Countering Nigeria’s Anti-Intellectualism

by Chidi Chike Achebe, MD

A talk delivered to The Igbo Think Tank, Boston Massachusetts, November 2003

Intellectuals as Nation Builders

In the 1960s, Jean Paul Sartre the literary giant and France’s leading intellectual at the time made a series of controversial statements during a public lecture. Incensed by his outburst, a group of French conservatives turned to Charles De Gaulle the French general and president of the 5th Republic to caution the man of letters. After listening to their complaints, De Gaul responded this way: “I caution Sartre? But Sartre is France” For De Gaul, Sartre exemplified the highest ideals and aspirations of France – a scholar ” par excellence” – an intellectual beacon for the world, exercising the fruits of democracy while actively engaged in shaping the destiny of post world war II France.

The west and other advanced nations did not arrive at this appreciation of intellectuals and intellectual discourse overnight. For centuries, diverse philosophers from around the world grappled with the question of the role of knowledge in society. Al-Kindi, Avicenna, Mullah Sadra and several other Islamic scholars in the Middle East as well as western philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle, Descartes, through T.S. Kuhn, to the postmodernists all tackled this problem. Aristotle believed that ‘thinkers’ should try to overcome ignorance, and pursue knowledge for its own sake and not merely for its practical utility. Today, there is a comfortable medium that exists between the role of knowledge gathered for the improvement of society and knowledge pursued and accumulated in its purest form.

Nowhere on earth is this example of intellectual balance more vibrant than in the United States of America. (For the purposes of this talk I will ignore America’s grave intellectual incongruities such as slavery, racism and other constitutional, political and social hypocrisies). The founders of the “American experiment” – Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Jay, Henry, Franklin and others- were some of the most educated men of their time. Armed with enviable intellectual dexterity these men fashioned what has become one of the most admired and effective documents in history – The American Constitution. This intellectual record is the foundation of America’s much celebrated Democracy -an idea borrowed from the ancient Athenians – defined by Lincoln during his mythical Gettysburg Address as “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” and emulated around the world.

America’s prosperity and global dominance today is not accidental. It was meticulously charted by its constitution, guided by a succession of excellent leaders (for the most part) imbued with world class education and intellect and protected by its democracy. Perhaps the greatest of America’s early “Intellectual Presidents” was the 3rd president – Thomas Jefferson. He believed very strongly that America’s success could be achieved only through a high-quality educational system for its citizens. Such a system would also depend on teachers — teachers with the training, authority, and freedom to challenge their students and change their lives as well as lay the foundations of intellectual meritocracy. Jefferson held that: “Ignorance and sound self-government could not exist together: the one destroyed the other. A despotic government could restrain its citizens and deprive the people of their liberties only while they were ignorant… Only popular government can safeguard democracy. … Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories. And to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree…”

This ancient dedication to educational quality and intellectual foresight has produced America’s much envied higher educational system. Its eight Ivy league universities -Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Brown and Cornell as well as equally excellent non-Ivy league institutions such as M.I.T, Caltech, Stanford, Chicago, Northwestern, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Berkley, Virginia, Georgetown, UCLA etc have become the global benchmark for educational excellence. Their combined endowment fund of over $100 billion (more than twice Nigeria’s Gross National Product) promises to keep them in this influential position for a long time to come. Harvard, with its $20 billion endowment is easily wealthier than several countries across the globe.

It is little wonder, therefore, that these institutions – the Ivy League in particular- became the honing ground for American leaders for centuries. Every single Supreme Court Justice attended one of the aforementioned institutions. Seven American presidents – John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, Rutherford Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and yes George W. Bush all studied at Harvard. Yale University is the proud intellectual molder for at least four US presidents – The two Bushes, William Taft and William Jefferson Clinton.

The Clinton presidency, albeit smudged (no pun) by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, impeachment, the white-water scandal etc, may well be the best example of intellectual leadership at work in recent years. During his two terms, America’s economy steadily expanded adding at least 10 million new jobs. The Stock Market hit an all time high with record profits for individuals and corporations alike. Clinton achieved this feat, in part, by hiring some of the best and brightest that America had to offer to run the country. Recruiting ‘intellectuals’ such as Robert Rubin, one of Wall Street’s finest, and Summers (current president of Harvard) in the Treasury department, Robert Reich in the labor department, Brown in the Commerce department, Madeleine M. Kunin former governor of Vermont and Richard W. Riley in the education department was particularly instrumental in the success of his administration.

