Some months ago, on my way to an assignment outside Lagos, I fell into a conversation with the driver about travel and future plans. He excitedly revealed that he had a visa appointment coming up very shortly at the U.S. embassy. By God’s grace, after getting the (tourist) visa, he would immediately relocate and become an Uber driver. He could practically count the $200 per day he would make, like his secondary school friend in New York. “Once tí vísà yen jáde,” life would be awesome!
At this point, I would normally have pointed out that the U.S. right now is really not the place to risk carrying out an immigration offence like unauthorized work, and that it was very unlikely that he would be granted the visa in the first place. I mean, in what universe would the U.S. embassy seriously grant a two-year visa to someone who has every incentive to overstay, and nothing to come back to except a job as a driver? This time however, I held my peace and kept quiet because it felt like I already spend so many of my waking hours informing full grown adults that Santa isn’t real. Who made that my job?
So I smiled and kept quiet, allowing him enjoy his moment as he mentally counted, grilled and ate his unhatched chickens with a side of leaving this sufferhead work. Learn to let people enjoy things, David. When I ran into him a few weeks ago and asked him how it went, he refused to give me a direct answer and he sounded a bit deflated. This was probably the least surprising visa refusal in recorded Nigerian history, but I tried to sound sympathetic. Within a few minutes however, he was chattering excitedly, this time about Finland. “My guy talk say the place make sense and their visa no dey hard…”
At this point I realised what was going on and I found an excuse to take my leave.
A Racist’s Description of Africans
Writing in 1926, British colonial officer and notorious racist Frederick John Dealtry Lugard presented his impression of Africans as follows:
“In character and temperament, the typical African of this race-type is a happy, thriftless, excitable person, lacking in self-control, discipline, and foresight. Naturally courageous, and naturally courteous and polite, full of personal vanity, with little sense of veracity […] Perhaps, the two traits which have impressed me as those most characteristic of the African native are his lack of apprehension and his lack of ability to visualize the future.”The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa – 1926, Frederick Lugard
Objectively, this is an inaccurate statement based on little more than racial tropes and stereotypes. It is comparable to saying that British people all have bad teeth and discuss their disappointing sex lives over tea and crumpets; or Germans have the sense of humour of a tipper truck offloading gravel; or Frenchmen are all perverts with curly moustaches who masturbate with baguettes. Maybe Lugard did meet a number of Africans who displayed these traits individually, but it is hardly possible to label an entire continent of culturally varied human beings with the alleged behaviours described by someone who had a legendary and unhidden contempt for all things African.
The trouble though, is that across the continent both at ground level and at government level nowadays, there appears to be a popular movement to not only prove Lugard right, but apparently to use his racist caricature of the “thriftless African incapable of visualizing the future” as something of an instruction manual. The title of this article makes reference to a popular Nigerian Ponzi scheme but the problem is deeper and more fundamental than faulty financial investments. Whether it is regular people putting money into one transparently fraudulent scheme or the other, or governments taking foolish economic decisions and hoping they will work out this time after failing a jillion times before, this is all significant of a wider cultural crisis facing Africa. I call it ‘MMM Culture.’
In Nigeria for example, there is about half a century of data showing what works, and more importantly what has not worked in terms of economic policy decisions. It is common knowledge that imposing import bans and using the Naira exchange rate as a political tool is a fool’s errand. That has not stopped every administration in my lifetime from doing exactly that. The effect that these decisions will have is not considered because while making the policy, the future is not really visualized. Policy makers simply gamble and hope that the ticket will not cut.
On a cultural level, we all technically know that nobody has ever become a billionaire by performing “rituals” with human parts or female underwear. Everybody knows someone who has heard of someone whose uncle’s son’s friend “hammered” through such means, but like the famous India vs. Nigeria match that ended 99-1 and supposedly claimed Samuel Okwaraji’s life, no one has ever actually witnessed it. These things are glorified urban legends which have been souped up into an entire underground industry. This industry exists because hundreds – maybe even thousands – of people continue to gamble on the possibility that they will somehow come into money that they didn’t work for.
What is more, looking at this phenomenon from a Nigerian point of view only tells part of the African story.
‘MMM Culture’ has Africa in a Headlock
In 1998, 18 years after emerging from Rhodesian apartheid rule, Zimbabwe was at a crossroads. One of the key promises of the Chimurenga (Liberation War) was that expropriated land held by wealthy farming descendants of Rhodesian colonists would be returned to its rightful owners. Expectedly, the land holders were doing everything in their power to filibuster land redistribution which had been encoded in the Lancaster House Agreement that ended the Chimurenga. With a restive rural population of smallholders and war veterans to deal with, President Robert Mugabe’ administration was at a crossroads.
They could try to find a solution somewhere at the junction of policy and international diplomacy to force a peaceful resolution and restart the land redistribution process, or they could put together a package of palliative measures to pacify restive war vets and buy some more time to fix the country’s basic underlying racial economic imbalance. Neither of these two options would bolster Mugabe’s political credentials as a liberation war hero, so his government took the MMM way out.
