By Emmanuel Ojeifo
The integral human development of any nation is always dependent on its ability to pool a critical mass of individuals whose insights enable the nation to come to grip with how the vital interplay of theory and praxis can contribute to nation building, and whose contributions can enhance the greatness of the national project. No nation can enjoy the full range of human possibilities that guarantee the material prosperity of its people if it neglects the unassailable role played by intellectual capital in fast tracking development and improvement in the standard of living of its people.
For intellectuals to function effectively in the public life of a nation they need an alternative space that affords the possibility of not only exposing the failures of leadership and government but also the recipe that could bring about national transformation. In other words, being a progressive intellectual, as Dr. Tunji Olaopa, one of Nigeria’s intellectually formidable permanent secretaries, once wrote “does not translate into merely lifting the radical cudgel of criticism against power without also applying the balm of recommendations that could point at the right direction that resolves the identified problems.”
The intellectual speaks the truth to power. He exposes, criticises, analyzes, and judges; but he does not stop there. He also dreams, envisions, imagines, innovates and constructs. He does not simply argue, quarrel and complain about how and why things are not working, he also points to an alternative mirror, envisions an alternative pathway and constructs an alternative model for social transformation.
For the intellectual, the beauty of his art does not just lie in the satisfaction of human curiosity but in its ability to stimulate and generate cutting edge ideas that can meet the template of social transformation. Where social critique fails to bridge the gap between theory and praxis, the intellectual fails in his duty to society. This means that after speaking the truth to power, the intellectual does not simply go to bed and sleep. He takes up his social responsibility of opening up the horizons of imagination and the pathways of innovation that gives issues into to a better future.
According to the ethical theory of social responsibility, an entity – be it a corporate organisation or an individual – has an obligation to act to benefit society at large. This responsibility can be passive, by avoiding engaging in socially harmful acts, or active, by performing activities that directly advance social goals. Writing on the responsibility of intellectuals in society, Noam Chomsky, American linguist, philosopher, political critic and activist, once said: “Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.” While in the Western world intellectuals have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression to act on behalf of society, it is not so in other parts of the world, including Nigeria, where intellectuals sometimes suffer proscription at the hands of the ruling power.
In Nigeria, this phenomenon has been largely responsible for the poverty of thought, that critical shortage of intellectual content to public policy conceptualisation, articulation and formulation. This seminal absence of intellectual rigour to leadership and governance, as Chinua Achebe wrote in his1983 monograph, The Trouble with Nigeria has led to the institutionalisation of the cult of mediocrity especially in the choice of people appointed into public and political offices.
“Nigeria” Achebe wrote, “is a country where it would be difficult to point to one important job held by the most competent person we have.” Nearly 30 years after, Achebe repeats expressed the same frustration in his memoir, There was a Country when he talks about “the manner in which the leadership of our country is selected.” He goes on to say that the institutionalisation of failure “will end only with the dismantling of the present corrupt political system and banishment of the cult of mediocrity that runs it, hopefully through a peaceful democratic process.”
It is in this context that he draws a link between politics and intellectualism. The role of the intellectual in society, for Achebe, “depends on the state of health of his or her society. In other words, if a society is ill the writer has a responsibility to point it out. If the society is healthier, the writer’s job is different.” Whatever the state of health of the society, the overriding goal of the intellectual must be to seek through his art new ways of creating and sustaining an environment of good order and civilisation.
For the privileged class of intellectuals in the West, democracy provide the leisure, the facilities and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are mediated and presented to us. But in Nigeria beyond the fact that many intellectuals lack the enjoyment of these privileges, the few who enjoy them do not appreciate them. At other times, instead of staying on the side of the people, these intellectuals align themselves with the government in power, thus becoming imperial apologists and supporters of the status quo and devising disingenuous arguments to justify the distasteful accoutrements and trappings of power.
It is not new in Nigeria’s political history that intellectuals, for the sake of selfish material interests, distort the truth in their analysis of the actions of governments in terms of motives that are unexpressed in official propaganda and perhaps only dimly perceived by those whose acts they govern. Having succumbed to the patrimonial philosophy of the ruling class, these intellectuals now stand as forerunners to the moral and social degeneration of the polity. The lucky part of the tale is that it usually does not take long before such intellectuals fall out with the government in power, and then it is easy to see the hypocrisy concealed behind their official rhetoric and utter disregard for the suffering and misery of the people.
