Of Intellectuals, Politics and Policy-making in Nigeria

14 August 2005 at 22:12 | 913 views

African intellectuals are sometimes blamed for the evils on the continent. In this very critical analysis, Olufemi Taiwo, himself an African intellectual, examines the situation in Nigeria. Note the similarities between the Nigerian context and the rest of Africa.This paper was delivered at a recent ceremony to celebrate the birthday of Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.

By Olfmi Tw


It is a great honour to be asked to be part of the celebration of Wole Soyinka’s birthday. He is an embodiment of all that the National Association of Seadogs stands for. He is also the ultimate exemplar of the creature the travails of which I shall be expounding upon in this lecture. I count him as one of my teachers. No, I did not sit in his class. That privilege eluded me. I was too scared of literature, so I studied philosophy and history instead. At the present time, he is one of my teachers in his role as one of the most important of Africa’s contemporary philosophers. And long before I realized his importance as a philosopher, given his books, his lectures, plays, films, and overall hell-raising activities, only a dumb student of Africa’s predicament would fail to acknowledge the superb tuition he/she has received from Wole Soyinka the teacher. Again, on a more personal level, he was one of my interviewers for a position as a graduate assistant at Ife back in 1979. I can only hope that this represents a partial redemption, if not validation, of his part in that long-ago hire. For all his years of humanism that attracted our Marxian hostility in our undergraduate days; of fighting for humanity; of speaking the truth to power; of nurturing and celebrating youth and challenging us to grow; of teaching with his life the sublimity of true intellectualism, I offer this as a tribute, a long thank you note for his being such an inspiration. This is hoping for many more years of great health, great works and the witnessing of that glorious dawn for Africa that he has always striven for. Notice that I omitted the word “struggle” from my list of what I wish for him. For the more his generation has to keep going back to the barricades, the greater the indictment of us younger folks who either are unwilling or unable to prosecute the struggle so that he may now repose in life. Happy Birthday, Prof.


This occasion is reflective of the need for us to get together to talk about serious issues concerning not only our homeland, Nigeria, but also, in our capacity as intellectuals, about how to advance humanity. I begin with a disclaimer: A Yorb proverb goes thus: Ptpt ta n lbt, nit o b ta s lra, k jw k for jn w o. Taking a stave to a puddle will inevitably leave some with dirt on their garments. It is not my intention to soil anyone’s vestment. Should anyone be hit by flying dirt, please accept my apologies; I do not intend any offence. In what follows I offer an indictment. No doubt Nigerian intellectuals have always been involved in politics and public policy-making. So I shall not be making a case for our involvement in both politics and public policy-making. Hence, I have two options for developing my theme.

The first is to describe the roles that intellectuals have played, are playing, will play, can play, or should play. This option is best left alone. When it is rumoured that you may be a thief, it is inappropriate for you to go about doing a pas de deux with a lamb. Professional/academic philosophers are not exactly popular participants in discussions about public issues in our land. The hostility directed at us is traceable in part to our penchant for logic chopping and conceptual hair-splitting. Taking the first route will earn me the reader’s inattention. As respectable as such an undertaking may be, it promises to be irredeemably boring.

The second option is to examine how intellectuals have performed with a view to assessing their performance. No doubt, some will be offended by my assuming a judicative stance towards Nigerian intellectuals. I should not be bothered by that attitude for it is obvious that a judicative stance is in order given my position: that the history of failure that I am about to describe is to a very large extent a history of the failure of the intellectuals in Nigeria.

Who Are the Intellecutuals?

I have just asked a tough but by no means unanswerable question. For the most part, I direct my comments and animus to that category of professionals many of whom will read this piece. I have not chosen this segment of the population because, in the main, they are degreed and lettered. After all, a degree, not even a doctorate, earned or honorary, however eminent the awarding institution, does not an intellectual make. The degree only attests the awardee’s attendance at an institution and, as those pieces of paper called certificates’ often proclaim: The awardee has attended and successfully completed a prescribed course of study and examinations. No commitments are intended regarding how well or ill she has internalized the intellectual habits that such a course of study is supposed to impart or that her life, thinking and general comportment have been altered for the better by her having undertaken that course of study.

