Home Opinion Of public intellectuals and stomach infrastructure, By Osmund Agbo

Of public intellectuals and stomach infrastructure, By Osmund Agbo


“If we are in the habit of practising the opposite of what we preach, our admonition will not only lose their force and cogency, but also we ourselves will forfeit every claim to credibility. An ounce of example, it has been widely said, is far better than a ton of precepts.” – Chief Obafemi Awolowo
Not too long ago, I had cause to strike up friendship with someone whom I considered a co-traveler in my “Save Nigeria Project”. I have always reasoned that for a beleaguered nation to rise above the ashes of the current dire situation, progressives from all nooks and crannies of this land, must come together and begin the difficult process of bridging our widening fault lines. I strongly believe that if as a country, we continually fight each other, behaving like an improbable concoction of warring tribesmen, Nigeria’s days are surely numbered.

My first encounter with Nasir (not real name) was through his fiery weekly column. Every Wednesday, he lays out his vision of a new Nigeria, brimming with patriotism and taking on those he believes are sowing the seeds of disunity and profiting off the nation’s divide. Needless to say, his essays re-echoed my sentiments and his vision for Nigeria completely aligned with mine. When we spoke over the phone, we both self-critiqued and acknowledged where our regions could do better. My friend gave me what I believed was a candid advice and offered a lot of insight on how the average northerner perceives the Igbos. He also gave his prescription for addressing areas of perennial conflict between the two groups. Expectedly, I reciprocated. 
On the issue of power rotation to the south and especially the South-East in 2023, we both agreed that even though rotation by its very nature, is far from perfect, it’s nevertheless the last thread that is holding the nation’s fragile unity. We both agreed that Ndigbo deserve a chance to field who will occupy Aso Rock, not that such will correct the systemic injustice that the people often cry out against, but more like a ceremonial handshake across the Niger, another way to say, you too are part of this whole. We were moving quite well and hoping that the kind of dialogue we had could be replicated across the great divides in this country we both love. Then, like a bolt from the blue, one article happened.
My friend authored a piece on why a certain northern presidential candidate would be the best thing to happen to Nigeria in 2023. This candidate, known to be long on sleaze, was whitewashed and clothed in an immaculate robe. In fact, what Nasir wrote should better be described as a hagiography. So much for a patriot working hard to get his country back on track! I was utterly dismayed. It felt like I was led on this wide goose chase and the pain ran deep like a stab wound in the back. Of course, I have since leant my lessons and now approach activism the way I see religion; each to his own.
For quite some time, I thought about what happened to Nasir. I wasn’t sure if my friend had this one epiphany moment that changed everything. I could never understand how we just made a whole song and dance about equity and fairness a few days ago, only to find out I was literally having a monologue. But I guess I was naive and too believing in the first place. One came to find out later that Nasir was made a mouth-watering offer to join the candidate’s Media and Strategy team, the lure of which apparently was stronger than any call to serve the fatherland.

There is also another dimension rarely talked about openly. Nasir had played into some sought of an old regional stereotype. There is this notion in a good segment of the Nigerian south that public intellectuals and political activists of northern extraction, no matter how firebrand, would always kowtow to their region’s political leaders and religious authorities. Those pushing such a narrative, would describe anti-establishment figures, the likes of the legendary Aminu Kano and Tanko Yakasai as unicorns who are exceptions rather than the rule.

