For the Records: Morality and the State: The Nigerian Experience

By Godwin Sogolo


The Chairman, Members of the Centre for Ethics and Civic Orientation, Invited Guests, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen.


Let me start by expressing my appreciation to the Centre for Ethics & Civic Orientation for inviting me to make this presentation. I want to specially thank Dr. Olusayan Awosan for his persistence without which I probably would not have accepted the invitation. I retired formally from the University of Ibadan in 2003 – over 20 years ago. Although I have, since retirement, tried to keep in touch with the academic world, I could not have imagined that I would be given the honour of presenting a Keynote Address such as this.

One of the reasons I readily accepted to deliver this lecture was that my years outside the comfort of the academic community of the University of Ibadan have been a huge experience in practical living – indeed, an encounter with the harsh realities of life – as against life behind the protective walls of the ivory tower where many of us still freely entertain unrealistic ideas about man, about society and about life in general. This Lecture gives me an opportunity to share some of my observations and experiences with you.

The choice of this topic, “Morality and the State: The Nigerian Experience”, was prompted by my observations of decades of developments in post-colonial Nigeria. As I noted in my book, Anthology: Nigeria Yesterday Today (published in 2012, over 11 years ago), not only have the challenges that confronted our nation during the colonial and immediate post-colonial eras endured, they have grown worse, to the extent that most Nigerians of my generation are beginning to look back, with nostalgic feelings, at the glorious days that we have lost.

I still remember: when, as a fresh graduate from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in 1972, I had the offer of three jobs out of which I needed to make a choice; when, on assumption of a teaching job at the University of Ibadan in 1976, I was given a car loan, instantly, and how a hotel accommodation and free meals were provided for me, pending the allocation of an official staff quarters. Nigeria was that good! Today, the plight of our fresh graduates is better imagined! Yet, they are the lucky ones among millions of Nigerian youths who live under conditions that are deteriorating by the day.

As PLO Lumumba, the Kenya Professor of Law, remarked sometime ago, “Africa has moved from the era when our forefathers resisted being forcefully carried away to Europe and America as slaves, to the current situation where our able bodied young men and women now gratuitously seek to japa, offering themselves as slaves to be taken away to the same foreign lands. Just as slaves died, in their hundreds and were dumped in the sea, African youths are also dying in droves in the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea. I see this as the total collapse of self-esteem and loss of faith in both the state and in the Nigerian society. Where did we go wrong? That is the central question that we must all address.

The focus of this discussion is the continuous erosion of the moral fabric of the Nigerian society. It starts with a brief analysis of morality as a universal phenomenon, the values of which are inculcated in the individual by parental upbringing, and then transmitted from generation to generation through education, formal and informal, as well as other processes of socialisation. The paper then examines some of the factors that cause moral disruptions and render a social system dysfunctional. Using Nigeria as an illustration, it cites the failure of governance and ineffective planning in education as the major causes of damage to the Nigerian moral system. The paper concludes by allying itself with the mandate of the Centre for Ethical and Civic Orientation focusing on “the Imperative of Ethical Re-Orientation”. It recommends moral education-cum-behavioural re-orientation of the Nigerian youth as the only way to save the nation from the brink of moral collapse.

A Conceptual Clarification

Of the two key concepts, “Morality” and “State”, in the topic of this discussion, the former alone requires some clarification because of its abstract nature. What I do not intend to do here, however, is to attempt a philosophical definition. Suffice it to adopt the stipulative approach of merely describing the main features usually attached to the word, rather than try to define it. Broadly speaking, morality is one of several types of values that guide human social relations – relations among individuals or groups, or even with non-human entities – in varieties commonly classified into the political, economic, spiritual and aesthetic values.

Among the categories of human values, morality stands out as the most encompassing and, therefore, the best mark of identifying the essence of humanity. This has been well articulated by Immanuel Kant, the German Philosopher, in his “Categorical Imperative” in which he classifies the conjoined elements of reason, universality and goodwill as the main criteria of morality. What it means, in plain language, is that a moral act must be the product of rational judgement; must be indiscriminately applicable to all persons and groups, and must have been done unconditionally. For the purpose of this discussion, the point to emphasise in Kant’s notion of universality is that “we act according to that maxim whereby we can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

Commonly referred to as the “Golden Rule”, moral universality   enjoins you to do unto others as you would want them do unto you. Of course, there are other nuances to this idea, including the interpretation that all human beings and all human societies, irrespective of race, time and place, are naturally endowed with the capacity for entertaining moral sympathies and for appreciating what is morally good and what is morally bad, what is right and what is wrong.

The same element of universality runs through the utilitarian doctrines of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill who believe that the morally right action is that which, in the overall, brings the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people. And, as Aristotle explains, once the potentialities for morality are developed  and internalised in the individual, they become an integral part of his social identity, automatically expressed and acted upon, without the individual going through the routine processes of ratiocination or piecemeal calculation.

More important, morality is an indispensable and dominant factor in social life, embedded in every aspect of human endeavour: in religion, law, politics, economic and other areas of social interaction.