Quite the contrary, intellectuals are defined by what they do. Their roles are multidimensional. The primary qualification is that intellectuals, wherever they may be, have always sought to explain the context, the matrix, be that society or a subgroup, within which they are inserted, to its members, to itself, with a view to preserving the status quo, or overthrowing same, modifying or completely destroying it. Put more expansively, in human history, intellectuals form a body of people who are charged with, who profess to, or are expected to perform the task of explaining the society to itself, to its members, constructing the metaphors and myths that constitute the complex of significations that enable us to claim a shared destiny or common membership of a polity; of alerting the society to the shortcomings of the ways of being human to which it may have become wedded; of providing the justificatory or at least legitimating ideologies for their polity’s patterns of governance; of leading their society in formulating new ways of being human.

The preceding characterization is to be construed in purely descriptive terms. Nothing in it suggests or is meant to suggest that the various tasks performed by intellectuals are always to the good. For instance, the Broderbund provided apartheid South Africa with enabling myths for apartheid and helped generations of Afrikaners live with their consciences even as they were complicit in crimes against humanity. Nor should we forget that the design for genocide in Rwanda was not constructed without the participation of many Hutu intellectuals. This should not surprise us. When as intellectuals we help our respective communities define who we are, who ought to be in and who out, we often typify the excluded as appropriate candidates for violence or, minimally, disrespect. It is easy to see how almost everyone who cares to reflect about the above themes is an intellectual.

Intellectuals work at all levels of society. They are to be found in any but the most primitive of human societies. What is important to note is that intellectuals are poke-nosers, busybodies who are forever striving to tell stories of how things work and why they work or don’t work in the ways that they are supposed to. Let me illustrate. In Yorb culture, the akw is a familiar presence. Of course, ew can be sung or spoken for enjoyment. But those who are in the know understand that the akw fulfills the function of an intellectual in some of the ways that we have described above. In his analysis of the art of Adby Flt, a master of the art form, ltnd ltnj tells us that Flt is of the view that the akw

Poet should be an alre (outpost/lookout) for his society. The image of a lookout is immensely suggestive especially when we consider it in relation to the uniqueness of sensibility which the poet is expected to possess. ... By the nature of his training and duty, the alre is stationed on a high structure cut off from the people he is by and large protecting, and the pleasures they enjoy. In other words, he is in a kind of tower, above the people, isolated from society and his thoughts and concerns may not always coincide with those of his fellow citizens even though their safety and security is his primary concern. From his higher position and the exercise of his acquired expertise, the alre can see distant activities more easily and in greater perspective than others, and it is on such occasions that he comes down, or sends urgent call through someone, to the ba or bal (king or village head) who then sets the military machinery in motion for necessary action. His is the voice of vision respected by all, the authority and common people as well.[2]

The iterated characteristics of an intellectual admit of degrees of fullness and the competences involved admit of differentials. This is indicated by ltnj’s further narrowing of his characterization to the specific instance of the poet as evidenced in the following passage.

The poet, to be relevant, has in the same way to establish a line of communication with his audience, because it is only then that the product of the exercise of his transforming imagination over the amalgam of fragmentary and inchoate experience can be made available to his listeners. The lookout warns against what can disturb or destroy the authority of the status quo; in other words, he is in the service of the establishment. His is to stabilize, not to criticize the status quo. Thus the health or security of the community which the lookout seeks to preserve is in essence different from the kind of situation that faces the poet. A poet decides for himself, as we shall see later even in the interview with Faleti himself, what he considers to be in the interest of the community.[3]

