Chidi Chike Achebe, MDFriday, December 19, 2003
[email protected]
Boston, MA, USA


A talk delivered to The Igbo Think Tank, Boston Massachusetts, November 2003

Intellectuals as Nation Builders

n the 1960s, Jean Paul Sartre the literary giant and France's leading intellectual at the time, made a series of controversial statements during a public lecture. Incensed by his outburst, a group of French conservatives turned to Charles De Gaul, the French general and president of the 5th Republic, to caution the man of letters. After listening to their complaints, De Gaul responded this way: "I caution Sartre? But Sartre is France…" For De Gaul, Sartre exemplified the highest ideals and aspirations of France - a scholar "par excellence", an intellectual beacon for the world, exercising the fruits of democracy while actively engaged in shaping the destiny of post-World War II France.

The West and other advanced nations did not arrive at this appreciation of intellectuals and intellectual discourse overnight. For centuries, diverse philosophers from around the world grappled with the question of the role of knowledge in society. Al-Kindi, Avicenna, Mullah Sadra and several other Islamic scholars in the Middle East as well as Western philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle, Descartes, through T.S. Kuhn, to the postmodernists, all tackled this problem. Aristotle believed that 'thinkers' should try to overcome ignorance, and pursue knowledge for its own sake and not merely for its practical utility. Today, there is a comfortable medium that exists between the role of knowledge gathered for the improvement of society and knowledge pursued and accumulated in its purest form.

No where on earth is this example of intellectual balance more vibrant than in the United States of America. (For the purposes of this talk I will ignore America's grave intellectual incongruities such as slavery, racism, and other constitutional, political, and social hypocrisies). The founders of the "American experiment", Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Jay, Henry, Franklin, and others, were some of the most educated men of their time. Armed with enviable intellectual dexterity, these men fashioned what has become one of the most admired and effective documents in history - The American Constitution. This intellectual record is the foundation of America's much celebrated Democracy, an idea borrowed from the ancient Athenians, defined by Lincoln during his mythical Gettysburg Address as "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people" and emulated around the world.

America's prosperity and global dominance today is not accidental. It was meticulously charted by its constitution, guided by a succession of excellent leaders (for the most part) imbued with world class education and intellect and protected by its democracy. Perhaps the greatest of America's early "Intellectual Presidents" was the 3rd president - Thomas Jefferson. He believed very strongly that America's success could be achieved only through a high-quality educational system for its citizens. Such a system would also depend on teachers -- teachers with the training, authority, and freedom to challenge their students and change their lives as well as lay the foundations of intellectual meritocracy. Jefferson held that: "Ignorance and sound self-government could not exist together: the one destroyed the other. A despotic government could restrain its citizens and deprive the people of their liberties only while they were ignorant… Only popular government can safeguard democracy. … Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories. And to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree...."

This ancient dedication to educational quality and intellectual foresight has produced America's much envied higher educational system. Its eight Ivy league universities -Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Brown and Cornell as well as equally excellent non-Ivy league institutions such as M.I.T, Caltech, Stanford, Chicago, Northwestern, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Berkley, Virginia, Georgetown, UCLA etc, have become the global benchmark for educational excellence. Their combined endowment fund of over $100 billion (more than twice Nigeria's Gross National Product) promises to keep them in this influential position for a long time to come. Harvard, with its $20 billion endowment is easily wealthier than several countries across the globe.

It is little wonder, therefore, that these institutions - the Ivy League in particular- became the honing ground for American leaders for centuries. Every single Supreme Court Justice attended one of the aforementioned institutions. Seven American presidents - John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, Rutherford Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and yes George W. Bush all studied at Harvard. Yale University is the proud intellectual molder for at least four US presidents: The two Bushes, William Taft and William Jefferson Clinton.