In spiritual matters, for instance, any committed religious practitioner would tell you that good conduct and nothing else opens the way to heaven. While the law courts are known for their habit of quibbling over legalities, the underlying issues, in most cases, revolve around intent – whether or not an action was intentionally committed, done in good or bad faith. And, in politics –  with the very exceptional cases of men like Niccolo Machiavelli who would insist that the political leader does not need to be morally good or that all he needs are manipulative skills, ingenuity and craftiness – the orthodox and dominant view is that the politician must be of noble and sincere character.

Futhermore, it is a natural preoccupation for human beings everywhere to moralise, praise, blame and pass moral judgements on one another. And, it is almost an impulsive desire – some would say a social craving – in every human being, to want to be known as a morally good person!

Note that most social institutions are intertwined in structure and function. For instance, a very thin line separates law from morality apart from the fact that the former is normally written while the latter is not. The point relevant to our discussion here is that a lack of faith in the legal system or failure of the law to sanction human conduct weakens society’s moral grip on the individual. Similarly, religion is also inseparable from morality. In fact, some religious believers hold the view that religion is the foundation of morality and that there can be no morality without religion. Let me confess that I am not a regular church goer, and my friends have always told me to change my ways. The critical issue, however, is whether religious practitioners, no matter how ardent, priests and imams, are better behaved human beings than the rest of us!

Anyway, without morality, any human society would ultimately go into extinction as a result of its failure to sustain cooperative living, and as the individuals become incapable of competing peacefully and undertaking mutual exchange of goods and services, without rancour.

Moral Education

When Aristotle, in his days, spoke of human nature as the intrinsic principles of motion, not permanent in an entity, what he had in mind was the set of inherent tendencies of the human being to act and react in certain ways. It was this idea of “tendencies” or “potentialities” that led to his doctrine that “at birth the human mind is a tubula rasa”, waiting for all kinds of imprint – intellectual, moral, spiritual, etc. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks of the capacities we have by nature as well as the passive impulses and feelings that form our habits, which themselves do not go deep into us. Goodness, he says, is never in the action but only in the actor.

Before Aristotle, some of the most profound theories on the evolution of man and society had been formulated in the works of other Greek Philosophers, prominent among whom was Plato who believed that social life was key to all human aspirations and hence the need for a harmonious and peaceful society. Plato’s main doctrine derives from his conviction that knowledge is a necessary ingredient of moral virtue and that mankind needs to be taught morality. For Plato, moral education is a pivotal element of building and strengthening the institutions of society and, therefore, promoting liberal democracy. To educate is to facilitate common values among people, promote mutual understanding and minimise social conflict. Indeed, education is the foundation of a just moral society.

In The Republic, which remains one of the most seminal works ever published in philosophy, Plato uses another philosophy legend, Socrates, as a mouthpiece and expresses the view that no human being can live a fulfilled life unless he is morally tutored. According to Plato, a just society can only be upheld when the individuals are morally educated. Describing an ideal system of moral education, he says that the approach should be that of question and answer – the Socratic Method. That process should continue until the child reaches adulthood. For Plato, moral virtues must be explicitly taught, discussed and practised so as to get them ingrained in the individual for life.

The central point of Plato’s doctrine is that the values instituted in the individual strengthen his capacity as well as the capacity of society to survive. He believes that in all human societies, internalized social considerations and institutionalized pressures are the determining forces of human moral actions. In other words, culture and all forms of institutional arrangements are social devices for taming human nature and curbing the excesses of man. What society does, from cradle up, is to mould the individual by inculcating in him standardized norms of behaviour which have already been embodied in social institutions.

Obviously, there is no particular one method that is the correct method of imparting moral education. In some cases, the process is subtle while in others, it takes the form of unbridled indoctrination. But, in all, the individual stands as a vulnerable prey expected to imbibe an unquestioning attitude, almost always prepared to go along with what people have been doing, generations before him. Of course, it is in his own interest to learn certain social norms and habits before raising questions as to why he should do so. It is believed that man’s uncritical attitude to moral values and social institutions, his willingness to accept them and the ease with which he internalizes conventional norms are society’s techniques for survival. That is why some philosophers attribute rationality to social institutions. Partridge, Benn and Mortimore describe it as the:

“wisdom” embodied in tradition, greater than that which any individual could expect to acquire for himself, and not apparent to the individual with his circumscribed experience

Customs, traditions and institutional arrangements comprise the accumulated experiences and wisdom of past generations which override the stock that an individual can possibly acquire during his short life span.

On human development, the essence of Plato’s message in The Republic, is that through moral education, each individual must tap into the reservoir of institutional “wisdom” so as to perfect his being and contribute to the desirable process of ensuring social peace and harmony.