The exigencies of today’s occasion do not permit any deep explication of the possibilities inherent in ltnj’s expostulations. But a few inferences can be made. Portions of the last passage from ltnj might suggest that the alre is essentially conservative, what he says about the poet makes it clear that such an outcome is not the only possible construal of the alre’s duty. The akw, as a species of the genus alre, is emblematic of what we think intellectuals should be. Like the akw-alre, the intellectual should be “outpost/lookout”. By itself this does not amount to much. But once we begin to delve deeper into what would make the best lookout stand out, we must expect such to be capable of making the right call as to the nature and severity of the risk that she perceives as about to befall her community. To do so requires at times what I have elsewhere called “the gift of prophecy” on the part of the intellectual.[4] Additionally, the intellectual must have the gift of eloquence to persuade her community of the seriousness of the danger of which she warns or the desirability of the new forms of social living that she foresees will move her community to ever better ways of being human. Needless to say, the latter gift can be perverted and degenerate into demagoguery just as the earlier can become hostage to charlatanry or the many blind seers that are running rampant in present-day Nigeria. Not only must the intellectual possess the gifts that we have identified, she must occupy “a high structure cut off from the people he is protecting and the pleasures they enjoy.” She must be “in a kind of tower,” “be above the people, isolated from society” and must be bashful in the exercise, on occasion, of the most capricious individuality! A tall order indeed! But were the intellectual to remain on the same plane as those for whom she is required to discharge the task of an alre, the idea of the lookout would be almost without content. In short, the intellectual-as-alre must be in society but she may not be of it. By the same token, all societies whose material and ideological culture is advanced enough to accommodate intellectuals never fail to provide the wherewithal to enable this group of individuals live a quasi-Sybaritic life in exchange for their sharpening the requisite skills for them to be successful alre.

Thus we find that depending on the level of development of the material and ideological resources of a culture, there are, in several societies a group of people who are freed from the exigencies of daily living, especially those regarding physical labour, and are sustained by the relevant communities to do nothing but engage in the life of the mind. In exchange for being freed in this way intellectuals are expected always to have answers to questions or at least anticipate fresh conundrums about the myriad ways of being human abroad in their community. In government or out of it, in industry or out of it, from the pulpit or the lectern and in motley other areas, intellectuals exert themselves in ways consistent with their location as thinkers for their society. Meanwhile those who are paid to do this full time are often pressed into service as politicians and/or policy-makers. It is this group that I address in this piece. They are domiciled mostly in colleges and universities. But their equivalents can be found at all levels of the education system, in the various ideological institutions of the Nigerian polity-media houses, religious orders, the arts, and so on. Much of what I say in the rest of this essay relates to those among them who own fancy degrees, who operate mostly from within universities and other tertiary institutions and are often pressed into service in both politics and public policy-making in Nigeria. Outside of those occasions when they are called upon to leave behind their intellectual mantles and don those of politicians, administrators, or policy-makers, they are paid to perform tasks that typify the life of the mind. Given that Nigerian intellectuals have been called upon to discharge these tasks what is of significance is for us to ask how well or ill they have done.

How Have the Intellectuals Done?

Most of Nigeria’s intellectuals, those who are paid to perform-an attribute that they share in common with prostitutes, if I may remind us-the relevant tasks, were trained outside of Nigeria’s borders, in Europe and North America, for the most part. What this means is that they were exposed to the many ways of being human and solving human problems to be found in the countries of their education. Ostensibly they were schooled in the myths and metaphors, the metaphysical templates from which were fashioned the architectonic structures of their social institutions and practices from law to politics, from economics to the performing arts. The problems that we are called upon to help make sense of and solve in Nigeria are not unknown at their places of training. Even if those societies’ own problems are different, they who underwent training in those countries are expected to take back to Nigeria with them enough sophistication of mind and mirth that would help their homeland make a better sense of its place in the world. Add to that the fact that such scholars might have made the acquaintance of others whose problems are not too dissimilar to theirs although those others are scions of radically different cultures and traditions.

The problems that Nigerian intellectuals are called upon to help their society solve include those of colonialism and its legacy of women’s oppression, underdevelopment, mass poverty, the destruction or distortion of indigenous values by foreign influences, the problem of environmental degradation, interminable political crises, retarded economic growth and slow cultural progress. Meeting these exigencies is a fundamental purpose of government. To help meet them is a principal reason for inviting intellectuals to associate themselves with government.

