Too Many Churches, Too Many Languages, Too Many Universities, Too Many States By Biodun Jeyifo
In his inimitable way, it was Chinua Achebe that once proposed the absurdity behind the series of questions that form the title of this piece. What did Achebe say? In the context of the debate on the language question in African literatures, he said some people were bemoaning the fact that we had too many languages in Africa; they were complaining that we should do something about this fact that of all the regions of the world, Africa has the largest number of languages.
What are we to do in response to such complaints, Achebe asked? Do we abolish some of the languages? And so to those who say that we have too many states, too many universities and too many churches, should we adopt the Achebe irony or conundrum and say abolish some or most of these churches, universities and states! And while we are about it, remember, compatriot, that as the most populous nation on the African continent, indeed the nation with the largest number of black people in the world, we can also say that we have too many people? Abolish some or most of them?!.
I confess that the thoughts that set me on the path of the reflections in this piece began with the number of states that we have in Nigeria, this being 36. Compared with many other countries of the world in terms of population and land area, we clearly have too many states such that the number imposes an excessive burden on governance. We have a population of about 200 million with a land area of 356,667 square miles.
In comparison, look at the stats for the following countries, all with land areas and populations vastly bigger than ours: China, population, 1.386 billion; land area, 3.705 square miles; number of states, 26. India, population, 1.353 billion; land area, 1.269 square miles; number of states, 29. Brazil, population, 211 million; land area, 3.288 million square miles; number of states, 14. USA, population, 327.2 million; land area, 3.797 square miles; states, 50.
How in the world would a Chinese or an Indian, each from a country with a land area and a population more than 400 % that of Nigeria not wonder why we have 36 states when each of their countries, China and India, have only 26 and 29 states respectively? And Brazil, with a land area into which you could fit about six or seven “Nigeria” with only 14 states! Yes, you could argue that much of Brazil is the Amazon rain forest, but isn’t much of southern Nigeria also forestland and much of the north unpopulated savannah?.
The examples of China, India and Brazil go to the heart of my reflections in this piece because in each of these three cases, what we see very clearly is the fact that number, by itself, is not a curse but a challenge: you can either make the best of it or, conversely, make the worst of it. This is true whether you are talking of land area and population as administrative units, or of the number of languages spoken and written in a region of the world or, indeed, the number of universities that a country can sustain for the education of its peoples.
I cannot and will not pronounce on number in relation to churches beyond suggesting that it would do our economy and politics a lot of good if we had as many factories – large-scale, medium and small-scale – as churches! The same thing applies to population, especially as Nigeria happens to have one of the fastest growing populations in the world.
Nigerians in general seem excited and proud of the looming probability that in the next half a century, we might become one of the four or five most populous nations in the world.
But for good reasons, there are Neo-Malthusians among us who have nothing but great fear and dread for that future in which every seventh or eighth human being will be a Nigerian. To them, at 200 million, we seem already overwhelmed by the numbers, especially of the youtth demographic; how in the world will we be able to cope with a billion plus?
In case the real point I am making here is (still) unclear, let me now make it plain and simple, deliberately. Numbers and numerology, I am suggesting, should not, in and of themselves, either frighten us or gladden our hearts and stoke our national pride; rather, they should drive us towards greater rational planning for the present and the future on the basis of social justice, progress, security and peace.
We might invoke here the historic example of childbearing and childrearing: at one stage in our history and the collective history of mankind, it was, all things considered, a very good thing to have as many children as possible. As a matter of fact, for most of my childhood and young adulthood and in every part of Nigeria, this was the collective wisdom: the number of children a family had was a window, an index on the future prosperity of the family.
But gradually, have we not seen that ancient “wisdom” wane? However, at the same time and in other countries and regions of the world like Japan and Scandinavia, don’t we hear of concerns that population growth is falling behind the economic and social needs of the country?
In this discussion, among all the cases mentioned and briefly discussed, no cases seem as pressing and also as confounding as the number of states in Nigeria (with calls still being made for the creation of more states) and the number of universities (with new federal and state universities still being created every year).