Plato on Good and Evil

Plato’s conception of good and evil is again expressed through Socrates in the Dialogue with Euthyphro. According to Socrates, nobody does evil knowingly. His argument for this is that by nature, the motivation for every human action is self-interest. An individual will always choose the course of action that, at the time of decision, is perceived by him to bring the greatest benefit (or the least harm) out of all available options. This, Socrates believes, is true even for actions that appear altruistic. For example, people who give money to charity do so because it makes them feel good and they perceive the pleasure derived from helping people as a greater benefit than spending the money themselves.

Socrates is, therefore, unequivocal in asserting that all human actions are driven by the instinct to benefit oneself – whether they appear selfish or altruistic, good or evil, pleasant or not. It is all in accordance with the law of nature that nobody knowingly causes harm to himself, unless, of course, he believes that doing so would ultimately bring him greater benefit. In other words, it is against human nature to harm oneself knowingly or go against one’s own self-interest. Sigmund Freud, the great Austrian psychologist, if not the greatest psychologist ever, makes very much the same point in his seminal thesis on the ‘id’.

The Socratic doctrine, relating morality to knowledge, although now commonplace in moral discourse, has remained highly controversial. Is it not true that people very often commit actions either out of passion, impulse or due to lack of self-control, fully aware of the evil nature of their actions? Of course, Socrates would not concede to any such position that contradicts his view, which he persuasively defends:

All human actions are driven by self-interest. This instinct prevents people from intentionally harming themselves; so, when people do harmful things, it is only out of ignorance; either not knowing what will benefit them the most, not knowing the correct method of attaining that benefit, or not knowing how not to do something which is harmful to them .

Socrates, therefore, sees no conflict between self-interest and morality. On the contrary, he believes that a morally right action is that which brings the greatest benefit, maintaining that immoral actions actually harm the actor or doer. Hence, such actions can only be committed out of ignorance and misunderstanding of what the greatest benefit is. Socrates thus recognises the existence of “moral weakness”, meaning when a person acts against his best judgement, knowing that something is bad or harmful, but still proceeding to do it due to lack of self-control or out of passion. He classifies this as a form of ignorance, and not because the person chooses to harm himself.

Moral Disruptions

Morality, like religion and law, is an instrument of social control, designed by nature to curb the excesses of human conduct – to punish and discourage behaviour that is dysfunctional to the well-being of society, and to reward and encourage attitudes and conduct that contribute to the survival of society. However, no human society functions perfectly or strictly in accordance with natural or social designs. There are, therefore, disruptions or dislocations caused by a variety of factors. Among them are:

  • Failure of the educational system/other socialization processes to inculcate in the individual moral principles that sustain inter-personal and group relations;
  • Failure in governance and loss of faith in the state;
  • Severe deprivation of material needs provoked either by man-made or natural causes, and
  • Cultural invasion such as military conquest or colonial incursion, resulting in the imposition of alien social values or violation of the existing value systems.

Any or a combination of the above factors would cause disruptions and weaken the moral ties that exist among individuals or groups. It is important to note that moral disruptions range from the mild to the severe, and then to the total breakdown of norms. The pattern/degree of disruption in a given situation depends on the intervening social factors. Human history is replete with instances of societies that have suffered from varying degrees of moral disruptions, but there have been very rare cases of total collapse of morality.

While moral disruptions due to ineffective education or damage caused by failure in governance tend to be more gradual and less perceptible, the effects of disruptions caused by severe material needs and cultural invasions are more dramatic and impactful on human character. A major dysfunctioning of the social system derails the mind of the individual and causes havoc to the collective psyche. The result, in most cases, is the failure to comprehend the goals of life, leading to moral apathy and unwholesome acts of violence, aggression and criminality, especially among the youths.

I have had the opportunity of analyzing a dysfunctioned society the moral structure of which was severely damaged by the acute shortage of material needs. The Ik community of Northern Uganda was a group studied by Collin M. Turnbull in the early 1970s. According to the social anthropologist, due to the harshness of a sustained famine situation – acute shortage of life’s necessities, food, shelter, clothing, etc., – the Ik, having lost every trait of human sociality, moral feelings, emotional sympathies and sentiments, were driven to the extreme life of cut-throat struggle so much so that “a mother would leave her infant to starve to death, if by so doing, she could secure her own survival”

Turnbull’s conclusion is that the Ik community has shown that morality is a disposable luxury; that moral sentiments cannot thrive in a state of acute material shortage and that the motivating forces behind human actions always derive from the self, no matter their altruistic dressings. Turnbull’s research also has implications beyond the extreme situation in which the Ik found themselves. It shows that under a normal situation, where material needs are relatively satisfied, the individual’s moral disposition would depend on his material status; that the higher an individual’s level of material comfort, the greater  his disposition to do good, vice versa.

Turnbull’s study certainly does not show – and perhaps was never intended to show – that the rich in society are morally better than the poor. Another corollary that flows from the case of the Ik is that a moral obligation only makes sense, if it is dischargeable, that is, if the moral agent has the capacity for its fulfillment. I may feel an obligation, for instance, to feed every hungry Nigerian, but that would remain a non-dischargeable obligation and, therefore, materially irrelevant, if I do not have the means to give effect to my desire.

