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“Good afternoon my co-debaters”: How a popular Nigerian school tradition is distorting national discourse

A school debate participant Photo Credit: NAN

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“Good afternoon my co-debaters”: How a popular Nigerian school tradition is distorting national discourse

“…And that is why I believe this name Adeniyi is better than gold. With these few points of mine, I hope I have been able to convince you that a good name is better than gold!”

[Wild audience applause]

Sometime in late 2004, I sat in my high school assembly hall during a debate session, watching an exchange between two Year 9s on the topic “A Good Name is Better Than Gold.” Tunde Adeniyi (name has been changed to protect his privacy) who was arguing “for” clearly did not understand the topic. Whereas the expression in question uses the word “name” to mean “reputation,” he thought it literally meant  the thing that appears on your government ID.

Of course in the absence of such basic understanding about the topic he was supposedly arguing in favour of, Tunde basically had nothing to say that was worth hearing. He did however manage to say that nothing in very many words, impressively filling five minutes with empty bluster, dramatic voice modulation and vigorous gesticulation of the Patrick Obahiagbon variety. Apparently this went down very well with the audience because when he signed off with the “mic-drop” line above, the hall went wild with applause and people chanting his name.

“Tunde! Tunde! Tunde!”

Our hero with the “good name” did the triumphant walk to his seat, lapping up the adulation of his teenage audience.

Up next was Anthonia (name also changed) to argue that gold was in fact, preferable to a good name – whatever that was. In contrast to Tunde, Anthonia was less expressive and more methodical, putting out her points lucidly and arguing them convincingly. I would have almost found myself agreeing with her were it not for the fact that the entire crux of her argument was, you know, completely insane. In which human culture – including Nigeria – is gold valued over a good reputation?

What exactly is the point of all this, I kept wondering.

15 years later, I had all but forgotten this incident when I put up a Twitter thread on the subject of Nigerian school debates.

While reading through some of the responses, I suddenly had a flashback to this episode at Grange School in 2004. It was as if I was back there that afternoon, sitting in the back of the hall and fiddling with my top button while listening to Tunde and Anthonia duke it out in the most pointless, pedestrian and mind-numbing debate of all time.

Here we were young teenagers in a country just five years into its democratic era with a plethora of social and economic themes ripe for valid, stimulating discussion. Instead, we had to do this thing called “debate” where one side was “for” and the other “against” a statement that is accepted as true in basically every known human culture. It was like debating whether 2+2=4, only that the dude debating in favour didn’t know what numbers were, and the girl debating against was a borderline sociopath.

It might seem trite to draw a link between this seemingly harmless Nigerian school rite of passage and the deterioration of our national discourse, but please stay with me as I embark on a journey that begins in 1770 in the German city of Stuttgart, taking a detour through the coastal West African town of Badagry and eventually culminating in the reality of Nigeria in 2019.

The Origin of For vs. Against

Prior to migrating and founding the town of Badagry in the 18th century, my family lived in a town called Ouiddah in modern day Benin Republic. The local deity in Ouiddah called Tolégba was one of the most important Òrìsà in the pantheon. Like much of West Africa, we had no concept of a binary worldview because the very basis of our existence – our spiritual system – was plural and multipolar. This is why the concept of a “religious war” was something that did not exist in that geographical area.

The British, Germans and French however, had firearms and large navies, so as West Africa increasingly came under their direct rulership, their cultural influence particularly through their religion and education began to rub off on us. By the time the British made first contact with Nigeria through my 19th century ancestors in Badagry, Tolégba’s influence was waning. In place of the Orisa, there was now a single God called Jesus, and his eternal adversary called Satan.

Thanks (no thanks?) to Anglican Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther who translated the King James Bible into Yoruba, “Olodumare” and “Esu” – previously just two members of the West African godhead – morphed into “Jesus/God” and “Satan” respectively, and the rest of the Òrìsà were effectively erased. Now we had one good and righteous God to pray to, and one evil and iniquitous Devil to be delivered from. At this point without knowing it, we had plugged our culture and society into the deepest and most fundamental basis of European cultural philosophy called the Hegelian Dialectic.

The Hegelian Dialectic is a form of philosophical enquiry perfected by 19th Century German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, which was based on the dialectical method of Greek philosopher Plato. In Plato’s case, his way of arriving at the truth of a philosophical discussion was to pit two groups of people on opposing sides of an argument until a consensus opinion was achieved. Hegel took this further by pitting ideas against each other in an eternal battle to the death beyond the limitations of accepted reason and skepticism. You could call it an early form of brute-force hacking where scientific fact is established by argumentative trial-and-error ad infinitum.