I wish to proceed by contrasting examples. Let us shift our gaze momentarily from Nigeria. We first consider the area of economics. In 1993, the Mexican economy was in the throes of a severe crisis. The peso was haemorrhaging badly. The new Bill Clinton administration in the United States came to the rescue of the Mexican currency with a credit line of $6bn. In eighteen months, Mexico had fully discharged its obligations under the terms of the loan agreement. The Mexican economy staved off collapse. In 1997, it was the turn of Indonesia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that now favourite bogeyman of lazy African intellectuals, extended a facility of $66bn to stabilize the Indonesian economy. Meanwhile in 1994, Mexico was confident enough to enter into a Free Trade agreement, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), with the United States and Canada. In fact, what amused me most in the debate over NAFTA in the United States and Canada was that it was their workers who were running scared of the agreement for fear that what had always been the Achilles heel of Mexico’s economy-low wages-may turn out, as it indeed did, to be its strength. Labour relations have not been the same since then in both the United States and Canada. Let us add Brazil to the mix. A headline in the business section of The New York Times of December 31, 2000, caught my attention. It ran thus: “Brazil’s Hot Commodity? Not Coffee or Soccer”. The subject of the article was the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, Embraer, “founded by the Brazilian Air Force in 1969 as a manufacturer of simple military training and patrol planes” “which was on the verge of displacing Canada’s Bombardier as the world’s third-largest manufacturer of commercial aircraft”. I have mentioned these three countries because their profiles are not unlike Nigeria’s: they all have large populations; Nigeria and Mexico both have huge oil reserves and went through the oil boom of the nineteen seventies in common and both Nigeria and Brazil have experienced long-term military rule. Among smaller countries, we can find similar examples. Chile, too, was under the sway of military jack-boots for seventeen years. But this did not stop it from what, under capitalist conditions, was termed an economic miracle and it is next in line for membership of NAFTA. Chile deserves attention because it has in place a Private Pension Plan that even the United States is studying as a possible model to emulate in its efforts to save its Social Security system from bankruptcy. Not only has Singapore Airlines consistently been voted the No. 1 airline in the world for business travelers for several years in a row now, as far back as 2000, it was seeking to buy 40 percent of Air New Zealand Ltd.[5] Meanwhile, Singapore recently announced the setting aside of $571m to enable the country become a player in the biotechnology industry. In almost every instance of the countries that I have mentioned in this section, the achievements for which they have attracted the world’s praise and, in some cases, envy, have been brokered, birthed, or helped along by people who received their training at some of the same institutions at which many Nigerian intellectuals also studied. What is the tally in the case of Nigeria?

In Nigeria, between 1973 and 1990, we changed the school calendar three times. Between 1955 and 1990, Universal Primary Education rose and collapsed at all levels of the polity. The same petroleum that Mexico used to put infrastructure in place to enable it dare the United States and Canada in NAFTA was also the mainstay of the Nigerian economy at an equivalent time in the nineteen seventies. Does anyone seriously wish to contend that Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation is in the same league as Mexico’s PEMEX?

I need not bore the reader with the stories of collapse that scholars of Nigeria know too well: in the area of automobile assembly plants, compare the experience of Brazil, South Africa, Argentina, and South Korea; in that of industrialization, again compare the experiences of Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico or India; and the list goes on. At the same time that the countries mentioned above were working miracles of progress, Nigerian intellectuals were busy choreographing a dance of collapse and mass destitution. I have no doubt that the countries above also have Harvard Business School Alumni Associations and Oxbridge Clubs but that is not all that they have. In the case of Chile, the architect of their pension plan is a graduate of the University of Chicago. Even Bangladesh has the architect of the Grameen Bank. These countries’ intellectuals have the clubs and concrete results from their applying their “transforming imagination” to the myriad problems of living in their respective countries. While we are busy celebrating our good fortune at having attended and wrested certificates from those schools, others are busy putting in practice what they have learnt. I would not like to be misunderstood. I am not by any means saying that any of the countries that I have contrasted with Nigeria are anywhere near solving the problems that I spoke about. All I am saying is that whereas, as scholars or activists, we can complain about the maldistribution of wealth in Brazil, especially with respect to its African and native Indian populations, what we cannot deny is that Brazil’s is a productive economy and one that is in the business of wealth production. The same can be said for all the others. Nigeria, sadly, is not a productive economy. That is the difference between them and us.