There is hardly any reason to suggest that the Nigerian society does not share the cultural universals that characterise other human societies. And, like other cultures, what we are today is the product of our history. More than anything else, colonialism remains the most critical part of Nigeria’s history. While I feel reluctant to indulge in the common practice of heaping our current challenges on the nation’s colonial experience, it will be unfair to downplay its negative impact on Nigeria’s social cohesion.  Even, then, I believe that we have had enough time and opportunities to overcome the challenges caused by the colonial incursion into Nigeria. Sadly enough, we are still trapped in some of the social distortions of that experience.

The Nigerian Experience

When some 48 years ago, the renowned Nigerian Sociologist, Professor Peter P. Ekeh, of the University of Ibadan, made observations about the social disruptions caused in  Africa, especially Nigeria” , by colonialism, nobody would have thought that the situation would remain the same or even deteriorate well into the 21st century. That, unfortunately, is our fate today. According to Ekeh, colonialism led to the restructuring of the existing kinship systems into larger units. Two consequences of that restructuring are now well known facts of our social experience.

The first, well-articulated by Eghosa Osaghae, was the transformation from kinship units to larger ethnic groups which gave rise to the emergence of new ethnic consciousness that did not previously exist in pre-colonial Nigeria. Thus, the Yoruba in South Western Nigeria comprised a relatively new federation of previously organised city-states, which had their own individual ethnic identities – Oyo, Egba, Ijebu, Ife, Ijesha, etc. So was the Igbo ethnic group of today a conglomeration of separate entities –  Orlu, Onitsha, Aro, etc., which originally did not share much of common ethnic identities. The Hausa was a formation from discrete tribal entities such as Daura, Katagun, Gwandu, Zazzau, etc. These new units of ethnic consciousness changed the political cultures of much of post-colonial Nigeria . No doubt, the individual’s sense of political loyalty to the new ethnic groups grew stronger almost in inverse proportion to his commitment to the state.

The second consequence, arising from the first, was what Ekeh describes as the creation of two moral realms: “the primordial public”, which is moral and operates on the same moral imperatives as the private realm, and “the civic public” which is amoral and lacks the generalized moral imperatives operative in the primordial public. Ekeh describes the dichotomy as the fragmented moral perspectives of contemporary African societies where moral principles applied at the primordial level are often not extended to the broader civic public.

A similar observation is made by Wraith and Simpkins in their study of corruption in Nigeria. According to the authors, the same people known to be corrupt in their places of work show a remarkably decent record of financial propriety in matters affecting their ethnic associations.

To put your fingers in the till of the local [Government] authority would not unduly burden your conscience and people may well think you are a smart fellow … to steal the funds of the [ethnic] union would offend the public conscience and ostracize you from the society.

The truth, which many of us, especially the educated elite, tend to shy away from is that the moral divide described by Ekeh and others continues to be openly displayed by us. Who, among us, can deny that his or her reactions to the accusations of corruption against public officials have never been coloured by ethnic biases, sometimes to the detriment of moral principles?

The renowned legal luminary and social critic, Femi Falana, SAN, was quoted in a twitter message (16th April, 2019) to have said, at an In-house Forum, organized by the Punch Newspapers, that:

Nigeria is the only country where corrupt individuals are celebrated rather than made to face the wrath of the law… if you steal money in China, it is public execution. Nigeria is the only country where you hire drummers and people [People of your own ethnic group, especially] wear “aso-ebi” to court premises … There is nothing more contemptuous because you are challenging the state for charging you to court.

Although Falana attributes this warped morality to a corrupt system, involving the judiciary, police, civil service and other state institutions, it is a vivid manifestation of Ekeh’s two moral realms.

The inference, from all this, is that moral values are very much prevalent among the   people, except that they have not been transferred from the seat of ethnic loyalty to the state. Ali Mazrui believes that this moral divide is, to a large extent, responsible for corrupt practices among Africans in public life and, in particular, for what he describes as the unhygienic character of contemporary Africans politics. “Politics in Africa are sometimes hard to keep clean merely because people are moving from one set of values to another. In no other area of life is this better illustrated than the whole issue of tribal and kinship obligations”

Such solidarity and show of support for a kinsman is never concealed even in situations where particular persons have been proven guilty of serious offences, whether civil or criminal. In Nigeria, if a civil servant or politician embezzles public funds and, in so far as a part of the loot is utilized for the development of his community, that person is, from the point of view of his local community, innocent. And, a judge who sends him to prison is condemned as an enemy, not interested in the progress of their community. There was, sometime ago, the publication of a letter written to former President Mohammadu Buhari by the Council of Chiefs of one of the States of the Federation, demanding that their daughter, a former Minister from their area, who had been accused of some infractions, be left alone. The Chiefs, enthusiastically, promoted the idea that their daughter had done nothing wrong and was, merely, a victim of a witch-hunt by malevolent people from other regions and other ethnic groups. Ironically, these are Chiefs expected to be the custodians of moral values in their respective domains.

