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Sunday, 16 January 2022 07:13

[OPINION] Consistency in Public Intellectual Advocacy: Akin Osuntokun’s Role in Nigeria’s Ideas Industry - Reuben Abati

I want to thank the organizers of this 60th Birthday Anniversary event in honour of Balogun Akin Osuntokun for inviting me to say a few words about the themes of consistency, in relation to public intellectual advocacy and to focus on a Nigerian Case Study. In doing so, I join others in congratulating the celebrant and subject on his attainment of the diamond jubilee. I cannot think of another case study as the departure point for my commentary than Akin Osuntokun himself, although an inquiry into the nature of the ideas industry in Nigeria with specific emphasis on public intellectual advocacy would be incomplete without additional illustrations of the role of others in that nexus between culture, politics and society which is the province of the operation of the public intellectual as opposed to the strict academic intellectual and writer, who is burdened by the demands of  specificity and disciplinarity. I make no clear cut distinction in this regard, however, and the reason for this will be clear in a moment.  Ahead of this particular occasion, I had written a tribute to Akin Osuntokun in my weekly back page column in the ThisDay newspaper (see “Akin Osuntokun at 60” by Reuben Abati, December 14, 2021) which is a reflection of my knowledge of him as a person and a portrait of his life as I know it. The present commentary can be taken as a further reading of the subject, but within the specific context of his exertions in the public domain. I seek to raise questions and navigate the subject.

The literature on the subject of public intellectualism suggests that there is no clear, single definition of who a public intellectual is, might be or become, in the same sense for example in which we talk about a carpenter or a tailor. This absence of specificity speaks to a certain diversity and plurality, with regard to context, range, and the central figures that have featured in the ideas industry in different parts of the globe. Every public intellectual is to be understood in the context of the role that he or she plays or the theatre of his or her engagement. Hence, Edward W. Said, the Palestinian-American scholar wrote that “the definition of who or what a writer and intellectual is has become more confusing and difficult to pin down.” What does it mean for example to be “public”? Does that suggest the idea of a private intellectual?” The public is an open space. What part of the public? And who is an intellectual? In many political and cultural contexts, the word “intellectual” indeed attracts a negative connotation, if not adversarial revulsion. It is not a job, except perhaps you are an academic intellectual working in a research environment, and yet it is possible to be academic and not public, and to be a public intellectual and be academic, or provide ample primary material for academic work.  Thus, there are many uses of the word “intellectual” and attitudes towards it. Edward Said sees the intellectual as a “critical outsider”.  Jean Paul Sartre considers him “a person of action”.  Michael Waltzer, the American political theorist sees him as a “caring insider.”  Akin Osuntokun fits easily into each of these definitions, an indication of the scope of his engagements in the public space.

Whereas definitions of meanings and labels may seem academic, there seems to be very little confusion with regard to the role that the public intellectual plays in society, beginning with the production of ideas, and the creation of what Amitai Etzioni calls “communities of assumptions”, that is assumptions about how society should be organized in a more utilitarian and beneficial manner. The contribution of the public intellectual is to question received assumptions, create new ones, by asking questions again and again, about public policy and cultural constructions. Public intellectuals provoke debates through books, essays, and commentaries. They do not speak to a narrow audience, not to an expert audience that understands only technocratic jargon, but to a larger community of men and women who are interested in moving society to a higher level. The public intellectual’s tool is thus therefore, disruptive thinking. He is an agent provocateur, an advocate and at the same time, an activist, holding a magnifying glass unto society. The trajectory of human society, its growth and character, owes largely to this form of intervention and disruption encapsulated in Wole Soyinka’s affirmation that “the man dies in all who keeps silent in the face of tyranny” or Nelson Mandela’s example. In more contemporary times, the face of the public intellectual has changed significantly. The democratization of the information space and the rise of the age of convergence simply means that unlike the public intellectual of past centuries, today’s public intellectual can engage through a multiplicity of platforms – books, the pulpit, lectures, speech-making, television, radio or even internet blogs. This means an expansion of influence and reach. Today’s public intellectual is an authority, but this in itself generates conflicts with established authority figures, whose attempts at weaponizing power and position are unmasked by men and women of ideas. Many public intellectuals are brands and celebrities as well.  

