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A reversal of ‘African time’ concept

By Emmanuel Onwubiko

For the specific purpose of informa¬tion, permit me to relate to you that the piece you are about to about to read was scripted about two decades ago when I was still a reporter with the Plateau State-owned Standard Newspapers. The news¬paper was set up by the former Military administrator of Benue/Plateau, Joseph Gomwalk, who was then a police commissioner. Nigeria Standard Newspaper at a point became the cynosure of all eyes because it stood for equity and fairness and was feared by the feudal oligarchs in Northern Nigeria who saw it as a threat to the hegemonic hold on Northern Nigeria especially with the task of speaking for the Rights of the oppressed northern tribal minorities. That’s that about when it was written and the media house I was working when it was scripted. Here is the story of how and why African time must be abolished. Mallam Sani Mohammed Abdulminimu is a Nigerian-born American-based management consultant.

He has stayed in the United States of America for over four decades. In early 1997, when he lost his aged mother, he was compelled by customary obligations to come back home to attend his late mother’s forty days prayer. When he arrived the country’s international airport in Lagos, he intended to join one of the few available private airlines to fly to his home state of Adamawa. He bought his ticket and got ready to board the plane. When he and other passengers boarded the plane, little did they know that they were going to wait for the next one hour before the plane could take off. This long delay at the airport made Abdulminimu very restive and sad. When he went to find out why the plane could not keep to its scheduled time, he was decisively told by a highly placed staff of the Airport; Mallam… don’t you know that you are in Nigeria? In Nigeria ‘O’ we observe African time.


This airport scenario where the so-called African time was blamed as a fac¬tor that caused the unwarranted delay, is repeatedly experienced in all aspects of our socio-economic activities as Nigeri-ans. The concept of African time has been elevated to the position of an acceptable ideology. Karl Mannheim rightly said that there is a connection between the modern term “ideology” and the term as used by Bacon signifying a source of error.

According to Mannheim, Bacon’s the¬ory of the ‘idolca’ may be regarded to a certain extent as a forerunner of the mod¬ern conception of ideology. Bacon’s idols were phantom or preconceptions, and these were, as we know, the idols of the tribe, of the cave, of the market, and of the theatre. All of these are sources of error derived sometimes from human nature itself, sometimes from particular individuals. They may also be attributed to society or to tradition.

Bacon said that these idols or “false phantoms,” are distortions of the mind, like distortions of beams of light reflected from an uneven mirror: “from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture…”

The only way to correct this wayward mode of thought is through observation and experimentation, through the inductive method. These idols or “false opinions,” “dogmas,” “superstitions,” and “errors,” distort knowledge in many ways. Francis Bacon made what looked like a concise description of what African time represents in his theory of idol at the market place. Bacon wrote that the idol of the market place stands for the words men use in the commerce of daily life, words that are common comic in daily conversa¬tion…

In Nigeria, whenever a public meeting starts long after the scheduled time, the conveners of such meetings will quickly blame “African time” for such lateness. One thing which these skeptics who tend to see Africans as people who don’t keep to time forget to know that among the many respected virtuous African cultural values, there is the one which recognizes the African sense of time and promptness.

Oliver Onwubiko, a Catholic priest and scholar vast in African Philosophy wrote in one of his books that, the question of the African sense of time was arisen be¬cause of some dangerous conclusions some writers on Africa have drawn and strange enough some of them are Africans.

Onwubiko said that in the African cul¬ture, time is polychromous in the sense that a person can do these or more things within a given period but simultaneously. Clock time thinks of them being done suc¬cessively. For instance, a woman in a typical Igbo village could be doing her cook¬ing, at the same time cracking her palm kernel, she may still within this period attend to her baby and would be prepared to attend to anything that may come up.

On the aspect of the off-quoted “African time”, Onwubiko opined that; it is not uncommon to hear people talking of “African time” to mean that Africans have no sense of punctuality. This statement always refers to the half Europeanized and half de-Africanized Africans who are finding it difficult to adjust to the “clock-time” category. The traditional African is a master of time and not otherwise. This is why time is socialized, that is, time is programmed into socio-cultural norms of human behavior and interpersonal relationship. This erudite and distinguished African scholar wrote that, “It must be pointed out that Africans do have and conceive of time in the punctual sense, that is, at a particular time, things must happen, have effect or must be done. This can easily be discovered in African religious concepts…”

The most disappointing factor is that most Nigerians have embraced lateness as an ideology which they prefer to call ‘African time’. The concept of African time has also given rise to the ‘fire brigade’ approach which most Nigerians adopt and utilize when carrying out their legitimate duties. We must reverse this negative interpretation which we give to the concept of African time. This African time or fire-brigade approach has made us to suffer many devastations in the field of politics and sports in this country.

It was the “fire brigade approach that made our national football, teams to miss out in the qualification playoffs to many global tournaments . It was also the fire brigade approach that made Nigerian students perform abysmally poorly in all the externally conducted examinations. African time neatly marred most electoral events in the political calendar set by the Independent National Electoral Commission under the erstwhile chairman, Attahiru Jega.

We as Nigerians must accept prompt¬ness, dedication and hardwork as our na¬tional ideology. African time should mean promptness and decisiveness. The old negative interpretation of African time must henceforth remain destroyed perpetually. With the inauguration of the current ad-ministration headed by President Muhammadu Buhari renowned for instilling discipline especially in his first ‘missionary journey’ as a military Head of State with his well known War Against Indiscipline, it is expected that he would reorganise the National Orientation Agency to compel the staff to be up and doing in waging unrelenting science based and evidenced backed enlightenment programmes to mobilize Nigerians to embrace African Time to mean promptness and decisiveness in all their private and public businesses.