No doubt, every one of these actions and attitudes is a perversion that rises to the level of moral schizophrenia in which the distinction between good and evil is defined almost entirely in terms of ethnic interests.

It is tempting to misread Ekeh’s “two publics” as meaning the collapse of moral values in post-colonial Nigeria. To be fair to the author, he is clear and unambiguous in insisting that moral principles are still applicable in post-colonial Nigeria, albeit only at the primordial realm. The only problem, according to him, is that the principles applicable at that level are not extended to the civic public. This, I believe, is a manifestation of the fact that every moral system has its own imperfections. That is to say that, in spite of all the pretensions and claims of objectivity, our personal orientations, biases, interests and feelings always interfere when we make moral judgements.  What Ekeh has shown is that in Nigeria, ethnicity has been the major catalyst of a ruptured morality, the symptoms of which include corruption, nepotism and other forms of discriminatory practices. Indeed, going by his analysis, there could be more than “two publics”, which is to say that moral discrimination is a universal attitude determined by multiple forces.

Whatever the factors, whether racism, ethnicity, tribalism, nepotism, sexism, ageism, etc., these human attitudes are the existential realities of social life. And, they exist in all societies. If, indeed, self-defence is the first law of nature, the inclination to bias on the basis of any of these factors, cannot be anything but natural. Not surprisingly, therefore, they prevail in all human societies, even when not in keeping with Kant’s categorical imperative. For Socrates, they are the manifestations of human imperfections arising out of our lack of knowledge. And, because ignorance is pervasive in human society, the imperfections, too, are shared by all of mankind.

Yet, whether universal or not, the operation of “multiple publics” in any moral system is an unacceptable social defect, which fails to meet the criterion of universality.

Emerging Moral Apathy

The moral aberration highlighted by Ekeh and others, although worrisome, should be of less concern than the rapidly growing culture of moral apathy, especially among Nigerian youths. It is not so much the volume of immorality or increased number of morally corrupt individuals that should worry us; it is the system that finds nothing wrong with such a state of affairs.

Under normal circumstances, evil exudes moral repulsion and condemnation while good deeds are commended and encouraged. In those days – especially in pre-colonial times and, perhaps, soon after political independence – acts of violence and criminality were greeted with revulsion and outright moral condemnation. One easily recalls the feelings of national outrage elicited by an incident such as the killing, by security agents, of an innocent protesting student, Kunle Adepoju, at the University of Ibadan in 1973. Today, incidents more brutal and more sordid than this occur on a daily basis. Ours is now a society heavily soaked in acts of violence and criminality – terrorism, cult wars, acts of murder, assassination, armed robbery, kidnapping, banditry, rape, etc.

More disturbing is the growing insensitivity or pervasive lack of moral feelings in our society. It is commonplace today in Nigeria to witness scenes in which adults and youths gather to watch sordid acts of violence, in cold, expressionless and sadistic moods. In a sense, Nigeria has sunk from the era described by Ekeh to a low level of moral insensitivity, at both the civic and primordial publics. Today, it is one’s own relative or cousin who would rape one’s under-aged daughter; one’s kinsmen who would arrange for one to be kidnapped and negotiate a handsome ransom. It is a situation of anything goes and nothing evokes moral horror!

In those days, elderly persons were accorded respect and given certain privileges. In the Western world, they are called “Senior Citizens” and allowed special provisions such as free transportation and free medical care. Today, Nigerian elderly persons are told by the youths to hurry up and leave! In those days, when our children indulged in examination malpractices, we chastised them; today, parents and teachers connive, plot and direct students on how to carry out exam malpractices. That is the collapse of the Nigerian moral system. It is sad: it is tragic! What we have today is selective tolerance of immorality, concession and compromise. As against the old order, the new moral norm finds little or nothing wrong in a situation, for instance:

*Where a convicted Senator is allowed to continue to receive his salaries or even rewarded with an enhanced package;

*Where State Governors who have ended tenures of looting and plundering, buy their way into the Upper Chamber of the Nigerian Legislation;

*Where an official contract is drawn up with a budgetary provision for “Ransom Payment”, and

*Where the Police Force itself officially organises and pays ransom for the release of a kidnapped police officer.

In those days, the payment of ransom, if ever, was done in secret and anybody found to have done so, was severely rebuked as encouraging criminality. Today, ransom payments are done almost openly and sometimes even publicly declared. Increasingly, violence, insecurity and brutality are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Failure in Governance

Nigeria’s moral crisis is a clear manifestation of the social distance existing between the individual and the state, the origin of which is connected to the failure in governance, manifested in an ineffective educational system that is incapable of inculcating in our youths sound moral values. These failures raise the important issue of loyalty, and perhaps also the question of legitimacy, as perceived by the individuals and the various sub-groups in post-colonial Nigeria. It is a situation in which the moral and political authorities of the State have been weakened.