To what extent is it fair to say that the history of failure that I have just summarized can be traced in any significant sense to the doors of Nigerian intellectuals? Ever since the Mohammed/Obasanjo regime, the lines between the intellectual vocation and policy-making and execution have become blurrier and blurrier. Yet, at the same time, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that this period has also coincided with that during which Nigeria has been on the down incline in all areas of its life. In the area of education, the collapse of the education system has been presided over by a succession of some of Nigeria’s self-acclaimed intellectuals. Even under General Olusegun Obasanjo, from 1976 to 1979 when he was the military Head of State, the federal commissioner for education was a military colonel, which by the way did not preclude his membership of the intellectual community, he also happened to have been a medical doctor: Ahmadu Ali! Others who succeeded him have for the most part been professors: Dr. Ihechukwu Madubuike, Dr. Jibril Aminu, Dr. Mohamed Liman, Professor Aliyu Babs Fafunwa, and Professor A. B. Borisade. The same situation obtained in the economy. One need only think of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources and some of those who have headed it over the years. By the time of the transition to civilian rule in 1979, parading in the ranks of their advisers a bevy of certified members of the intellectual community became de rigueur for Nigerian politicians. Indeed many intellectuals themselves became politicians. That situation has not abated. It is fair then to ask why there has been an inverse proportion between the growing involvement of intellectuals in Nigerian politics and public policy-making and the declining quality of performance in those spheres. One can say the same for other areas of public life in Nigeria.

Why do we drop the ball so often and so badly? Explanations abound. Some appeal to our penchant for greed. But this is not the exclusive preserve of Nigerians, intellectual or not, as Wall Street, American C.E.Os., and financial analysts have shown these past few years. We can also cite what we in philosophy call weakness of will’, a situation in which an agent knows that what he wishes to do is wrong, would rather not do it, but does it anyway. Others talk of the poverty of imagination and a basic of lack of self-respect. I cannot go into any of these reasons. The one explanation to which I wish to direct attention and that I propose to explore in the rest of this paper is that we evince a supreme lack of understanding of our mission as intellectuals and, as a result, we have all too readily abandoned the intellectual vocation. This will provide the backdrop for the recommendation that I make at the end of this discussion, viz; it is time that Nigerian intellectuals took a time out from politics and public policy-making and get back to the business of the mind and its appurtenances.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Let us recapitulate what we said are the characteristic features of intellectuals. We are supposed to be in society, not of it; we should be in a kind of tower, cut off from the people and the pleasures they enjoy; be above the people, isolated from society, and so on. Nothing from that characterization suggests that the intellectual should not have anything to do with society. If she were to be completely sundered from society, then the dialectic of which she is only a moment will be unhinged. Simultaneously, if she were to remain at the same level as the society, then her alre functions will be preempted. Indeed, I suspect that many intellectuals have taken too seriously the requirement that they be engaged intellectuals such that they have lost sight of the fact that they must strive continually to stay a few steps ahead of their society if they are to discharge their duties. They have embraced instead the same pleasures as the people they are supposed to warn of dangers.

To be engaged must mean something other than tailing the society and wallowing in some of its toxic mud of graft, debauchery and indolence. In my estimation, to be engaged means to be exercised by the many problems afflicting the society with a view to thinking up new solutions to them, anticipating fresh problems, and forever creating new metaphysical templates for ever-improving forms of social living whether in religion or in ethics, in politics or in economics, in science or in sports. If what I say makes some sense, what is left is for me to describe what intellectuals will be doing under this different dispensation. I use two illustrations from politics and law.

It is accepted that part of the legacy bequeathed to us by colonialism in politics and law is the modern state and a modern legal system. Many of the problems that intellectuals are supposed to help Nigeria solve turn on the imperfections of the political institutions and the legal system whose genealogies must be traced to colonial rule. The so-called Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, the state of which it is a part, the judiciary that is appurtenant to it all have specific histories that, however hard we look, we cannot trace to any indigenous sources in any of Nigeria’s cultures. For those in the know, whether we call it parliamentary democracy or the presidential system of government, representative government such as we have inherited it emanated from the historical movement that we call “modernity”. The modern way of life encompasses several aspects. In addition to the principle of subjectivity and its social concomitant, individualism, other elements of modernity will include the centrality of reason, autonomy of action, liberal democracy, the Rule of Law, the open future, and a near obsessional concern with novelty. The principal doctrine of liberal democracy is that no one may be made to live under a government in the constitution of which he or she has had no hand. Related to this is the idea of the sovereignty of the individual and the impermissibility of coercing this individual to obey a regime to which she has not given her consent. Taken into the legal system, this individual is termed the legal subject’ and is the centerpiece of the modern judiciary that we are supposed to be operating.

