Nigeria Matters

Pat Utomi and Reuben Abati in Nigeria’s Public Discourse

About four decades ago, Professor Ali Mazrui — one of the world’s leading intellectuals — defined intellectual as a person “who has the capacity to be fascinated by ideas, and has acquired the skill to handle some of those ideas effectively.” Today, intellectuals are thought of as those who have “shown distinction in their own field along with the ability to communicate ideas and influence debate outside it.” Some may not know it, but Nigeria once had a rich reservoir of first-rate intellectuals. The social psychosis, economic deprivation, authoritarianism of the state and the political instability at the tail end of the twentieth century sent the majority of the intellectual class into exile. There they have remained ever since.

Today, intellectualism is no longer a craft many Nigerians are eager to engage in. The pursuit of wealth and the maddening pursuit of banalities are now at the apex of most people’s list — leading to a mammoth vacuum in the richness, rigor and versatility of public discourse. That said, there are some intellectuals, at home and abroad, who still influence public conversation. I do not have a definitive list, but there are people like Omoyele Sowore, Sonala Olumhense, Wole Soyinka, Okey Ndibe, and Abubakar Umar. And then there is Reuben Abati and Pat Utomi.

If you didn’t know it, you’d think Dr. Reuben Abati is the only voice in the Nigerian media. He is everywhere: from print media to the radio and from the internet to the television. On a consistent basis, he whips up his wisdom and declarations on virtually any matter under the Nigerian sun. There are those who think Abati has a lot so say, but without depth and consistency to the things he says. Not one to rock the boat or swim against the tide, he feels safe and secure and content in the calm harbor; not for him the probing and passionate style of Okey Ndibe; and certainly, not for him the investigative and Jihadistic style of Dele Giwa.

Some of his critics averred he doesn’t even have the truth-seeking style of Sonala Olumhense, but he has two things going for him: (1) his populist and pandering style; and (2) his copious submissions. But above all, he has the survival instinct of a fox. It is uncertain whether he is afraid there might be a can of worms waiting to be pried open. Still, it is difficult to begrudge a man who is as smart as he is and has such staying power. He seems to understand quite well the need to survive in Nigeria’s ocean of malfeasance.

Reuben Abati, in spite of his celebrity status, is, quite frankly, despised by a lot of his contemporaries. You don’t hear too many top-rate journalists or writers say nice things about him. They loathe his supercilious and his I-can-do-no-wrong-I-am-untouchable-I-am-better-than-thee attitude. The major complain against him is that he is too cozy with AGIP (Any Government In Power). He wines and dines with the rich and the powerful, the military and the civilians, the sinners and the saints. He enjoys the celebrity life, the good life. And then there is Pat Utomi.

Professor Utomi’s latest salvo, Nigeria’s Public Space And Reason Embattled(The Guardian, Tuesday May 20, 2008) is an interesting read. It is difficult to know his mindset at the time he composed the piece. What is clear from the tone of his rendition is that he was irritated. His displeasure was directed at a number of groups: the newspaper reporters who are not “deep enough to see beyond black and white…the Diaspora based internet warrior raining down vituperations from the comfort of American suburbia” and the “beer parlor pundits.” He posits that the “Nigeria’s public space has a character of the simplistic, devoid of capacity to deal with nuanced engagement, and very often leaving reason embattled.” How ironic; “if you live in a glasshouse don’t throw stones.”

Was Pat Utomi expecting the Reporters who recorded his statements to read his mind? He said what he wanted to say and what he said was what was reported. He could have said he was misquoted. But to say the reporters couldn’t read between the lines or that they couldn’t see beyond black and white is, in my view, irresponsible. Essentially, he was shifting culpability. He should have taken responsibility for what he said. If he misspoke, he will be forgiven; but shifting the blame for his utterances is uncalled for.

His jabs and uppercuts at “Diaspora based internet warrior” was careless. If he didn’t already know, well, this is the time for him to know: billions and billions of information are online; millions of people around the world conduct businesses online; thousands of schools and institutions are internet based; and indeed, because of the continuing integration of global systems, millions of people, on a daily basis, go online to do what needs to be done. Until the last decade or thereabout, the preferred place for gathering information was the physical library or field work. Today, the internet holds much more information than any physical space in any library can ever accommodate. And so, there is no shame being an “internet warrior” safely ensconced in the safety and “comfort of American suburbia.”

Utomi blames everybody but himself. He went on to say “the central truth of my public life is that democracy is about accountability, not just in terms of financial propriety, but also in terms of stewardship for responsibility…The more irritating part is that anybody who is familiar with my views will know I have always worried about obsession with yesterday to the detriment of tomorrow.” Wow, this is clearly a man who is worried about and has his mind firmly set on the judgment of history and posterity. That being the case, a simple advice is in order here: he should be careful of his pronouncements. He cannot have it both ways: he cannot say and unsay, he cannot seem to be endorsing corrupt practices and at the same time condemn it.

To the extent that Professor Utomi is calling for civility and liberalism in public discourse, he is correct. No one should ever advocate or acquiesce to destructive and iniquitous public discourse — discourses that are not likely to add value to our national culture and political space. That said, we cannot, in the name of civility and open-mindedness allow doublespeak, hypocrisy or self-serving and calculated speeches meant to deceive the uneducated, the unsophisticated and the gullible. We cannot, as a young and growing society frown on or berate those who question their leaders or doubt their truthfulness even if from intellectuals like Chief Patrick Okedinachi Utomi.

No one has a monopoly of wisdom. And no one should be afraid to speak up if and when they sense misdirection or duplicity in the public discourse. No society can thrive without its intellectual class. At the same time, no society can prosper without those bold enough to question, to doubt and to call to order the misplacement of thought by its learned. As James Baldwin intoned, “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it — at no matter what risk.” An earlier essay may be deemed unpleasant to the learned Chief, but it was necessary for the sake of our country. No aspersions or disrespect was intended.

Finally, it needed to be pointed out that there was an air of contempt, of deplorable hubris in the totality of what Pat Utomi said. That he roams the Nigerian political/intellectual landscape unchallenged, does not give him the license to speak condescendingly to those who disagree with his position. He may be used to reporters kowtowing to his every wish; he may be used to his domestic audiences’ silence and acceptance of his blanket assertions, but he should not expect the same of “Diaspora based internet warrior in the comfort of American suburbia.” To be a big fish in River Benue is not the same as being a small fish in the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean.

One Comment

  1. This is a very interesting article and I enjoyed reading it. I am particularly impressed with the brevity of language and the underlying humor.


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