The distortions have been further worsened by the inability of the state to fulfill its obligations to the citizens. Loyalty is a reciprocal attitude. So, it is either won or lost on the basis of mutual exchange. Today, the responsibilities of the Nigerian state have been virtually taken over by the primordial communities. The communities take care of the members’ welfare needs, including the problems of birth and death; they construct roads, bridges and other infrastructure through self-help; build schools, hospitals, medical clinics and even provide financial support for their members in times of special needs.

As the state becomes more irresponsible, and as it increasingly abandons its civic responsibilities, so is its moral authority weakened. Indeed, this is a violation, by the state, of its contractual obligation to the citizens and no such state has the legitimate right to expect the loyalty of the people. As the loss of the state translates into the gain of the primordial unit, ethnicity continues to grow as a powerful force in the moral consciousness of the people.

A major failure of the Nigerian state is in the scant attention it pays to its responsibility of educating the Nigerian youths, a responsibility that is being gradually transferred by the state to the private sector. Today, despite an increase in the number of public educational institutions at all levels, private institutions have virtually rendered state institutions worthless in the provision of quality education. The effect on the Nigerian middle class is catastrophic and overwhelming. An average family, with 2-3 children, is saddled with the task of having to pay millions of naira (far beyond their meager earnings) as school fees. How some of them cope, especially civil servants, is a question that boggles the mind. What cannot be hidden are the frustrations of millions of Nigerians who have been abandoned by the state to cater for themselves.

The Nigerian situation, unfortunately replicated in much of Africa, is often ignored by some scholars in their eagerness to apply Western theoretical models in matters relating to the individual, citizenship and the relationship between the state and civil society. It is a known fact that societies in the developed world already have an established model of the role of the individual in relation to the state. That relationship is defined mainly in terms of the meaning of citizenship. The citizen is perceived as an autonomous person who has willingly placed himself under certain implicit contractual obligations in the Hobbesian sense. Not only is the individual consciously aware of his rights; he expects and demands them from the state. The state, in return, accepts its responsibilities to the individual citizens. And, it is on this implicit compact that the Western differentiation between state and civil society rests.

The idea of civil society is as complex as any other social construct and I cannot veer too far into the area by way of attempting a definition. In any case, its meaning changes from one scholar to another and from tradition to tradition. The most common understanding of civil society, however, is that it is a depoliticized, free and autonomous public sphere in which individuals and associations conduct their affairs through the principle of social justice, unhindered by the state. Generally, the idea of civil society involves the presence of a moral consciousness, with individual rights taking priority over other obligations. There is, in addition, another important component of civil society as understood in Western literature, which Jean-Francois Bayart describes as its capacity to “moderate the excesses of the state … in so far as it is in confrontation with the state or more precisely, as the process by which society seeks to breach and counteract the simultaneous totalization unleashed by the state”.

In much of Africa, especially in Nigeria, the notion of the individual as a citizen, with rights and privileges, in relation to the state is not one that flows freely in people’s consciousness. Nor is the state perceived as an agent with obligations to the individual. In most cases, the state is seen as the acquired property of powerful rulers, despite the pretentious romance with democratic institutions. The truth is that there is hardly any sense of obligation to the citizen, unless it becomes necessary as a means of holding on to power. Herein lies the contrast between the state as understood in the Western world and the state as perceived in much of post-colonial Africa. In the West, the state is the joint property of both the citizens and those in government. Consider the protests by the yellow vest in France, a few years ago. Baring exceptional cases such as the social unrest that erupted in the Sudan, the general perception has been that in Africa, the state belongs to the rulers.

I have discussed these peculiar characteristics of African social institutions so as to emphasise their historical origin. It must be admitted, however, that much as the effects of the past linger, the influence of contemporary global trends on Africa are also important. Like other human societies, contemporary Africa continues to be influenced by social and political changes taking place all over the world. So, whether or not there are persistent social challenges, modern Africa cannot escape being a part of the global search for liberal democracy, equality, justice, freedom, human rights and the dignity of the human person. In fact, these qualities are highly cherished in Africa, although they were more prevalent in pre-colonial Africa than today.

Global developments have influenced the creation of new social institutions in post-colonial Africa such that those Western structures that permit the differentiation between state and civil society are beginning to sprout. Organizations such as the media, trade unions, student bodies, intellectual groups, religious bodies and professional associations are now parts of an emerging civil society prepared to “confront and moderate” the excesses of the state. As in other parts of the contemporary world, these positive human elements should tap the reservoir of values that exist in the primordial realm of our society. In spite of this positive note, civil society in Africa is still in a severe crisis, as anybody familiar with the Nigerian situation can testify.



Now, to return to the essence of moral education, as formulated by Plato in The Republic, I believe that the moral gap between the people and the state in Nigeria can only be bridged by a radical value re-orientation in education, the very mandate given to itself by the Centre for Ethics and Civic Orientation, and  the theme aptly chosen for this Conference. I congratulate the Centre for this noble task in nation building!