But how do public intellectuals establish their authority, spread their ideas and influence the way we think and act? The topic for this presentation as sent to me already provides a clue: “consistency” and a clear indication that this must be in the arena of “advocacy”. But why should consistency be important? Being consistent is about commitment, courage, and a sense of being human, devoted, and ready to make necessary sacrifices. The classical definition of this would seem exemplified by the totality of Nelson Mandela’s symbolism encapsulated in his famous declaration:  “For my own part, I have made my own choice. I will not leave South Africa, nor will I surrender. Only through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won. The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days.” (June 26, 1961). Consistency in public intellectual advocacy confers brand, identity and authenticity. But it is not every public intellectual that lives to the end of their days. Seeking to challenge orthodoxies through struggle, direct action, ideas and insider participation comes with risks. Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman orator and philosopher had his tongue freed from his body. His head was severed for speaking truth to power and for having the temerity to challenge “constituted authority.”

The dilemma of public intellectualism invariably defines its scope and relevance: more liberal societies tend to be more appreciative of ideas and those who produce them. Closed societies, under the grips of conquerors, dictators, “constituted authorities”, and tyrants naturally suppress the people’s free will and those who claim to be intellectuals. In January 2016, I wrote an essay in The Guardian (Nigeria) titled “Where are the Public Intellectuals?”  My theme was what I referred to as “the decline of public intellectualism”. Permit me to quote a little from that essay. I wrote:

“Something sad has happened and is happening and is happening in our society: the decline of public intellectualism. And so I ask: where are the public intellectuals? Once upon a time in this country, the public arena was dominated by a ferment of ideas, ideas that pushed boundaries, destroyed illusions, questioned orthodoxies and enable societal progress. Those were the days when intellectuals exerted great influence on public policy, and their input into the governance   process could not be ignored. Ideas are strong elements of nation-building, and even where interests are at play, you know the quality of a country by the manner in which a taste for good thinking propels the leadership process. Public intellectuals are at the centre of this phenomenon: they include academics who go beyond their narrow specializations and university-based scholarship to take a keen interest in public affairs and who use their expertise and exposure to shed light on a broad range of issues. They also include journalists, writers and other professionals who question society’s direction and offer alternative ideas. The beauty of public intellectualism is that the intellectual at work is a disinterested party, he is interested in ideas not for his own benefit but for the overall good of society and he does not assume that his opinions are the best or that he alone understands the best way to run society and its organs. The product of this attitude is that discourse, a culture of debate, is encouraged and in the cross-pollination of ideas, a good current of thought is created, truth is spoken to power.”      

I have had cause to take a second look at those words. When I said “once upon a time”, I was somewhat nostalgic and was probably referring to a period in Nigerian history that could be regarded as “the best of times” in the public space, but even that would be correct in only strictly relative terms and as a measurement of how as of 2016, Nigeria had gradually become a dangerous place to express an opinion or project oneself as a public intellectual. There was a uniformity of thought, a submission to authority, group thinking and the hijack of instruments of expression by a monied, political elite that was frightening. The seeds of the present tension may well be traced to those early beginnings.  “The once upon a time” , in my reckoning, was to a season of ferment when the university campuses bubbled with ideas and the Nigerian Left provided thought leadership. The universities were a melting pot for ideas as the gown fulfilled its own idea (to borrow John Henry Newman’s contextual usage of that phrase) by showing interest in the town and how the fortunes of both town and gown could transform or derail society.

