Let me begin by saying that I believe the things I want us to look at here are, in the main, common across the continent but for case study purposes, I will be using Nigeria
in large part to illustrate my points. Why? Yes you guessed it – I am Nigerian (if that has put you off then stop reading now…just kidding, please read on).
I have always been of the opinion that any sort of lasting and sustainable change in Nigeria (and across Africa) MUST begin with and come from a complete re-‐orientation of our individual and collective mindsets, a paradigm shift, a new and different way of thinking and approaching daily issues – basically a complete overhaul of our psychological foundation(s). Yes improvements in infrastructure, technological advancements, access to (cheap) capital, improved leadership, better education etc. are certainly very important but my take is that in order for all of these factors to be sustainable and effective, the psychological foundation has to be in place.
Psychology has long been an effective tool for both building and tearing down, especially in warfare (and the struggle across Africa can certainly be described as a battle). During the Vietnam War for instance, the Americans dropped millions of propaganda leaflets over North Vietnam while the communists also distributed leaflets urging the Americans to go home. In Rwanda
, the radio was used to devastating effect to urge Hutus to “kill the cockroaches (Tutsis & moderate Hutus)”. Who can forget the use of twitter today especially by President Trump to “sow seeds” in the minds of the collective, as well as the use of other social media platforms by businesses for PR and marketing? All of these strategies are designed to shift our psychological foundations.
And if we go further and examine many of today’s “advanced” nations (no, not Wakanda
), we will find that they all experienced pivotal periods of change (revolutions if you will) that literally catapulted their societies to “the next level”.
Granted the revolutions in these countries took different forms, varying periods of time, and some were more strong-‐armed than others (Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew comes to mind), but the common denominator was that there was a psychological shift that had to happen (whether spear-‐headed by visionary leadership or by the people). The “Age of Enlightenment” in 18th century Europe is a typical example of this. There was a radical reorientation in the politics, philosophy, science and communications across Europe between 1685 and 1815. It’s important to note that the ‘Industrial Revolution’, which could be compared to the current ‘Tech Revolution’ Africa is beginning to experience, took off after the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ had kicked in. According to the European Route of Industrial Heritage,
“The industrial revolution in Europe didn’t happen overnight but only spread over the continent very gradually. One of the triggers was the unusually high growth in the population, which set in around the middle of the 18th century and produced a gigantic reservoir of workers. At the same time new, more efficient methods of production became necessary in order to supply the basic needs of so many people. In this situation Great Britain enjoyed two important advantages: an extremely productive and wealthy agricultural system, and an astonishing number of creative inventors. This was why the United Kingdom dictated the rhythm of progress to the rest of Europe from 1750 onwards for the next century or so.”
— ERIH Annual Conference
We could analyse the above quote in terms of the similarities with Africa such as the population explosion and the availability of “new, more efficient methods of production”
but that’s a discussion for another day.
This brings me to my main point – In order to forge ahead, we must first analyse our current situation as a people while at the same time examining the effects of our past experiences on our present behaviours. Now I am no psychologist or psychiatrist, but permit me to analyse this from my understanding of a few psychological “positions”.
As a Nigerian myself, I sometimes seriously think that as a collective, we suffer from a kind of mass Stockholm Syndrome. Criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot reportedly coined the term, which is also known as ‘terror bonding’ or ‘trauma bonding’. Now to understand my submission, let’s examine what Stockholm Syndrome is. I took this from a 2013 BBC News article
written by Kathryn Westcott and I think it is the simplest historical explanation of Stockholm Syndrome that I have come across (worth reading the whole article):
“Forty years ago, the term Stockholm Syndrome was coined at the end of a six-‐day bank siege. What is it and why is it cited time and again in hostage situations? Most people know the phrase Stockholm Syndrome from the numerous high-‐profile kidnapping and hostage cases -‐ usually involving women -‐ in which it has been cited. The term is most associated with Patty Hearst, the Californian newspaper heiress who was kidnapped by revolutionary militants in 1974. She appeared to develop sympathy with her captors and joined them in a robbery. She was eventually caught and received a prison sentence. But Hearst’s defence lawyer Bailey claimed that the 19-‐year-‐old had been brainwashed and was suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome” -‐ a term that had been recently coined to explain the apparently irrational feelings of some captives for their captors.
“More recently the term was applied in media reports about the Natascha Kampusch case. Kampusch -‐ kidnapped as a 10-‐year-‐old by Wolfgang Priklopil and held in a basement for eight years -‐ was reported to have cried when she heard her captor had died and subsequently lit a candle for him as he lay in the mortuary.