I would like to recount a story from a teacher’s diary. It was 1988 and I was teaching a fourth-year seminar in Advanced Political Philosophy at the Obafemi Awolowo University. It also happened to be a time when General Ibrahim Babangida was taking the country for a ride in one of those interminable transitions that he repeatedly conjured. Many people formed political parties with the hope that they would be registered. One of those parties was called The Nigerian Liberal Party’. I had my students read various fundamental texts in the history of political philosophy, especially those regarding liberal political theory. One of the issues that came up in that class was whether, given what they knew as a result of their readings in class, a chief, as in our indigenous political systems, could be a liberal, in the modern dispensation. But it so turned out that one of the kids in the class decided to go home and let his uncle realize how good an education the uncle’s money was buying my student. The uncle was at that time the protem chairman of his state’s branch of the Nigerian Liberal Party. He asked his uncle: “Uncle, are you a liberal?” By the time the conversation was over, the uncle had confessed that he had no clue what it meant to be a liberal and that they had adopted the name for the party just so that they would have something different from the other associations. Incidentally, I happen to be contemporaries with the main founder of the party then-we were both student activists in the late nineteen seventies-and I knew that not even he had any serious engagement with what liberalism was supposed to be about.

I have recounted this story because it is symptomatic of what is wrong with our intellectuals’ attitude to the philosophical underpinnings of the modern legacy of which we are the inheritors. If part of our duty as denizens of the republic of the mind is to explain these histories, institutions, practices to our people, and to domesticate them for our specific environment, how much of that function can we hope to fulfill if we don’t know those histories ourselves? I would like to suggest that we do not take those histories seriously enough and it may explain why we have not been in a good position to guide our country right in its engagement with modern political institutions.

My final example comes from law. In the area of law, the Rule of Law, in its barest form, is nothing other than the deployment of the instrumentality of law in the securing of the sovereignty of the individual and of the conditions for the exercise of same by all without exception. The insistence that this right be enjoyed by all without regard to circumstances of birth, fortune, or differences in individual merit is what yields the commitment to the formal equality of all in all areas of life. Hence, the cardinal principle of modern law concerning the equality of all before the law is intimately connected to the general philosophical orientation that all human beings are equal and no one person is more equal than others.

Moreover, this individual is counterposed to the modern state. In the philosophical disquisitions of liberal theorists, this relationship is an inherently unequal one in which the puny individual is confronted by a state that enjoys the monopoly of power and violence. How the state comes to be so constituted is the object of much of the political sociology that is the background of much of liberal political theory from Thomas Hobbes through John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, to John Rawls, and Robert Nozick. What is of relevance to our discussion is that for theorists of this persuasion, human beings cannot be trusted not to try to get the better of their fellows, left to their own designs. The question then becomes: how do we ensure that the natural human tendency to prey on their fellows will not get the better of those who are charged with wielding the power of the state and make them turn it to the service of self and cohort? And there is no guarantee that this will not be the case. To prevent this outcome, the Rule of Law is brought in to preempt the Rule of Man and power is hemmed in with myriad restrictions concerning the relationship between the state and the sovereignty of the individuals that make it up, institute it and consent to its authority.

I am suggesting that the Rule of Law has neither been present throughout history nor distributed globally, so that we can say that the principle and its institutional manifestations are to be found in all cultures. As it is meant to be enshrined in the legal systems domiciled in Commonwealth African countries, the Rule of Law is embedded in this singular history. I argue that the non-acknowledgment of this historical consciousness has contributed in no small measure to the failures that we are concerned to explain. When we take this history seriously, we shall see that the erection of the Rule of Law as a pillar of the modern state, and the protections afforded the individual in the modern politico-legal scheme, are neither products of the good nature of Euroamerican rulers in the past nor inexorable emanations from historical development. People fought for these practices to become commonplace and they came into being, thanks to some specific historical conjunctures. The American Revolution was the first signal institutionalization of the philosophical discourse of modernity in 1776. The French Revolution in 1789 with its subsequent Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen made the distinction between civil society and the state into a recognizably structural one and inserted a wall around the individual that the state may not breach without some serious justification. And, England, the home of the Magna Carta, began from the Act of Settlement of 1701 the process that saw the increasing bourgeoisification of power in the country that culminated in the last century in the supremacy of the House of Commons as the principal legislative organ of the British people.