Across the country, many Nigerian scholars and others went beyond disciplinarity to test research ideas in the field of action. In Ahmadu Bello University, we had Bala Usman and Patrick Wilmot, in University of Lagos: Professor Ayodele Awojobi, Ebenezer Babatope.. at the University of Ibadan: Peter Ekeh, Bolaji Akinyemi, Bade Onimode, Comrade Ola Oni, Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare, Bode Sowande.  At the University of Calabar: Eskor Toyo, Ingrid Obot-Essien, Herbert Ekwe Ekwe, Edwin and Bene Madunagu. At the University of Ife: Wole Soyinka, Biodun Jeyifo, Ropo Sekoni, Uzodinnma Nwala, Godwin Godini Darah, Segun Osoba, Kole Omotoso, at the University of Port Harcourt: Claude Ake, Chidi Amuta. University of Benin: Festus Iyayi, Tunde Fatunde…

Civil society was no less vibrant from the labour movement to the creative industry and civil society organizations: Mokwugo Okoye, Wahab Goodluck, Hassan Sunmonu, Gani Fawehinmi, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Arthur Nwankwo, Rear Admiral Ndubusi Kanu, Alao Aka-Bashorun, Olisa Agbakoba, Clement Nwankwo, Commodore Dan Suleiman… And in the media: Sad Sam Amuka Pemu, Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, Stanley Macebuh, Odia Ofeimun, Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, Essien Effiong, Godwin Sogolo, Dapo Olorunyomi, Nosa Igiebor, Onome Ovie-Whiskey, Dare Babarinsa, Kunle Ajibade, Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed, Olatunji Dare, Chinweizu, Niran Malaolu.. I left out the clergy: Bishop Bolanle Gbonigi, Rev. Adetunji Adebiyi, Rev Fr. Matthew Hassan Kukah, Fr. George Ehusani, Fr. John Uba Ofei, Archbishop Olubunmi Okogie, John Cardinal Onaiyekan. Before the more contemporary examples, Nigeria’s colonial and early post-colonial history was littered with examples of men and women who were either thought leaders or public intellectuals, and whose contributions made significant difference. The academic distinction between thought leadership and public intellectualism does not need to detain us, here. As we can see, society is moved forward by a combination of influencers and public-spirited figures from diverse backgrounds, playing a mixture of roles.

I raised the question in 2016, because it was the moment when the decline of public intellectualism in Nigeria was most apparent, in my view, although much earlier in 2006, Jimanze Ego-Alowes had written a book titled “How Intellectuals Underdeveloped Nigeria and Other Essays.” In 2010, Rudolf Okonkwo wrote an article titled “The Comedy of Our Public Intellectuals.”  I went further:

“In addition to other reasons, it may well be that our intellectuals are tired of engaging Nigeria. Having tried over the years to engage the governance elite with ideas and to show that only good ideas should govern society and having been spurned by the politicians, Nigeria’s intellectual elite seems to have become so frustrated, it has retired largely into a state of indifference and inertia. What is the point knocking one’s head against a wall? But intellectuals in society cannot take such a stand. That will amount to an abdication of responsibility: when intellectuals do no more than make righteous noises, the harvest in the long run, is counter-productive.” 

I gave some other reasons including the existence of a climate of fear and the hypocrisy of the power elite and the seeming disappearance of a culture of reason, opinion and debate. It may be necessary to define, even if preliminarily, what may be responsible for the oscillation between active advocacy and reticence, between action and fatigue in the social structure of public intellectualism in Nigeria. Our first concern is how Nigeria continues to consume its own intellectuals. Once upon a time in this country, that familiar phrase, again, university teachers were sacked and there was a so-called environmental sanitation exercise the system targeted at those lecturers who allegedly “were busy using government time and resources to teach what they were not paid to teach!” The Nigerian system never recovered from that campus cleansing by the military. Over the years, the Nigerian public space has been driven by a culture of anti-intellectualism, tightly knit into the fabric of every public process. Admittedly, there were times when the military and the civilian authorities tried to embrace and co-opt public intellectuals into the public process. There have been success stories in that regard. Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Professor Ibrahim Gambari and Professors George Obiozor, Joy Ogwu and Bola Akinterinwa did well leading the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), but there were also many ugly stories of public intellectuals being brought into government seemingly to demystify them. General later, President, Ibrahim Babangida made a good show of decorating his administration with high-profile public intellectuals but in the end, did he listen to them? The only other Nigerian Presidents who gave public intellectuals, substantial space in the running of government were Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, but even then what has been the impact of the presence of intellectuals in government? The Nigerian public service system is rigged to fail.                 