“While the term is widely known, the incident that led to its coinage remains relatively obscure.”
Now you will agree with me that time and again, we as Nigerians have tried to understand our own apparent irrational defense and re-‐voting into office of leaders who have kept us as ‘economic & social captives’. In a lot of cases we hear sentences like “yes he is a thief but he is OUR thief” or the huge celebrations and thanks giving ceremonies thrown to welcome back our “sons of the soil” who were arrested and/or convicted of some form of misappropriation. This speaks very heavily to the tribalistic and ethnic-‐ focused lenses we tend to view things through as a people. The BBC article also mentions one of the characteristics of Stockholm Syndrome which, in my view, truly captures a very real behavioural trait (or strategy) of some of our leaders –
“Small acts of kindness -‐ such as being given food -‐ prompts a “primitive gratitude for the gift of life…”
Does this sound familiar? Bags of rice, yams, goats or ‘small small change’ during election season anyone?
There are many more examples across Africa too numerous to go into but what do you think? Is Stockholm Syndrome a worthy contender in our battle for psychological supremacy?
Munchausen Syndrome vs Munchausen Syndrome by proxy
This particular psychological “position” is very interesting indeed!
According to the UK National Health Service (NHS)
website Munchausen Syndrome is:
“…a psychological disorder where someone pretends to be ill or deliberately produces symptoms of illness in themselves. Their main intention is to assume the “sick role” to have people care for them and be the centre of attention”.
Now in my opinion, this does not describe any general Nigerian (or African) characteristic that I know of. On the contrary, Nigerians particularly are super ambitious go-‐getters. “We de hustle no be small
” (if this is lost on you find a Nigerian to translate). But I needed to define the actual syndrome in order to flow into where it actually affects us as a people – and that is the “proxy” part!
Again, the NHS gives a brilliant explanation of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP)
also known as ‘Fabricated or Induced Illness’
“Fabricated or induced illness (FII) is a rare form of child abuse. It occurs when a parent or carer, usually the child’s biological mother, exaggerates or deliberately causes symptoms of illness in the child. FII is also known as “Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy” (not to be confused with Munchausen’s syndrome, where a person pretends to be ill or causes illness or injury to themselves).”
Now I know what you’re thinking – what in God’s name has a disorder normally associated with child abuse got to do with an entire nation or continent? Well if you think about it, the people are the “child” and the leaders are the “parent” and the “child abuse” is the incessant condition of near hopelessness that many Africans find themselves in. Now just stay with me on this and I will try and explain my thought process a little further (hopefully it will make sense).
The NHS website goes on to outline the signs of MSBP or FII and I will use their outline to draw the parallels as I see them.
Behaviours in MSBP/FII include a mother or other carer who shows the following signs or symptoms:
: Persuading healthcare professionals that their child is ill when they’re perfectly healthy.
: How many times have we seen the exaggerated use of “the present government is not performing”
used as reason to take drastic actions? Right from the era of military dictatorships through to some of the divisive rhetoric used by political leaders today to try and get into office at all costs.
Exaggeration or lying about their child’s symptoms.
: This particular point is a daily occurrence; all you have to do is read the news headlines to understand the extent to which leaders exaggerate situations or conditions to directly benefit them personally or their parties.
Manipulating test results to suggest the presence of illness – for example, by putting glucose in urine samples to suggest the child has diabetes.
: There is a saying, “there is no point wasting a good crisis”. We know that our leadership will sometimes manipulate situations in order to either force a particular outcome or court sympathy from the populace or international community. A classic example of this is the manipulation of election results.
Deliberately inducing symptoms of illness – for example, by poisoning her child with unnecessary medication or other substances.
: How many times have we as a people felt that our leaders have intentionally engineered a situation in order to cause fear and unrest so as to implement their own agendas? For example, in many quarters, there is a strong belief that the Boko Haram crisis in North Eastern Nigeria may have been backed (or even planned) by some of the country’s leaders – but of course this could just be a conspiracy theory right?
One of the most well known mental health support institutions in the UK is called MIND, and MIND’s definition of Depression is very simple:
“Depression is a low mood that lasts for a long time, and affects your everyday life. In its mildest form, depression can mean just being in low spirits. It doesn’t stop you leading your normal life but makes everything harder to do and seem less worthwhile. At its most severe, depression can be life-‐threatening because it can make you feel suicidal or simply give up the will to live.”
Now this psychological “position” is likely the most popular of those I have touched on thus far – but it is also the most widespread (ok so I have no statistical data to back this up yet but I was born and raised in Nigeria – enough said). It is also one of those words that people tend to shy away from – a dirty word almost. Now I want you to take a minute and just imagine the response from your typical Nigerian to a statement like “I think he may be suffering from depression
”, you would likely get a response like “Ha! You mean he has mental problems?