The Clinton presidency, albeit smudged (no pun) by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, impeachment, the white-water scandal etc, may well be the best example of intellectual leadership at work in recent years. During his two terms, America's economy steadily expanded adding at least 10 million new jobs. The Stock Market hit an all time high with record profits for individuals and corporations alike. Clinton achieved this feat, in part, by hiring some of the best and brightest that America had to offer to run the country. Recruiting 'intellectuals' such as Robert Rubin, one of Wall Street's finest, and Summers (current president of Harvard) in the Treasury department, Robert Reich in the labor department, Brown in the Commerce department, Madeleine M. Kunin former governor of Vermont and Richard W. Riley in the education department was particularly instrumental in the success of his administration.

The West does not hold a monopoly on economic success buoyed by intellectual ingenuity. On our own continent, the Southern African Nations of Botswana and Namibia, despite facing the almost catastrophic pandemic of AIDS, are some of the fastest growing economies in this hemisphere. Although South Africa's political and intellectual titan Madiba Nelson Mandela has no peer on the continent, President Mogae of Botswana is quite remarkable. His credentials for leadership are impressive- trained as an economist at the Universities of Oxford and Sussex in the UK, he has served his country in a number of key positions. He was the Executive Director for Anglophone Africa, International Monetary Fund (1976-80); Governor of the Bank of Botswana (1980-81); Permanent Secretary to the President, Secretary to the Cabinet and Supervisor of Elections (1982-89); and Minister of Finance and Development Planning (1989-92).

This preparation coupled with ethical, moral and intellectual discipline has helped him oversee the fastest growing economy in black Africa with one of the highest GNP per capita incomes. Botswana's economy has grown at an average rate of about 9.2% despite the scourge of AIDS. To place things in context - Botswana's per capita income of $3020 in 1996 is TEN times that of Nigeria!

In Asia, China is currently poised to join Japan in making the miraculous "leap forward" from underdevelopment to the club of advanced nations in record time. Despite the uncertainties of the Cultural Revolution, for two decades since December 1978, post-Mao intellectual reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping in his economic program made China's GNP grow at an average rate of 9% per year. In 1999, China's GNP reached $950 billion; only Japan topped it in Asia with $ 3.8 trillion. This success was only possible by a concomitant effort to improve China's educational system and to harness the collective intellectual potential of the world's most populous nation. China's recent entry into 'the last frontier-space' with manned missions is a testament to how far it has come. Her success also provides a salient reminder of the incredible untapped potential of Africa's "sleeping giant"- Nigeria.

A Nigerian Meritocracy

It is pertinent at this juncture to make a few comments: I am not advocating that Nigerians copy Western culture or civilization. However, I do believe that we should scrutinize more closely, the successes and failures of thriving economies and societies as we lay our path in the world. Very importantly, I am not calling for an elitist system or a class structure. Indeed, I am an activist for a meritocracy. It is only under this arrangement that individuals of simple means but with the brightest minds can rise to leadership. Let us not forget that William Jefferson Clinton was from a working class background in Hope Arkansas and rose to lead the most powerful country in the world. This could only happen within a structure that actively seeks and celebrates intellectual achievement and merit. In such a system, individuals of privilege can also rise to leadership if they possess the appropriate skills. Some of the most successful of world statesmen - JFK, RFK, FDR, Nehru and his descendants Ndira and Rajiv Ghandi are examples. A true meritocracy holds great promise for Nigeria.

The Nigerian Intellectual Conundrum

The dawn of independence in West Africa saw the emergence of leaders in a myriad of fields such as politics, the arts, law, science and medicine, economics and commerce. These giants of men and women from diverse backgrounds were all "intellectuals" and were on a mission to redirect their young nations onto a path of development after years of colonialism. Together, this group brought more recognition and honor to their respective nations than any other set before or since (at least so far).

(In the interest of progressive thinking, I define an "intellectual" as "a thinker or 'visionary' with or without a college education").What follows is certainly not an exhaustive list but a sample of achievers...

Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, the father of our country and perhaps along with Kenneth Onwuka Dike-- the most severely under-celebrated Nigerian, is a quintessential example of such an intellectual. "No National holiday in his honor? Why forever not?" Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Tafewa Balewa, Aminu Kano, Waziri Ibrahim, Maitama Sule, Ahmed Talib, Judith Attah, Margaret Ekpo, Madam Kuti, Tejumola Alakija, Janet Mokelu, Oyibo Odinamadu, A.A. Nwafor-Orizu, Michael Okpara, K.O. Mbadiwe, S. Akintola, Balarabe Musa, B.Usman, Sa'ad Zungur, Abubakar Rimi, Ado Bayero, Akanu Ibiam, M.T. Mbu, S.G. Ikoku, Francis Ellah, C.C. Onoh, Anthony Enahoro, H.A. Ejuyitchie, Bola Ige, Bisi Onabanjo, Lateef Jakande, John Nwodo, J.M.Johnson, Aja Nwachukwu, R.A. Njoku, O.Akinfosile, Sam I. Mbakwe, S.E. Imoke, Eyo Ita, Melford Okilo,T.O.S. Benson, Ambrose Alli, A. Nwankwo, A.Ogunsanya, Emeka Anyaoku, A. Ekwueme, Senghor and Nkrumah are others that exemplify the best and brightest in politics.

Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Cyprian Ekwensi, Christopher Okigbo, Chukwuemeka Ike, Flora Nwapa, Mabel Segun, Bolanle Awe, Bala Usman, Dr. Tai Solarin, Amos Tutuola, S.J. Cookey, Ola Rotimi, John Munonye, Elechi Amadi, Bruce Onabrakpeya, Ben Enwonwu, Uche Okeke, Ayi Kwe Armah, T.M. Aluko, Ade Ajayi, Emmanuel Obiechina, Kenneth Onwuka Dike, Alvan Ikoku and Senghor are parallel examples from the Arts, Culture and Humanities. Legal luminaries such as Adetokumbo Ademola, Taslim Elias, C.D.Onyeama, Darnley Alexander, T.A.Aguda, G.C.M.Onyiuke, Ben Nwabueze, C.F.O. Anyaegbunam, Rotimi-Williams, Louis Mbanefo, Fani-Kayode, Fatai-Williams, Justices M.L. Uwais, Augustine Nnamani, A. Obaseki, B.O. Kazeem, C.A. Oputa, A.G. Irikefe, Udo Udoma, P.K. Nwokedi and Anthony Aniagolu stand out from that era.

Legendary economists such as Dr Pius Okigbo, K.I. Kalu and Adebayo Adedeji are further examples of Nigeria's intellectual crème de la crème. In Science, we must not forget Drs Okechukwu Ikejiani, M.A. Majekodunmi, Umaru Shehu, Abubakar Imam, Ishaya S. Audu, Jibril Aminu, B.O. Osuntokun, Tam David-West, F.O. Dosekun, F. Udekwu, L. Ekpechi, Dr J. Ojukwu, T.Agulefo, Chukwuedu Nwokolo, Anezi-Okoro, the second generation Kutis- Olikoye and Beko, T.A.Lambo, Adetokunboh Lucas, O.K. Ogan, F.Adi, PI Okolo, Chike Obi, Anya O. Anya and Akin L. Mabogunje (social sciences).

The commercial sector has produced scores of leaders such as Sir Bank Anthony, Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu, and the Dantata/Dangote, Rabiu, Kontagora and Saraki families. Others include Musa Dan Fulani, T.A. Odutola, Chris Ogunbanjo, Otunba Balogun, FGN Okoye, A.E. Ilodibe, R.O. Nkwocha, Chief Nnana-Kalu, LN Obioha, Sunny Odogwu, Akintola-Williams and M.N. Ugochukwu. Slightly later, a promising, albeit short lived, trend of educated business chieftains such as Gamaliel Onosode and Alhaji Abdullaziz Ude, A. Modebe, Joe Irukwu, P.O. Nwakoby, the Ibrus, Adekunle Ojora, Earnest Shonekan, Abba Gana, Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu and M.K.O. Abiola emerged.