The individual who is the centerpiece of modern political theory and the object of serious protection in the modern state is itself a product of history. Essential to the notion of the sovereignty of the individual is the ability of the individual to form and to hold conceptions of the good life and of the means to realize them. The individual must be free to act in the world to realize his conception of the good life. This freedom to act is taken as the basic position of the human being in the world. But it is precisely in acting that the individual is likely to come up against the exercise of the same freedom by other individuals. When conflicts arise from the respective exercises of freedom by sovereign individuals, the law and the state are called upon to moderate, arbitrate, and adjudicate such conflicts, making sure that social relations are so calibrated that each individual exercises as much freedom as is compatible with equal freedom for others.

Whenever there are infringements, the state steps in to exact appropriate consequences from the transgressor. But the state may not make laws preempting action or punishing in anticipation of actions contemplated but not yet carried out. This is what is meant by the prohibition on punishment for thought’. Once the subject acts, she is held responsible for her actions. The notion of responsibility involved here is peculiarly modern. It involves associated ideas about the nature and causes of action, the issue of whether or not the actor could or ought to have foreseen the consequences of his action, the prior knowledge that what he was about to do was an actus prohibita, etc. But for all the preceding conditions to be met and for liability to ensue, it must not be the case that what is alleged is an accident, an occurrence over which the individual had no control, or which could not have been said to emanate from her intention to bring about the said action. In other words, the individual must have his wits about him, as it were, before he can be held liable for the consequences of acting, indeed for him to be deemed to have acted at all. This is the philosophical foundation of the requirements of mens rea and actus reus. But none of these elements should be assumed to have been established from looking at the action alone. Inquiries must be held as to whether the actus was reus and the appropriate mens was rea, that the consequences were foreseeable, etc.

Hence, there is a presumption of innocence on the part of anyone accused of committing an infraction. Given the monopoly of power by the modern state, and the ever-present possibility that this power may be turned to the advantage of faction, one cannot overstress the importance of the presumption of innocence for the preservation of the sovereignty of the individual who remains ever vulnerable to false accusation and suchlike malfeasance on the part of power-holders. Here then are two pillars on which the legal system of the modern state rests: (1) the sovereignty of the individual and the attendant confidence in the ability of the individual to have, hold, and seek to realize the good life; (2) the impermissibility of the state to decide how the individual should lead her life and the prima facie exclusion of it from most areas of private life save for ensuring that this right is not used by anyone to deny others the benefit of enjoying same.

From what I have said so far, it is clear that the individual is central to the modern political and legal systems. In other parts of the world, including some African countries, their intellectuals are engaged in fundamental discourses regarding how their societies should relate to the legacy of modern institutions that they inherited from colonial rule. From India to Malaysia, from South Africa to Sudan, serious debates are going on among intellectuals about these issues. What do we have in Nigeria? I was mortified to discover a few years ago that in spite of the sterling achievements of some of our legal scholars, not a single page, not to talk of essays or books, has been written on the idea of the centerpiece of the modern legal system: the legal subject. Might this be an indication that even our best legal minds have not come to realize the importance of the legal subject? Might this explain why they do not generally have a robust sense of the right of the individual not to be brutalized by the modern state and its functionaries? Does the doctrine of the presumption of innocence mean much to us? If it does, how come we are willing to abide the maiming of individual accused persons even before their guilt has been established? It is a welcome development that some intellectuals in the human rights movement have been remedying this lack but I am yet to see appropriate intellectual products to show that we are performing our alre functions in these areas.

Marxists are fond of quoting Karl Marx’s Thesis Eleven to the effect that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”. My contention is that we cannot run successfully, much less change, a reality that we have not interpreted. It is the province of intellectuals, as I have been at pains to insist in this discussion, to interpret, explain, make sense of and generally beat new paths to ever changing understandings of our reality. No thanks to our failure in this area, Nigeria stumbles from one crash programme to another, policies are formulated on whimsy and we are forever hanging our hopes on Tokunbo quick-fixes from elsewhere. If there is any role for intellectuals in present day Nigeria it is to recover the intellectual vocation and become once again pathfinder, outposts, and lookouts, for our society.