The West does not hold a monopoly on economic success buoyed by intellectual ingenuity. On our own continent, the Southern African Nations of Botswana and Namibia, despite facing the almost catastrophic pandemic of AIDS are some of the fastest growing economies in this hemisphere. Although South Africa’s political and intellectual titan Madiba Nelson Mandela has no peer on the continent, President Mogae of Botswana is quite remarkable. His credentials for leadership are impressive- trained as an economist at the Universities of Oxford and Sussex in the UK, he has served his country in a number of key positions. He was the Executive Director for Anglophone Africa, International Monetary Fund (1976-80); Governor of the Bank of Botswana (1980-81); Permanent Secretary to the President, Secretary to the Cabinet and Supervisor of Elections (1982-89); and Minister of Finance and Development Planning (1989-92). This preparation coupled with ethical, moral and intellectual discipline has helped him oversee the fastest growing economy in black Africa with one of the highest GNP per capita incomes. Botswana’s economy has grown at an average rate of about 9.2% despite the scourge of AIDS. To place things in context – Botswana’s per capita income of $3020 in 1996 is TEN times that of Nigeria!

In Asia, China is currently poised to join Japan in making the miraculous “leap forward” from underdevelopment to the club of advanced nations in record time. Despite the uncertainties of the Cultural Revolution, for two decades since December 1978, post-Mao intellectual reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping in his economic program made China’s GNP grow at an average rate of 9% per year. In 1999, China’s GNP reached $950 billion; only Japan topped it in Asia with $ 3.8 trillion. This success was only possible by a concomitant effort to improve China’s educational system and to harness the collective intellectual potential of the world’s most populous nation. China’s recent entry into ‘the last frontier-space’ with manned missions is a testament to how far it has come. Her success also provides a salient reminder of the incredible untapped potential of Africa’s “sleeping giant”- Nigeria.

A Nigerian Meritocracy

It is pertinent at this juncture to make a few comments: I am not advocating that Nigerians copy western culture or civilization. However, I do believe that we should scrutinize more closely, the successes and failures of thriving economies and societies as we lay our path in the world. Very importantly, I am not calling for an elitist system or a class structure. Indeed, I am an activist for a meritocracy. It is only under this arrangement that individuals of simple means but with the brightest minds can rise to leadership. Let us not forget that William Jefferson Clinton was from a working class background in Hope Arkansas and rose to lead the most powerful country in the world. This could only happen within a structure that actively seeks and celebrates intellectual achievement and merit. In such a system, individuals of privilege can also rise to leadership if they possess the appropriate skills. Some of the most successful of world statesmen – JFK, RFK, FDR, Nehru and his descendants Ndira and Rajiv Ghandi are examples. A true meritocracy holds great promise for Nigeria.

The Nigerian Intellectual Conundrum

The dawn of independence in West Africa saw the emergence of leaders in a myriad of fields such as politics, the arts, law, science and medicine, economics and commerce. These giants of men and women from diverse backgrounds were all “intellectuals” and were on a mission to redirect their young nations onto a path of development after years of colonialism. Together, this group brought more recognition and honor to their respective nations than any other set before or since (at least so far).

(In the interest of progressive thinking, I define an “intellectual” as “a thinker or ‘visionary’ with or without a college education”).What follows is certainly not an exhaustive list but a sample of achievers…

Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, the father of our country and perhaps along with Kenneth Onwuka Dike is the most severely under-celebrated Nigerian, is a quintessential example of such an intellectual. “No National holiday in his honor? Why forever not?” Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Tafewa Balewa, Aminu Kano, Waziri Ibrahim, Maitama Sule, Ahmed Talib, Judith Attah, Margaret Ekpo, Madam Kuti, Tejumola Alakija, Janet Mokelu, Oyibo Odinamadu, A.A. Nwafor-Orizu, Michael Okpara, K.O. Mbadiwe, S. Akintola, Balarabe Musa, B.Usman, Sa’ad Zungur, Abubakar Rimi, Ado Bayero, Akanu Ibiam, M.T. Mbu, S.G. Ikoku, Francis Ellah, C.C. Onoh, Anthony Enahoro, H.A. Ejuyitchie, Bola Ige, Bisi Onabanjo, Lateef Jakande, John Nwodo, J.M.Johnson, Aja Nwachukwu, R.A. Njoku, O.Akinfosile, Sam I. Mbakwe, S.E. Imoke, Eyo Ita, Melford Okilo,T.O.S. Benson, Ambrose Alli, A. Nwankwo, A.Ogunsanya, Emeka Anyaoku, A. Ekwueme, Senghor and Nkrumah are others that exemplify the best and brightest in politics.

Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Cyprian Ekwensi, Christopher Okigbo, Chukwuemeka Ike, Flora Nwapa, Mabel Segun, Bolanle Awe, Bala Usman, Dr. Tai Solarin, Amos Tutuola, S.J. Cookey, Ola Rotimi, John Munonye, Elechi Amadi, Bruce Onabrakpeya, Ben Enwonwu, Uche Okeke, Ayi Kwe Armah, T.M. Aluko, Ade Ajayi, Emmanuel Obiechina, Kenneth Onwuka Dike, Alvan Ikoku and Senghor are parallel examples from the Arts, Culture and Humanities. Legal luminaries such as Adetokumbo Ademola, Taslim Elias, C.D.Onyeama, Darnley Alexander, T.A.Aguda, G.C.M.Onyiuke, Ben Nwabueze, C.F.O. Anyaegbunam, Rotimi-Williams, Louis Mbanefo, Fani-Kayode, Fatai-Williams, Justices M.L. Uwais, Augustine Nnamani, A. Obaseki, B.O. Kazeem, C.A. Oputa, A.G. Irikefe, Udo Udoma, P.K. Nwokedi and Anthony Aniagolu stand out from that era.

Legendary economists such as Dr Pius Okigbo, K.I. Kalu and Adebayo Adedeji are further examples of Nigeria’s intellectual “crème de la crème”. In Science we must not forget Drs Okechukwu Ikejiani, M.A. Majekodunmi, Umaru Shehu, Abubakar Imam, Ishaya S. Audu, Jibril Aminu, B.O. Osuntokun, Tam David-West, F.O. Dosekun, F. Udekwu, L. Ekpechi, Dr J. Ojukwu, T.Agulefo, Chukwuedu Nwokolo, Anezi-Okoro, the second generation Kutis- Olikoye and Beko, T.A.Lambo, Adetokunboh Lucas, O.K. Ogan, F.Adi, PI Okolo, Chike Obi, Anya O. Anya and Akin L. Mabogunje (social sciences).

The commercial sector has produced scores of leaders such as Sir Bank Anthony, Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu, and the Dantata/Dangote, Rabiu, Kontagora and Saraki families. Others include Musa Dan Fulani, T.A. Odutola, Chris Ogunbanjo, Otunba Balogun, FGN Okoye, A.E. Ilodibe, R.O. Nkwocha, Chief Nnana-Kalu, LN Obioha, Sunny Odogwu, Akintola-Williams and M.N. Ugochukwu. Slightly later, a promising, albeit short lived, trend of educated business chieftains such as Gamaliel Onosode and Alhaji Abdullaziz Ude, A. Modebe, Joe Irukwu, P.O. Nwakoby, the Ibrus, Adekunle Ojora, Earnest Shonekan, Abba Gana, Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu and M.K.O. Abiola emerged.

In The greatest generation Tom Brokaw salutes Americans whose sacrifices and work changed the course of American history and put the USA on the path of post World War II economic expansion and prosperity. We have already shown that West Africa has produced similar individuals. Why then with all this “brain power” does Nigeria find itself in the “intellectual wilderness?” I hope that we can all agree that our condition today is a consequence of a past of successive military coups, endemic corruption, inept leadership and persistent ‘cults of mediocrity’ running the affairs of the nation.

It is also important to stress that Nigeria has not developed a culture of celebrating honest, hard-working achievers. Instead we have allowed others to foist upon us a paradoxical anti-intellectual situation in which recognition, indeed the highest National honors, are heaped on former military dictators for pray tell me “shooting themselves into power and looting the national treasury?” and their corrupt civilian cohorts who serve these kleptocracies with glee, over “our true heroes”. If this was a chapter from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch then we could take solace in the fictional nature of this pathetic, comical madness. The fact that this is our reality should make us all pause in horror, ponder deeply and take action.

It is admirable that most Nigerians possess – the word ‘self confidence’ doesn’t quite do it justice – so I term it a “No be human being wey do am before? I fit do am” attitude when faced with challenges. This mind set has helped many a Nigerian attain great heights in their respective fields. It has also meant that we have far too often appointed individuals to and/or accepted positions better served by others.

Some may attempt to counter my overall argument by raising the fact that a number of intellectuals have actually served in positions of power and leadership. My rebuttal is this: Even when members of this group such as Ekwueme, Mbu, Anyaoku etc have been involved in government, they have far too frequently been given roles under less capable individuals or served for too short a period of time to make the desired impact. Finally, let us not forget that civilians have been in charge of Nigeria’s destiny for only about a quarter of our post independence history.

I will leave any further dissection of the reasons for Nigeria’s “intellectual paresis” to writers, political scientists and historians. I shall, instead, focus on strategies to re-invigorate intellectual discourse and development, and facilitate its fusion with politics, culture and commerce in Nigeria’s burgeoning democracy.

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