In The greatest generation Tom Brokaw salutes Americans whose sacrifices and work changed the course of American history and put the USA on the path of post World War II economic expansion and prosperity. We have already shown that West Africa has produced similar individuals. Why then with all this brain power does Nigeria find itself in the "intellectual wilderness?" I hope that we can all agree that our condition today is a consequence of a past of successive military coups, endemic corruption, inept leadership and persistent 'cults of mediocrity' running the affairs of the nation.

It is also important to stress that Nigeria has not developed a culture of celebrating honest, hard-working achievers. Instead we have allowed others to foist upon us a paradoxical anti-intellectual situation in which recognition, indeed the highest National honors, are heaped on former military dictators for, pray tell me, "shooting themselves into power and looting the national treasury?" and their corrupt civilian cohorts who serve these kleptocracies with glee, over "our true heroes". If this was a chapter from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch, then we could take solace in the fictional nature of this pathetic, comical madness. The fact that this is our reality should make us all pause in horror, ponder deeply and take action.

It is admirable that most Nigerians possess…. the word 'self confidence' doesn't quite do it justice, so I term it a "No be human being wey do am before? I fit do am" attitude when faced with challenges. This mind set has helped many a Nigerian attain great heights in their respective fields. It has also meant that we have far too often appointed individuals to and/or accepted positions better served by others.

Some may attempt to counter my overall argument by raising the fact that a number of intellectuals have actually served in positions of power and leadership. My rebuttal is this: Even when members of this group such as Ekwueme, Mbu, Anyaoku etc have been involved in government, they have far too frequently been given roles under less capable individuals or served for too short a period of time to make the desired impact. Finally, let us not forget that civilians have been in charge of Nigeria's destiny for only about a quarter of our post independence history.

I will leave any further dissection of the reasons for Nigeria's "intellectual paresis" to writers, political scientists and historians. I shall, instead, focus on strategies to re-invigorate intellectual discourse and development, and facilitate its fusion with politics, culture and commerce in Nigeria's burgeoning democracy.

The Task before Nigeria

For decades, black people on the African continent and in the Diaspora have looked to Nigeria to provide an example of a nation run by blacks that can attain economic, cultural and political success. Intellectuals from CLR James, Michael Thelwell, Aime Cesaire in the Caribbean to Leon H. Sullivan, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael to Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, Johnetta B. Cole, Cornell West and Julian Bond in the Americas have all at one time or the other, with great anxiety, wondered why Nigeria, with all its human and material blessings seems never to be able to get its act together. One of these great minds recently expressed this concern aloud at a lunch with our own Chinua Achebe this way: "Are Nigerians not fully aware of what is truly at stake for black people around the world? That her success will mean our success? These words should give Nigerians "food for thought".

I am not encouraging an intellectual transformation in Nigeria to lead us out of our stupor because others want us to, however romantic and inspiring this might appear, but because indeed so much is at stake and it is absolutely imperative that "we get our act together" in our own self interest and for posterity.

First: Understanding ourselves and our history

Forty years ago, Chinua Achebe saw the need for an intellectual process that would lead to the empowering "of peoples who had been knocked silent by the trauma of all kinds of dispossession" . He captures this sentiment succinctly in the following excerpt:

"I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past--with all its imperfections--was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them.

This theme--put quite simply--is that African peoples did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity. It is this dignity that many African peoples all but lost in the colonial period, and it is this dignity that they must now regain. The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer's duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. There is a saying in Igbo that a man who can't tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body. The writer can tell the people where the rain began to beat them. After all the novelist's duty is not to beat this morning's headline in topicality, it is to explore in depth the human condition. In Africa he cannot perform this task unless he has a proper sense of history."

Setting an Agenda for Intellectual Re-invigoration and Success

A group of about 10 friends and I representing every corner of our beloved country, went to a local Nigerian owned restaurant for "isi-ewu" - variously called "ngwongwo" or "goat-head". After this popular delicacy, we spent the next 30 minutes arguing about what best to eat next. One person suggested 'eba', the other 'amala', the next 'Tuwo" and "dodo and beans' and so on. We then agreed to order them all and share.

