By Nimi Wariboko
Last Wednesday, February 17, 2016, I read Professor Moses Ochonu’s “How Not to Defend Buhari” with keen attention. I almost completely agree with him.
I am responding to his essay because something he mentioned in passing caught my attention. I want to analyze this “something” to shed light on the peculiarities and depths of defending or criticizing governments in power in Nigeria. This is what he wrote:
Where does one begin on this fanatically blind, impulsive defense of Buhari? First of all, that statement begins from a premise of absence, which is a no-no in logic. Jonathan did not win, so we do not and cannot know what would have happened to the Naira had he won. That belongs in the realm of known unknowns, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld.
What got me thinking is the Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns.” I heard Rumsfeld when he said it in February 2002 as the United States was planning to invade Iraq. Rumsfeld mentioned three categories of (potential) information: (a) known knowns, (b) known unknowns, and (c) unknown unknowns. The first category is about things that Rumsfeld and the Bush administration knew that they knew. There were also things about Iraq that they knew that they did not know. Finally, there are things that Rumsfeld and Bush did not know that they did not know.
Rumsfeld’s categories of relationship between known and unknown provide an interesting lens, tongue in cheek, to analyze the psychology and psychoanalysis of political production of knowledge in Nigeria’s public square. All three of Rumsfeld’s categories are shaky in Nigeria. In our political environment, we are never certain of the known knowns. Facts are never sacred; wealth and status authenticate “facts.” Those who support or oppose governments spew lies in the public square with straight faces and no one seems to care. It appears nothing is known and nothing can be known. Are there known knowns in Nigerian politics? How does anyone debate policies or do public relations in this kind of environment?
What is it about the inner workings of government, whether Buhari’s, Jonathan’s, or Obasanjo’s, that we can say as Nigerian citizens we know that we know? Didn’t President Jonathan lament that members of Boko Haram were in his government and yet he could not readily identify them and flush them out as he should. Tell me, is there anywhere outside Nigeria where members of the government at the highest level is not a known known?
Of course, this means that those of us outside government—and even many inside past and present administrations—know that we do not know what is happening in our governments. Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe was next in power to President Ibrahim Babangida and he did not know when a decision was taken to make Nigeria a full member of the OIC. The most recent minister of defense knew that he did not know how many weapons the National Security Adviser bought in the now infamous disbursement of billions of dollars by bullion vans.
Known unknowns, the second of Rumsfeld’s category is the state of affairs of those in government and their most ardent supporters. When people are reared and are enmeshed in this sorry state of affairs, the use of “speculative counterfactuals and denial of the present state of affairs” is likely to be commonplace. This is a play of the known unknowns that Ochonu is talking about. Didn’t we raise generations of Nigerians on this illogic of counterfactuals? Is the whole logic of military coups not ultimately based on a counterfactual reasoning? If we the saintly soldiers did not intervene and overthrow the evil politicians the economy and polity of Nigeria would have gone to the dogs. I provide this modest historical perspective to nuance our analyses as we castigate present-day Nigerians or Buhari’s supporters as trafficking in counterfactual logic.
Let us now shift focus to Rumsfeld’s third category: unknown unknowns. There are things that our leaders and their supporters do not know that they do not know. What if the opposition possesses some damaging information or groundbreaking analysis about the government about which the head and his henchmen have no knowledge? This haunting question has compelled various governments in Nigeria to peremptorily act in order to forestall bad news. Acting out of fear, they worked hard to ruin, before the materialization of the so-called bad news, the reputation of the opposition or anyone who does not agree with their policies.
If crude tactics do not work, you could be sure that such leaders of government would consult religious specialists to “coerce” the omniscience God to translate unknown unknowns to known unknowns or pray away the unknown unknowns. It is common knowledge that governments at state and federal levels award contracts to pastors, imams, and traditional religion specialists to “spiritually solve” pressing social problems or put at bay unseen, not-yet actualized problems in opposition’s “spiritual laboratories.” Is it not true that what Ochonu has ascribed to Buhari supporters is characteristic of our public square as a whole? Alas, my Nigeria.
Slavoj Žižek, the radical Slovenian philosopher added another category in the relationship between known and unknown in his critique of Rumsfeld’s “amateur philosophizing.” He states that “what Rumsfeld forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the ‘unknown knowns,’ the things we don’t know that we know—what is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the ‘knowledge which does not know itself,’ as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan… used to say” (Event, page 11).
There are beliefs, suppositions, knowledge, and theologies, and philosophies that our leaders adhere to without being aware of them. As John Maynard Keynes put it in his 1936 General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” This attachment or attunement to defunct or old ideas often nudge our leaders to routinely ignore well-articulated present-day ideas that could help the country. There is a certain kind of anti-intellectualism in our top leaders and politicians such that they always pay the closest attention to old ideas and they are brilliant on old ideas, but disdain current cutting-edge thoughts. This is the knowledge which does not know itself, and in its lack of consciousness and epistemic humility, it poses a great danger to the country. Ochonu pointed out this in his critique of Buhari’s defenders.
There is finally the contextual fifth term in Nigerian politics and government: non-unknown knowns. The things we know but we consciously handle them as if we don’t know them. A leading Nigerian politician related this experience to me in 2010. It is about how politicians lie to one another:
In the rest of the world lies work because one party is duped or cannot distinguish the truth from falsehood. In Nigerian politics truth and lies work differently. One of my political operatives or even a major politician comes to me, asking me for money for a project he has done and I immediately know that he is lying. He also figures out that I know that he is lying. I do not call him out and he does not apologize to me. I still give him the money he has asked for. I do it because it is a necessary investment to keep the client-patron network in good working order in order to win election and then recover all my investment plus some return. He also knows this.
There is an important reason why I have named this fifth term non-unknown knowns, with the double negation as qualifier. This follows the logic of what Kant called “infinite judgment.” Non-unknown does not negate a predicate, but affirms a non-predicate. Let us take an example from another place to clarify this point. “The soul is mortal” is a positive judgment. This statement can be negated in two ways: (a) “The soul is not mortal,” and (b) “the soul is non-mortal.” In the first instance, the predicate (“mortal”) is negated, but in the second case, a non-predicate is asserted. “The indefinite judgment opens up a third domain which undermines the underlying distinction,” as argued by Žižek (Less Than Nothing, p. 166).
This occurs in the same vein when we say a “person is inhuman” instead of “he is not human,” a new space beyond humanity and its negation is opened up. ‘“He is not human’ means simply that he is external to humanity, animal or divine, while ‘he is inhuman’ means something thoroughly different, namely that he is neither human nor not-human, but marked by a terrifying excess which, although negating what we understand as “humanity,” is inherent to being human” Žižek (Less Than Nothing, p. 166).
The fifth category of non-unknown knowns, this special Nigerian category is neither known nor unknown, but marked by a horrifying surplus of corruption and ruination of national ethos among the politico-governing classes, although negating what we understand as “government,” is inherent to governance in Nigeria. Public administration and the provision of information and debates in the Nigerian public square have opened up a new space beyond government and its negation. The closing of this monstrous space is the best way to defend any government at this crucial phase of our national development.
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