by Abdul Mahmud
Every nation produces its own intellectuals. The kind Antonio Gramsci described in ‘Prison Notebooks’ as ‘’the thinking and organising elements of a particular social class’’.
As a nation we are blessed with intellectuals who are ‘’distinguished less by their profession than by their function in directing ideas and aspirations’’, mediating conflicts between social classes and speaking truth to power.
It is this essential role of speaking truth to power that invariably brings public intellectuals into conflict with those who wield power. Thus, the suspicion rulers hold of intellectuals – who give the clearest description of the intellectual that Edward Said described as ‘’neither a pacifier nor a consensus builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés or smooth…but actively willing to say so in public’’ – tell the relationship between rulers and intellectuals. In our case, the conflict is heightened by rulers who govern undemocratically in a democracy.
Thus, in most democratic nations where constructive public discourses govern democratic politics, tolerance and respect are inscribed within the discursive frame. It is worth noting, here, that democracy without its rights elements is hollow.
Lest we forget, democracy isn’t an abstract concept that conceives of rights and freedoms as the illusions of the weak. It is a governance reality with two natures: natural rights that are alive; and the nature that resists the totalitarian power which threatens it. The unity of both natures ensures that contrarian views are accepted as the basis of engagement. Sadly, ours is a country where rulers overcome unfounded fears by chasing imaginary enemies.
Admittedly, the relationship between rulers and public intellectuals in our country has never been smooth. With rulers riveted on promoting their own interests, and public intellectuals who have no gods to ‘’worship or to look to for unwavering guidance’’ ever committed to unmasking their interests, the relationship is bound to be uneasy.
This uneasiness became patently manifest last week when the Dame hosted a delegation of women politicians from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to a meeting many observers would have dismissed as the meeting of political hangers-on and hacks.
As if Nigerians had not fully grasped the import of her near-death vision, the Dame announced the result of the 2015 presidential ballot two years ahead of the casting of the first vote. The Dame’s boasts and chest thumping certainly gave fillips to PDP hacks that seized on the moment to abuse the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka. That a function involving the First Lady could be turned into a scene for lynch mobs tells the importance the Dame attaches to public propriety. In a saner clime those hacks and their recruiters would have been arrested and prosecuted for preaching hate, or for public nuisance.
The chest thumping of the Dame is of little concern to us here. To attempt an analysis is to stamp her impropriety with a seal of approval.
Here, we are concerned about the way her party casted slurs on the integrity of an individual who has dedicated his entire life to the good of his country. That Professor Wole Soyinka in his valentine message publicly attacked the proposed Mission House for African First Ladies wasn’t a justification for his vilification. If the Dame didn’t approve of such distasteful behaviour she would have given the hacks public rebuke. Her failure to do so certainly gave prolix to lynch-mobs who unashamedly shoved their ugly faces into television cameras beamed live to the country.
Here’s what most troubling about the sordid event of last week: that the Dame couldn’t recognise the fact that her appropriation of the good life conflicted with the harsh realities ordinary women confront daily. Sadly, the photographs of shoeless placard-carrying women splashed on the pages of newspapers illustrated those harsh realities.
Inspite of the foregoing, it isn’t hard to see how the Dame’s tolerance of hacks subverts the right to freedom of expression. It seems to us that her tolerance was informed more by the desire to close off the rights of patriots than the desire to elicit support for her African First Ladies Peace Initiative. She forgot that closing off rights achieves the unintended consequences of subverting legitimacy; and in this instance, the legitimacy of the present government. After all, it is the people that give legitimacy to governance. Deny the people the right to freedom of expression, government and democracy are imperilled.
Give it to Professor Wole Soyinka. For years he has consistently engaged the Nigerian public on policies and political practices of our rulers, and has consistently given meaning to public intellection and the tradition of inquiry public intellectuals hold dear.
For Soyinka, no framework gives better affirmation to governance than public engagement. He gets praises just as he is abused by those who do not share his world view. To have been made the hate figure of officialdom was a step too far.
It will serve the Dame a whole lot good if she learns from President Charles de Gaulle who ordered the release of the great French philosopher and literary critic, Jean-Paul Sartre, arrested for civil disobedience in the summer of 1968, and gave the French gendarmes a severe ticking off. He scolded, ‘’you don’t arrest Voltaire’’.
Dear Dame, if tomorrow someone were to get nasty with an elder statesman like Professor Soyinka rebuke him or her the way a mother rebukes an insolent kid. Tell him or her, ‘’you don’t abuse Kongi’’.