(JollofNews) – Prof Ali Mazrui defined an intellectual as ‘a person who has the capacity to be fascinated by ideas and has acquired the skill to handle many of them effectively’. He also defined ‘intellectualism’ as ‘an engagement in the realm of ideas, rational discourse and independent enquiry.’
Thus, the intellectual has a pride of place in the development of a country, in theorising and shaping its policy direction. Plato assigned such a role to his ‘philosopher-king’. If the ruler is not a ‘philosopher-king’ or does not have the ‘intellect’, then he or she is expected to surround himself or herself with men and women of intellect to help in such an endeavour.
Certainly, directing policy decisions or being able to engage in their formulation would require a greater understanding of their intricacies and complexities and simplifying them for effective implementation. Our policy and decision makers, at the administrative, military, academic, judicial, financial and economic levels, by virtue of their interaction with ideas which they formulate into policy directions, in my view will also fall under the category ‘intellectuals’, they play such a role. Our religious lives are also greatly influenced by the intellectuals in that realm. The ‘influencers’ at these levels are who I refer to, for want of a better term, as ‘intellectuals’.
What has been the role of the home-based intellectual in our liberation struggle from the clutches of Jammehism? Were they at the forefront of citizenship, of the fight against the dictatorship, of holding the Government accountable, of speaking truth to power, actively and courageously? Were they relevant? Did they rise up to the occasion when we needed them; when Jammeh and his group of brigands and murderers were running amok and playing dice with our lives? What role did our intellectuals play in our fight for liberation, for justice, in the 22 years we were under the Wellington boots of one man?
Granted that the government was a tyranny and shouted down all voices of dissent from within. It held the sword of Damocles around everyone’s neck. Our intellectuals gave what the Government wanted, subservience and sycophancy. They were, by and large, uninterested in local politics and in the lives and challenges of the other half, the worker and farmer in the backwaters.
It is fair to indicate, though, that there were strident voices of dissent from few of our intellectuals from in-country and the diaspora. There were men and women, outside the circle of Government, who had the courage of their conviction, spoke against tyranny and suffered privation, imprisonment and callous death. But these local voices were lonely and betrayed and they faced instances where their fellow intellectuals, instead of showing solidarity and ‘unionism’, pooh-poohed them as ‘trouble makers’ or their acts of sacrifice as foolhardy and cheap.
The Jammeh carrot and stick method, at once seductive and menacing, proved effective. Our intellectuals, I speak of the majority here, in both the public and private sectors, metamorphosed into sycophants and ‘praise singers’. They lost their capacity to speak truth to power. Instead of puncturing and demystifying the ‘myth’ that Yaya created around him, the false clairvoyance, they provided the prop for it, explaining it away and amplifying and glorifying it for the people to buy into it.
Through patronage, the loyalty of many intellectuals were bought and once they became ‘yoked to power’, they could not speak out. Through co-option, most of them became the mouthpiece of the tyranny. Through self-censorship, they could not provide the critical support and leadership that the down-trodden masses needed during those critical times. They knew he was a charlatan and a quack, yet our intellectuals praised him in his folly and ignorance. They admitted him into the circle of intellectuals and endorsed his ‘ideologies’, eccentric, idiosyncratic and incoherent, which were used to drive our development agenda. There were even some intellectuals who wrote or speak fawningly about Jammeh and his development strides’ even though it was clear these were hoisted on the petard of their own opportunism.
Defeating an entrenched dictatorship of 22 years, through the powers of people armed with nothing but a marble, and not the pen and the gun, is indeed a revolutionary act. But it is a revolution which should be perpetual- there is an ongoing struggle at the center of the earth between good and evil. We cannot be complacent or rest on our laurels because we have defeated a dictator. There are many other dictators lurking in the background, ready to take center stage if the people let their guards down; ready to dole out favours or prime themselves as the ‘saviours’ and become the new dictators.
In this new dispensation, our intellectuals must play the role expected, of providing leadership and critical advice regarding the consolidation of the freedom we have won for ourselves, contributing to the development of ideas and constructing intellectual frameworks that would guide national debates. They must distinguish themselves by their courage to stand for what is best for the country, not by their ‘silence, submission and subservience’, be defenders and protectors of human rights, and, when necessary, speak truth to power. When an intellectual has the chance to speak out against injustices, and yet remain silent, he or she contributes to the moral paralysis and intellectual barrenness of the country.
Academic freedom we should fight for and the University of The Gambia, our premier citadel of learning, should rekindle such intellectual debates. Our intellectuals must insist on autonomy, demanding autonomous spaces for intellectual activities and seizing it if need be. They must reconnect with the masses and remain, as Samir Amin averred, in ‘living and close communion with the popular classes, to share their history and cultural expression’. It cannot anaesthetise itself from the ills of society and remain a happy, fulfilled class.
Regardless the role our intellectuals will be playing, I think that if we truly want to preserve the fundamental values of a democratic society, then all of us must display a certain degree of vigilance, be willing to take responsibility for what we do or fail to do, fulfill our role as active citizens, be ready to be accountable and to hold others accountable without fear or favour, scrutinize both the intent and actions of the State and be ready to stand for the truth no matter who it will hurt.
We should endeavor to know what obligations are placed on the Government, what standards it must meet and who should be held accountability for the fulfillment of our rights. Without the understanding of the obligations of the Government vis-à-vis the citizens, and the duties and sovereign powers that citizens have, we will not be able to hold our Government accountable or stand for our rights when they are violated or denied or just partly fulfilled.