It must be noted nonetheless that there was at a point a discussion by Nigerian public intellectuals to move from the arena of advocacy into governance in the mould of Sartre’s “man of action” or Waltzer’s “caring insider.” Many public intellectuals including journalists who find ready role models in their own profession either later took government positions or jumped into the arena of politics. Their experience has been varied.  Akin Osuntokun, for example once tried to obtain a form to run as a candidate for the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. With all his education and exposure in both the public and private sectors, he was disqualified on the grounds that the screening panel doubted his primary school leaving certificate. Doubt? Or they had proof? Or they just made it up? A far less qualified person was given the ticket. The man won the election but he practically played possum throughout his tenure in the National Assembly. There was no way Osuntokun would have gone to the National Assembly of Nigeria to sleep, a forum that has now become a sleeping room for retired and tired bones.

The Osuntokun experience was the experience of many others who thought that as change agents they could make a difference from within as “caring insiders”. Perhaps the more instructive example in this axis would be the experience of Professor Pat Utomi in the last general elections. Professor Utomi is without doubt one of Nigeria’s leading public intellectuals. He has tried to be President of Nigeria on the platform of a lesser known party. He was in fact the founder of the African Democratic Congress (ADC) and he ran for President in 2011. He lost. In the lead up to the 2015 general elections, he was part of the process and group that formed the All Progressive Congress (APC), a major opposition party, a special purpose vehicle, and an amalgam of strange bedfellows who eventually won the 2015 Presidential election. In 2019, Utomi tried to be Governor of his home state, Delta State, in the South South of Nigeria. For decades, Utomi had articulated his vision of governance, politics, entrepreneurship, and policy in books, essays, public lectures, television programmes, and consultancies. His attempt to become Governor of Delta State in 2019 took him to a new level of understanding about the depravity of the Nigerian and of Nigerian politics itself. His experience, agony and frustration is well-captured in his book. “Why Not?: Citizenship, State Capture, Creeping Fascism and Criminal Hijack of Politics in Nigeria (2019).  Why Not? Indeed. It is a question many Nigerian public intellectuals who seek to promote change from within the system often ask.

It may also be the case that the public intellectual class in Nigeria is a victim of its own expectations. The territory comes with a celebrity status, an acquired brand, and for some, Solomonic intimations of being special and wiser than the average man.  It is not just established authority figures, many of who rise to positions of importance by sheer default, even the people themselves whose common good the public intellectual defends are suspicious of intellectuals. Nigeria lost its moral compass even before the military took over power at the centre in the 60s and the situation has worsened with the return to democratic governance. Military dictatorship has been replaced by civilian intolerance. Access to prominent office is now equated with intellectualism as Nigeria recruits into high office, persons without morals, depth, or purpose. The people themselves are not looking for morals or purpose. The electoral process has become a money-making process dominated by moneybags of dubious credentials. The people do not care. For them, leadership is a scam. Nigeria has produced a generation of citizens whose alienation from state and society does not accommodate the kind of idealistic, certainly not abstract values, that public intellectuals push. The more urgent worry is how the Nigerian public elite, a class that is expected to be above board, has also become embroiled in the politics of religion, geography and ethnicity, creating such terrible mongrels as an Igbo public intellectual or a Yoruba public intellectual.  

