The African condition is desperate and ugly. African intellectuals know this. What are they doing about it? These old but perennially new realities were the recent subject of a series of articles and a panel discussion on Kairo News. One of the pieces published by Kairo was an open letter to African intellectuals in which the writer seemed to wonder what African intellectuals working in international educational and other institutions are doing about the desperate situation in their own native backyard.
What seemed to escape critical scrutiny in the conversations on Kairo News was whether we might consider all educated persons intellectuals, or whether the title intellectual may only be applied to certain educated persons and not others. This question has been widely debated by writers on the subject ranging from Julien Benda (1928), Ernest Gellner (1990), and Edward Said (1994) among many others. In this small reflection, we draw inspiration from Said’s thoughts on the subject.
In Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said (pronounced sayid) characterizes the intellectual as simply that educated person – “an oppositional figure” – who speaks out against injustices in his society and ‘whose public performances can neither be predicted nor compelled into some slogan, orthodox party line, or fixed dogma”. The intellectual is not merely one who has obtained an advanced degree in a particular field of study. They have to be someone actively engaged in speaking truth to power in the service of their society and those who are not able to fight back when bullied by the power structures of society. Said’s characterization of the intellectual disqualifies many educated persons from claiming the status of intellectual. An intellectual in Said’s formulated cannot afford NOT to take sides – be on the side of the underdogs – in national discourses of power, oppression, and exploitation. The Saidian intellectual is vocal and openly on the side of the oppressed masses and in total opposition to the oppressive individuals, structures and institutions of society.
According to Said, the true intellectual is a lonely outsider, an exile to mainstream society, even if they physically live within their own country. The intellectual is marginal to whatever public he finds himself in. Ironically, the marginality of the intellectual derives precisely from his total immersion in society and his unwavering and uncompromising engagement with national mission. At once marginal to society, the true intellectual is perpetually embedded, energized and motivated by his engagement with issues of social concern. It is his hatred of injustice, his total identification with the plight of the poor, the weak, the oppressed and the otherwise powerless victims of structural violence that at once makes him an outsider and the quintessential insider and champion of social justice. Unable to partake of the ordinary joys of belonging, the intellectual nevertheless resides in the epicenter of belonging. It is this total belonging that makes the intellectual an unyielding, uncompromising advocate for a just social order.
In Said’s formulation, educated people who keep mute over the injustices inflicted upon their compatriots or who join and actively serve the oppressive political structure may write and publish many books and articles in academic presses and learned professional journals. However, because they either passively or actively condone or aid tyrannies and injustices in their home countries render them disqualified for the title of intellectual. These kinds of educated people, Said suggests, are mere academics or professionals contributing to the production of knowledge in their fields or otherwise serving their narrow professional and personal interests. By their abstinence from critically engaging the tyrannical system or their active participation in the tyrannical power structure, these educated people actively participate, if by default, in the heartless destruction of their own people. Said suggests that the intellectual cannot afford to be either part of an oppressive structure or quietly sit on the proverbial fence in the face of injustice or aggression.
Every moderately schooled African knows that most African political systems are broken, utterly dysfunctional, and perpetually tottering on the brink of ignoble collapse. The utterly broken, dysfunctional and nauseatingly amoral states that preside over these broken systems survive only by tightly squeezing the nation in one fist and using the other fist to brandish the trigger-happy gun and the grave-like jail as evidence of unquestionable national ownership. The typical African state is powerless and impotent in the face of all the challenges that matter. It is unable to lift its people out of poverty. It feels helpless in the face of a growing mountain of foreign debt, of budget deficits, of scarcities of medicine and other basic commodities, of sky-rocketing inflation, and of a growing population of depraved citizens whose young are so desperate that they risk drowning in the Mediterranean to reach a Europe of illusory ease and plenty.
