier we start seeking the good in all these values, the better for us as a society. Unfortunately the thieves in high places who man our posts of power are too engrossed in their debauchery to think of such higher values.
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