Of Priests and Jesters: Taking a Position

Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish intellectual who was run out of his homeland by my erstwhile comrades of the defunct Polish Communist Party, has identified two types of philosophers that he named appropriately enough: the priest and the jester. According to him,

...In almost every epoch the philosophy of the priest and the jester are the two most general forms of intellectual culture. The priest is the guardian of the absolute; he sustains the cult of the final and the obvious as acknowledged by and contained in tradition. The jester is he who moves in good society without belonging to it, and treats it with impertinence; he who doubts all that appears self-evident. He could not do this if he belonged to good society; he would then be at best a salon scandalmonger. The jester must stand outside good society and observe it from the sidelines in order to unveil the nonobvious behind the obvious, the nonfinal behind the final; yet he must frequent society so as to know what it holds sacred and to have the opportunity to address it impertinently. Priests and jesters cannot be reconciled unless one of them is transformed into the other, as sometimes happens.[6]

When intellectuals go into government, I submit, they cannot remain intellectuals. The reason is very simple. To be in government is to become partisans of whatever views and policies that government is dedicated to. We become priests in those situations. Of course, we can reclaim the mantle of the intellectual by reverting to the jester role where what matters is the consideration of all possibilities with a view to seeing which ones deserve our assent after the most rigorous scrutiny. Again I cite Kolakowski.

Depending on time and place, the jester’s thinking can range through all the extremes of thought, for what is sacred today was paradoxical yesterday, and absolutes on the equator are often blasphemies at the poles. The jester’s constant effort is to consider all the possible reasons for contradictory ideas. ... In a world where apparently everything has already happened, he represents an active imagination defined by the opposition it must overcome.[7]

The jester role, I argue, most befits intellectuals; in the specific Nigerian case, it is the most urgent. We must be enemies of cant. We must be wary of simple answers. We must always entertain a healthy dose of skepticism towards the claims of power, especially when it is not representative of the best that we can be. We must forever be looking for new ways of being human, especially those presupposed by the modern institutions that govern our collective life. “The priest and the jester both violate the mind: the priest with the garotte of catechism, the fool with the needle of mockery.”[8] I ask us to recover the lost needle of mockery in the Nigerian mindscape and, as alre, climb back into the tower and once again allow our people to enjoy the benefits of our transforming imagination as much in politics as in music, in religion as in law, in economics as in theatre. May I on a final note suggest that Wole Soyinka remains a shining example of this model.


[1] This is the text of the Professor Wole Soyinka Birthday Annual Lecture Series sponsored by the National Association of Seadogs (NAS) at the Hotel Savoy, London, England, on Saturday, July 27th, 2002. I would like to thank the National Association of Seadogs, especially Osagie Olaye, for inviting me to give the lecture. This is also a good time to thank all those who came to the lecture, especially Professor Wole Soyinka, and who helped to make the event the huge success that it was.

[2] ltnd ltnj, Adebayo Faleti: A Study of His Poems (Ibadan: Heinemann, 1982). 19-20.

[3] ltnj, 21. By the way, it is interesting that some of those mentioned by ltnj as having discharged their alre functions in their poet-inflected context include Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo in their exertions leading up to and during the Nigerian Civil War.

[4] Olfmi Tw, “On the Misadventures of National Consciousness: A Retrospect on Frantz Fanon’s Gift of Prophecy,” in Lewis Gordon, Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, and Renee T. White, eds., Frantz Fanon: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996),. 255-270.

[5] International Herald Tribune, March 17, 2000, 15.

[6] Leszek Kolakowski, Toward a Marxist Humanism, trans. Jane Zielonko Peel (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 33-34.

[7] Kolakowski, 34.

[8] Kolakowski, 35.

Copyright 2004 Africa Resource Center, Inc.

Citation Format

West Africa Review: Issue 5, 2004

Photo: Wole Soyinka

Olufemi Taiwo is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the African Studies Program at Seattle University, USA.