Paradoxically, these same weak African states function within their national borders as bone-chilling leviathans, so brutal and merciless that citizens are afraid to mention their name in public. The national voice is reduced to an embarrassing monotone of untruths about the nonexistent virtues of the brutal leviathan. Under such circumstances as we have in Africa today, the nation is constantly belittled and bullied by a state that has no conception of national mission. The tragic comedy is that all the bullying, all the destruction is inflicted by the state in the name of national mission. The bully state swears by national mission. It callously poses as a personification of the national mission. It constantly squeaks and roars that only over its dead body can anyone prevent it from actualizing the national mission which, incidentally, totally requires that it stays in power. The educated African, whose senses cannot but be perpetually assailed by the outrageous transgressions of the African state has at least one key question to answer: Why are you not doing anything about it?
The answer most educated Africans would quickly utter in response to this key question is that they are not interested in politics. The implication of course, is that politics is a dirty game in which they are too clean to engage. What is there to be gained from getting involved in politics, they ask. To justify their abstinence they reduce the entire national crisis – brutal leviathan, hostage nation and guilty moral conscience – to the question of getting involved in politics which, conventional fallacy has it, should best be avoided by all means necessary. Having thus repressed their natural inclination to do something, they convince themselves that they are merely decent citizens sitting on the fence. They forget that being part of the nation, every fence they sit on is inevitably located smack in the middle of the national presence. The national presence could never be diminished or excluded from citizen consciousness. It can never be ignored either. There is no sitting on the fence when it comes to being part of a nation, however geographically removed you are from your native soil. It’s like staring at the blazing sun with your eyes tightly shut: you still see red and feel the heat.
Of course, some of the worst atrocities against human kind both in Africa and around the world have been committed by people who would characterize themselves as intellectuals. Almost all of Africa’s founding fathers held advanced academic qualifications ranging from masters degrees to PhDs. Yet, their most glaring legacy is “Africa 2015”, a continent of unimaginable poverty and misery, a people set far below the rest of the world’s peoples in almost all aspects of life that matter. A people prostrate under the burdens of poverty, disease, and political oppression and conflict; a perpetually hungry people. One can understand that our so-called founding fathers were faced with a particularly difficult task of leading new nations within the context of an impersonal and exploitative capitalist world system, and at the height of a cold war that threatened to sabotage Africa’s emergent independence. But as Africans faced with a particularly malignant problem of unjust rulers, we cannot afford to overlook injustices and oppression merely because the perpetrator has also made great contributions to the advancement of society. Under no circumstances may acts of injustice and oppression be condoned, ignored, or glossed over especially when they are perpetrated by “intellectuals” who should know better than to assume positions of infallibility. There are always alternative ways of doing things, alternative choices to be made which may achieve the same or better results.
Most African leaders hold higher education qualifications that place them firmly in the category of Africa’s top intellectuals. Yet, most of them willfully impose unjust social orders on their societies simply by refusing to recognize that they could be mistaken in some of their ideas. It is to be said for Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere that once he recognized the error of his ways, he stepped aside and allowed an alternative system to replace his failed experiment in Ujaama socialism. That is a true mark of a true intellectual – the capacity to recognize error, say sorry, and take corrective action in the interest of national mission. Of course, we also have those African leaders, aka “the greatest pretenders” who, much like cows in a library, pretend to eat the books and attach to their names grandiose titles that suggest Olympian erudition and saintly humaneness even as they use their spiked political hoofs to viciously trample upon and mercilessly crush any signs of true intellectuality in the nation. But in all the areas that matter, in the face of every meaningful national challenge, their giant feet immediately turn to clay, their spiked hoofs into butter pads that melt at the slightest contact with reality.
The true intellectual recognizes above everything else his human fallibility. He certainly expresses strongly held beliefs and opinions and could prove extremely stubborn in upholding and defending them. But he never assumes a position of infallibility and certainly never suggests that his version of whatever issue is at stake is the only correct version. He always leaves room for the possibility of error, and depending on his level of maturity as an intellectual, is always prepared to revisit and revise his position in the light of strong evidence suggesting that he might be wrong. In short, the true intellectual is a perpetual student, both of academics and of life. One of the greatest intellectuals of all time, the Greek philosopher Socrates famously confessed that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing.