The good thing about the Hegelian Dialectic is that it is the closest thing to a totally scientific and dispassionate way of establishing facts. It makes no assumptions about anything and merely examines all issues on the strength of their merit – nothing is off limits. If for example, Hegel’s Dialectical method is used to examine racism, sexism or homophobia, it makes no prior judgments and simply hammers out every false argument until only the truth remains. Whatever comes out at the end of Hegel’s Dialectical process is the simple, refined truth.

Or at least that is how it should work.

The Futility of For vs. Against

In reality, the Hegelian Dialectic has been a bit too successful and has gone beyond merely the method of philosophical enquiry that influenced the colonizing cultures of 19th century Europe. These days, pretty much everything that entails a difference of opinion, from politics to research to marketing to entertainment has now adopted the Hegelian worldview even if it serves no useful purpose there. The dialectical method popularized by a German philosopher has succeeded in dividing the world into a never-ending series of binary conflicts on just about every subject known to mankind both in Nigeria and elsewhere.

APC vs. PDP. North vs. South. East vs. West. Man vs. Woman. Coke vs. Pepsi. Republican vs. Democrat. Conservative vs. Liberal. Remain vs. Brexit. Climate Change vs. Denialist. White vs. Non-white. LGBT vs. Straight. Historian vs. Revisionist. Ronaldo vs. Messi. Facebook vs. Twitter. Oppressed vs. Oppressor. Batman vs. Superman. “Rich” vs. “Poor.” Red vs. Blue. Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter. Fossil Fuel vs. Renewables. Change vs. Status Quo. For vs. Against.

Unknown to us, when we tell kids to stand up in front of an audience and debate for and against, without any real context or purpose to said debate, we are acting out a script that is much older than us. We are acting like our great-grandparents who were so impressed by their Western-educated children and grandchildren that they would sometimes make them stand in front of the family and speak English. It didn’t matter what they were saying – often it was basically gibberish – but the old folks were bowled over by their progeny displaying (a crude simulacrum of) the white man’s apparent sophistication and erudition.

European colonizers introduced the Dialectical debate to us, and we came to associate that two-sided system of “debate” with “intelligence” and “sophistication.” That is how come the topics we still assign our kids to debate in school are consistently nonsensical, pedestrian or out-of-date – it’s not really about achieving a useful result at the end of the so-called debate.

Plato and Hegel used the Dialectical debate for scientific and philosophical enquiry. We on the other hand are merely aping what our great grandparents saw the white guys do, without understanding why they did it or if it is relevant to our current situation. For what it’s worth, there are still many issues in our public discourse that could use an objective Hegelian debate in order to arrive at a scientific conclusion. “Is a boy child better than a girl child?” is certainly not one of those issues.

Hegel’s Dialectic exists to arrive at conclusions on subjects that are still in question, not to flog long-dead and cremated horses. It serves no useful purpose to get Nigerian students to argue back and forth about whether a good name is better than gold, or whether doctors are better than teachers. Being entertained by such pointless and arcane “debates” is analogous to how our naive grandparents reached into their pockets when their mischievous children came back from school and spun them a yarn of the “Daddy, teacher said we should pay for a Biological-Geometric-Chemistry tomorrow” variety.

It’s 2019 for God’s sake.

The Tale of “Master Man”

When I was little, I had a book of African folk tales that I loved so much that I read and reread it for years on end. One of the stories I remember vividly is a Hausa folk tale called Master Man. In the story, a man who considers himself to be the strongest in the village hears about “Master Man” who is so much stronger than him that he hunts and eats elephants. Our hero cannot accept the affront to his ego so he sets out to challenge Master Man, only to discover that he is overmatched and Master Man is a cannibal.

He tries to make his escape but Master Man pursues him. While running for his life, he encounters another man who asks him why he is running. He replies “Master Man is chasing me!” The other guy responds, “Well I am Master Man so that can’t be right. I must fight this impostor!” Our hero makes his escape while Master Man 1 and Master Man 2 engage in noisy, earth-shaking combat. In the course of fighting, they both leap and keep on rising, eventually ascending beyond the clouds and out of sight.

The noise continues from the sky to this day. When people hear it, they think it is Thunder, but it is really just the sound of two idiots fighting forever to see which one of them is “Master Man.”

What this story says in the typically tongue-in-cheek manner of Hausa humour is that some arguments are so stupid that the world moves on while they drag on forever. The two fools should obviously accept that either none of them or both of them are Master Man, but stupid arguments and debates consume unintelligent people while life goes on around them.

Want to see an example of a “Master Man” debate topic? Check out this doozy from an event organised in 2012 by the Federal Ministry of Education.

In the same decade this shameful “debate” held, a cure for HIV was successfully trialed, so the world has moved on. In the Master Man world of Nigerian secondary school debates however, the very existence of HIV/AIDS is something to be debated ad infinitum in the context of stupid conspiracy theories. All we need is some thunder when next such a “debate” holds.

