From my own vantage point, the Nigerian public intellectual space is today dominated by four ringing voices: Sonala Olumhense, Levi Obijiofor, Okey Ndibe, and Reuben Abati. These are men with different styles, disparate worldview, and contrasting temperament. As dissimilar as they seem, they also seem similar in two ways: their single-minded pursuit of excellence, and their efforts towards our nation’s salvation and redemption.
Professors Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Tam David-West and a few others are our national treasures and stand-alone institutions. When these men speak, we listen, we pay attention. Their pronouncements matters. And their declarations and submissions sometimes have religious whiff. In this regard, Abati, Ndibe, Obijiofor, and Olumhense are not far off the hallow corridors. Their pronouncements also matters. What we think of them matter, too.
Collectively, we think the world of these men. And we generally hold them to higher ethical and moral standards. Their word means a lot; it carries considerable weight. They are not public officials, but, in so many ways, they have become communal property and have in the process given hope to the everyday Nigerians who are tired and disappointed of their country’s station and direction.
Although Abati, Ndibe, Olumhense and Obijiofor could argue that they never went in search of such responsibility or accolade, still, that is where they are today. Their every words and gestures are observed; their every move and errands are scrutinized; and their writings are subject to and subjected to the magnifying glass every single time they write.
Something else you should know: all four men are either employees or Alumnus of the Nigerian Guardian — the great pontificator. Today, Reuben Abati sits on the editorial board of the Guardian from whence he sermonizes to the general public and public officials and other private and public institutions.
He and the Guardian call for transparency and accountability in government, and in public life; and also advocates liberalism and constitutionalism. Anyone whose job description involves calling for higher moral and ethical standards must be wiling to abide by such expectation. There cannot be one set of rule for the public and another set of rule for the pontificator. That would be hypocritical, and unhealthy for the society.
Silence, for two decades now, has become part of Nigeria’s political culture as the rich and the powerful generally do not respond to accusations and queries from the general public. They are helped by the fact that (a) Nigeria has weak institutions; (b) Nigerians have very short memory; and (c) silence and cooperation can be bought. They are also helped by the fact that no public sanction or precedence-setting legal penalty will befall them. No one, it seems, is afraid of the law.
Dr. Reuben Abati may not be guilty of anything. It is possible he has not committed any crime or ethical infractions. All the finger-pointing and the brouhaha may be much ado about zilch. Some of us may have been guilty of slander. We may have unjustly maligned him: calling him names, spreading rumors and innuendoes. We have no way of knowing if the man is guilty or innocent without the benefit of a court trial — or some monumental and incontrovertible evidence.
In the same vein, we have no way of knowing what really happened or didn’t happen. Few people know the truth, the whole truth and the incontrovertible truth. Mr. Abati is one such person. As it is, he is not saying a word about it. Not a word. At least not publicly. But the way I see, it is in his best interest to clarify things, to separate truth from rumors. And he should have done so within 72-hours of the matter becoming public. By saying nothing, he helped to fuel the rumor flame.
Reuben Abati is no longer a private citizen, but a public figure. Also, he is not just a writer and a journalist, but one of the nation’s consciences: a truth teller. He is expected to tell the truth everyday and at every turn. His words means a lot to millions; and millions of Nigerians look up to him to fight for them. It is a huge responsibility to shoulder when people swear by what you say and do.
Granted such expectation is colossal and may be thankless — that is how millions of Nigerians have come to see him. That’s what they’ve come to expect. And of Ndibe, Obijiofor, and Olumhense. They are all brand names, names associated with truth telling.
Abati may say he does not care what his critics say or think of him. True, he can dismiss the ranting of his enemies. In fact, he may even give the middle finger to people whom he feel are trying to pull him down. He can do and say a lot of things to his enemies and virulent critics. However, he cannot afford to ignore his friends and his supporters.
He cannot afford to alienate “his own people:” the reading and viewing public. The reading and viewing public have stood by him for more than a decade. He has built and continues to build his base. To now want to help dismantle it, block by block, would be self-immolating. His silence — his continue silence — would be accomplishing exactly that. He does not want to go the way of some so-called intellectuals, leftists, socialists, communists, and comrades (most of who now roam the bedrooms of political boy-boys).
I repeat: Reuben Abati should have vigorously responded to the news account from the veritable and trail setting SaharaReporters. And he should have done so within 72-hours of the matter becoming public. He didn’t. And because he didn’t — after several weeks of ridiculing, cajoling, entreaties, and even threats — whatever he says now will be greeted with cynicism, doubts, and got-ya kind of malicious claps. Still, he should go ahead! Silence, in this particular case, is not golden.
He may never be able to convince everybody; still, he should give his side of the story. There are several reasons why he should: (1) because, as his organization reminds us, “conscience is an open wound only the truth can heal; (2) a truth-teller must, and should always be a truth-teller; (3) he will be helping to dismantle a culture of silence that has been eating at our country; and (4) all men of integrity and candor knows who they are. No amount of snide, derision, and doubt will make them “less of a man.”
And finally, his continuing silence will make some people wonder; it will continue to fuel the rumor mills, and people may associate him with the jackasses and fuckups that roam the Nigerian cesspool. He may not think so, but a lot is at stake here.
However, if Dr. Abati is “guilty as charged,” the effect will reverberate throughout our nation’s political space. Over all, it will not augur well for the few good men and few good women left in the country. History and posterity will frown on him. Either way, his silence may not last. The noise surrounding the alleged Abatilandgate may not go away quietly. In this moment, his continuing silence is self-immolating.
But I wonder: what would Sonala Olumhense, Levi Obijiofor, and Okey Ndibe do if they were in Reuben Abati’s shoe? What would they do and say? I wonder…