Something sad has happened and is happening, and is getting worse in our society: the decline of public intellectualism. And so I ask, where are the public intellectuals? Once upon a time in this country, the public arena was dominated by a ferment of ideas, ideas that pushed boundaries, destroyed illusions, questioned orthodoxies and enabled societal progress. Those were the days when intellectuals exerted great influence on public policy, and their input into the governance process could not be ignored. Ideas are strong elements of nation building, and even where interests are at play, you know the quality of a country by the manner in which a taste for good thinking propels the leadership process.
Public intellectuals are at the centre of this phenomenon: they include academics who go beyond their narrow specializations and university-based scholarship to take a keen interest in public affairs and who use their expertise and exposure to shed light on a broad range of issues. They also include journalists, writers and other professionals who question society’s direction, and offer alternative ideas. The beauty of public intellectualism is that the intellectual at work is a disinterested party, he is interested in ideas not for his own benefit, but for the overall good of society, and he does not assume that his opinions are the best or that he alone understands the best way to run society and its organs. The product of this attitude is that discourse, a culture of debate, is encouraged and in the cross-pollination of ideas, a good current of thought is created; truth is spoken to power.
We have had glimpses of this in Nigeria, and without trying to sketch a history of public intellectualism in our country or attempt a ranking of public intellectuals, let me just say that between the 60s and the 90s, there was so much fascination with ideas in this same country, it was as if the public mind was on fire. Academics from various disciplines took a keen interest in the prospects of the new Nigeria, and they went to the public arena to project ideas. Journalists became revered as sages, so much that certain newspaper columnists almost single-handedly sold newspapers.
Public lectures were organized which attracted persons who were just interested in ideas. Writers did a lot more than the professional task of producing novels, poems and plays and wrote public essays. The vendor’s stand every morning attracted not just buyers and free readers, but also young Nigerians who every morning debated major topics of concern. On television also, there were debates and those in the corridors of power also took ideas seriously. So influential were intellectuals in the public space that they soon got invited to be part of government and although the military had always opposed intellectualism, at least one government, the Babangida government had the largest collection of intellectuals in office since independence. Many who lived during that era will remember the debates over the IMF/Structural adjustment Programme.
As the years went by however, public intellectualism began to decline. In 2006, Jimanze Ego-Alowes published a book titled How Intellectuals Underdeveloped Nigeria and Other Essays, an allusion to the complicity of intellectuals in the crisis that had by then engulfed the country. Four years later, Rudolf Okonkwo in an article titled “The Comedy of Our Public Intellectuals” observed as follows: “the world of the Nigerian public intellectual is a zoo. It is a zoo full of nihilists. Some are sectarian in their outlook and others are humorless. Some are eccentric while others are comical. But one thing they all have in common is an over-inflated ego of their importance in the scheme of things.”
I don’t know about over-inflated ego, but I do know that the flame of public intellectualism in Nigeria is now almost a flicker. There are extremely few new significant voices, saying anything of consequence, the soldiers of old have become old, the fire in their belly, now subdued. It is as if our academics have lost interest in public affairs, as only a few of them maintain a column or write an occasional piece or take on public issues in the manner of the likes of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Segun Osoba, Claude Ake, Bade Onimode, Ola Oni, Mokwugo Okoye, Mahmud Tukur, Yusuf Bala Usman, Ayodele Awojobi, Biodun Jeyifo, Femi Osofisan, Stanley Macebuh, Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, Chinweizu, Kole Omotoso, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Bode Sowande, Patrick Wilmot…The opinion pages of the newspapers are no longer vibrant. There is so much “opinionitis”, but debate is rare and rejoinders are always self-serving.
What has happened is that politically neutral intellectuals have now become scarce; the typical intellectual of today is not public in the sense in which that word is used; he is in reality affiliated to partisan and sectional interests. The intellectual influence in Nigeria’s affairs is thus diminished because of obsession with individual interests: academics are now at best “acadapreneurs”: the intellectual as an entrepreneur. Business and partisan interests have compromised media houses; those once vibrant platforms are no longer offering vibrant ideas. Within the cultural sphere, there is a total dumbing down. Where are the creative writers? They are still writing, but few want to get involved in the issues of the day and offer ideas.