I expose this 'near culinary misadventure' for only one reason: If my Nigerian friends and I can not agree about what to eat for lunch, I am sure setting a national agenda to rectify the 'intellectual schism' that exists in our society will be akin to pulling teeth without anesthesia. A national sovereign conference as suggested by many may be one platform where the beginnings of such an agenda could take shape.


1) Improving our Educational system The first task here would be to pull together the 'best and brightest experienced minds' in education such as Babs Fafunwa, Ayo Banjo, M.J.C. Echeruo, Emmanuel Obiechina, J.Aminu, Grace Alele-Williams, F. Ndili, J.O.C. Ezeilo, Chike Momah and others to help us achieve some of the following goals:

  1. Revamping our entire educational system. This will require great leadership and financial commitment. There is an important role for government and the Private Sector here. What have the Multinational Oil Corporations done for Nigerians after nearly 50 years of oil profits? Herein lies their opportunity.

  2. There needs to be an increased emphasis on excellence, accountability and performance at all levels. Schools that persistently perform poorly should be identified, supported or closed with an appropriate disposition for affected students.

  3. Stream lining excessive proliferation of educational institutions without jeopardizing educational opportunity

  4. Developing a unified national curriculum at the 3 levels of education that aims for the highest possible standards while taking cultural and religious diversity into account

  5. Improving teacher quality through better training and improved salaries and benefits

  6. Encouraging and sustaining a reading and book culture. The Nigerian Book Foundation, ANA etc can play a salient role here

  7. Finally, starting small and making steady, incremental progress

2) Developing a Culture of Institutional and Intellectual Philanthropy

We should encourage extremely wealthy Nigerians to make a commitment to Nigeria's development by taking part in our intellectual and educational transformation. What's in it for them you may ask? Having their names emblazoned for centuries on buildings, centers, edifices that grace our institutions if they contribute generously to the erection of such structures and the improvement of our institutions. There are other opportunities for permanent connection to intellectual celebrity when these individuals contribute to the endowment of university academic chairs. The money they donate will make it possible for institutions to recruit superstar intellectuals they would ordinarily not be able to afford. In return these superstars of the academic firmament would bear academic titles honoring the benefactors. For instance, Toni Morrison, the Nobel Laureate, a millionaire in her own right, who teaches out of an overwhelming commitment to the intellectual development of America, is the Robert F. Goheen Professor, Council of the Humanities, at Princeton University and Kwame Appiah, the Ghanaian philosopher and aristocrat, is the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at the same institution.

The idea of philanthropy driven intellectual development is as 'old as the hills'. In the 1500s the Medici family of Florence was the chief benefactor of the great Galileo. Howard Hughes, the eccentric American billionaire, left his money after his death to The Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, MD. Today, the endowment of the Institute valued at $11 billion, makes it the third wealthiest private foundation in the world. Their grants are responsible for cutting edge bio-medical research in Cystic Fibrosis, channel membrane signaling, Muscular Dystrophy, and Juvenile Diabetes. We have already discussed earlier the significance of institutional endowment and the advantages of such investments in the development of the advanced nations. Similar benefits await Nigeria.

3) Addressing immediately potential implosive developments

A recent study focusing on education in Eastern Nigeria showed that Anambra males in particular were dropping out of school at an alarming rate. Most of these young men were opting for business opportunities in the markets. As gloomy as this may seem, I see a silver lining here. We must make education relevant for these individuals. Why don't we institute academic paths for these young men that will lead them to business degrees and probably MBAs?

In advanced nations, every single financial and economic center -New York, Chicago, SanFranciso, Philadelphia, Boston, London, Tokyo, Paris etc-- has an excellent Business School. We already have the Lagos Business School. We must now replicate this idea in Onitsha and Aba, Ibadan, Kano and Kaduna. I am sure we can convince OMATA in Onitsha that an investment to construct a grand and excellent business school and recruit business professors to transform their young men from "traders" to "world class business men" would be in their own self interest. Our society would reap the rewards of finally creating "intellectual business leaders" that would be compatriots in our nation's development as opposed to agents of political and social chaos as we have witnessed in the recent, embarrassing Anambra State political fiasco.