I touched on it briefly already, but it bears repeating that arguing illogical or moot points, is hardly an educational experience for a child. The one and only time I debated in high school, I was told to argue against on the topic of former CBN governor Charles Soludo’s reforms in the Nigerian banking sector. In 2004 prior to the N25 billion capitalization requirement, there were 89 banks in Nigeria, with the vast majority of them just a few hundred million naira away from insolvency and subsequent mass panic.

I was 14, but I read the daily newspapers and watched the news everyday so I knew that banking recapitalization was in everybody’s best interest. I wanted to argue in favour of the reforms but I was told nope, find an angle to argue against. My team and I ended up delivering a weak argument about how “Nigeria is not ready” and “the new requirements are harsh.” It was a silly argument and we knew it, but we had to stand in front of 200 people and deliver it anyway.

Unsurprisingly we lost, which came with real social penalties in the Lord Of The Flies environment that was secondary school. Till today I cannot identify how standing up to argue an objectively wrong, intellectually bereft position helped me or any of my debate team members, but that is the point about ‘Master Man’ debates. Their entire purpose is to be interminably stupid and to occupy stupid people.

If we are not trying to raise a generation of unintelligent Nigerians, why do we keep forcing them to take part in ‘Master Man’ debates?

Raising Little Hitlers

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Nigerian school debate culture is the tacit agreement that certain debate topics and positions are blatantly wrong or offensive, but forcing kids to argue those positions somehow helps them become better at “persuasion” and “public speaking.” The idea is that objective truth itself is not so important. What we really want is a bunch of kids who can use truthiness and debate hacks to win arguments, because that’s the important thing – winning the argument.

In other words, we agree that we ordinarily have no business touching these debate topics and positions, but the fact that we can possibly train kids to lie efficiently and deliver convincing performances while saying nothing of substance is like, totally worth it. Remember Squealer the pig from Animal Farm? He was the convincing speaker and public debater convincing other farm animals to align with their own exploitation – the bovine Ben Shapiro if you will.

We are teaching Nigerian kids Squealer’s skillset, complete with gestures, rhythmic body movement and eye blinking, and rapid fire speech delivery to say the greatest amount of nothing in the shortest possible time. Plus of course, good old lying through their teeth. Hegel’s Dialectic exists to arrive at fundamental underlying truths. Our bastardised Master Man version of it in Nigerian schools apparently exists to train the country’s next generation of Twitter argument-havers and politicians.

Remember Tunde at the outset? He won the debate. He literally missed the entire point of what he was supposed to be arguing for, but he carried the room. In Nigeria’s debating culture which extends into our public discourse and politics, that is all that counts. Stuff like factual and contextualized statistics, service records and objective data all go out of the window once someone carries the crowd in a Nigerian debate. This logically carries on into university student politics and eventually into mainstream national politics.

That is why the politician whose biggest claim to fame is singing a song that went viral is preparing a run for governor based on literally nothing at all – and he will probably win too. It’s why a politician in Abuja said that he would “protect Nigeria’s economy with the army, navy and airforce,” and we promptly handed him a $500bn economy to run. It’s why after two decades of direct and proxy rule over Lagos, where the Island disappears underwater whenever it rains and most of the mainland looks like a battle sequence from Black Hawk Down, a politician in Ikoyi is apparently a “genius,” a “visionary” and a “trailblazer.”

Facts have no place in Nigeria’s public discourse once someone can entertain the crowd or pull their emotional lever. We can trace it all the way back to the sociopathic leadership training we give to Nigerian kids in school. We really have to decide – do we want another generation of leaders who perfect the art of stringing people along with grandiloquent nonsense, or do we want competent 21st century leadership?

Changing School Debate Culture to “Solution Culture”

In response to my thread, several smart people made suggestions for modifying school debates in Nigeria. I think I’ve done enough talking at this point, so I’ll just let the smart people speak for themselves.


In summary, if we want to make Nigerian school debates relevant to the 21st century, we need to first of all understand what a debate is and is not. Yes to Hegel’s Dialectic. No to ‘Master Man.’ We also need to teach students that sometimes issues are more complicated than what a binary debate can capture. They need to understand that it is OK to change their minds in the light of evidence – truth is the goal, not merely having an opinion. They need to understand that the substance (truth) is more important than the form (truthy argument).

And if you get nothing else out of this, then please for the love of Tolégba, let’s do away with those ‘Mother vs Father,’ ‘Doctor vs Farmer’ and ‘Boy Shide vs Gehl Shide’ topics.

Please…

And with these 2,800 words ladies and gentlemen, I hope I have been able to convince (and not confuse) you that Nigerian school debate culture needs an entire overhaul.

*drops mic*

David! David! David!

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David Hundeyin is a writer, travel addict and journalist majoring in politics, tech and finance. His work has been featured in the New Yorker Magazine and the Washington Post. Hundeyin is a US Department of State nominee for the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP).

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