Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things
Seeing flickering images of chaos in many forms like a social backlash against austere economic decline, stark manifestations of a loss of social cohesion, a persistent demonstration of angry bodies, thrashing, pelting armed riot police, and bringing down prized infrastructure on TV, is a common thing these days, as society appears to near its end.
It seems humans have forgotten how to be gregarious. Trailing the chaos from one country to another, the crises trigger often show to be some fact mired in political or ethnic sentiment. From the American experience in 2020, with the Black Lives Matter protests that saw armed groups march through American cities, menacing in their agenda and armed enough to pose a threat to collective peace, to the South African protests for the release of a former president jailed for contempt of court, and which quickly spiraled into an orgy of violent looting and arson, these dystopian reflections are symptomatic of a phenomenon that could make a society unravel at its most complex stage of development.
Have humans become less resilient? Would it become more difficult to coordinate human societies in a not-too-distant future? These questions arise from the events of the past decade. Societal failure is not new, and there are examples in ancient history; the collapse of the Hittite Empire, Roman Empire, the Mycenaean and the Mayan Civilization, and recently in modern history, the USSR. There are several scientific reasons adduced for societal failure, including, according to a group of MIT scientists in 1970, scarcity of available natural resources and ‘the rising costs’ that would exterminate the hope of economic growth.
African societies particularly seem to be at the crossroads with their social contracts and it seems that hope is an expensive project. The factors dictating Africa’s downward spiral are not the complexity of society and the loss of cultural identity, they are the weaponization of sentimentalism, increasing despondence created by rising income inequality and the withdrawal of the state from its primary purpose; the protection and provision of public services for its subjects.
In Nigeria for instance, there has been a consistent failure of the state in exercising its powers effectively, and individual attempts at self-preservation have been encouraged. The pandemic in Nigeria exposed crippling inequality that saw brazen groups of criminal gangs rob houses in Nigeria’s commercial city of Lagos. It was a sign of worse things to come. After the lockdown, came the infectious wave of End SARS protests that were trailed by raging violence that brought about the destruction of public infrastructure, attacks on police officers and widespread looting. South Africa recently experienced something similar. Protests that began with a clamor for the release of Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s former president, who was imprisoned for contempt of court, quickly degenerated into looting and vandalism.
The weaponization of sentimentalism in Africa often happens when politicians or some other leaders engage popular sentiments and deploy them in support of personal agenda. The danger with sentimentalism of any kind in Africa is that there is a tendency to undermine its capacity for destruction and grip on the social psyche. Political sentiment might be active or passive. The active sentiment is the most destructive type and was the kind that fueled the Rwandan Genocide. It’s the same type of sentimentalism that ignited the Zuma protests in South Africa. The ‘we against them.’
Rising income inequality and state failure in delivering public goods are also dangerous for social cohesion. Rachel Kleinfield hints that the state’s concession of power to non-state actors and its resulting loss of the monopoly of violence are recipes for a dangerous society. While rising income inequality nurtures seething resentment amongst social classes in Africa, weaponized sentimentalism provokes it to teeter on the brink of total failure.
Africa is in dire need of an intellectual awakening and a robust system of political ethics that would define its deontology of state responsibility. To protect social cohesion in Africa, politicians must move away from the destructive politics of sentimental rhetoric and the ardent pursuit of personal agenda at the cost of the collective well-being. State posturing of support for violent groups like it is in Nigeria, is an implicit message that violence unlicensed by the state is an accepted expression of individual rights.