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‘Where were you?’: A derision or one of disappointment

Njundou Drammeh is a Gambian child right activist and social commentator

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.’ So there are intellectuals in various fields, at the administrative, military, academic, judicial, political, religious, financial and economic levels, people who interact with ideas which they formulate into policy directions. Thus, our scholars, academics, researchers, writers, policy and decision makers and analysts are in the bracket of our intellectuals.

What role the intellectual has played, is playing and should play has always been at the center of political and historical discourses in Africa. From the fight against imperialism and colonialism, to conniving with the neo-colonialists and the military, to leading revolutions and mass movements and struggle for human rights and good governance, to apathy and nonchalance towards the suffering of the poor masses, “progressives in Africa keep debating and agonizing over the failure of the forces on the ground to advance the material, social and political welfare of the continent, ‘the African predicament’”.

So when non-intellectuals asked the whereabouts of the intellectuals in the 22 years of Jammeh tyranny, ‘The Gambian Dark Years’, the role they played or the silence they maintained or the handmaiden or cat’s paws they became, they should not be irritated. Rather, the question should be subject to ‘enquiry’, that academic exercise for which an intellectual is supposed to daily engage in, to find out the root causes, to proffer solutions, to enlighten. It should be an opportunity for self-reflection. While, some ask the question to denigrate and cast aspersion on the intellectual, I want to believe many others ask because they expected more from the intellectual, a saviour, a speaker of truth to power, a leader, a freedom fighter and human rights activist, roles which were not, in their opinion, assumed as expected. So the question ‘where were you?’, for me, is one of disappointment or fulfilment of a role but below par. Guess this is more because the intellectual has a pride of place in the development of a country, in theorising and shaping its policy direction and all.

We have home based intellectuals and those based abroad. I want to believe the question ‘where were you?’ is often more directed to the home based intellectual than the diasporan intellectual, although the latter can be derided and lampooned too by the ‘others’. The history of the home based intellectual in the struggle to end the Jammeh impunity is ‘chequered’, a friend argued. When the home based intellectual comes to write about their role therein, where they were standing, we would come know. In the interim, what we can avoid is a generalization of the ‘indignity’ we are purring at the direction of the home based intellectual, to appreciate the fact that some of them spoke truth to power, wrote against the impunity, clandestinely supplied vital security information to other powers outside the country, sent out reports about our human rights conditions, refused to take up government job offers, declined or gave up power and position to keep their honour and dignity, held secret meetings with diplomatic missions in-country, radicalized their students, used their interactions with communities to propagate or sow seeds of hatred for the Jammeh Governments in their minds and made powerful statements of outrage and disgust at the betrayal of popular aspirations committed by Jammeh and others in his name. For ‘self-preservation’, most used covert means. These voices may be few and lonely, but they were critical and contributed in no small way to the victory we all now enjoy.

‘Where were you?’ should be an opportunity for the intellectual to reposition himself or herself, and define his or her new role in this new dispensation, to take his rightful place in the scheme of things. I expect the intellectual to provide the 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, be defenders and protectors of human rights, and, when necessary, speak truth to power.

The intellectual will be able to play the role he or she is called upon to play, when the political leadership and the citizenry recognise, appreciate and respect that role. It would require an environment which facilitates the contestation of ideas, a plurality of opinions and academic freedom, the availability of autonomous spaces for intellectual discourses. It would call for a certain reconnection with the masses, what Samir Amin refers to as living and having a ‘close communion with the popular classes, to share their history and cultural expression’. The intellectual occupies a place of pride in the advancement of every country. The Renaissance or ‘Age of Enlightenment’ came well before the Age of Industrial Revolution in Europe. It is a fact that 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.

The political leadership, which has intellectuals in its class, should engage our intellectuals in national discourses, listen to them and encourage them to accompany it in its development drive. The intellectual need not wait for this invitation to come but can use the space available, open, closed, invited spaces. This is called citizenship.

However, to the intellectual I say engage in intellectualism, subject issues to sufficient enquiries and analysis and proffer solutions. Intellectuals should argue on issues, not attack personalities or pour their spleen or venom on others. Intellectuals should not try to win scores or points, but rather debate and enlighten. Intellectuals should have open and analytical minds and be able to cut through the husks of forms to reach the kernel of reality and truth. Intellectuals should examine issues as they are, uncoloured by academic pedantry, demagoguery, polemics or snobbishness. Intellectuals should enlighten as a fulfillment of their social responsibility, not as an aid to climb a social or political ladder. Intellectuals should not only acquire facts but they should also make facts live. Intellectuals should appeal to the serious side of people’s minds, excite and awake in them passion and interests that are or were dormant and give them new leases of life. These are my expectations, what an intellectual should do or stand for.

With each passing day, we are seeing the important role that the intellectual should play in our society. Each day we are faced with great national questions which the intellectual should analyse and decipher for us and help chart the better way. Each day the intellectual has the opportunity to carve a niche for himself or herself in our society. W

When all is said and done, may be we should start asking each other ‘What do you stand for?’ and not ‘Where did you stand?’ We have a country to develop, lives to rebuild, souls to purify, hearts to comfort, future to plan for. We cannot afford to dissipate our energies on ego conflicts, bigotry, hatred and divisive statements. The work ahead is too great to allow the grass to grow under our feet.

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