The Betrayal Of The 21st Century Nigerian Intelligentsia

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Monday, January 14, 2019    01.19PM / By Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA / @Alatenumo


Prior to the emergence of the fourth republic in 1999, the Nigerian masses left bloodied on the Jericho Road could count on an array of men and women to fight their cause. Whenever Nigerians cried out in response to the pain inflicted by their oppressors, the likes of Gani Fawehinmi, Chinua Achebe, Olisa Agbakoba, Ayo Obe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Wole Soyinka and Fela Anikulapo Kuti responded to the Macedonian Call. Despite their educational background and privilege, they pitched their tents with the “least of these.” Even though they earned their living as lawyers, writers, singers etc they hitched their wagon to something larger than themselves and took on the three-fold ministry as - professionals, activists and intellectuals. They used their platform to challenge the tyranny of the military, thereby ushering a new democratic order that has remained intact since 1999. However, as we approach the 20th year anniversary of the Fourth Republic, the modern-day Nigerian intelligentsia has abandoned its true calling. 


Intellectuals play a critical role in society by using their intellect (via a public forum) to steer society towards positive social change. In his essay titled, “Representations of an Intellectual,” Edward Said, the philosopher noted that an intellectual is “Someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and.... whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues who are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.” But the modern-day Nigerian intelligentsia has chosen the path of least resistance by aligning itself to the status quo. Today’s intellectuals are characterised by their political partisanship, lust for power and fame, shaming of the poor, neoliberalism, false equivalence and lazy intellectualism.


In contrast to the previous generation of intellectuals, the 21st-century Nigerian intellectual exhibits anaemia of political neutrality and a high blood pressure of political partisanship.  The emergence of democracy has resulted in modern-day intellectuals digging into their political trenches. While aligning with one of the two prominent political formations, they have become oblivious to the lies, corruption and oppression perpetuated by their political benefactors. In contrast, they are alert at the shortcomings of the opposition. This political partisanship has prevented them from carrying out objective social analysis. In short, they have been “captured” by the political class.


From history, we learn that the political elites have the tendency to utilise the services of intellectuals and activists to give their regime a veneer of credibility. Intellectuals have often acted as mouthpieces to justify a corrupt and repressive political order. During the regime of Ibrahim Babangida, the likes of Duro Onabule played the role of “Head Mouthpiece of the Babaginda Plantation'. When Jonathan Goodluck assumed the reins of power, he brought into his “Plantation” one of Nigeria's most creative writer and thinker, Reuben Abati. Upon assuming the role of Head Mouthpiece of the Goodluck Plantation, Abati repudiated most of the moral capital he had built over an illustrious career. Under the Buhari Plantation, Tolu Ogunlesi has settled nicely into this role. The seduction of power has blinded the moral compass of some sections of the Nigerian intelligentsia who are preoccupied with positioning themselves as the leading brains of the Buhari and Atiku Plantation. These intellectuals have become key players in what French philosopher and novelist Julien Benda called the “Game of political passions.” The passion for their political godfathers, which exceeds their passion for justice, manifests in several ways.


The 20th-century Nigerian Intellectuals were consistent in their condemnation of corruption and injustice irrespective of who was in power.  The modern-day Nigerian intelligentsia has abandoned its sense of justice. Instead, it has embraced a lopsided view of justice whereby the injustices meted by their political opponents are condemned while the injustices meted by their political benefactors are ignored at best and justified at worst.


When Deji Adeyanju was arrested because of his criticism of the current government, a number of intellectuals remained silent and failed to put pressure on the government to stop the persecution. Upon Mr. Adeyanju's arrest, one intellectual suggested that Nigerians calling him a prisoner of conscience and activist were disrespecting “Those who actually fit into these definitions.”  When Omoyele Sowore, a political activist and presidential candidate for the All African Congress was excluded from participating in the Presidential Debate, once again the 21st-century Nigerian intellectuals were nowhere to be found. The intellectual community also went AWOL when Sowore supporters were arrested in Lagos State for posting his election banners on the wall. When the Nigerian military raided the offices of the Daily Trust newspaper and arrested two of its journalist, Kayode Ogundamisi, a social commentator and pro-democracy activist wrote,“@daily_trust publishing troops move, detailed maps in d middle of war has dire consequences for our soldiers, whomever released the classified information to @daily_trust can release to Boko Haram too.  @Nigerian Army right to interrogate the reporter.”


