The future was once exclusively the province of the gods. For generations, its gatekeepers and guides were fortune tellers, astrologers, oracles, and soothsayers. Empires and kingdoms hearkened to the voices of clairvoyants and prophets, of those who read the tea leaves. In modern times, awash as we are with so much knowledge and data, the fate of societies is no longer obscured by an impenetrable shroud of mystery. And while it is true that we cannot claim to know what tomorrow holds with absolute certainty, human society is unlikely to ever outgrow its obsession with knowing the future.
As Peter Bernstein wrote in his seminal history of risk, Against the Gods, “The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk; the notion that the future is more than just a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature.”
Innovators, strategists, think tanks, social psychologists, economists, and development theorists all claim an interest in anticipating the trajectory of nations. Not content with insight and hindsight, we crave foresight. It is how societies have paved the path of progress. Precognition is the understated aspiration of the social sciences.
Why does this matter?
Nigeria is presently navigating an arc of profound transformation. It is projected that by 2050 it will have the third-highest population in the world. As our population grows, it is and will be overwhelmingly made up of young citizens that need food, energy, infrastructure, health, and education.
At the same time, we must adapt to the challenges of climate change while rapidly adjusting to an era in which our hydrocarbon resource revenues are imperiled by a global shift away from fossil fuels. Meeting these demands will require us to grow at a pace rarely witnessed in history. And how we go about addressing these issues will have implications for peace and security. In many ways, our country is now at an inflection point and seasons of change are customarily fraught with risk.
Virtually all the major challenges confronting us have been decades in the making rather than sudden eruptions. It took decades for unsavoury influences to foster the growth of violent extremism which exploded into a terrorist insurgency. It took decades for the collapse of communal livelihoods in the rural North-West to spawn a plague of banditry and terrorism. The decades-long destruction of local economies in the Niger Delta paved way for the rise of two generations of armed malcontents.
This point bears some reflection. What if we had discerned our trajectory much earlier and cut off yesterday’s toxic shoots before they grew into today’s poisoned trees? More pertinently, even as we wrestle with the present challenges, what are the contemporary trends that seem inconsequential in the cold light of the present but carry within them the seeds of tomorrow’s upheavals?
One of the objectives of Nigeria’s National Security Strategy is to “foster a culture of preparedness within our strategic institutions and build the resilience of our communities against the risks and hazards that pose the greatest threats to the Nigerian people while actively reducing our vulnerabilities.”
This incidentally is the mission statement of the Office for Strategic Preparedness and Resilience (OSPRE) – an office established by President Muhammadu Buhari in June this year and which I have the privilege to lead as its pioneer Director General. To put it as simply as possible, our work is to identify latent threats to human security and help mobilize responses that pre-empt, mitigate and contain them.
Our directive principle is that “prevention is not only better than cure; it is cheaper as well.” The idea is that the cost of identifying and containing a latent risk is much less than that of addressing a manifest peril. We have to expect the unexpected, anticipate threats, and foresee the impact of unintended consequences and Black Swan events. This also means strengthening institutional early warning capabilities across government and civil society. Our aim is cultivating strategic foresight is threefold – to prevent adverse outcomes where possible, to ensure that we are adequately prepared, and to build the resilience of our communities and institutions.
In an age of complex and multidimensional crises, the adversarial tensions between state and civil society must give way to synergy and interdependence. This is why we see our mission as a whole-of-society effort that involves civil society and the private sector in mobilizing collective action to actively shape our future. Our work can be summed up in an axiom for the ages – the best way to predict the future is to create it.
Chris Ngwodo is the pioneer Director General of the Office for Strategic Preparedness and Resilience (OSPRE) -National Early Warning Centre of Nigeria.