First, there are lots of issues with such a parochial line of thought. As an Igbo, a sub-nationality that has consistently been at the receiving end of negative stereotypes in Nigeria, I find such characterisation very problematic and totally condemnable. Granted that not all stereotypes are bad, but by over-generalising, it strips people the ability to be individuals by their own right as well as rob them of other aspects of their identity and self. How do you forge your identity when you’re constantly battling the stereotypes thrown at you? Society often uses stereotypes to excuse targeted discrimination and can create what someone described as identity turbulence. Truth is, there are as many turncoats and soldiers of fortune in the south as they are in the north.
Nigeria parades one of the finest intellectuals in Africa and I dare say, globally. Well, to a certain extent. Outsiders would be amazed at the level of distilled wisdom that exits our mouth when we speak and flows from our pen when we write. But the word finest is only relevant in the Nigerian context to the extent that we are not held to account to practise what we preach. The Nigerian intellectual, it appears, has some hunger-inspired creative mind full of ideas; the type that freezes up as quickly as his belly gets stuffed with Agbado served in gold-rimmed plates of Aso Rock and state government houses.
The Nigerian intellectual as a private citizen, is this firebrand activist. Expect him to mount his cherubic pulpit always where he sermonizes and pontificates to those in power. He preaches democracy and rule of law as if Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson were his pupils. He gives history on the rise and fall of empires. He goes on a lengthy harangue, demonising political actors and calling on the citizens to unite and rise against a corrupt government. But the very moment he makes his way into the corridors power, he trades his signature T-shirt and iconic beret for crisply starched agbada. He lets you know that he is in it for the service of his country and makes excuses for the government he serves. He lashes out at his former colleagues for not having a “realistic expectation.”
Particularly telling is one of Buhari’s media aides who once served a two-year term as president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. In the man’s alternate universe, the worst person to ever superintend the affairs of Nigeria and a man known for his manifest incompetence, is Nigeria’s God-sent leader. A leader who is a textbook case of nepotism and the poster-child of religious bigotry, is somehow the biggest promoter of national unity. Those of us who are pointing out such sins and demanding some measures of accountability are clearly the problem. As the President’s image maker, no one expects him to criticise the government he is serving under. At the same time, no one could have imagined this public intellectual could descend to the Trumpian low of harvesting alternative facts.
His predecessor that served under President Goodluck Jonathan didn’t fare any better. This well-respected journalist is a polymath who strides across several knowledge verticals. Prior to Jonathan, he was this one-of-a-kind patriot who filled the public commentary space with elegant prose about good governance and public accountability. He rose like a meteor. But he had to serve under an incompetent president whose legacy is the current administration. Our man of letters found himself defending the indefensible. In fact, he loved his newfound status and enjoyed the company of his rich friends so much, to the extent that one of them, a fugitive drug baron, offered him a ticket to be his running mate of which he gladly accepted.
But by far, the most appalling about-face that I have ever witnessed has to be a certain cash and carry journalist from the South-East with the initial, FN. He has an impenetrable writing style, essays are characteristically turgid and acts are often over the top. Not too long ago, he used to write scathing opinion pieces, brimming with venom and described Buhari as a clueless president who is up to no good. But not anymore. The man just woke up one morning and made a complete 360. Buhari, he now preaches to us, is the best thing that ever happened to Nigeria and a man who is incapable of doing any wrong.

Having shamelessly laundered the current administration’s dirty image which he packaged as a patriotic duty, he was rewarded with yet another of such assignments. He was brought in to join in the ranks of the APC presidential candidate’s rabid attack dogs. Today, he is leading one of the most vicious and unethical attacks on the Labour party’s presidential candidate. He dismisses Peter Obi as just another candle in the wind. It’s not hard to figure out what happened to him.
Lawyers are not left out in this ignoble metamorphosis. One of President Buhari’s serving ministers is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria who prior to his current position was a fire-spitting human right activist. Today, every anti-people and anti-democratic effort of this government has his imprimatur.
Before him and during President Yar’Adua’s time, was a Nigerian Attorney General (AGF) and Minister of Justice who prior to joining that government was a Senior Partner in a law firm for 18 years and claimed that he supported justice and advocated for truth.  
At the time of Yar’Adua’s prolonged absence, the erudite lawyer was asked by CNN’s Christian Amanpour “why has it taken the system so long to fill the power vacuum in the president’s absence?” He responded by stating, “there was no power vacuum.” He argued that the dying Nigeria leader could serve as the president from anywhere in the world as long as he could. The man was notorious for using his office to subvert justice by protecting Governors accused of large-scale fraud from EFCC’s prosecution. In fact, it was alleged that while in London in 2009 to block the trial of James Ibori in a British court, he was chased out of his hotel room by Nigerian activists.
Too many examples abound of two-faced Nigerian intellectuals; they are to be found among media personalities, legal luminaries and civil society icons etc. They are quick to shed their identities as fast as they assume a new one. Which is why these days, it’s not uncommon for those in my neck of the woods to ask if one is really an intellectual or just another Otelectual.
But truth be told, a good number of Nigerian intellectuals are not like those chameleon faces. Thanks to principled men like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Gani Fawehinmi, Attahiru Jega, Olisa Agbakoba and many others who struggle every day in Nigeria to do the right thing against all odds. They are our true national heroes.
All over the world, public intellectuals are the engine driving social change. They challenge the status quo and hold political leaders to account. For Nigeria to move forward, we must not only re-define our politics but our public intellectuals must be consistent a great deal of respect for the truth. They must be ready to stand by principle, whether in or out of the corridors of power.

Hitler is reputed to have committed the worst case of genocide recorded in human history. Josef Goebbels, the chief propagandist of the Nazi party and the man who enabled and cheered for him while he carried out such egregious act was guilty no less. Talking a good game without following it with actions, isn’t necessarily a profile in courage.

 •Agbo writes from Houston, Texas. Email: [email protected]

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