One of the tools of choice used by the modern-day Nigerian intellectual to ignore or rationalise injustice is the use of false equivalence. With election day around the corner, those intellectuals aligned with the opposition party now see themselves as social crusaders pointing out the injustice and incompetence of the ruling party, while intellectuals aligned to the ruling party are using the injustice and corruption of the opposition party when it was in power for 16 years to deflect attention from the shortcomings of the current government. According to the Brooking Institution, in 2018, Nigeria overtook India to become the country with the largest concentration of people in poverty, with an estimated 87 million Nigerians living in extreme poverty. When this issue was raised with Festus Keyamo, a human rights activist and now Director of Strategic Communications of President Buhari's 2019 re-election bid in an interview, he dismissed the impact of the report by creating a false equivalence arguing, “112 million under PDP were extremely poor.


A series of videos were recently released showing Kano State governor, Umar Ganduje pocketing huge sums of money running to hundreds of thousands of US Dollars from what was reported as bribery payments. When journalist Abang Mercy broached the issue with Festus Keyamo, he created another false equivalence by arguing that the incident was not “cut and dry. Keyamo noted, “He collected money, have you not collected money in private before? I have counted money in private before.” Two days later in an interview with Arise TV, when the journalist asked Keyamo if those accused of corruption by the government were just contractors of the Goodluck Jonathan's campaign organisation who knew nothing about the stolen fund; this time around, Keyamo argued that the criminal proceeds should be returned


There are several reform presidential candidates like Omoyele Sowore, Fela Durotoye, Kingsley Moghalu and Oby Ezekwesili who have come up with radical policies to transform Nigeria. However, some members of the Nigerian intelligentsia choose to put their faith in the same old politicians that got Nigeria in the dire condition she finds herself, instead of critically evaluating these policies and comparing it with those of the dominant parties.


Another trait of the modern-day Nigerian Intelligentsia is its neo-liberal outlook and shaming of the poor. The previous generation of activists was united in their compassion for marginalised Nigerians. Because Gani Fawehinmi supported the cause of the masses, marginalised Nigerians gave him the title “Senior Advocate of the Masses”, while Ken Saro-Wiwa gave his life in the pursuit of justice for the Ogoni people. In December 2018, Ben Murray-Bruce, an entrepreneur and former senator shared on Twitter an image he took with Reno Omokri, an author and lawyer and Alan Greenspan, the former head of the Federal Reserve. According to Murray-Bruce and Omokri, they had invited Alan Greenspan to Nigeria to help “The @OfficialPDPNig and @Atiku implement our #letsgetnigeriaworkingagain agenda.” In their excitement to pose for a picture with one of the patron saint of neo-liberalism, Murray-Bruce and Omokri failed to see the paradox that it was the same Greenspan that played a key role in ushering in the greatest financial crisis the world has faced since the Great Depression and extending the gap between the haves and have nots in the USA. Instead of organising a gathering of Nigeria's brightest economic minds, they were more content outsourcing their economic reasoning capabilities to an American whose ideology has failed billions of poor people.


Present day Nigeria is dominated by a generation of oligarchs who have colonised a sizeable portion of the national cake in cahoots with the political class. Nigeria is currently home to the richest African, the richest, the second richest black woman on earth, the richest pastor in the globe and the highest number of people living in extreme poverty. The net worth of the three richest Nigerians is sufficient to lift 30 million Nigerians out of extreme poverty. Despite this asymmetrical distribution of wealth, little advocacy is being carried out by the modern-day Nigerian intellectuals. As tax breaks and other favours continue to be granted to these oligarchs at the expense of millions of Nigerians, some Nigerian intellectuals prefer to look the other way and pick the speck of sawdust in the political oppositions eye. Others are more content telling poor Nigerians, “Children of rich entrepreneurs are always targeted, harshly criticised/abused for just being themselves... Just leave them alone and focus more on yourself,” or “Poverty is not a virtue. Stop hating on people who have worked very hard to earn their big houses, fine cars and dream holidays.”


