Transcript: My TEDX Ahmadu Bello University Speech

The Boko Haram insurgency is one of the most lethal conflicts in the history of Nigeria.

One morning in April 2014, I was on my way to work and stuck in traffic just a few metres down the road when two bombs exploded at a crowded bus station in a small satellite town called Nyanya in Abuja. The explosions killed at least 80 people and injured twice that number. As our car drove past the site a few minutes later, I saw the devastating aftermath as bodies were loaded on the backs of open bed trucks and driven off.

Humans, who just a few minutes before were bustling with life, managing the worries of meeting their daily needs, now suddenly rendered lifeless.

This bombing happened at the height of the Boko Haram insurgency when thousands of Nigerians were getting killed on an almost daily basis. Reports have it that 10,000 Nigerians were killed in 2014 alone by Boko Haram. TEN THOUSAND NIGERIANS.

Now, the curious thing for me though, is the kinds of conversations that emerged from the terrorist activities of Boko Haram in that period. Outside Nigeria, the conflict which began in 2009 by a jihadist rebel group, was reported as an armed rebellion against the Nigerian state. But within Nigeria, the conversation on the street was different. People spoke of it like it was another instance of religious clashing between Nigeria’s Muslim and Christian communities. These acts of insurgency against the state came to be viewed in the context of long-standing issues of religious disunity.

The big issue which I could see was that Nigerians were dying. When I recall the people who died in the Nyanya bombing, I do not think of them as Muslim or Christian or Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa. I do not care about their political leanings or ideologies. I simply think of them as Nigerians. As Humans. Just like me.

But here were people relegating that key concern to secondary place. Their outlook was conditional — They would be outraged only when the group they affiliated with was attacked. Other groups coming under attack — well, not really their concern. Even as I speak, the conflict continues in North East Nigeria. News reports at the beginning of this year, put the numbers of casualties so far at 20,000 people with 2 Million displaced.

This differentiation of the real issues allowed people to distance themselves from the realities of those living in conflict zones. It influenced what I call the Otherisation of realities. The idea that there is a WE VERSUS THEM mentality towards issues that undercut the very essence of all our daily lives.

To Otherise. means To make or regard (a person, social group etc) as alien or different.

Otherisation has become the normative for Nigerians. We analyse issues through the lens of segregation and see ourselves more through the things that separate us. Otherisation is how we define representation and identity.

But otherisation in itself is not really surprising. It emerges from a language and cultural barrier in a very diverse country. Nigeria has over 250 different ethnic groups broadly differentiated into a North and South region, 6 geo-political zones and two main religions.

Some of these barriers are present day manifestations of a colonial heritage. Indirect rule imposed by the colonial masters was primarily focused on the extraction of resources which meant that Nigeria’s colonial structure was mapped to allow easy extraction of those resources but difficult for actual development of the land and its people.

Other barriers however are influenced by a weak state structure and poor policies. Nigeria’s reliance on an oil economy, the decline of the formal industrial sector and widespread corruption are all factors that have contributed to wealth inequality in the country. Poor laws and policies have created an Orwellian reality. All Nigerians are equal but some are more equal than others.

As such people find solace not in the entity called Nigeria but in their little groups and affiliations. These groups could be ethnic, religious, political, genderised, economic or social in nature. And so begins, the otherisation of realities in Nigeria.

But as long as we continue to otherise our problems and issues, choosing to pick the injustices deserving of our attention, deciding to speak out only when issues directly affect us, we will make no progress into the light. To counter otherisation, I argue that we need more moral imagination.

Moral imagination, is the unique human ability to conceive of fellow humanity, not as objects whose values rest in utility alone but as persons.

The idea that we are all People. And we are all here.

Basically, moral imagination asks the question, can you look beyond how a decision affects you to see how it affects others?

One of the most prominent examples of moral imagination is this woman — Dr. Ameyo Stella Adadevoh.

Dr Adadevoh curbed the wider spread of Ebola virus in Nigeria by placing one of her patients, Patrick Sawyer in quarantine. Despite pressures from the Liberian Government, she maintained her stand and in August 2014, she tested positive for the virus and died a few days after. By her singular act alone, Dr Adadevoh saved the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands of Nigerians. People she had never seen, never met, never spoken to.