The true intellectual will not be co-opted by power structures that bear the tiniest bit of responsibility for human suffering. He is utterly incapable of inflicting premeditated injustice except as a response to injustice inflicted upon him or some other victim. In Africa however, and admittedly in all parts of the world, people who consider themselves intellectuals often serve as the spokespersons and legitimating signposts for oppressive and unjust social orders. Every tyrant has a crop of intellectuals around him, with some others waiting in the wings, licking his boots, and hoping to be co-opted into the system for monetary and other benefits. Some go out of their way to produce works on the tyrant’s non-existent achievements, or to praise the tyrant’s non-existent magnanimities as a way of attracting favorable attention and perhaps landing a lucrative job from the tyrant. Because tyrants are generally insecure and have grossly over-inflated egos in constant need of stroking, they are famously addicted to intellectual sycophancy because it confirms their own unrealistic estimations of themselves. Intellectual sycophancy confirms but can never validate the lie that the tyrant tells himself every day in a bid to escape the pangs of bad conscience. But, if we agree with Said and especially Bender before him, those intellectuals who attach themselves to unjust power structures and corrupt institutions for monetary gain are not true intellectuals; they are mere academics utterly heedless of the lessons of history and neglectful of their rightful roles as citizens. Some of them are victims of self-inflicted mental blindness who assume convenient truths to convince themselves that the only way they could escape what appears to be a life-long cycle of material poverty is to court the favors of the tyrant. Indeed, it is their obsessive preoccupation with material gain that pushes them into the thorny arms of the tyrant and makes them sell their souls to the devil. The true intellectual does not dismiss the necessity of material comfort; but against the exigencies of national mission and the necessities of human dignity, principle and integrity, material comfort pales into utter insignificance in the mind of the true intellectual.
Then there are those intellectuals who will neither sell their souls to the devil nor actively fight the injustices in his society. These seem to be in the majority. Having obtained higher educational qualifications, they are well aware of the nature of structural violence in society. However, they tend to lean more towards silence largely for reasons of self-preservation, cowardice, or mere laziness. African intellectuals belonging to this group are often prolific writers and great scholars working for some of the world’s greatest universities or corporate institutions. However, they maintain a stony silence while their own people are bullied and killed by tin pot despots. They place the conveniences of being able to freely land at their home airports and bask in the communal glory that greets them back home to the inconvenience of having to stay out of the country while waging a battle against unjust social orders. They claim to be not interested in politics; yet their entire professions deal with politics, a subject they engage on a daily basis. These are the types of intellectuals the sociologist C Wright Mills call “inactionaries.” They convince themselves that they are not doing anything bad, that they are independent beings who have no bone to pick with the unjust system as long as it does not attack them or theirs, or that they are not interested in politics. Assuming these convenient truths, they manage to willfully maintain what they feel is a clear conscience and go about their lucrative business. It is to be said for these inactionaries that they seldom sell their souls to the devil either. It is easier to leave other souls at the devil’s mercy.
The true intellectual neither sells his soul to the devil nor remains mute over social injustices. Marginal to society, he is embedded in a sea of social concerns. His entire being is animated and inspired by an irresistible urge to speak out against tyranny and injustice in all their various forms. He cannot survive long in an environment of intolerance and censorship. He will allow others to control anything about him but his mind. He is a fiercely independent individual who finds it hard to belong, yet inextricably and almost literally belongs to his community. And he will not be silenced, except by brute force that renders him totally incapable of talking truth to power. Some of the greatest intellectual treasures of all time were produced by intellectuals in prison or on the verge of being murdered by unjust regimes. Within our current Gambian and African context, we can only wish that there are more of this type of intellectual.