Now, to say that morality can be acquired by education is also to say that a people’s moral system, perceptions and attitudes can be impacted positively or negatively. It goes with the basic understanding of the broad functions of education. There is the education that imparts knowledge, skills and vocational expertise – for instance, the natural sciences, engineering, medicine, law, etc. Then, there is the education that is devoted almost entirely to teaching the student the art of living; the education that nourishes the intellect, spirit and moral qualities of man; in short, the education that humanises.

In the course of thinking about this topic, I had to consult the eminent scholar and playwright, Femi Osofisan, who, as far back as 1981, asked the question if, indeed, the humanities ever humanised . Osofisan’s answer, certainly, out of frustration with the conduct of academics in public office at the time, was negative. He explained why the humanities had failed to play this critical role. I agree with him. But, as we have tried to show in this discussion, a great deal of the lapses in our system are traceable to colonial importations, including the educational system, some of which did not quite fit into the existing pre-colonial formations.

It is sad that a large percentage (over 60%, UNESCO: 2018) of Nigerian youths today have no access to education of any sort. For those with access, the dominant impression is that the quality of their education remains doubtful. Indeed, it is generally believed that most Nigerian educational institutions are beginning to turn out only street-wise graduates who place a high premium on craftiness and manipulative skills, but are lacking in any sense of morality. Instead, they tend to be transactional in their dealings, almost seeing every social interaction as a business deal, with the belief that morality itself is old fashioned.

I have had discussions with some youths who insisted that my views on morality were outdated and belonged to the old school. They believed, rather sadly, that moral virtues such as benevolence, kindness, charity, sympathies and sentiments were nothing but human deficiencies, if not symptoms of social weakness. It is worth noting, however, that the transactional attitude to social relations is increasingly becoming a global phenomenon, especially at the international level where some political leaders give priority to economic interests at the expense of human rights and such other moral virtues.

However, it is factually incorrect to say that moral apathy or the emerging trend of insensitivity among our youths is limited to Nigeria or that it is an African peculiarity. The trend is universal and it is a growing behavioural character of young men and women everywhere. Still, that does not obviate the fact, as we have tried to show, that its peculiarities in Nigeria constitute a threat to the well-being, if not the survival of our society.

In almost all climes, certain academic disciplines, especially in the humanities do not have as much appeal to candidates seeking admission to tertiary institutions, compared to professional/vocational courses such as medicine, engineering, law, accountancy, business studies, journalism, etc. Until recently, in Nigeria, philosophy, my own discipline, was one of the highest rejects, understandably, because, unlike many others, it is neither linked to some specific jobs in the public or private sector, nor is it a teaching subject in the nation’s primary and secondary schools. It explains why a large number of those who gained admission in the past to study philosophy in Nigerian universities did so, not out of deliberate choice but as a last resort.

Yet, while other disciplines in the humanities are defined by some specific areas of expertise, philosophy combines virtually all of the subject areas. Beyond imparting the fundamentals of logic and critical thinking, philosophy is a second order discipline that conducts the highest level of thought; it cultivates the intellect, promotes man’s creative abilities and seeks to understand life itself, the human person, his values and society. Overall, philosophy is devoted to those qualities that differentiate us from animals, hence its value as a discipline that humanises, meaning that it moulds the human being out of Aristotle’s tabula rasa.

There could not have been a better testimony on the role of philosophy in human development than the words of the late Pius Adebola Adesanmi, one of the most brilliant and resourceful Nigerians who, sadly, lost his life in March 2019 in an Ethiopian Airline crash. Adesanmi believes that the challenges of development in Nigeria are attributable to a “lack, of philosophical reflection and sustained thought”. According to him, “Western civilization, the Renaissance and Enlightenment and all the features of modernity, science and technology, were the products of hundreds of years of philosophical speculations, writings and critical thought”.

According to Adesanmi, Nigeria would have been a different place today, if we had not frowned at philosophy, intellectual labour and critical thought:

Everywhere you look, our national life is a sordid and tragic display of the absence of philosophy in our conceptualization of the Nigerian society. When you declare war on philosophy, knowledge and critical intellection, the consequence, simply put, is Nigeria, as you and I know it today … Nigeria can, therefore, be defined as the absence of and hostility to philosophy in the life of a nation.

I dare say that Adesanmi is right in the hostility he talks about. For instance, philosophy is not taught in most Nigerian Universities as the discipline is often considered to be a dispensable luxury.

Ask any group of students today their choice of career in the future, and the likelihood is that almost all of them would want to be medical doctors, lawyers, engineers or businessmen or women. Very few would want to go into the humanities, certainly not philosophy. The Premier University of Ibadan, founded in 1948, did not start the teaching of Philosophy until 1973. And until very recently, no university in the Northern parts of the country had a Department of Philosophy. Understandably, planners of education in Nigeria have no choice but to follow the global trend of emphasising science and technology.