Shaming of poor Nigerians is a favourite pastime for some Nigerian intellectuals. For instance, Deji Adeyanju, the political activist noted that activism is not for the poor, “Poor man cannot be an activist. Hunger will make him compromise.” Others are strong advocates of measures to control the population of poor Nigerians. One intellectual who has a huge following on social media has a lot to say on this matter. He once wrote, “Nigerians need to stop giving birth to children they can't take care of. You can't have school cert and be having 7 kids.” He also argues, “A huge uneducated population is a waste of space and a huge liability to any country,” and, “Rich people have 2/3 children. Poor people have 5/6. This is the story of Nigeria.” Reno Omokri suggests that poor people should not transfer their poverty by having many kids. Instead, he calls on poor Nigerians to, “Take your children out of your poor environment once in a while and expose them to a wealthy environment so they can have something to aspire to.”  Ben Murray-Bruce draws a link between increased population and crime,“Nigeria has to invest in population control.... We have more mouths to feed and less money to feed them. In 2017, population growth rate was twice GDP growth. If this keeps happening, insecurity and crime will increase.”


Prior to the 21st century, the Nigerian Intellectual relied on the print media, radio and TV to disseminate his/her social analysis. With the emergence of social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the modern-day intellectuals now have an efficient medium, which can reach a wider audience covering a wider geographic space. Although social media has improved the efficiency of communication, to an extent, it has contributed to lazy intellectualism. The modern-day Nigerian intellectual can now rely on 140 characters (now upgraded to 280 characters) and a huge social media following to justify a position no matter how illogical it may sound. Consequently, not much thought is given in the social analysis made by some Nigerian intellectuals as can be seen from some of the quotes I have highlighted in this article. Some intellectuals have used an array of social media platforms to peddle complete lies, half-truths, disparage political opponents and justify oppression as they rely on their follower's retweets and likes to justify their simplistic analysis.


Partly because of the praise coming from their followers caught up in the social media echo chamber, a few Nigerian intellectuals delude themselves into thinking that they are modern-day Solomon’s. Several times a day, they communicate words of wisdom, which are often meaningless, and in other instances are plagiarised versions of what other people have written or said in the past. Their followers are fed with misleading nuggets of wisdom like, “Hard work does not pay, it kills.”, “If you get small money, you go enjoy this Nigeria.”; “Incompetence is worse than corruption”; “Being educated is now a crime. So is being elite or a little well off. The only people that matter are the poor and uneducated.” One Nigerian intellectual morphed into what Tim Wu calls attention merchant by harvesting his follower’s attention to urge them to patronise his fashion designer. 


Some might challenge me and argue that there are intellectuals who are committed to their calling. They may also cite instances whereby some of the individuals that I have referenced earlier have stood up for justice. Admittedly, there are activists and intellectuals that have stood on the side of truth, but what I am highlighting in this piece is the characteristics of the Nigerian intelligentsia as a collective group.


Intellectuals have a crucial role to play in a functioning democracy. As we approach the 20th year of the fourth republic, it is time for the Nigerian Intelligentsia to stand up and be counted. Since 1999, politicians have betrayed millions of Nigerians who had high hopes when military rule ended. Instead of playing the role of court jesters to the political class and oligarchs, the Nigerian intelligentsia should stop the betrayal and work towards the actualisation of the Nigerians expectations from government. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, the Nigerian Intelligentsia should cease being a thermometer that broadcasts and justifies the ideas of the status quo, rather, it should morph into a thermostat that transforms and revolutionises Nigeria.


Naija no dey carry last. Selah.


Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA / @Alatenumo

January 14, 2019



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