” And let’s face it, no one wants to be labelled “crazy”! But to be fair, things have certainly improved in recent times and there is certainly more awareness and willingness to talk about these issues but culturally (and historically), things like depression were never really talked about or even admitted to – even if many suffered (and still suffer) from it. Again speaking as a Nigerian, over the last 3 to 4 years there has been an increase in spousal maiming and murders (both male and female) and you have to wonder why. And you find that these deep-‐seeded issues (not specifically depression alone) permeate through the whole society from the way we approach everything – politics, marriage, child discipline, daily conversations and so on. And this brings me nicely to the final “position” I would like to touch on….anger!
Yes, I know anger may not necessarily be considered a psychological “position” in the context of the three “positions” we have looked at already, and it is quite comical (to an extent) but just hear me out on this.
On the more benign end of the scale, have you noticed how aggressive and downright abusive some people get when a discussion starts going in a direction they disagree with – especially on social media? You find people using incredibly vile and offensive language just to make the point. I mean you could argue that this might be a result of just being raised badly or not having the necessary social skills to communicate a point peaceably but hey, I could be wrong.
Then on the more extreme (and ugly) end of the scale, we see barbaric acts committed by both those in positions of authority (law enforcement officers particularly) and angry mobs of people. There are numerous videos out there of police officers or military personnel beating people almost half to death – I just watched one involving the Nigerian police yesterday – and they are sickening! Then you have the crazed angry mobs that lynch people (even children as young as 7 years old) for alleged offences ranging from stealing a little food to feed themselves to being accused of being a witch (the latter is not unique to any particular country be it Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania…). The preferred method tends to be a 3 course “meal” of being dragged about while being served a few slaps from crowd participants (a sort of crowd funding exercise, just that the funds here are slaps), then comes the severe beatings with all manner of implements and then finally having tyres (usually) thrown over you, being doused in petrol and then set alight! Now let me say this unequivocally, anyone who is capable of participating in or carrying out such barbaric acts (including those of law enforcement) is DEFINITELY in need of mental health evaluation!
Now to be fair, if you grew up, lived or still live in an African country (I grew up in Nigeria as I said earlier), you would be able to attest to some of the terrible and deplorable conditions in which many people have to live day-‐to-‐day. And there is no doubt that those sorts of “pressure cooker” situations will always require an outlet and unfortunately the anger is an expression of what has been pent up in the “pressure cooker” now finding its way out. Ironic for a country voted the happiest nation on earth
Please understand that in writing this, I am not unaware of the incredible (and evidently) lasting impact that colonialism etc. has had on the continent of Africa (positive and negative) but we, as Africans, must also take responsibility for where we are today. And the reality of the situation is THERE IS NOTHING WE CAN DO ABOUT THE PAST! All we can do is use what we have learnt from those experiences to make a better ‘present’ and a more hopeful ‘future’. As the saying goes, “there’s no use crying over spilt milk”, but I’d like to go a little further and add my own twist on that statement but before I do that, DISCLAIMER: I am not an advocate for violence but in the context of ‘battle’ or ‘war’ as I mentioned earlier in this article I will say this:
There’s no use crying over spilt milk…but be sure to smack the *!@# out of anyone who tries to “spill your milk” again – even if that person happens to be you!
- The word “smack” here could take various forms – intellectual, verbal, and in extreme cases, physical!
So at the end of this mini-‐dissertation I have just spewed, please permit me to recommend 3 things I think will make a long-‐term impact on shifting our psychological foundations – 1) Education, 2) Education and 3) Education!
- Education: We must put more effort into knowing our histor(ies)y. Who are we? Where do we come from? Learn about our families, our tribes, our countries, other African countries…Historical Education!
- Education: We must keep striving for academic excellence AT ALL LEVELS. We must make sure that education in our rural areas is, at least, at par with our urban areas while continuously striving to make sure urban area education is at global standards (or even set the standards)…Academic Education!!
- Education: We must begin to look beyond classrooms, test and examinations to provide knowledge. More travel, reading a variety of books & comic books (you can’t imagine how much I learnt from comic books), exposure to arts and culture, participation in a wide range of extra-‐curricular activities…Social Education!!!
There is no doubt in my mind that so much more can be added to my suggested solutions and I would love to speak to as many as are interested and even participate and collaborate on projects that aim to achieve this goal, but for now…just some food for thought.
You might also like:
This article was first published on 3rd October 2018