If it will ever be possible to bring rational planning in furtherance of social justice and progress to the threat and/or the appeal of numbers in Nigeria, these two cases of number of states and number of universities should serve as pointers toward that goal since both cases seem the most pertinent to our opening Achebe conundrum: if you have too much of anything, do you simply get rid or abolish much or most of it? Let us briefly explore each case one after the other beginning with the number of states in the country’s political and administrative structure.
Have we reached the number of states that we should have? If so, what do we say to those who are still clamoring for the creation of more states? If not, how shall we know that we have reached the adequate number of states when we achieve that goal? These questions are asked neither by those seeking the creation of more states nor those who are against the creation of any more states.
The reason for this is plain: nobody and no country in the world has devised the means by which to determine the number of states, the right number of relatively autonomous administrative units it can or should contain. In most of the nations of the world, it is by trial and error, by give and take and, above all else, by the application of rational planning that a number, a figure is chosen as the most adequate.
And of course, the issue of the number of states that we should have in Nigeria is closely tied to the so-called national question which, in popular national discourse or parlance, is known as restructuring. In the context of this discussion, restructuring comes into play with the number of states in Nigeria precisely because every single state of the 36 that we now have is a mini-state, with an executive governor who is no less than a mini head of state, complete with all the material and symbolic appurtenances of power.
Please remember, compatriots, that at one stage in the political history of this country, governors were ceremonial heads of their regions with no real power beyond whatever they could command as respect for their offices and persons. That is gone and the governors are now powers unto themselves.
Some of them have the most exorbitant and decadent pension packages in the world. Thus restructuring, if it is to win more supporters to its cause, must break completely from the present linkage of state creation and number of states with the present system of mini heads of states known as executive governors.
Permit me to put this across even more bluntly: let the governors be now known as regional administrators and take away all the trappings of pomp, majesty and decadence that we associate with them and you will see how the cause of restructuring will become immensely more popular. And why would this happen? It will happen because the colossal savings that would result from this kind of radical-democratic restructuring would be available to meet the presently denied needs and demands of the people.
I hasten to add that I am not suggesting that merely by calling a governor an administrator we can achieve hitherto unheralded wonders. There is nothing in a name, a nomenclature; the substance is in the apparatus, the machinery of governance and administration. You can break Nigeria, the whole country, into administrative units around six or eight regional hubs.
Again, let us emphasize that there is no magical number being suggested here, six or eight being expedient suggestions derived from the first two stages in the breakup of the old three regions, but without the military-autocratic project that transformed ceremonial governors to tin gods resplendent in the babariga that they traded for their uniforms.
I repeat: it is not the number of states or administrative units that matters, it is the relationship of number to social justice and to the dignity of every single Nigerian, irrespective of religion, ethnicity and region.
The configuration is a completely different when we come to the number of universities. We can learn much by comparing the number of universities with the number of churches. At one stage, it did seem as if the logic of university founding and creation in Nigeria was based on Enoch Adeboye’s famous call for a church to be built within the distance of five minutes of walking in all Nigerian cities and towns.
But a hard break, a sharp halt has descended on the relentless formation of new private and/or denominational universities. Many are failing and some have folded up, succumbing to the law of the marketplace. There is reason to think that this will also apply to the federal and state-funded universities, many of which came into existence side by side with massive cutbacks in the public funding of our state-owned universities. Parents, proprietors, students, lecturers, professors, government, the elite as well as the mass of ordinary Nigerians in their millions, everyone now knows that number has nothing to do with qualitative and relevant education.
This “knowledge” has, so far, produced a very negative, despairing effect, one of the most notable consequences being the sending of their children to Ghanaian universities by Nigerians, both those who can easily afford to do so and those who have to spend lifetime savings or dip deep into family heirlooms to do so. I suggest that there is a negative dialectic involved here, one in which out of such sad “knowledge” will come a movement for the rescue and the transformation of the institution of higher learning in our country.
I confess that I feel a very strong impulse to conclude on an attitude to life that, as most of those who know me closely are very aware, has been a sort of guiding principle of my conduct and my life for at least the last four to five decades. That principle is this: less is more.
For the number of states in Nigeria, I hold staunchly to this principle. But for the number of universities, I hold that more can and should be more if qualitative and relevant education is the goal – but with room for a bit of “irrelevant” education for those who demand it and will go to any length to find it!.
About the author: Biodun Jeyifo writes from firstname.lastname@example.org