Think about the first time you touched a hot stove and immediately withdrew your hand once you felt a searing pain. You immediately inferred that the hot stove was the cause of the pain.
To protect ourselves, we humans evolved to infer causality and conclude on consequences. The immediacy of the pain helped you avoid a dangerous or potentially deadly burn. Imagine if the pain were delayed, instead, and it took ten seconds for your brain to register that your fingers were being roasted like suya – you’d lose a couple of fingers.
That sort of delayed feedback (or pain) is called a time lag. It impairs the quality of decisions we make in different spheres, often to devastating effect. To understand what makes these consequences devastating, we have to understand two concepts that make it difficult for us to see these consequences beforehand.
First, the presence of a time lag (the lack of an immediate effect) misleads us into thinking there is no effect or consequence. We mistake the absence of evidence for evidence of absence. We see a classic example in the ancient presumption that black swans did not exist. Everyone held that view until black swans were discovered in the wild. Unfortunately, unlike real life black swans, when the effects reveal themselves, they are far deadlier than if they were apparent at the start.
The second is that the time lag compounds the effect. Drops of water can become a mighty flood, and in Lagos' case, a sachet of pure water in the gutter can cause a mighty flood.
Let's look at ways that time lags often have disastrous consequences.
Time lags encourage us to make unwise decisions when it comes to our health. Take smokers. When you start smoking, the first stick has basically no effect on your likelihood of getting cancer. So, the more the person smokes –without observing any visible effect, the less they are affected by the thought that smoking causes lung cancer – but the higher the chance they will eventually get cancer. The illusion of safety lies in the delayed effect.
Imagine if people got cancer immediately they smoked a cigarette stick; they would avoid cigarettes the way sensible people avoid Lagos trailers.
Alcohol and junk food work the same way.
Drinking and eating junk food works the same way. The heart attack doesn't happen the first time you finish three wraps of pounded yams, point-and-kill fish, and isi-ewu, with five giant bottles of stout. But each time you eat like this without exercising, the negative effects on your health accumulate like a Nigerian politician's bank account.
Infectious diseases with symptoms that take a while to display also work the same way. For example, the potency of HIV/AIDS does not only come from its eventual effect on the immune system, but also from the lengthy time lag. The time lag between when a beard-gang Yoruba demon lures his victim into bed and the display of symptoms on the tempter's face makes it immensely difficult to either tackle or avoid. No wonder the old warning told us ‘AIDS/HIV no dey show for face’. What you cannot see, you will struggle to avoid.
In the last year, images have appeared on Twitter showing the disastrous level of smoke in Port Harcourt’s air: surfaces inside houses covered with a thin layer of soot and babies' snot coloured black from the soot. Like the evil spirits in Nollywood movies, the persistent and pervasive soot appeared rather suddenly, so it seemed like a good guess that whatever caused it must be recent. Wrong. It had been a long time coming.
In her report on the dark smog plaguing the city, Aisha Salaudeen notes, "Today's soot is the result of decades of illegally burning crude to derive petrol and diesel. The continuous act of burning oil over the years has led to the soot." As one resident said, the particles accumulated over time and are now being carried miles away from the burning sites.
Like Port Harcourt’s soot, Nigeria’s security issues in the North-East did not occur overnight. Poverty, lack of education, and antagonism towards the state built up gradually. We started off joking about how no Nigerian could bomb themselves because "we're too preoccupied with our hustles", but soon watched in horror as Nigerians blew themselves up in marketplaces, churches, and mosques, and Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of teenage girls (twice), took over a couple of Nigerian local government areas, and declared those regions their caliphate.
The same is true of every security crisis Nigeria faces – from the murmurings in the Niger Delta to the recent violence in the Middle Belt. Rome was not built in a day, and neither were murderous militants.
Just like we’d let our hands burn on the stove if we didn’t feel the pain immediately, our leaders are prone to either acting late or ignoring harmful policies for too long.
Anytime the government takes on more debt to pay salaries or buy new cars, the consequences are delayed until they've compounded. Time lags encourage us to borrow frivolously, knowing that the next government or a future generation will bear the brunt of the debt. As a wise Nigerian politician once said ‘A new car key in one’s hand is better than functioning roads in the future’.
The delayed consequences of too much borrowing make us all sell our future like Esau and his insatiable desire for a bowl of pottage.
Time lags may be difficult to spot until their effect is immediately visible. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a starting point. How do we avoid the complacency of time lags? Forecasting and considering worst-case scenarios might help. Also, we can learn from others. You don’t have to burn yourself to see that touching a hot surface is dangerous. Likewise, we don’t have to wait until our citizens have respiratory diseases, our economies crash, or hundreds of girls are kidnapped until we learn that the consequences have always been there, biding their time.