Where Are Our Intellectuals?

by Sabella Ogbobode Abidde

“There is a lot to be said for intellectual integrity.”

Intellectuals, along with others, are the life and essence of any civilization. They “give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs.” A society, and indeed, any society without a bourgeoning class of intellectuals cannot truly flourish. Such a society may stagnate, disintegrate or die. According to Paul Johnson, “the rise of the secular intellectual has been a key factor in shaping the modern world…men arose to assert that they could diagnose the ills of society and cure them with their own unaided intellects: more, that they could devise formulae whereby not merely the structure of society but the fundamental habits of human beings could be transformed for the better.”

The western world is never short of intellectuals and gadflies; and neither was Nigeria in the early years of its civilization. The west boast of Lillian Hellman, Henrik Ibsen, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Bertolt Brecht, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Noam Chomsky, Victor Gollancz, Ernest Hemingway, and Edmund Wilson amongst others; Nigeria had the likes of Kelsey Harrison, Kalu Ezera, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Chike Obi, Alele Williams, Tam-David-West, Dipo Fashina, Eskor Toyo, Claude Ake, Kole Omotosho, G.G. Darah, Ade Ajayi, S. G. Ikoku , Tai Solarin, Orlando George, Christopher Okigbo, Olajide Aluko, J.P Clark, Omotunde Olorode, and many other eminent and intellectually gifted citizens.

Considering the state of affairs in today’s Nigeria, it is easy to forget that there was a time in the history of Nigeria when there were dozens and dozens and dozens of intellectuals, radicals and gadflies in the Nigerian media and institutions of higher learning. Not only where they gifted, they were rigorous and honest and resolute in their thinking and in their pursuits. They were the conscience of the nation, the gate-keepers of our cathedral of knowledge. They helped shape the nature and direction of the country and institutions. Their writings and pronouncements affected the thinking of decision and policy makers. As brutal and wayward as the military establishment was, these titans, to a great extent, helped to keep it in order.

In yesteryears, Nigerians were known the world over — not for their alleged duplicity, but for their brilliance and humanity. Nigerians were known in high places for their enviable achievements. From NASA to Buckingham Palace, from Makerere to MIT, from Oxford to Cambridge and from Harvard to Howard University and to a great many institutes and institutions around the globe, Nigeria was the toast of the town. Aside from the thinkers within the ivory towers, there were those whose voices emanated loud and clear from the pages of the Nigerian newspapers and magazines. In this regard, there were great minds like Peter Enahoro, Babatunde Ajose, Lateef Jakande, Bisi Onabanjo, Dele Giwa, Nosa Igiebor, MCK Ajuluchukwu, Dan Agbese, Sonala Olumhense, Christina Anyanwu, Odia Ofeimun, and several others. That was yesteryears, the Nigeria of old.

Today, Nigeria is different. It is almost unfathomable how Nigeria went from great heights to low ebbs. Dr. Olayiwola Abegunrin, formerly of OAU and now a professor at Howard University, posited that the Nigerian military bear some of the responsibility for “destroying our institutions…by some of the policies they promulgated and pursued, beginning in the General Yakubu Gowon era.” Some of the policies they pursued, along with all the coups and countercoups, helped weakened, and in some cases, destroyed our sense of nation-building and sense of self. A great many of our national treasure were prosecuted, persecuted, harassed, jailed, or sent into exile; and in some cases, the military simply made life and living miserable and unbearable.

In the end, some of our best and brightest left in search of stability and greener pastures. Who replaced most of our national treasures? The scum of the earth. The third-rate. The mediocre. The traders. The 419ers. The Yahoo-yahoo boys. Political prostitutes and pretenders. The Godfathers. The Ghana-must-Go specialists. Suddenly — suddenly — the distasteful and impermissible became permissible and sacred. It became ok to steal. It became acceptable to be a professional sycophant. It became fashionable to be an illiterate in a literate world. It became fashionable to look down on great minds and great accomplishments. And so it is that street urchins have now become the bosses, the oga patapatas.

It is sad; sad and disgraceful that the vast majority of Nigerians living today does not know the person or the works of people like Ayodele Awojobi, Bala Usman, Ishola Oshobu, Cornelius Ubani, Dr. Segun Oshoba, Ola Oni, Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, Bode Onimode, Biodun Jaiyefo, Segun Okeowo, Bala Mohammed, Sam Amuka, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and others. But for such men and women, Nigeria may have long gone to the dogs. All those mentioned in this treatise — and of course others too numerous to mention — gave up comfort and convenience for country and for humanity.

According to Mr. Sonala Olumhense, himself a member of the great-generation, “the flip side of the coin — the “absence of intellectualism” — is the “presence of materialism” and the pursuit of the inconsequential. Insignificance, decadence and barbarism! That is where we are today: the willful pursuit of the insignificant, materialism and stupidities. We honor men and women lacking foresight and brilliance of mind and good character. We look up to, prostrate and genuflect before men and women with inferior sensibility. Such pursuit diminishes the glory and prosperity of the country. Every great nation or at least, nations of any consequence all have men and women at the vanguard of knowledge and intellectualism. They stir things up. They make rulers uncomfortable. They nudge us to greater heights. Why then is the government uncomfortable with men and women?

Radicals, leftists, troublemakers, intellectuals, and the “crazies” are the salt and honey of any nation. We must allow such minds breathing space, let them be. They think for us. They show us in bright and favorable light. And they act as our nation’s conscience. As a consequence of our contempt and apathy towards our intellectuals and gadflies, we are gradually becoming an empty and hollow nation. Nigeria feels stale and uninviting without them. Paradoxically, Nigeria’s loss is the world’s gain; for in the ivory towers of virtually all the countries in the world are such Nigerians — contributing to the advancement of their host nations.

It is painful, painful and sad to walk into some enclaves in this and other countries only to find the “greatest Nigerians” toiling for nothing — when they should have been toiling for their motherland. But then, what are they to do if their country does not want them? Well, any country that does not revere and or want its intellectuals is an imprudent country.

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