This long tradition of naiveté and self-righteousness that disfigures our intellectual history, however, must serve as a warning to present day intellectuals as to how our protestation of sincerity and benign intent are constantly being interpreted by those who look forward to a greater involvement of academic intellectuals in politics.
“It is the responsibility of the intellectual to speak the truth to power and to expose lies,” says Noam Chomsky. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious. Thus, we have Martin Heidegger writing, in a pro-Hitler declaration of 1933, that “truth is the revelation of that which makes a people certain, clear, and strong in its action and knowledge.” It is only this kind of truth that one has a responsibility to speak.
It may be of no particular interest to us that one man is quite happy to lie on behalf of a cause that he knows to be unjust and detrimental to the common good; but it is significant if such events provoke so little response in the intellectual community. For as Matthew Hassan Kukah has said in his recent book, Witness to Justice, “if we are unable to hold our leaders accountable for their promises to us… then there is a sense in which those of us who claim some level of literacy and possess a critical mind are guilty bystanders to the collective oppression of our people.”
To create the basis for decency, prosperity and democratic government and to guard against the abuse of power and the arbitrary use of legitimate authority, these are the unchanging role of the intellectual in politics and nation building. That is why the intellectual must strive to lay a foundation by creating a moral mirror by which our leaders and citizens can constantly look at themselves and reflect on their duties and responsibilities towards seeking the attainment of the common good.
In this light, it is easy to understand the distinction made by Hussein al-Attas, the Malaysian philosopher, who divided the world of intellectuals into two: the functioning and non-functioning. For al-Attas, “functioning intellectuals are repository of the hopes and potentials of their nation. They are constantly burdened by the malaise, the disjuncture and fissures in their society.” Functioning intellectuals are harbingers of hope in the possibility of a better future. In virtue of their varied professions, functioning intellectuals are called to be visionaries, dreamers and prophets in the society.
Prophetic imagination is a major plank of intellectualism. Intellectual prophets are the visionaries of their time. When all others are blind or close their eyelids to the doors of memory and imagination, intellectuals who are social prophets are the ones granted to see the handwriting on the wall, to interpret the signs of the times and to analyse them in the light of the superior knowledge and perception.
Intellectuals who are social prophets refused to be defiled by the corruption of the moment; they refuse to be engulfed by the darkness of the surrounding environment. They possess the vision of life as it ought to be, and it is this vision that propels them in their difficult assignment. They are endowed with the rare courage not only to denounce systems of evil and injustice in general, but also to name the specific human agents of evil and injustice in society.
They warn evildoers of the inevitability of nemesis, while giving the much needed hope to the suffering people. Intellectuals who are social prophets give reason for the poor, defenceless and helpless people to hope that all is not lost; that history is capable of being re-written and turned around for the better.
We need a good dose of this prophetic imagination in our own country Nigeria where millions of citizens groan under the heavy weight of corporate amnesia and grope under the darkness of collective myopia. We cannot afford to be a nation of more historians and less visionaries; of people whose eyelids are open only to the failures of the past but are closed to the possibilities of the future; of intellectuals who are abundantly gifted in the art of public complaint but deficit in the science of public imagination. We have men and women of learning who are renowned for intellectual gymnastics, but who see no connection between knowledge and problem solving.
There is today in our country an acute shortage of moral vision, intellectual rigour, critical thinking and a discerning conscience, especially among our elite. A widespread epidemic of thoughtlessness seems to have infested every aspect of our national life. What appears to be in place instead is a cult of mediocrity.
Many of those whom Nigerians look up to for a sense of direction, have often become corrupt officials or sycophants, praise singers, bootlickers and propagandists for the government in power. In the face of this national malaise, Nigeria is in dire need of intellectuals with sufficient prophetic imagination to champion the cause of national rejuvenation, leading men and women of our country from the present valley of tears to the promised land of justice, peace and prosperity.
Those sterile and non-functioning intellectuals who revel in the art of fruitless intellectual gymnastics need to be reminded of the famous postulation of the great German philosopher, Karl Marx, who said: “Hitherto, philosophers have interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it.” This needed change in the way we apprehend the world will only come about when thinkers, policymakers and intellectuals try to bridge the current gap between knowledge for its own sake and knowledge for the sake of the common good.
As Dr. Tunji Olaopa has said, “Transforming the world ranges from aligning scholarship to the amelioration of the human condition, subordinating knowledge to human progress and making theories socially responsible to human needs.”