4) A role for the Telecommunications/Information Technology revolution

We are witnessing a steady and rapid revolution in the telecommunications sector in Nigeria. The recent launched satellite, establishment of 500 base stations and news of investment pouring into this sector to the tune of $4 billion over the past 2 and a half years is encouraging. Better telecommunications will mean increased access to the internet and therefore entrée into the information age that the rest of the world is enjoying. In the 21st century, this access will mean admittance to avenues of commerce, science, the arts and education, and thus intellectual and material power. There is thus a critical part for the IT revolution to play in the envisioned intellectual re-invigoration of Nigeria.

5) The Role of the Press

An American colleague of mine who has visited Nigeria over a dozen times asked me this question recently " Why do your journalists gravitate towards the most vulgar, corrupt and disdainful Nigerians…reporting their every utterance?" "Surely, they must realize the power they possess to ignore these individuals and help set a national agenda for Nigeria's development?"

Rather than criticize the press, I will only encourage the intellectuals amongst them such as Stanly Macebuh, Helon Habila, Usman Jimada, Jubril Daudu, Kawu, Mohammed, Nduka Otiono, Sonala Olumhense, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese, Pini Jason, Jahman Anikulapo, Reuben Abati, Nduka Obaigbena, Chuks Iloegbunam, Ike Okonta, Tunji Lardner, Chido Nwangwu, Don Adinuba, Gbenga Adefaye, Emeka Izeze, Uduma Kalu, Ezenwa Okenwa etc to help raise the quality of the dialogue surrounding national issues through editorials and articles. It would be refreshing to see more pieces that ask probing questions of our office holders and hold them accountable for mismanagement. Wherever did the practice of exposing government corruption etc disappear to? I certainly hope it did no die with Dele Giwa.

Celebratory profiles of honest, talented individuals within government such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, El-Rufai our FCT minister, as well as others such as Fawehinmi, Beko Kuti and Anyaoku etc would help to reset national values particularly amongst the youth. My Harvard colleague is right: The Media holds immense power. I am sure they realize it. One can only hope they become allies in this intellectual journey.

6) Democracy as a tool for Intellectual change

Perhaps the most crucial part of this entire process is the involvement of talented, honest "intellectuals" in national politics. There has been a steady and almost pathological apathy amongst the members of this group for years. They have taken the back seat as followers instead of leaders of our potentially great country, watching as we have slipped steadily into near oblivion in the hands of less capable individuals. It is time that we see greater direct political involvement, organization and activism from this group.

Having said that, I must acknowledge the serious difficulties on the ground for most 'honest' Nigerians who don't have the benefit of a 'looted stash of cash from the national treasury' to buy their way into power and influence. One suggestion is to form coalitions among the like minded to raise funds. Another is to push through a Nigerian version of campaign finance reform in the Senate that limits the amount of money any one individual can spend from his/her private funds for campaign/election purposes. I already foresee difficulties implementing these suggestions, simplistic as some may seem, in present day Nigeria. At least it will be a beginning in an evolving system that aspires to fairness and equality.

Two millennia ago, the ancient Israelites found themselves in a similar situation as Nigeria finds itself in today and recorded this profound observation: "It is ill with a people when vicious men are advanced and men of worth are kept under hatches" . I hope we heed their ancient wisdom.

Dr Chidi Chike Achebe is an Attending Physician in both Internal Medicine and Pediatrics in the Boston Massachusetts area Health Centers and Clinics. He received his medical education and obtained his M.D degree from Dartmouth Medical School after earning a B.A. from Bard College in Natural Sciences, History and Philosophy. He is currently completing post graduate course work at the Harvard School of Public Health and expects an MPH from that institution shortly. Dr Achebe's previous articles on Health, Politics and the Environment have appeared in the Op-Ed section of the Boston Globe and in the New York Times.