Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Whispering Drums With Maigani

by Musa Ibrahim

The Chair of Wisdom

First of all, let's get one important thing understood. I think the world of Nigerian intellectuals, and professors, and all those holding doctorate degrees and most of the universities in the country.

When I was young, the term, or is it title, 'Professor' used to connote the idea of a magician, or at least, somebody who is capable of doing the almost impossible or supernatural. I have a sneaky suspicion that in the minds of many people, the title 'Prof still evokes feelings of somebody who conjures; in other words, somebody who is not meant to be understood by mere mortals.

In the universities, they are wonderful and their superlative status probably inspires the needed confidence and en- courages the research that needs to be done. In real life, very few university professors do well outside the walls of the university; when it comes to the hurly burly of town life, they invariably flounder. A few, of course, have made dramatic impacts on their society and a very select few have made the transition from academic to politics spectacularly. It is however fair to say that, by and large, they tend not to be practical people.

President Ibrahim Babangida is nothing if not a very practical and down to earth person and I cannot help but express my disappointment and dismay at the com- position of the Political Bureau. It sounds almost like a who is who of Nigerian University Professors Association, if some such association exists. It is true that organised labour is represented and there is a token woman on it and the media is even properly represented, but it all seems as though somebody went to extra trouble simply to ensure that there is a balance in University representation. It seems obvious that the President and his advisors had decided that it is from the universities that they must select the bulk of the members of this all-important bureau.

With all due respect to the individuals concerned and with every acknowledge- ment of their undisputed intellectual ability in their various chosen fields, I would beg to suggest that the bureau is in danger of becoming what is termed by the book people as an academic exercise.

Academic exercises are undoubtedly good in their own worlds, but it is the last thing that we need at this crucial time.

Again, I have every regard for the abilities of the very few people on the bureau without the prefix of 'Prof' or 'Dr', but I can't help but feel that they would be totally and completely overwhelmed by the professors and doctors.

In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, there are far too many university dons and university types on this bureau. We are not trying to evolve something that will win the Nobel Prize for Political Science. We are interested in fashioning out a way of governing our- selves in the most sensible and practical manner and I would like to submit that you do not need a university degree, let alone need to occupy a 'Chair' in the university to be able to do so.

Somehow, many people seem to equate illiteracy with ignorance, unintelligence and intellectual ability. This is a tragic mistake that even our most educated people make regularly, in much the same way as many people equate literacy, or to be more specific, the possession of university degrees, with intelligence.

In a country like ours, where something like 60-65 percent of the people are illiterate, this assumption is particularly outrageous. This means that we have con- signed the majority of our people to the ranks of the "ignorant and unintelligent". But that, surely, cannot be true. There are many excellent brains in our villages, towns and cities and to leave this vast source of talent unrecognised and un- tapped is to limit the great potential of Nigeria.

Why should the majority of our people be effectively shut off from participation, in the matters that affect all of us? It must be obvious now that whatever was wrong with our attempts at constitutional rule, it had very little to do with the constitutions themselves. The problems did not arise because the constitution was not scholarly enough nor because its theoretical base was not strong enough; indeed the intel- lectual base would have made Socrates proud of us. Our biggest problem arose from the fact that the institutions that are essential to support a democratic government, failed or did not function properly Our uneducated and illiterate compatriots would have ideas on how to make our rulers accountable on a daily basis for that is the root of our problems.

I am quite sure that there is going to be a lot of argument about whether the structure of government we adopt should be based on the Westminster model, the American model, the Soviet model, or the Swiss model.

Many people are also going to pro- pound many high-falutin theories about authentic African/Nigerian form of government, the Socialists or, at least, the pretenders to socialism and the believers in capitalism are going to renew their arguments.

I wish to submit that much of that argument and/or debate is essentially irrelevant to our real needs and especially now that such a debate is to be led by university professors, the danger is that it will be even more academic, sterile and high-brow stuff than usual.

I don't know why the President felt the need to rely so much on theorists instead of those who have their feet firmly planted on the ground.

Many times, it is because we have allowed these academicians to set the rules that it has been so difficult to make things work in Nigeria. In those countries where the structure of government works, invariably, the academicians and theorists followed the practical men. The people evolved the form of government and then the professors made theories out of what was working. Making the theory into reality when it has not been tried or seen to work anywhere is too dangerous an ex- periment to make with a country. And yet that is how university dons work; their minds think of/dream up a theory and they proceed to find the reality to suit it.

This is not to suggest that there should be no place for university professors; they would undoubtedly be better at translating ideas into words, but to suggest that ideas reside with them more than with those who have not been to school is to make a very tragic mistake. After all, since the majority of us have never been to school, it makes better sense (and is maybe more democratic) that those who are in the majority, that is those who have never been to school, should have a greater voice than the school people.

As things are now, the impression will persist that professors - the magicians are going to evolve something and it will not be surprising if we are not able to make it work; unless of course the sug- gestion is that the elite few will make it work for the rest of us.

It is perhaps worth noting that even many of our universities are not properly run or managed even though they constitute the areas of the most densely populated of university professors!

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