Re-conceptualising Lardner’s concept of time conflation


By Ibrahim Lawal Ahmed

It was Mr. Tunji Lardner, a philosopher of his own right but more popularly considered as a strategic communication expert, that conceptualise the idea of time conflation in Africa in his Chapter contribution titled Time Conflation in Africa in the first Volume of a book titled, Documentation of Leadership Experiences of Select African NGO Leaders. Similarly, in a TEDx Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria, Mr. Lardner contextualized his idea of time conflation to Nigeria in what he called The Brief History of Nigeria Time.

Basically, the idea of time conflation is a marriage between physics and philosophy in the context of socio-economic and political development of the society. The idea is to look at socio-economic and political issues in the three dimensions of time – past, present and the future. To Lardner, this analytical approach of dissecting issues on the basis time is essential if we are to make any progress in Africa. Lardner argued that we know about the past and the present, and the dialectics is that the past issues are always present.  He buttressed this argument by quoting William Faulkner that, “In Africa, the past is never dead, it is not even the past.” By this, it means that all the colonial and early post-colonial challenges of African States such as supremacy of western education at the detriment of indigenous knowledge, division of society into native (rural) and civic (urban) areas, tribalism and military intervention in politics, are still recurrent African challenges in 21st century. This means that an African man lives his life “simultaneously both in the past and the present.”

As Lardner argued, “Africa’s past is never really the past. We have a compounded historical legacy, especially our recent past, where the lingering legacy of (Ali Muzrui’s) triple heritage still haunt us.” And the present is where “the unresolved problems of the past – venal government, poor governance, weaponized ethnicity and the youth bulge – have all come to roost.” Therefore, “we are constantly trying to solve yesterday’s problem as they collide with today’s challenges.” However, “the optimistic view is that our future is a tabula rasa – essentially a blank slate yet to be written.” It is because of this optimistic view that Lardner always urge the younger generation to imagine and write a different future for Africa. Thus, Lardner is an optimistic futurist that believes in radical or what is called out-of-the-box thinking. His aim is to push the younger generation to dream and make dreams their reality.

In addition, to Lardner, the challenge to development practitioners (policy makers included), “lies in discerning how to effectively factor in an understanding of Africa’s conflated space-time paradox in our work. The dilemma we must confront involves successfully separating out our past, present and future in the work we do and sustaining the division. Indeed, to take full advantage of this new leapfrogging 2.0, we have to deal with the time conflation challenge and the interesting questions it throws up (emphasis is mine).”

Indeed, to leapfrog Africa from its current state, we have to deal with the issue of time conflation. However, confronting the dilemma of time conflation in a linear term by separating out our past, present and future and sustaining the division is not pragmatic, and, policy wise, risks compounding the already existing tension in the society. Linear conception of time deems past, present and the future as points or destinations.  This is not accurate. What Lardner fails to appreciate is that Africans simultaneously live their lives both in the past, present and the future. Time conflation is the fusion, of not only the past and the present, but the past and the future in the present. Time conflation is therefore not linear but a quantum where the particles of the past, the present and the future are in dialectical existence and clash with each other resulting in contradictions and tensions. The best way to conceive time conflation, as an observer point of view, is to think of it as a big transparent ball, and the past, present and the future as smaller balls of three different colours. And this smaller balls are in the big balls which is rolling down to infinity, and as a result of the motion, the balls are constantly hitting at each other.

From a participant point of view, let us assume that the past is yesterday, the present is today and the future is tomorrow. No matter the atmospheric variation, in any given day, the sun comes from the east and set on the west, hence, the day remains 24 hours. Looking at self as an individual, you are bound to feel ever present in a space called day. Therefore, today is yesterday’s tomorrow, and tomorrow is a day like today. In this regard, tomorrow is not a distant future but ever present, and the present is an accumulation of the past. Thus, in a realist view, the present embodies both the past and the future; thus, time conflation.

To talk about time is to inevitably talk about space. And in this regard, Lardner is not the first to articulate the dilemma of time conflation. In his seminal paper, The Two Publics, Peter Ekeh argued that colonialism, through it exploitative administrative institutions and education, has created two publics: the civic and native space. The civic space, referring to government institutions, is where the national cake is baked, however, the native space provides access to the cake. Individual relationship with civic space is that of rights while to primordial space is that of obligation.

Relating Ekeh’s space with Lardner’s time, it can be conjoined that the native space represent the past and the civic space represent the present. The question is what space does the future occupy in the 21st century? At this point one may assumed that Lardner is right to deem the future as tabula rasa. On the contrary, Lardner is far from being right. The future is a digital space. One only need to transcend the linear presentation of time by Lardner; from seeing time as point to seeing it as motion with trajectory patterns. And if one look at the trajectory of our present progress in this world, one will see our daily activities is being digitized. Therefore, the future is a digital space.

The character of a digital space is that it dematerializes an object. That means one’s existence loses physical substance. Social interrelation and interaction takes a simulation format. Therefore, identity becomes essentially algorithmic. One can be in Nigeria while working in British. One’s best friend may be in Philippines while he lives in Comoros Island.

What are the implications of time conflation both at micro and macro levels? At individual level, one may developed a triple identity. For example, in the native space, he is Olatunji. In the city, he is Lardner. And on the social media or digital platform, he becomes an algorithm. The implication is more or less psychological, where one has to act differently across these three spaces with the risk that the demands and expectations from one space does not clash with the other space. Taking this tension at the societal level, developing over Ekeh’s analysis, the society becomes divided into three: the native space (past/traditions), the civic space (present/modernity) and digital space (future/post-modernity). The dialectics is that each space is trying to assert dominance, and this conflict between the three spaces is a current conflict. That is, it is happening today; not tomorrow, not yesterday.

To illustrate this, with a change in the dialectics between the past and the present in Nigeria; as a result of the present increasingly tilting to the future at the detriment of the past, boko haram emerged from the native space as a violent force with the aim of halting and shifting time back to the past. Thus, boko haram proscribed the very basis where the present (modernity) lies – western education – as taboo and all moral conduct that comes from that space. Similarly, the future is beginning to assert it predominance almost violently. #ENDSARs protest in 2020 which was led by young Nigerians (future generation) by exploiting the social media to organize the protest and requesting for socio-economic and political transformations is a good manifestation of the future fighting to assert its predominance over both the past and the present. In this contestation of times, the present serve both as the space where this tension takes place, an arbiter of this tension and also involved in this contradiction.

The State, from Marxist theory, is an arbiter of contradictions. And the State in Africa and Nigeria, in particular, has to act decisively to manage the tension between the past (traditions), the present (modernity) and the future (post modernity). Policy makers should be aware of this tension, and policies should aim at containing the contradictions from becoming violent. So what is needed are exigent actions that balances the dialectics between the past, present and the future thereby evolving the progress of African society to a more peaceful, united and prosperous interrelation among people. In this regard, policy on education, for example could include History, Civic Education and Computer Science into the curriculum of both primary and post primary education in order to accommodate the past, the present and the future.

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