By Douglas Anele
Yesterday, March 16, 2013, was precisely the seventh year that Campbell Shittu Momoh, Professor of African Philosophy, University of Lagos died. To members of his immediate family and those of us he influenced positively one way or another, the psychological wound his sad exit left in our hearts is yet to heal completely. I still remember the discussion I had with him the very night he died, and his demise reminds me of the utter transitoriness of human life here on earth.
My quest for university education at the Department of Philosophy, UNILAG, provided the opportunity for me to meet Prof. Momoh. As a teacher the late scholar was fairly regular in class, and although his lectures were sometimes boring, especially when he taught logic, his exposition of African philosophy was brilliant, illuminating, and levelheaded.
Prof. Momoh was a firm believer in African philosophy as an authentic and legitimate subject for serious academic pursuit. Therefore he scathingly criticised African philosophers who “actually strive strenuously to satisfy and propagate the ideals of Western philosophy or any other alien philosophy.”
The main targets of Momoh’s criticism were members of the school of thought he labelled African logical neo-positivists, epitomised by Profs. Peter Bodunrin and Paulin Hountondji – although to some extent Profs. Kwasi Wiredu and Moses Makinde might be included because of the strong Western orientation of their writings. Prof. Momoh’s contributions to scholarship, especially to African philosophy, deserve to be celebrated.
He wrote several books and articles in both national and international journals, contributed chapters in books and was the editor of now defunct Journal of African Philosophy and Studies.
As the founder of National Association for Religious and Ethnic Tolerance (NARETO), he encouraged religious tolerance and ethnic harmony among Nigerians. In this connection, Prof Momoh co-edited a comprehensive four-volume work comprising scholarly papers from authors who approached the subject of ethnic diversity and religious tolerance from different perspectives.
Anyone who studies all the volumes would definitely come away with an enriched appreciation of the complexities entailed by religious and ethnic diversity. Momoh’s main argument in “God is not in Need of Existence” and “Pansophism and Ontological Placement in African Philosophy” is very interesting.
In the two papers he tried to justify people’s beliefs in deities and the efficacy of prayers addressed to such deities. According to him, the important issue regarding these beliefs is not whether the entities postulated exist or do not exist. Instead the important question to ask is: does the entity play any central role in the life of the individual or the community? Chances are that if the answer is positive the individual or community will invent a religion or ritual to honour that entity.
Momoh’s thesis helps explain the ubiquity of religious consciousness across cultures and historical periods, as well as the proclivity of individuals and communities to venerate natural and artificial objects that play significant roles in their lives. Prof. Momoh was an engaging political philosopher: he strongly believed (and I agree) that philosophy, no matter how abstract, must address fundamental social problems of the day.
In his best polemic against democracy entitled The Funeral of Democracy in Nigeria, Momoh argued, among other things, that democracy in the country breeds corruption, hegemony of the three major ethnic groups and incompetence.
He avers that democracy is the verdict of the majority. But if the majority has a racist, tribalistic and unjust worldview, then democracy, will be tainted with these vices. Prof. Momoh advocated the invention of a “Social Wheel” such that by merely turning it one “can know what is scientifically due to each component of the country even in a thousand years from today.
Now, although the points he made about Nigeria’s shambolic experiments in democracy are “spot on,” I disagree with him on the possibility of using any device, including the hypothetical Social Wheel, to determine what is due for each component of Nigeria even for a week, not to talk of a thousand years.
Constructing a just political system that takes care of the diverse interests of plural societies is always a work-in-progress, such that it is unrealistic to believe that there could be a device which, by merely turning a lever or perusing a table, can automatically produce solutions to the difficult challenges of equitable distribution of resources, positions and responsibilities among different ethnic nationalities in Nigeria.
Prof. Momoh, in his magnum opus, Philosophy of a New Past and an Old Future, formulated the principles of “moralism” and “active oath” to promote the task of nation building and tackle corruption. Moralism is the doctrine that “honesty, service, and concern for the interest of the other ought to be the basis and measure of all actions and policies.” The objective test of moralism is “how much the action of an agent meets and satisfies the legitimate wants and demands of the other or how it minimises the avoidable and unnecessary sufferings and pains of the other.”
On the issue of making oaths of office efficacious in curbing corruption by public officers, Prof. Momoh argued that the present “passive” oath-taking is not working and cannot work. It should be replaced with what he called “active oath” in which the person swearing must be made to do so in the name of a juju specifically prepared for that purpose. Christians and Muslims could also swear active oaths with the Holy Bible and the Holy Koran respectively by reciting relevant portions of the scriptures.
The underlying procedure here, according to Momoh, is that the oath taker must invoke or spell out clearly what should befall him if he willfully and deliberately enriches himself, friends or relations by exploiting or abusing his office. Prof. Momoh’s submissions on how to construct a better Nigerian society are thought-provoking and deserve more critical attention than they have received up to this moment. Probably in a future essay I will subject his doctrines to ratiocinative scrutiny.
For now, however, it is germane to report that Prof. Momoh was a humane and tolerant lecturer who displayed an intriguing mixture of arrogance and humility most of the time. I am one of his protégés: I know that the moment he identifies a promising and brilliant student, Momoh would do whatever he could legitimately to assist the person.
Prof. Momoh was blunt, sometimes excessively: he could lambast a junior colleague for doing something wrong and later provide a soft landing for the person. It is not gainsaid that, like all humans the late Professor of African Philosophy and a prince of Auchi royal family had weaknesses. For many years he was a chain smoker, and sometimes carried his gerontocratic attitude too far. But on the whole he was a good man, a brilliant academic and a man of peace. I miss him! CONCLUDED