I also think of the late Afrobeat Legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Born into an upper middle-class family, Fela came from wealth but chose to be a champion for the poor. Fela made songs of protest criticising the mistreatment of Nigerians by the Military rulers. Protest songs directed against the corruption of the regime and widespread poverty, unemployment, inequality and instability in the country. His opposition of the Military regime was both open and vocal. His music vexed the rulers so much that a thousand soldiers attacked his home, Fela was beaten severely, his mother thrown from a window and killed, his home and studio burnt to the ground and all of his recordings destroyed. Even after his death, Fela’s music and teachings continue to influence art, culture and politics till this day.

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, a Poet and Scholar who died in the 11th century, once said only from the heart can you touch the sky.

Dr Adadevoh and Fela could have decided to do nothing or to run away or to ignore the problem. But rather than otherise the issues they did something to change it. They had immense capacity for moral imagination.

Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder of Acumen Fund and a woman I deeply admire, said, what we really yearn for as human beings Is to be visible to each other. For others to see us as people, deserving of dignity and respect.

Nigeria’s affair with bad leadership continues today because the people we elect into public office have become experts at otherising realities. They see US Versus THEM. They do not see us as people deserving of dignity and respect just like they are. That is why our leaders will block off a road, causing endless traffic gridlock for miles just so their convoy can pass by with ease.

Lack of moral imagination is also why our leaders will send their kids to good schools outside Nigeria while our children sit on the floor of classes with leaking rooftops, broken doors and chalkboards.

Lack of moral imagination explains why they quickly fly their children outside the country when involved in an accident, personally escorted by the Minister of Health to the airport while doctors continue to go on strike in Nigeria and people continue to die from lack of oxygen in our hospitals.

Experts say, that acting morally often requires more than just strength of character, it requires empathy and the awareness to discern what is morally relevant in a given situation.

But, It is not just our leaders that lack moral imagination. We, the people lack it as well.

When you refuse to pay your staff at the end of the month, when you sneer at minority groups demanding for their rights and when you support bad governance simply because your group is in power…

You display a lack of moral imagination. You have otherised the realities of others and you cannot see how your decisions and actions affect them.

Earlier this year, my youth-led development consultancy called Decipher Solutions designed a leadership manual. At the core of the lessons contained in that manual is the idea that leadership is not a position, leadership is an activity. As such, anyone, at any point can be a leader. And so, everyone really, should have moral imagination. We plan to work with organisations and youth groups to deploy this training. And it is our hope that more young people will begin to practise leadership through moral imagination in their everyday lives.

A few years ago, I took an online course by PlusAcumen called Introduction to Moral Imagination. I remember my sister laughed at me when I told her I was taking a course to learn empathy.

But that course taught me that when we otherise, we become comfortable with doing nothing. We do not realise what our actions and inactions can do.

Otherisation is an illusion, a cocoon that allows us bury our heads in the sand.

In conclusion, I believe we must all develop our capacity for moral imagination. In our everyday lives, we can practice moral imagination through our words, our actions and also our work.

My friend Etinosa goes to areas of conflict and takes compelling photographs of people affected by war, juxtaposing their images on the image of something they think about constantly.

Phillip Barlow Studios creates fascinating oil paintings of how people with poor eyesight see the world without glasses or contact lenses.

Works like these show the reality of the lives of others. You can do the same through your writing, your research, your speech.

We all hope for a developed country, one with functional systems and credible leadership. Our strongest capacity however remains in us, the people. Our youth with their intelligence and ambitions hold the greatest capacity to transform this country.

We cannot do it alone, we need each other. So, let us start seeing ourselves as comrades, and let us lend credence to all realities.

Because different should not create fear.

Different does not mean less.

Different is not less valid, it is just different.

Thank you.

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Transcript from my TEDX Ahmadu Bello University speech which held on the 18th of August 2018 at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The event was themed “Fitting into the normative situations”.