Whether Nigerian intellectuals like it or not, Europe and its extensions were built with the ideas of intellectuals. I cannot imagine a Europe without its prodigious history of great intellectuals in all spheres of learning. The intention here is not comparison but waste. It would appear that in recent times of democracy post-1999 Nigerian intellectuals are increasingly a waste of space because they are not needed. The only intellectual pursuit of note is transient (political and doctrinal economic) consultancy/advice for profit. Is that all they have got though?
The Nigerian intellectual in this context is the Intellectual with Privilege (IWP). The IWP is the ‘well-connected’ or ‘lucky’ intellectual usually with postgraduate qualifications, an overseas education, comes from a privileged family and has a handsome livelihood. Privilege exists in all societies but in many societies, it is supposed to make the intellectual an “exemplary elite.” It is mostly tolerable by the majority of people. Will anyone grumble that the Emir of Kano’s son is the Governor of Central Bank if he has the skills and genuinely merits the position? However, the non-privileged intellectual does not count no matter his or her usefulness to society. Julien Benda in the Betrayal of the Intellectuals said intellectuals have to choose between truth and justice or privilege and power. The IWP has chosen. No wonder idiots are so powerful and persuasive in the land.
If Nigeria, a democracy, is going to survive and flourish the intellectuals are the first points of call. Most Nigerian PhDs complain that their persons and outputs are not respected by the leaders of their own nation or continent who prefer the outputs of White and Asian intellectuals. Those same leaders are very keen to “have” their athletes in diaspora and home to represent their national teams in World Cups and the Olympic Games to win something for them. When perhaps most Nigerian intellectuals have shown themselves to be competent “rent-seekers” and sour “responsibility shirkers”, so say various leaders, how can they be trusted with delicate ideas that require the utmost care, diligence and tenacity to successfully implement? Intellectuals are only listened by leaders when their outputs are very persuasive and their application inevitable; that is no easy task. It is a truism that successive governments have not offered Nigerian intellectuals with enabling conditions. Idea theft is a rule, IWPs abetting the racket against non-privileged creators of useful knowledge.
The IWPs themselves have not proven to be competent conflict resolvers or military strategists in the insurgency of Boko Haram. The IWPs in public relations look like they could only turn out effete or incendiary campaigns on behalf of their employers. The IWP’s comments on democracy tend to be so partisan that the President is defended to the point he has no responsibilities whatsoever; the common Nigerian, the so-called “followership” is at fault for all Nigeria’s problems. The IWPs managing the economy have only the adherence to failed economic doctrine and abstract (invisible and intangible) economic growth to ‘boast’ about. The IWPs from engineering faculties cannot tar Nigeria’s roads properly after centuries of macadamised roads. The IWPs cannot treat even common illnesses and necessitating the costly procurement of treatment in Europe, USA and India. More privilege and power is the only intellectual output.
One popular American professor once told me (subtly commenting on his long list of Nigerian PhD students) that having a PhD may qualify a person to be a “public intellectual” but not a “useful intellectual” who creates useful knowledge. I initially resented the comment but now accept he was right. How are the intellectual outputs of countless IWPs “useful” to Nigeria? Help with political advice; possessing specialist software; acquiring fungible secondary data; name dropping; undertaking informed internet searches, and talking the talk; these are the vocational choices of most IWPs. Will you find IWPs spending most of their time in laboratories, design and modelling suits, creating superlative standards, setting up vibrant intellectual collectives, sharing potentially ground-breaking data or concepts? Are highly useful intellectuals to be wasted on the grounds of no privilege? Whatever happened to merit?
It is certainly ‘rethink time’.