What started as an isolated land squatting campaign by war vets on isolated white-owned farmland suddenly became a nationwide campaign of chaotic land seizures as Mugabe ordered the police and military to stand down. For about five minutes, he was probably the only Head of State in the world with an approval rating approaching 100 percent, as Zimbabweans suffering from the same MMM virus reveled in their victory over the white oppressors. At last, they had their land back! What followed is a case study in what always follows the initial euphoria of MMM culture-motivated actions.
Within a decade, Zimbabwe was reduced to a pauper state accepting food aid from Malawi, with the sort of ridiculous hyperinflation that only modern Venezuelans or middle-aged ex-Yugoslavians would understand. Trade and economic sanctions coupled with a lack of access to pretty much any international capital turned the sweet victory over whitey into a bitter, pyrrhic one. An estimated 18 percent of the population was forced to emigrate, finding their way to the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and across the border into South Africa.
Today, apart from bone-headed government policy, MMM culture across the continent manifests itself chiefly as a slavish devotion to superstition and religion. Sometimes it is South African churchgoers eating grass. Other times it is Nigerian Christianity, Islam, traditional religion and kidnapping forming an unlikely nexus in search of alleged powers conferred by ritual human sacrifice. Most recently, it is bald men being murdered in Malawi based on a belief that their heads harbor gold. A growing number of Africans seem determined to posthumously vindicate the views of an English colonial racist, about our ability to perceive the world and interact with the mechanism of cause and effect.
Breaking Free From ‘MMM Culture’
At the root of all manifestations of this diseased worldview is a firm belief that it is possible to get something out of nothing, or that it is possible to repeat the same actions ad-infinitum and somehow get different results at some point. In other words, MMM culture rests on the basic belief that the basic universal principle of cause and effect can be disrupted. African interpretations of Christianity and Islam in particular encourage the pernicious idea that you can divorce cause from effect if you just believe hard enough.
This means that as a society, if we want to stop proving a dead racist right about us, our first assignment is to do away with any religious or superstitious beliefs that infer that something can come out of nothing. Whether it is an Imam praying for divine inspiration for a student to pass an exam they have not studied adequately for, or a Daddy G.O. telling a fairytale about driving from Ore to Lagos on an empty tank, we need to recognise these as fraudulent MMM culture components. Regardless of how much esteem we have for such purveyors of societal MMM, we need to have more respect for ourselves and our children’s future.
If that is too much for you to do, then I recommend that if you are bald you should start wearing a wig because it might save your life. After all, whether you like it or not, Malawi’s Baba in the bush ecosystem is the exact same ecosystem as that of Daddy G.O. and Alfa in Nigeria. You can be assured that people will start hunting your scalp for gold here eventually. As a famous man once said, “By their fruits you shall know them.”
Letting go of our religious MMM culture also means that we should stop trying to use our religion as a game of Celestial Yahoo Yahoo, where instead of scamming a white man in Connecticut and getting him to send dollars by pretending to be a woman who loves him, we scam a white man in heaven and get him to send us blessings by putting on an act of piety and devotion. If there is an all-powerful being watching over us, he or she is certainly not impressed by our platitudes and affectations of piety.
We need to put religion in its proper place and stop using it to compensate for a lack of personal philosophy and actual spirituality. There is no point holding house fellowships, speaking in tongues and always praying the longest and loudest, while inside we remain greedy, selfish, vindictive, duplicitous and unpleasant people.
The next thing we need to do in getting rid of MMM culture is to stop rewarding bad behaviour with silence or acquiescence. We all know how it feels to queue up for something for several minutes, only for a queue jumper to arrive out of nowhere and start making eyes at us. It might feel as if letting them in if they ask nicely is the humane thing to do, and if you don’t, you might even get people saying “What’s this one’s problem?” However that simple act of allowing a queue jumper cut in without challenge is one of the markers of MMM culture – tolerance for habitual shortcut seekers and indulgence of undeserving people.
It is this exact willingness to let bad behaviour go unaddressed that results in us consistently electing and reelecting people who are objectively terrible human beings and worse leaders. Remember that the basic tenet of MMM culture is that cause can be divorced from effect. Thus, a failed leader who should be voted out of office keeps finding their way back because they put up lots of smiley posters and distribute bags of rice. The people who should hold him accountable for four years of mismanagement accept the Greek gifts like you accept the sheepish smile of the queue jumper at the toll gate, and they let the politician cut in ahead of them, after which he forgets about them for another four years.
The final step on the road to breaking free from MMM culture is to adopt a habit of planning. Lugard’s assertion was that Africans have an animalistic, happy-go-lucky, one-day-at-a-time approach to life that does not lend itself to long-term strategy. According to him, the African approach to life is that of bravery born out of animal instinct, rather than moral virtue. To prove this assertion wrong on a personal level, planning for inevitable events like death is key. Perhaps you should consider taking out 15 minutes to create a Will. As I have written about before, you should also be intentional about decisions like getting married and having children, instead of gambling with new lives.
And of course, don’t invest in MMM!