The effect is that we are in the age of clichés, of jargon writing, of mundane, unimaginative commentary. Whatever appears intellectual is written off as arrogant and there is no quality debate on anything because people have resorted to making fashionable statements that suit the moment and every one is locked in their own little corner, not willing to listen to the other side of the story. The reading public, whatever is left of it, is also not interested in ideas or anything that requires rigorous thinking. We have thus lost a critical element of public intellectualism: an audience. The people are interested in easy stuff, in fashionable opinions that align with their own partisan interests. Nobody wants to read any long commentary; there is an obsession with short thinking, and whereas brevity may be a good technique, there are certain ideas that just cannot be reduced to a tweet. It is really sad that today, intellectualism is seen as a threat.
Even when corporations and politicians in power draw intellectuals close; they end up usurping the powers of the intellectual, compelling him to hold his intelligence within the scope of the definition of his assignment. Intellectuals can be inside or outside, and there are classical cases of intellectuals in power making a difference, but that age appears ended, the disdain of intellectualism has turned politicians and corporate gurus into wise men that they are not, and the intellectual into an organic element of power. The greatest power of the intellectual lies in his freedom; when he is denied that under any circumstance, society turns off its energy source and gradually, it is the self-imposed wisdom of clowns that prevails.
The gap that has been created seems to have been easily filled by internet gladiators who spend the day shuffling from Instagram to Facebook to Twitter and other social media threads. These new culture activists project a democratic impression of public intellectualism – and yes, there is a sense in which everyone is an intellectual, from the village priest to the village idiot- but I don’t see the rigour, the breadth and depth and the aesthetic alienation that can elevate this genre and its promoters to the grade of public intellectualism. For the most part, social media in Nigeria is predominantly at the level of tabloid sensationalism, and it accommodates and offers the same degree of freedom to the ignorant and the mischievous, as well as the entrepreneur and the uncouth. There is no doubt however that its content and the quality can be raised, but that will require innovation, the intervention of thinkers and the creation of new audiences that will be interested in something more than the quick and formulaic.
What we have lost is not the intellectual, as there are many educated Nigerians who are experts in their narrow fields, what we have lost is active intelligence as a tool for social progress. The rub is in the intelligence part of being intellectual. Being intellectual is about living a life of ideas and using those ideas to engage society intelligently in a committed manner.
In addition to other reasons, it may well be that our intellectuals are tired of engaging Nigeria. Having tried over the years to engage the governance elite with ideas and to show that only good ideas should govern society and having been spurned by the politicians, Nigeria’s intellectual elite seems to have become so frustrated, it has retired largely into a state of indifference and inertia. What is the point knocking one’s head against a wall? But intellectuals in society cannot take such a stand. That will amount to an abdication of responsibility: when intellectuals do no more than make righteous noises, the harvest in the long run, is counter-productive.
Another factor is the emergence of a “climate of fear,” and a culture of silence/co-optation/acquiescence. Politicians distrust intellectuals; they can’t tolerate anyone around them speaking truth to power or raising disturbing questions. The intellectual is expected to keep his ideas to himself and respect constituted authority. He is expected to enjoy his freedom in his head and dare not go public with it. Ideas cannot thrive if the man of ideas is afraid to think, and whisper or speak. Rather than insist on the freedom to differ, many academics, journalists, writers and thinkers have since dropped the baton, and surrendered the public space.
But that is unhelpful cowardice. Those who know better must continue to engage the public vigorously with ideas about governance and public policy, and encourage open debates, for the good of the entire society. Those ideas must however, be relevant for them to be of any value; they must not be abstract theories that disconnect with the people’s realities, but ideas that offer intelligent solutions to practical problems.
Right now, there are critical areas where such intervention is needed: budgets, economic planning, handling a currency crisis that is fast turning into a nightmare (France has declared an economic emergency and yet was not in as bad a position as we are in…Argentina made changes to its export taxes to address its own dilemma…). We have had schizophrenic interventions by the Central Bank of Nigeria and yet where are the intellectuals to come up with analysis and desired alternative views, beyond bellyaching? Where are the inorganic public intellectuals to guide public thought? Who are those thinking for government, the opposition and indeed the public space?
Dr. Reuben Abati was Spokesman and Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan (2011 – 2015). He tweets from @abati1990.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer.