Countering Nigeria’s Anti-Intellectualism (2)

by Chidi Chike Achebe, MD

The Task before Nigeria

For decades, black people on the African continent and in the Diaspora have looked to Nigeria to provide an example of a nation run by blacks that can attain economic, cultural and political success. Intellectuals from CLR James, Michael Thelwell, Aime Cesaire in the Caribbean to Leon H. Sullivan, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael to Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, Johnetta B. Cole, Cornell West and Julian Bond in the Americas have all at one time or the other, with great anxiety, wondered why Nigeria, with all its human and material blessings seems never to be able to get its act together. One of these great minds recently expressed this concern aloud at a lunch with our own Chinua Achebe this way: “Are Nigerians not fully aware of what is truly at stake for black people around the world? That her success will mean our success? These words should give Nigerians “food for thought”.

I am not encouraging an intellectual transformation in Nigeria to lead us out of our stupor because others want us to, however romantic and inspiring this might appear, but because indeed so much is at stake and it is absolutely imperative that “we get our act together” in our own self interest and for posterity.

First: Understanding ourselves and our history

Forty years ago, Chinua Achebe saw the need for an intellectual process that would lead to the empowering “of peoples who had been knocked silent by the trauma of all kinds of dispossession” . He captures this sentiment succinctly in the following excerpt:

“I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past–with all its imperfections–was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.
This theme–put quite simply–is that African peoples did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity. It is this dignity that many African peoples all but lost in the colonial period, and it is this dignity that they must now regain. The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer’s duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. There is a saying in Igbo that a man who can’t tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body. The writer can tell the people where the rain began to beat them. After all the novelist’s duty is not to beat this morning’s headline in topicality, it is to explore in depth the human condition. In Africa he cannot perform this task unless he has a proper sense of history.”

Setting an Agenda for Intellectual Re-invigoration and Success

A group of about 10 friends and I representing every corner of our beloved country, went to a local Nigerian owned restaurant for “isi-ewu” – variously called “ngwongwo” or “got-head”. After this popular delicacy, we spent the next 30 minutes arguing about what best to eat next. One person suggested ‘eba’, the other ‘amala’, the next ‘Tuwo” and “dodo and beans’ and so on. We then agreed to order them all and share.

I expose this ‘near culinary misadventure’ for only one reason: If my Nigerian friends and I can not agree about what to eat for lunch, I am sure setting a national agenda to rectify the ‘intellectual schism’ that exists in our society will be akin to “pulling teeth without anesthesia”. A national sovereign conference as suggested by many may be one platform where the beginnings of such an agenda could take shape.


1) Improving our Educational system

The first task here would be to pull together the ‘best and brightest experienced minds’ in education such as Babs Fafunwa, Ayo Banjo, M.J.C. Echeruo, Emmanuel Obiechina, J.Aminu, Grace Alele-Williams, F. Ndili, J.O.C. Ezeilo, Chike Momah and others to help us achieve some of the following goals:

A) Revamping our entire educational system. This will require great leadership and financial commitment. There is an important role for government and the Private Sector here. What have the Multinational Oil Corporations done for Nigerians after nearly 50 years of oil profits? Herein lies their opportunity.
B) There needs to be an increased emphasis on excellence, accountability and performance at all levels. Schools that persistently perform poorly should be identified, supported or closed with an appropriate disposition for affected students.
C) Stream lining excessive proliferation of educational institutions without jeopardizing educational opportunity.
D) Developing a unified national curriculum at the 3 levels of education that aims for the highest possible standards while taking cultural and religious diversity into account.
E) Improving teacher quality through better training and improved salaries and benefits.
F) Encouraging and sustaining a reading and book culture. The Nigerian Book Foundation, ANA etc can play a salient role here.
G) Finally, starting small and making steady, incremental progress.

2) Developing a Culture of Institutional and Intellectual Philanthropy

We should encourage extremely wealthy Nigerians to make a commitment to Nigeria’s development by taking part in our intellectual and educational transformation. What’s in it for them you may ask? Having their names emblazoned for centuries on buildings, centers, edifices that grace our institutions if they contribute generously to the erection of such structures and the improvement of our institutions. There are other opportunities for permanent connection to intellectual celebrity when these individuals contribute to the endowment of university academic chairs. The money they donate will make it possible for institutions to recruit superstar intellectuals they would ordinarily not be able to afford. In return these superstars of the academic firmament would bear academic titles honoring the benefactors. For instance, Toni Morrison, the Nobel Laureate, a millionaire in her own right, who teaches out of an overwhelming commitment to the intellectual development of America, is the Robert F. Goheen Professor, Council of the Humanities, at Princeton University and Kwame Appiah, the Ghanaian philosopher and aristocrat is the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at the same institution.

The idea of philanthropy driven intellectual development is as ‘old as the hills’. In the 1500s the Medici family of Florence was the chief benefactor of the great Galileo. Howard Hughes, the eccentric American billionaire left his money after his death to The Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, MD. Today, the endowment of the Institute valued at $11 billion makes it the third wealthiest private foundation in the world. Their grants are responsible for cutting edge bio-medical research in Cystic Fibrosis, channel membrane signaling, Muscular Dystrophy and Juvenile Diabetes. We have already discussed earlier the significance of institutional endowment and the advantages of such investments in the development of the advanced nations. Similar benefits await Nigeria.

3) Addressing immediately potential implosive developments

A recent study focusing on education in Eastern Nigeria showed that Anambra males in particular were dropping out of school at an alarming rate. Most of these young men were opting for business opportunities in the Markets. As gloomy as this may seem, I see a silver lining here. We must make education relevant for these individuals. Why don’t we institute academic paths for these young men that will lead them to business degrees and probably MBAs?

In advanced nations, every single financial and economic center -New York, Chicago, SanFranciso, Philadelphia, Boston, London, Tokyo, Paris etc has an excellent Business School. We already have the Lagos Business School. We must now replicate this idea in Onitsha and Aba, Ibadan, Kano and Kaduna. I am sure we can convince OMATA in Onitsha that an investment to construct a grand and excellent business school and recruit business professors to transform their young men from “traders” to “world class business men” would be in their own self interest. Our society would reap the rewards of finally creating “intellectual business leaders” that would be compatriots in our nation’s development as opposed to agents of political and social chaos as we have witnessed in the recent, embarrassing, Anambra State political fiasco.

4) A role for the Telecommunications/Information Technology revolution

We are witnessing a steady and rapid revolution in the telecommunications sector in Nigeria. The recent launched satellite, establishment of 500 base stations and news of investment pouring into this sector to the tune of $4 billion over the past 2 and a half years is encouraging. Better telecommunications will mean increased access to the internet and therefore entrée into the information age that the rest of the world is enjoying. In the 21st century, this access will mean admittance to avenues of commerce, science, the arts and education, and thus intellectual and material power. There is thus a critical part for the IT revolution to play in the envisioned intellectual re-invigoration of Nigeria.

5) The Role of the Press

An American colleague of mine who has visited Nigeria over a dozen times asked me this question recently ” Why do your journalists gravitate towards the most vulgar, corrupt and disdainful Nigerians…reporting their every utterance?” “Surely, they must realize the power they possess to ignore these individuals and help set a national agenda for Nigeria’s development?”

Rather than criticize the press, I will only encourage the intellectuals amongst them such as Stanly Macebuh, Helon Habila, Usman Jimada, Jubril Daudu, Kawu, Mohammed, Nduka Otiono, Sonala Olumhense, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese, Pini Jason, Jahman Anikulapo, Reuben Abati, Nduka Obaigbena, Chuks Iloegbunam, Ike Okonta, Tunji Lardner, Chido Nwangwu, Don Adinuba, Gbenga Adefaye, Uduma Kalu, Ezenwa Okenwa etc to help raise the quality of the dialogue surrounding national issues through editorials and articles. It would be refreshing to see more pieces that ask probing questions of our office holders and hold them accountable for mismanagement. Wherever did the practice of exposing government corruption etc disappear to? I certainly hope it did no die with Dele Giwa.

Celebratory profiles of honest, talented individuals within government such as El-Rufai our FCT minister as well as others such as Fawehinmi, Beko Kuti, Anyaoku etc would help to reset national values particularly amongst the youth. My Harvard colleague is right: The Media holds immense power. I am sure they realize it. One can only hope they become allies in this intellectual journey.

6) Democracy as a tool for Intellectual change

Perhaps the most crucial part of this entire process is the involvement of talented, honest “intellectuals” in national politics. There has been a steady and almost pathological apathy amongst the members of this group for years. They have taken the back seat as followers instead of leaders of our potentially great country, watching as we have slipped steadily into near oblivion in the hands of less capable individuals. It is time that we see greater direct political involvement, organization and activism from this group.

Having said that, I must acknowledge the serious difficulties on the ground for most ‘honest’ Nigerians who don’t have the benefit of a ‘looted stash of cash from the national treasury’ to buy their way into power and influence. One suggestion is to form coalitions among the like minded to raise funds. Another is to push through a Nigerian version of campaign finance reform in the Senate that limits the amount of money any one individual can spend from his/her private funds for campaign/election purposes. I already foresee difficulties implementing these suggestions, simplistic as some may seem, in present day Nigeria. At least it will be a beginning in an evolving system that aspires to fairness and equality.

Two millennia ago the ancient Israelites found themselves in a similar situation as Nigeria finds itself in today and recorded this profound observation: “It is ill with a people when vicious men are advanced and men of worth are kept under hatches” . I hope we heed their ancient wisdom.

Thank you.

Dr Chidi Chike Achebe is an Attending Physician in both Internal Medicine and Pediatrics in the Boston Massachusetts area Health Centers and Clinics. He received his medical education and obtained his M.D degree from Dartmouth Medical School after earning a B.A. from Bard College in Natural Sciences, History and Philosophy. He is currently completing post graduate course work at the Harvard School of Public Health and expects an MPH from that institution shortly. Dr Achebe’s previous articles on Health, Politics and the Environment have appeared in the Op-Ed section of the Boston Globe and in the New York Times.

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