Reuben Abati: Where Are The Public Intellectuals?

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?

21 Comments on Reuben Abati: Where Are The Public Intellectuals?
  • Tolu January 24, 2016 at 10:27 am

    We’ve bought them over with money…..

  • Concerned January 24, 2016 at 11:21 am

    I am shocked that this man called Rueben Abati has no shame after mortgaging his integrity for money. A few years ago when Nigerians didn’t know his true nature one would have taken this article seriously but we know better now. This was a man given the opportunity to serve Nigeria and uphold the highest public trust at a very critical time in our existence but he deliberately chose to fail himself and Nigerians because he wanted to enrich himself. How dare he try to elicit public sentiments or discuss on public intellectuals? The question he should ask is how come despite being an intellectual he decided to mess up monumentally when he was given an opportunity to correct errors of past administration? If he truly needs to know the answer to his question, no decent intellectual wants to to be involved in the mess his likes created in GEJ’s administration and subsequent ones because the intellectuals spoke for decades without anyone heeding their advise.
    Reuben Abati owes Nigerians apology in all the national dailies for his significant role in misinforming Nigerians, not advising GEJ and lying repeatedly and unrepentantly. It is true that Nigerians forget so fast but what this man an his cohorts did is still fresh in people’s memory. Reuben failed the intellectual community. He acted like a man without conscience and allowed himself to be rubbished by being part of a corrupt administration just like Femi Adesina in this current PMB directionless and rudderless administration.
    Public discuss is great, however, what is the point of intellectual discuss if the people elected lack the knowledge to discern or translate such to something meaningful.?

    • nnenne January 24, 2016 at 1:04 pm

      @concerned… you make sense.

    • folly January 24, 2016 at 3:08 pm

      I believe ds write up is meant fr pple like u dats driven by d current situation of d country and its inability to think deep. Nothing is wrong wt his write up only if u change ur fixed mindset and add meanings to it.

    • Kay January 25, 2016 at 7:40 am

      Abati jati jati

  • FasholasLover January 24, 2016 at 11:22 am

    Reuben is BACK!
    Blame the NEW Nigerian culture that is now infused with greed, easy money and laziness. The average Nigerian is at peace with mediocrity. Why put in hard work/graft when you can get whatever you want the easy way? The easy life has taken over. Nobody cares anymore. Why task yourself when society settles for mediocrity? Easy money. Easy grades. Poor delivery. The spirit of “just manage it” has taken over.

    God bless parents/people who still insist that things should be done properly.

    • nnenne January 24, 2016 at 1:06 pm

      True! @ FashiolasLover.

    • Hmm January 24, 2016 at 6:54 pm

      Hard to take your comments seriously when you don’t exactly “walk the talk” The same you talking about mediocrity is the same person calling peeps “Idiat” and telling them to STFU on other posts. Madam, why not practice what you preach first? Mediocrity after all is not just about academics but also how you treat others.

  • Teris January 24, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    a pox on you!
    “..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,..”

    sick of all this false. misplaced nostalgia. what or when were these days he speaks of? is it the political clap-trap which lacked the will and ability to execute? as far as i can tell, intellectualism died with Nkurmah and his cronies. And even then, it was just talk. They never put down the structure nor the vision/blue-print for a powerful future.

    we have been plagued with “leaders” who are short-sighted and good at making excuses. and we have in-bred that awful culture into the present core working-class generation.

    “…What has happened is that politically neutral intellectuals have now become scarce;..”
    you should talk!
    we have a working-class that has been systematically trained to fail, told it’s too young, is without experience…by a cloud of denizens untouchable who have been in operation from their youth (and by “youth” i mean UN-youth, mid-twenties) at 45, they’re still telling you to wait your turn! what g*******d turn!

    in fact, i shudn’t get myself so worked up on a Sunday afternoon. i have traffic to deal with it in a few short hours.

  • gbemi January 24, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    Brilliant and provoking piece of art. Unfortunately our generation loves charismatic empty heads. some intellectuals are not charismatic, I think we need a synergy of the intellectualism, charismatism and connectors.

  • justsayying January 24, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    When the number one citizen is a high school graduate,what kind of intellectuals do you want?

    • moha January 24, 2016 at 3:03 pm

      Come to think of it we just had a Phd holder ruined Nigeria…

  • A Real Nigerian January 24, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    A boring, stiff and generally underwhelming article.
    This poor writer attempted to create an illusion of depth and intelligence, but he/she/it only came across as banal and lame.
    Using big words or being coherent doesn’t make you a good writer and neither does it make your dense articles any easier to read.
    Something like this should be discussed by people who are flexible, simple and exciting with their use of English, not someone who just joins words together and hopes to pass across a message.
    No passion, no flair, no finesse. Horrible piece of writing.

    • Baba Blue January 24, 2016 at 3:27 pm

      The only time i would take you seriously is when i come across anything written on any topic which is not a reaction or a retort that bears your real name and linked to a profile and your pseudonym here on Bella Naija. Until then you are what we call Iso… mess, fart., thunder pant. We dont know what you ate but the fart gives us a clue. Ode’do

    • Jane January 24, 2016 at 4:37 pm

      Thank you dear. He is one to talk. Mscheeeeeweww

    • Anon Today January 24, 2016 at 6:21 pm

      ‘Boring, stiff, underwhelming, poor, banal, lame, no passion, no flair, no finesse, horrible … ‘
      So, that’s your critique of the article? Seems you have a higher, rooftop standard. Maybe you should post a link to some of your own articles. Some of us would want to learn more and upgrade.
      Or, maybe you should read the article again.

  • Debby Ags January 24, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    @ A Real Nigerian. I disagree. It is a well-thought out and articulated piece. It uses very simple english as well (makes me wonder what your reading habits are if you think he uses big words). If you could link us to something you have written so we can make sense of your uppity comments? Yup I came here to bash the basher…peace out.

  • Californiabawlar January 24, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    They at the same place you was at during the GEJ administration, selling they integrity to the highest bidder.

    Yes, ebonics…you don’t deserve good grammar.

  • Sammie January 24, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    Lovely article Rueben. In addition to your points I think our educational system doesn’t encourage critical reasoning, courses are taught with passing the exam as the overall objective. That’s why we find it difficult managing complexity and ambiguity because it lacks a pragmatic hands on context.

    We have gotten accustomed to ” Who shouts the loudest wins the argument” approach in discussions. Intellectuals do not thrive well on such environments. That’s why most impactful meetings both public and private are rearly fruitful. It is always riddled wit factions and turf wars!

    Lastly, our continent lacks good visionary leadership. Mandela was the last one we had.

  • Honeycrown January 24, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    Mister writer, please goan axe gogu because I’m temporarily tired this topic.
    BN, please what happened to the color of my avatar? Abi I shud goan axe gogu too? ?

    • Honeycrown January 24, 2016 at 11:09 pm

      Oh, my avatar has changed back to its normal color. BN, please disregard my question. I think I know what happened ?

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