Permit me first of all to begin this piece by stating some facts which are simply expressions of my convictions. It is my well held view that a world that lacks variety and diversity will be boring to death, will lack beauty and may even self-destruct.
So, I understand that individuals need to be different. We simply need to differ from one another. Else, we don’t need each other, and our existence may lack meaning. Thus, I respect without reservation the rights of individuals to form ideologies, philosophies and opinions for themselves, to belong to their preferred side of any divide, and to express themselves unhindered politically, culturally, economically and religiously, in so far as such rights do not inhibit peace nor infringe on others’ right, nor obstruct others pursuit of personal happiness.
However, when these rights are taken to the extreme, it is the duty of discerning minds to call for caution and to put in measures that will placate the impending consequences of the extreme exercise of individual rights. I am therefore writing this piece not because I intend to defame anyone, but to deflate the balloon of our collective existence before it bursts asunder. When individual liberty is taken one step too far, our collective safety and peace is threatened.
Public discord and upheavals are usually first instigated by the popular narrative of the day. It is the collision of different feelings and rhetoric at the town square that stirs passion – and passion is the fuel for sustained action. Such narrative either inspires sustained negative or positive actions. Hence, both public discord and upheavals or public unity and peace are significantly influenced – or instigated, by the pattern of the prevailing narratives of the day.
Curiously, the primary drivers – or key influencers of public narratives – besides the government and known power brokers, are a crop of ‘elites’ who by fortune or shrewd manoeuvring, have the ears of the public. They drive the narratives by injecting into public discourse their own thoroughly curated pieces of (mis)information, feelings and emotions, after which their own support network is set on motion, to force those narratives along the desired course.
Instructively, there are at least two main factors that affects the degree to which an elite can influence the direction of public discourse. The first and perhaps the most important borders on the degree to which the masses are alert and sensitive to truth twisting, their sense of history, their intellectual capacity and their level of access to factual information. This is particularly crucial because it determines the masses ability to appropriately filter the signals sent by the elites.
The other borders on the sophistication of the particular elite – how firmly he has his hands on the various channel of information dissemination and the size of his foot soldiers. Afterwards comes the question of his span of influence and followership.
Regrettably, the latter factor has grown in relevance in our present circumstances – because the former factor is at its worst possible state.
Thus, for reasons and ideologies best known to a section of the elites, they have assumed full duty as influencers of public narratives, channelling it to where their most selfish agenda can best be served. And worse still, they feign themselves and deceive their followers to see them as the true and genuine representatives of their interests – whereas, they are only fattening the cattle for the day of slaughter.
Curiously, these crops of elites thrive on the sentiments and emotions of the masses, constantly shifting and manoeuvring to obtain the object of their desires. Honour is not their code. Neither is the unity, peace and prosperity of the masses of genuine concern to them. Their most obvious language is ‘whatever it takes’. Even if that means the death and suffering of many.
Interestingly, history has shown that it is not in the character of Nigerian elites to self-sacrifice to the point of death. On the contrary, their constant response has always been to flee – whenever faced with such dire situations. There are several examples. Ojukwu left his beloved people and fled after the civil war. Chief Anthony Enahoro too fled Nigeria for the Uk in the early 1960s. Gen Gowon too fled in 1975. Even prof Wole Soyinka ran away when Abacha placed a death sentence on him.
It is therefore obvious that those who are charging and heating up the polity now by promoting hate speeches, stirring secessionist sentiments and making unsavoury remarks would not wait any extra moment should war break out. Those who are drumming for war are not necessarily those who will suffer the consequences of war.
And here lies the danger of the extreme exercise of individual rights (especially of expression) , namely, that an individual, by reason of his status, resources and network, can significantly stir, charge or heat up the masses to his selfish advantage – by simply influencing the pattern of public discourse.
And the only antidote there is, is to revert back to the first factor that affects the ability of the elites to influence public discourse: namely to educate and invest in the intellectual capacity of the masses by providing unhindered access to factual information.
Conclusively, while individuals need to be different – and have different ideologies, perspectives, etc., there is a need to be sensitive to the hypocrisy of the elites and to protect the masses from their antics.