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On chimpanzees and the good old days


“In the good old days the country worked. Our universities were world class. Our hospitals were the best. We could fly Nigerian Airways to London for cheap. We had jobs waiting for us right after graduation.”

I have been reading the book Sapiens recently. There are lots of interesting things in it but one part recently had me thinking about how systems can appear to function perfectly, but then collapse suddenly. Chimpanzees, given they are our distant cousins, are apparently a lot like humans in terms of their social behaviour. They make friends and enemies with other chimps in their group. They gossip about other chimps and use clever means to figure out which chimps are trustworthy and which chimps are not. They even have power players and use different tactics to cement their authority which apparently includes sleeping around with other chimps. All very interesting.

This social order of friendship and gossip works very well at maintaining harmony within the group and, as long as they don’t get too many, they co-exist in peace. Unfortunately, there is a limit to how far personal friendships and gossip can keep a community peaceful. Chimpanzees, like us humans, can only maintain information about so many other chimps.

At some point, there will simply be too many chimps to know those they trust and can live with and those they can’t. Once there are too many chimps it becomes a lot more difficult for chimps to keep track of who is trustworthy and who is not, and the chimpanzee community quickly devolves into chaos. It typically ends in bloodshed with some chimps getting killed or some chimps breaking away to form their own new community.

This had me thinking about social orders and systems that can appear to work perfectly for decades but then collapse quickly. Thinking about the current crisis between farmers and cattle herders for instance. Yes, lots of other factors like climate change and cattle rustling have played a part. However, you can’t help but see that the informal arrangements between farmers and herders may just not be sufficient at keeping the peace anymore. Over the last 50 years the population has at least tripled and maybe quadrupled.

This means there are a lot more farmers and herders, and probably a lot more cattle, but the same amount of land. The informal arrangements that maintained order between the two groups might just not be feasible anymore. Like the chimpanzees, we might have grown to a point where there are simply too many farmers and herdsmen for the old ways to work.

You find such informal arrangements all over society. While such informal arrangements might have worked back in the day, we might have grown to a state where those arrangements are just not capable. Like a child who has outgrown the belt he or she used as a kid, have we outgrown some of our systems of social organization? Do we need a new belt?

The good old days, but for whom?
Speaking of the old days, I had a conversation with a friend a while ago. It’s a conversation that many can relate to. It went something like this: “In the good old days the country worked. Our universities were world class. Our hospitals were the best. We could fly Nigerian Airways to London for cheap. We had jobs waiting for us right after graduation.” And so on. You get the gist.

Sadly, the statistics tell a different story. These are the facts about Nigeria in the “good old days”. In 1975 Nigeria had a tertiary enrolment rate of 0.735 percent. Effectively only less than one percent of people of university age went to a university. University education might have been world class but only a very small fraction of Nigerians had the opportunity to attend. The hospitals might have been world class but in 1975 we had 1 doctor for every 20,000 people and 275 of every 1000 children died before the age of 5. If you could get a doctor then great, but most couldn’t. For context, in 2010 we had a doctor for every 2,500 people and under-five mortality rate was down to 130. I could go on but I am sure we get the point.

It is technically true that the universities were in better shape, and that the hospitals looked nicer and worked better, and Nigerian Airways could compete with the best in the world. But those were only useful if you were in the lucky bracket who had access to a university education, or had access to government hospitals, or could afford a trip to London. The vast majority of Nigerians did not have access to these things. The truth is we have never had a period in Nigerian history when quality tertiary education was available to everybody. We’ve never had a period when quality healthcare was available to everybody. The nostalgia of the good old days only applies to the lucky few. For everyone else it was just the old days.

It is important to realize these facts because we now have a country where almost everyone wants access to quality tertiary education. Everyone wants access to high quality healthcare. Everyone wants to go on holidays. Everyone wants the finer things in life and the masses are not going to sit quietly in the village while the few enjoy a high-quality life. There is no point reminiscing about the old days because they do not provide answers on how to provide these things for everyone. If we are to craft a better future for Nigeria we are going to have to think about a new way. A way that works for everyone, not just for the lucky few.

Nonso Obikili is an economist currently roaming somewhere between Nigeria and South Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of his employers.

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