My earliest history lessons included the voyages and discoveries of 15th Century Spaniard and Portuguese explorers. It is hard to imagine that these present day backwoods of Europe once led the world in navigational sciences. Her lead in the sciences and other spheres of human endeavor was scuttled by the Spanish Inquisition and its long time ramifications. In an attempt to compel religious orthodoxy (conservative Catholicism) on the entire people, the Inquisition murdered, imprisoned and expelled heretics, dissenters and iconoclasts with their disproportionate representation of polymaths, scholars and deep thinkers. With that rigorously imposed conformity, and the consequent lack of “noise of advancing ideas”, Spain and Portugal, over time, atrophied.
After the 1st World War, a nonconformist military strategist, Major Charles de Gaulle, wrote a report to the French High Command. In his report, he disagreed with conventional French military thought; he postulated that the automobile engine (as expressed in military tanks) has changed warfare. That, unlike the static and trench warfare of the past, warfare of the future will be mobile. And unlike in the past when the infantry and artillery played central and decisive roles in combat, in future wars, planes and tanks will be pivotal, they will spearhead attacks. The French High Command was not impressed by his new military strategy. De Gaulle was unyielding, he continued to advocate, and elaborate on, his new military concept. With time, exasperated by his persistence, the senior officers tossed his subsequent reports into the trash can without reading them.
Across the border in Germany, a brilliant colonel, Heinz Guderian, also understood that the mobility tanks and war planes brought into warfare rendered earlier Strategic Doctrines obsolete. He conceived of a military strategy similar to De Gaulle’s. At a military maneuver, he demonstrated his novel military concept. Adolf Hitler was not just impressed, he was ecstatic; he leaped from his seat and screamed. Guderian’s ideas were adopted and integrated into the German Strategic Doctrine. It was called “blitzkrieg” (lightening warfare).
At the beginning of the 2nd World War, with her lightening warfare, Germany overran Poland in one of the most dazzling military victories in history. Then, she invaded France. The French army bewildered by the ingenuity, daring and speed of blitzkrieg stumbled about in confusion. It was in this confusion that the French High Command realized that the military strategy that was decimating, devastating and humiliating France was essentially what de Gaulle had championed for years at the total disdain of the French military hierarchy. It called in de Gaulle, promoted him and asked him to put his long advocated concept in effect. He tried but it was too late. In what must have been one of the most disgraceful defeats of a great power by another, France surrendered to Germany.
It was brutal enforcement of conformity, and its attendant suppression of dissent that robbed Spain of her earlier lead in navigational sciences. It was the refusal to heed the lone, dissenting voice of an obscure major that brought upon France the ignominious defeat of the 2nd World War. There can be no sustained progress without innovation, and there can be no innovation without dissent. Dissent is an indispensible ingredient for national efflorescence.
The Nigerian social environment is very repressive and intimidating. It stifles dissent and encourages conformity and servility. Lamentably, these banes of the Nigerian society have made successful inroads into our universities. The university authorities are literally intimidating students into passivity and docility by forcing them to sign the “Indemnity Form”. In signing the form the student in effect takes an oath to be of good conduct. He/she abdicates his right to protest and to challenge any rule and regulation of the school. Supposedly, the object of this form is to maintain law and order in the universities. But really, it protects the pretensions and powers of lecturers/professors and university administrators at the expense of the students’ right to freedom to expression.
The coercion of students into renouncing their right to protest is an assault on the jewel of democracy (freedom of speech). To railroad students into blind obedience to all rules and regulations in the name of law and order is despotism couched in moralistic homilies. Paradoxically, as Nigerian democracy, despite its myriad problems, is slowly but steadily blooming, our universities are relapsing into autocracy. The browbeating of students into signing the Indemnity Form is brazenly undemocratic. It should be illegal.
The worst evil a nation can inflict on itself is repression of free speech, especially, in the universities where the leaders of tomorrow are being molded. The reckless idealism, starry-eyed optimism and unbridled ebullience of youth find expression in many ways, especially, dissent: challenge of the status quo, questioning of authority and criticism of the older generations. Youthful dissent should be allowed a free reign in our universities and the society at large. While it may be disruptive and unruly, and may profane the sacred, violate the sacrosanct and debase the exalted, it serves the public good. It enlivens free speech and expands its amplitude. And from free speech, with its contending views, discordant ideas and acerbic debates, a people’s collective mind is edified, their horizon enlarged, their freedom nourished and their creative energies stimulated.
Education informs and enlightens the mind. The attributes of an informed and enlightened mind include knowledge, courage, self-confidence and conviction. Any mind armed with these qualities cannot remain timid and entrapped; it must be liberated. It must invariably protest against what it considers unfair, and challenge rules and regulations it considers unjust. So, the banning of protest and insistence on unquestioning obedience to rules and regulations, in essence, subvert the object of a university education. It is only in the upside down world of Nigeria that institutions whose mission is to liberate the mind are laboring assiduously to entrap the mind.
Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria.
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