”Of intellectuals and social critics” Sabella Abidde

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Culled from Punch 12th June 2013

 

Are you familiar with these names? Bala Mohammed Bauchi; Ayo Bamgbose; Kenneth Dike; Adiele Afigbo; Ayodele Awojobi; J. F. Ade-Ajayi; Tekena Tamuno; Oyetunji Aboyade; J.P. Clark; F. Niyi Akinnaso; Kelsey Harrison; E.J. Alagoa; Kalu Ezera, Chike Obi; Grace Alele Williams; Christopher Okigbo; Dipo Fashina; Eskor Toyo; Biodun Jeyifo; Claude Ake; Kole Omotosho; Tam-David-West; Gani Fawehinmi; Tai Solarin; Christopher Okigbo; Toyin Falola; and Niyi Osundare.

Frankly, I could give you more names. Hundreds more, in fact. Many are academic giants: intellectuals. But there are a few social critics amongst them; and of course, fewer numbers are both intellectuals and social critics. As with their western counterparts — Jean-Paul Sartre, Edward Said, Linda Colley, Noam Chomsky, Antonio Gramsci, Richard Dawkins, Lillian Hellman, Henrik Ibsen, and James Baldwin – many of these intellectuals were based in the Ivory Towers.

Generally speaking, intellectuals — sometimes called Polymaths — are men and women who have committed their lives and times to the pursuit and or dissemination of rigorous ideas and serious knowledge. They can be found in all areas of life – including music, arts and culture, medicine, mathematics, economics, politics, law, philosophy, and literary criticism. Within or across many areas of specialisation, they are considered “the master,” the authority.

Beside the university or institution-based intellectuals, there are the public intellectuals who, for the most part, are engaged in very public discourses within the public sphere. Noted public intellectuals and critics include Solarin, Fawehinmi, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Ishola Oshobu, Cornelius Ubani, Ola Oni, and Sam Amuka. However, it should be pointed out that there are times when it is difficult to differentiate between public intellectualism and political activism — or between political activists and social critics.

But in the final analysis, all four – ivory tower intellectuals, public intellectuals, political activists and social critics – all exist to make society better. In years gone by, many of these men and women – especially those outside of the university system – were labelled “radicals,” “leftists,” or “gadflies” by military regimes, and sometimes, by the Press. But those who knew better knew that these were the salt and honey of our nation. They were the nation’s conscience. Across geographical landscapes, they were at the heart of human civilisations – helping to shape collective destinies, illuminating challenges, and influencing collective thinking.

I once opined that any society without a bourgeoning class of intellectuals cannot truly flourish. Such a society may stagnate, regress or even disintegrate. Even as brutal and repressive and unpredictable as some military regimes were, the Nigerian intellectual class, along with a budding class of social critics, helped to keep the government in check. But today, things have changed. Nigeria is different. It is almost unfathomable how the nation went from great heights to low ebbs (insofar as social criticism and intellectualism are concerned).

Commenting on this issue in 2010, Dr. Olayiwola Abegunrin, formerly of the Obafemi Awolowo University, now a professor at Howard University, posited that the Nigerian military bears some of the responsibilities for ”destroying our institutions by some of the policies they promulgated and pursued, beginning from the Gen. Yakubu Gowon era. Some of the policies they pursued, along with the coups and countercoups, helped weaken, and, in some cases, destroy our sense of nation-building and sense of self.”

What was said a few years ago remains true today: “During the military era, many of our national treasures were prosecuted, persecuted, harassed, jailed, or sent into exile; and in some cases, the military simply made life and living miserable and unbearable for them. Civilian administrations also contributed to the malaise. In the end, some of our best and brightest left in search of stability and greener pastures. Gradually, the distasteful and impermissible became permissible and sacred. It became okay to not only steal, but to loot. It became acceptable to be a professional sycophant. And it also became fashionable to be an illiterate in a literate and globalising world.”

Look around you, what do you see? From one Government House to another, what do you see?  From the state Houses of Assembly to the National Assembly in Abuja, what do you see? From one private and public function to another, you see men and women being honoured for hypocrisy and mediocrity. We give chieftaincy titles to bandits; honorary PhDs to ruffians; and national honours to many an unqualified folk. Damn! This is no longer your grandfather’s Nigeria. Instead, this is the Nigeria Fela Anikulapo-Kuti warned us about — the Nigeria where many people look up to, prostrate for and or genuflect before men and women with inferior sensibility and dubious character. Great nations or nations of consequence have men and women at the front line of intellectualism and nation-building. Not in Nigeria.

In more recent times, especially since the 1990s, the pool of home-grown intellectuals has greatly diminished. The flight and the rot began at the secondary school level. Before you knew it, the universities and other institutions of higher learning were taken over by political maggots. What happened to Ife (now the Obafemi Awolowo University)? What’s going on at the University of Ibadan, and at the University of Lagos? The Ahmadu Bello University and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka are today empty.

As far as I can tell, there is not a university in the US or Canada where you will not find, at a minimum, one Nigerian professor or professional. There is not a single hospital where you will not find Nigerian medical doctors and or nurses and other professionals. There is not a single private or public institution anywhere in the US that you will not find Nigerian students. Same may be true of the UK. They are everywhere because successive Nigerian governments, military and civilian, made the country a living hell. How do you thrive in a country that frowns at excellence, at dissent, at courage, and at frontierism?

To say that intellectual pursuit and social criticism is a dying art in Nigeria is an understatement. There is a price to be paid for silence and cowardice in the face of oppression and injustice. Most everyone wants to be on the side of the government for expected crumbs. Nigeria is now paying the price for abandoning intellectual pursuits. We already see the decay in the system. We see this in our national priority. We see it in how and what our country is becoming. And we see it in the pervasiveness of hopelessness and in the moral and political corruption that have come to characterize our country. This is not our Nigeria.

 

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