The Destruction of Nigeria’s Intellectual Elite

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Ike Okonta argues the need to rekindle the publishing industry
Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Tanzanian novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature two weeks ago. Professor Gurnah has been living and writing in Great Britain since the mid-1960s. The response of Nigerian journalists, academics and other intellectuals to the award was shocking, and illustrated in graphic terms the low depth into which they have sunk. First, these intellectuals complained that they had neither heard of Abdulrazak Gurnah nor read any of his novels. Then they argued that Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, the Kenyan novelist was more deserving of the prize and that the award to Gurnah was a deliberate snub of the former by the Nobel Prize Committee.

When an elite class has been so thoroughly beaten by the rain that they no longer know when the rain started in the first place or what to do to find shelter, then the country is in trouble. That is the case with Nigeria’s intellectual elite. They were unable to ask themselves the simple question: How come we have not heard of Abdulrazak Gurnah before? Is it our fault or his? I shall explain the veil of silence that has enveloped Gurnah until he became a Nobel laureate two weeks ago. Gurnah began to write in the mid-1980s. This coincided with the imposition of the much-lamented Structural Adjustment Programme on Nigeria and other African countries by the International Monetary Fund, a neo-liberal economic regimen promoted by the administration of Ronald Reagan, the then US President.

The coming of the Structural Adjustment Programme had two immediate consequences for Nigeria’s intellectuals. As the local currency the Naira was devalued, the subsidiaries of such Western publishing companies like Longman, Macmillan, Evans and Heinemann found that they could no longer operate in the country profitably and they closed shop. This meant that Nigerian writers no longer found an outlet for their work. Avid readers were also affected. New books in Nigerian bookshops dried up. To make matters worse, local bookshops were unable to restock as the price of imported books relative to the devalued Naira became too expensive. Denied fresh supplies from Nigerian publishing companies (even indigenous publishers like Fourth Dimension and Onibonoje had folded up because they could no longer print abroad), bookshops turned to selling stationary and Bible tracts.

General Ibrahim Babangida, military Head of State at the time the Structural Adjustment Programme storm began to blow across the African continent, was particularly intent on imposing the programme on Nigerians. Babangida is not a trained economist. The economists he had assembled to do the IMF’s bidding were neither intelligent nor patriotic. Dr Kalu Idika Kalu and Dr Chu Okongwu were mid-level IMF operatives who were not discerning enough to ask themselves the simple question whether the regimen being proposed by the Fund had worked anywhere else in the world. For them, it was good enough that instructions came from IMF headquarters in Washington DC, and they implemented these instructions with uncommon zeal.

But General Babangida did not just stop at obeying the IMF’s orders. He went after Nigerian intellectuals, students and journalists who were intelligent enough to see the Structural Adjustment Programme for the economic and social disaster it was and were warning the federal government to steer clear of it. Progressive academics in the universities were either deported from Nigeria or sacked from their jobs. Student Union leaders were either rusticated or expelled from their schools by craven Vice Chancellors. General Babangida instigated the setting up of secret cults on campuses which then went on to terrorize progressive lecturers and students alike. Life on university campuses was made so difficult for patriotic academics that they had no alternative than to relocate to Europe and North America in their thousands.

This then was the general hostile intellectual atmosphere in Nigeria and other African countries when Abdulrazak Gur nah began to get published in the UK in the mid-1980s. His books could not get to Nigeria because the book industry, as I have explained, had collapsed. Even in the UK, Gurnah’s work was generally ignored by mainstream critics because the subject he was tackling – the lingering effects of British colonialism on Africa and other formerly dependent continents – made them uncomfortable. Unlike the late V.S. Naipaul who elected to make himself the tribune of Imperialism, attacking former colonies with such novels as A Bend In The River, Guerillas and The Mimic Men, Gurnah wrote about the former colonials, the hapless refugee uprooted from Africa and deposited in a hostile and uncaring Europe, and all who had received the short end of the stick after colonialism left indigenous social and political systems out of joint.

It is significant that Nigerian intellectuals were unable to analyse the workings of the international system in the 1980s and 1990s that conspired to deny them the simple pleasure of reading Abdulrazak Gurnah, one of their own. This points to a deeper wound: the inability to make sense of Nigeria’s failing political economy today and work out solutions to get the country out of the bog into which she has sunk. Between them, General Babangida and the IMF collaborated to destroy Nigeria’s intellectual elite. The present challenge is to ask ourselves what can be done to replant that tree so that it can begin to flourish again.

Three Nigerians (there may be more) have been struggling against odds to ensure that the flame of intellectual and cultural life does not go out altogether in the country. They are Toyin Akinosho, Richard Mamah and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. These three patriots have been campaigning zealously for the place of books and the reading culture in Nigerian national life. Instead of campaigning for the maintenance of the ban on Twitter, Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture should reach out to these three Nigerian patriots and work out how to scale up their activities so that culture and literature would be given a new lease of life in Nigeria.

When that day eventually dawns, Nigeria’s beleaguered intellectual elite will be able to stroll into a bookshop in the country and buy any of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s 10 wonderful novels.
Dr Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of Oxford. He lives in Abuja.

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When an elite class has been so thoroughly beaten by the rain that they no longer know when the rain started in the first place or what to do to find shelter, then the country is in trouble. That is the case with Nigeria’s intellectual elite