Unfortunately, while rigorously embracing these disciplines, they did not see the need for courses such as history, philosophy and the arts; they perhaps felt that our children did not need to know about the traditional values cherished by our forefathers, and that there was no need learning about the nation’s heroes who selflessly fought for our independence. Let me take this opportunity to express the profound appreciation of the Philosophy Community in Nigeria to the former Vice-Chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria, Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu, for making it possible for the University Senate to approve the introduction of Philosophy Programmes in the University.

Socrates’s correlation between knowledge and man’s capacity for moral good, remains unassailable. So also is the idea that the search for that knowledge is ASthrough moral education, which is one of the core branches of philosophy. The primary goal of moral education is to study human nature and to inculcate in the individual values and attitudes that promote the well-being of society. From the premise that nobody commits evil knowingly, it follows that knowledge by the individuals is a prelude to leading a morally good life, and that deficiency in that knowledge is damaging to the moral fabric and well-being of society. Evidently, the Nigerian state is not doing enough to develop in the nation’s youths the knowledge that sustains a morally sound society. What then is our hope for the future?

In Search of a Rescue

As we stated earlier, morality is, by nature, universal and immutable. It is as complex as human nature itself, which explains why the phenomenon has continued to be of interest to scholars, both in the sciences and humanities. Therefore, beyond the traditional approach of speculative analysis, which most scholars still adopt to date, modern researchers in human genetic engineering have been daring into the area of human conduct.

The pioneering efforts in genetic engineering were made by Charles Darwin, the 19th Century British naturalist, followed by many others. In the early 1970s, Richard Dawkins, another British, conducted research, the result of which was his book, The Selfish Gene , which is an extrapolation from social Darwinism and the principles of natural selection to the realm of human morality. And, more recently, the genetic engineer, Jamie Metzl and his team, announced a breakthrough in the implantation of human genes that promote morally good behavior .

Obviously, no believer in the biblical creation story would be impressed by these ambitious attempts at improving on the human being, generally believed to be the best product of the Almighty. The point, however, is that tinkering with the human being did not start with Dawkins or Metzl. After all, this has been the basis of technological research in medicine, leading to advancements such as inoculations against smallpox, polio, measles, yellow fever and recently malaria.

That scientific and technological research is already affecting the conduct of man is no longer a matter of speculation but of documented fact. More recent breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence (AI) have become worrisome to academics as well as statesmen on the possible consequences of AI on the future of morality. Not surprisingly, the impact of AI on the conduct of man and socio-political relations was one of the major concerns discussed by the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak and President Joe Biden of the United States, during the former’s visit in July, 2023, just last month.

For us, here in Nigeria, if the solution to the nation’s moral collapse is to come from science and technology rather than the humanities, so be it. But before the coming of that scientific breakthrough, the Nigerian youth needs moral re-orientation and attitudinal redirection through exposure to the humanities – the teaching of the classical studies, history, philosophy, aesthetics and the literary disciplines. In particular, basic elements of philosophy and critical thinking should be taught at the primary and secondary school levels while moral education and other core areas of philosophy should be made compulsory at the tertiary level.

Finally, while I believe that moral education is necessary to regain and strengthen the sanctity of our moral values, I must sound a note of caution concerning the assault of technology and the internet on our moral values and cultural traditions. Our young men and women, today, virtually live in the air; they are often glued to electronic devices. As any parent can testify, communicating with kids these days is a daunting task, with earphones pumping foreign ideas and values into their heads and blocking their contact with the realities of their environment. The tragedy we now face is that the new social media technology is, literarily speaking, re-wiring the minds of our youths, their thoughts and their conduct. One wonders how a curriculum developer in moral education can get around this monumental dissonance!


Morality is one of the defining features of a human society and it deals with human conduct and judgements insofar as they are good or bad, right or wrong. Moral values and principles are, by nature, universal and immutable while, as Plato has shown, they are individually acquired through education and other processes of socialisation.

Due to a number of factors, the normal operations of a moral system may be disrupted. In the case of Nigeria, that disruption was caused by colonialism which restructured the existing kinship systems and transformed them into larger ethnic groups with political interests. Years of misgovernance and ill-conceived system of education have worsened the situation, leading to the moral crisis that lingers in the Nigeria of today.

The failure in governance, evident from the various lapses in the educational sector, has the most severe impact on Nigerian youths who today lack the moral foundation needed to transform the animal into a human person. Not only is a large proportion of our youths denied access to basic education, the few that are lucky to have access, have been taught nothing but techniques that are bereft of character and moral values. Scientists in the Western world may be searching for new ways of resolving their challenges of moral decline. Here in Nigeria, what we need is the retooling of our educational systems with emphasis on the inculcation of moral values in our youths, that being the only way to save the nation from descending into the Hobbesian state in which anarchy reigns and life is short and brutish.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, once more, I thank The Centre For Ethics and Civic Orientation for giving me the opportunity to present this paper.

Thank you and God bless.


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The first version of the paper was delivered as a Convocation Lecture at the 2019 Convocation of the Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL), University of Lagos, Lagos, on Thursday, 8th August, 2019.


Godwin Sogolo is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy National Open University of Nigeria Abuja – Nigeria

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