My third argument in this regard is the effect of the internet on public intellectualism. In North America and Europe, certain public intellectuals explore the possibilities of the blogosphere and social media to advance public causes in a constructive manner. The intellectual elite that led the Nigerian struggle in the 70s and early 90s has grown into a dinosaur class that thinks that the social media is a playground for children. I have not done any empirical research to provide statistical, social science support for this, but a broad, anthropological investigation would confirm that the more informed public intellectuals are suspicious of the social media space or they do not know how it works and hence, the space has been abdicated for its inevitable seizure by 140-word influencers, and citizen photographers and reporters and in turn, this may have influenced the objection to the social media by authority figures, and their agents. The social media space in Nigeria can become far more influential the moment the Nigerian public intellectual begins to embrace technology as a tool of the revolution. Any attempt tp constrict the space for free expression and interaction would be an express violation of the 1999 Constitution.


The question may be asked: who reads? The production of ideas must or should be complemented by a learning and reading culture and ecosystem. The audience of the Nigerian public intellectual has shrunk badly in the face of a continuing neglect of the education sector. In 2021 alone, more than 500 schools were shut down in the northern parts of the country, due to cases of kidnapping, and terrorism. The number could be higher. Schools in the South report the proliferation of a culture of cultism and violence in schools. Both the states and the Federal Government promise higher investments in education, but the promise looms larger than the actual effort.

It is the worst of times, simply put, for Nigerian public intellectuals and scholars. As for the latter, majority of who teach in universities and research institutions, their salaries are not paid regularly, they are perpetually on strike and their so-called dialogue with government representatives is best regarded as a conversation between the deaf and the dumb. It is the worst of times, again because no zone, no square metre, no constituency is spared. A culture of intolerance seeks to impose a culture of fear and silence on the land. A noteworthy example in this regard would be the plight of Matthew Hassan Kukah, Bishop of the Sokoto Diocese of the Catholic Church of Nigeria and former Secretary General of the Catholic Secretariat in Lagos. Kukah would fall under the category of Said’s “critical outsider”, and also as  a person of action” as defined by Sartre, and he probably has been one of the luckiest public intellectuals at a time with access to the corridors of power. But because this is “the worst of times”, he has lost that access.  It is a measure of the times we live in that when Kukah spoke in the past, he got some attention as a cleric with a history of commitment and consistency. These days he gets a knock on the head literally. In February 2020, when he criticized the security situation in the country during a Homily at the Funeral Mass of a seminarian who was killed by kidnappers, Kukah was almost expelled from Sokoto.  He stood his ground. He refused to be intimidated. In January 2021, he repeated the offence and he has done so again and again at every possible forum. Could this be what the organizers of today’s public conversation mean about consistency in public intellectual advocacy? Or are some public intellectuals more privileged than others?

In broad terms, this is the terrain in which Akin Osuntokun operates, and the challenges that he faces and the community of assumptions to which he belongs. Public intellectualism is not a job. It is a choice, a mission. For more than 30 years, Akin Osuntokun has been involved in virtually every sphere of engagement as an intellectual in society, helping to re-imagine society. The hallmark of his involvement is his consistency, his capacity to adapt and his unflinching embrace of the culture of ideas and creative thinking about the demands of society. My first son and I once spent two nights with him in his house in Abuja and in the course of that visit, he took me to the garden at the back of the building where he had started a small farm: snail farming - and he was excited telling me about how to farm snails. There was also a fish pond: cat fish swimming inside water rather luxuriantly. I also got some lecture about fish farming. Osuntokun also disclosed that he actually also had a bigger farm somewhere. I looked forward to a free meal of snail and catfish whenever I visited him. But that didn’t happen. About a year later, Osuntokun himself complained to me that his farming project did not work. The only thought in my head was resentment at the people who ate or stole all the fish and how I never got the chance to have a taste. Osuntokun may have not been able to build a consistent profile in farming, but he has in the course of his career and efforts done much better in the field of public intellectualism. His background, education and experience would seem to have propelled him inexorably in the direction of the public sphere. Public intellectuals are cultural and social products, determined by factors that require closer interrogation in order to understand that striking dialectics between publics and intellectuals.                 

