On the Burden of a Public Intellectual: A Thought!

by / Saturday, 06 July 2013 / Published in Articles



Ibraheem A. Waziri

Post 18th century (Enlightenment Period) world is a society that markedly moved away from the normative socio-political structures. It rescheduled the roles of individuals and groups with new definitions and set of values. Needless to say that the ghost of what used to shape the thinking of members of socio-cultural communities in pre-18th century has not ceased to pursue us probably because of what Enlightenment itself got wrong about the various facets of human reality. This in truth comes with diverse implications one of which leaves the modern public intellectual in a persistent crisis of conscience – constant inability to ascertain the truth of their claims with thorough conviction. It is most on, when the public intellectual is a Nigerian and of the 21st Century.

In earlier formations and like political positions, intellectuals are defined by class and lineage. In the ancient Egypt, they were clans of priests, some, from Lower Egypt among the Ethiopians (Habasha, Habsa or even Hausa).   Their tasks were of making public analysis, informing the populace about the reality of their being, implications of social or political choices on individuals and groups. Their inputs used to form blueprints for socio-cultural progress and national policy direction. Though a position rooted in caste or class, distinction in it is usually acquired by in-depth scholarship and rigorous training based on defined values and set cultural perspectives accompanied sometimes by divine favours as in cases of Prophets.

They used to be very powerful; for the force of their morals and convictions they sometimes dethrone kings and assume political powers. Cases in point are Moses (as), Muhammad (pbuh) and Shehu Usman Danfodio. They sometimes are found wanting in betraying the founding values of their states or the responsibility expected of their high station. Cases in point are those of Bil’amu Ibn Ba’ura in the ancient Babylonia, the priest Imhotep of the ancient Egypt who fell in love with the highly placed palace lady of the court of his time, personified evil and committed a taboo to the honoured tradition of his time. In other climes, public intellectuals are found aligning with kings against the long term interest of the state or the mass of the people. Some of the lieutenants of Remesis II, the Pharaoh during the times of Moses (as), fell into this category.

The major shift the Enlightenment caused is in relaxing the requirements of becoming public intellectuals in the widely accepted new form of political organisation known as Nation states. What used to be by bloodline is now liberalised to accomodate all kinds of people as aspirants. This in turn also registered a compromise on the diciplinary and cultural requirements. There came a most level playing field but more tendency for the prevalence of mediocrity or  betrayal of responsibility in tradition.

Yet nation states with most common past, or living under  single dominating cultures have exibited the tendency to reveal great finess in the process of churning out political leaders and public intellectuals according to chosen traditions. The cohesive nature of the British and American states is largely due to their ability to organise and manage their social progress within a tradition that ensures the production of leaders and public intellectuals in some determined ways. A talent discovered in public intellectualism is guided through specialised training that imbue defined  set of values and vision.

In Nigeria the experience is not the same. Anybody with a  pen, a paper and a fair dose of language command can write for the consumption of a loosely defined audience among the citinzenry as everybody with a level of learning can claim scholarship and organise public lectures on religion, politics and sociology of the people. Knowledge from East and West under different context and obtained in different circumstances and worldviews are allowed competions in the public spaces with no defined state’s interest. In northern nigeria where public intelectualism is tied to entrenched culture and religious convictions foreign ideas were allowed  entries in the name of piety and ideal religious convictions and practices. Many wonder how ideologies like what gave birth to the idea of Boko Haram came to being!

This is where the burden of a Nigerian public intellectual piles and the source of their crisis of conscience expanded. It is why the confusion in the Nigerian public space is variegated to the extent that nobody knows (among both the leaders and the led), small bits, like when to take side with the leaders or when to oppose them as the line between personal interest and public good is blurred and nobody seems to know the value of the three truthful versions of truth and their essenstial nature in driving the success of all political entities past and present. I will discuss next these three different versions of truthful truths and their relevance to the quest for excellent practice for the Nigerian public intellectual in favour of both the nation and the people.

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