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The Cost of Ignorance

Written by on August 19, 2021

It has often been said that history repeats itself. However, the fact is, history does not repeat itself, it is human beings that repeat history and that’s mostly because they don’t know history.

The famed Israeli historian, Prof. Yuval Harari wrote that “The greatest scientific discovery is the discovery of our ignorance”. The moment mankind discovered the things he doesn’t know, that changed the game of history. By knowing what we do not know, we started our journey towards knowing those unknowns. That has been the story of humanity since the scientific age began. All the socio-economic progress that we have witnessed is built on the power of knowledge. Despite this progress, there have been countries and regions that have not enjoyed this progress. Nearly all of it can be connected to ignorance.

The total estimated number of malaria deaths stood at 409,000 in 2019. 94% of these deaths happened in Africa. 40% of our population in the African continent live below 1$ per day. Compare that with Europe, where it is 9.8% who live below the poverty line. Consider that the median household income of Togo is 571$ while for Luxembourg $52,492. This is an unimaginable amount for a Togolese. As of 2019, there are 117 deaths in every 1000 live births in Nigeria. Compare that to Singapore, where are 2.5 deaths for every 1000 live births.

This is not the first time we are witnessing a particular section of the human population lagging. In 1858, Commodore Mathew Perry arrived Japan, forced it to open commerce with the west. As always when a powerful nation invades a less powerful nation, the treaties are largely unfair to the Japanese. Japan conceded several special economic and legal privileges to the Western powers. Their case is only a little different from what happened to Africa in 1884 when the so-called Berlin Conference took place. Africa was shared just like the way our politicians share the national cake in Abuja. Europeans “divided” this large continent as though it was a backyard family farm.

How did Japan respond to this change? And how did Africa respond to this change?
In 1868 a group of middle-rank samurai toppled the Japanese government and began what has been called “The Meiji Restoration”. They realized that the only way to win against their new enemy, the west, is to learn from it. They studied social, economic, and social institutions of the West and selectively adopted those that suited their purpose. They were so desperate about learning from the west, they even sent emissaries to study how the west fought their wars. The result was that within a few years, Japan had modernized. It had become a constitutional democracy with thriving industries and a higher standard of living for its people. By 1904-5, Japan went to war with Russia and defeated Russia. This would have been impossible in 1858. The Japanese leaders who led the Meiji Restoration did a simple thing, they learned what they didn’t know.

A few years later that is exactly what many nations will do after the Second World War. Singapore is a small country that at Independence, almost no one believed it will survive. At Independence, it had a Prime Minister who was like the Meiji Restoration leaders, Lee Kuan Yew. Lee was so desperate about developing his country that he took a leave from his Prime Minister role to study at Harvard for a brief program. He explained that the world had changed, the world no longer moved as the British had made it, the British Empire had effectively come to an end and this was the beginning of the American empire, hence he wanted to understand how the Americans think. Impressive. He knew what he didn’t know and he went to learn about it. Today, Singapore is a thriving nation that the Brits are using as an example for themselves.

After the colonial expedition, our African fathers attempted to fight colonialism through their tools of swords and horses, it failed miserably. Swords could not do anything to a man with a cannon. It was not until many years later that Africans studied the Colonizers and began to fight colonialism in the language of the west. Unsurprisingly, it worked. It was not a mistake that many of the independence fathers received western education and all of them were eloquent in the language of the west, whether French, English, or German.
70 years ago, most of Asia was like Africa. Africa was richer than Asia and Africans had more wealth than Asians. Centuries ago, Europe could not be compared to the Ottoman Empire. Millennia ago, Egypt was the sole superpower of the world. Geography is not destiny, colonialism is not a Coffin for our continent and that we are classified as “third world” is not fixed in stone.

For every problem Nigeria faces, there is already a solution. Every one of those humongous problems that dominate our headlines. Bad governance. Poverty. Insecurity. Education. Etc. There are already solutions out there in the world. But yet, we keep bearing the cost of ignorance. The cost of ignorance is the price we pay for not knowing the solutions to our problems and following through.

The answers are out there, we are just not asking for the solutions and our leaders especially.
This is why addressing this group is important. I am no prophet, and I am not claiming to be prophesying, I am stating what will happen, seated here are those who will champion the affairs of our nation in a few years. I challenge you today, don’t forget to seek the answers. When the time comes, remember that there are answers out there, find them and use them. The consequences of our leader’s ignorance have been that we all have borne the cost. Ignorance is expensive. We can save millions of lives just by knowing and doing.
Thank you. May history be kind!

This speech was delivered by Lengdung Tungchamma at the Public Integrity Club, University of Jos, Nigeria in June 2021

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