In my earlier commentary, I highlighted background and genetics as a factor in Akin Osuntokun’s evolution as a key player in Nigeria’s public space. He comes from a family of intellectuals: his great grandfather was a community thought leader, a warrior in many battles in Yorubaland: Kiriji, Ekitiparapo and Jalumi wars. His father, the late Hon. Joseph Oduola Osuntokun was a product of the famous Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone; he was also a leading school principal and a prominent member of the Action Group in Western Nigeria until he and others parted ways with Chief Obafemi Awolowo, part-genesis of the crisis in the Western Region at the time. The elder Osuntokun was also a writer. A few years ago, Akin Osuntokun published his father’s autobiography, titled My View of The Coin.

Two of his uncles have also been prominent in Nigerian History: Professor Oluwakayode Osuntokun, Gold Medallist in Medicine and one of the leading scientists in the world. There is also Professor Akinjide Osuntokun, Emeritus Professor of History, author, newspaper columnist and former Nigerian Ambassador to Germany. Psychoanalysis is a useful tool in the reading of writers and public intellectuals: the meta-textual context provides a clue to the author’s visions and ideals contrary to the unsuccessful “death of the author” propounded by Roland Barthes and other structuralists and post-structuralists. The meaning in Akin Osuntokun’s writings and his consistent public intellectualism advocacy can be found within the author’s own sociological sphere. The scion of a warrior, in pursuit of an ideal vision of society, Osutokun also sees the public space as an arena for war, a struggle to be won between binary ideological and moral choices: what is wrong and what is right, what is good as opposed to what is bad. This probably explains the argumentative nature of his writings and the specificity of his choices. The other part of this war is a determination to sustain a family tradition: in politics, culture and the intellectual space.

Culture and tradition also both feature prominently in Osuntokun’s choices as a public intellectual. Osuntokun is a student of politics and social theory and in this regard two strands of influence are projected in his public work: his commitment to tradition and his exploration of the values of African traditional thought. He has over the years been involved in Yoruba traditional processes, he identifies himself affirmatively, without any ambiguity. He has served in community capacities as the Basorun of Okemesi, his home town in Ekiti State. He is currently the Balogun of the same community. He is also the co-ordinator of  the Ooni caucus, a socio-cultural interventionist group for the promotion of Yoruba interests and culure, founded by the present Ooni of Ife, HRM Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, Ojaja II. But whereas Osuntokun explores culture and tradition as basis for understanding social theory, his main model is Max Weber, author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which is considered one of the most important books on sociological inquiry in the 20th Century. Echoes of Weberian thought inform Osuntokun’s writings, the commitment to social action and understanding. One of his most recent writings, yet to be published, a research essay written during his one-year stint as a Fellow at the University of Oxford, is a study of the linkages between the thoughts of Max Weber and the tropes of the Ifa eschatology in Africa.

Akin Osuntokun has worked in government; he has been active in politics, and journalism. But his example raises a question: should the public intellectual be partisan? Is the purpose and relevance of the public intellectual mitigated by his membership of a political party? In the public arena, in more than 30 years, Akin Osuntokun has never hidden his political affiliations, and whereas he cultivates and projects the habits of the contemplative class, he remains unapologetic about his political, cultural and intellectual affiliations.

At 60, his work in the public space is still developing and crystallizing, but the form is established in his many interventions as a modern time intellectual. His kind of example should provoke further thoughts about the interface between state and society, the kingdom of ideas and the arena of power and the relevance of public opinion and intellectualism in a society such as ours that is in urgent need of good reason, common sense and a reconsideration of the leadership recruitment process. More so as Nigeria faces a new phase of transition, economic and political with implications for long-term stability.

Reuben Abati

Lagos, Dec. 16, 2021.                       

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