Leadership (Abuja)

14 February 2013

Nigeria: El-Rufai - in Defence of Public Discourse

opinion

To learn to see - to accustom the eye to calmness, to patience and to allow things to come up to it; to defer judgment, and to acquire the habit of approaching and grasping an individual case from all sides. This is the first preparatory schooling of intellectuality. One must not respond immediately to a stimulus, one must acquire a command of the obstructing and isolating instincts.

-Fredrick Nietzsche, 'Twilight of the Idols'

At the beginning, a caveat: this is not a defence of MalamNasir El-Rufai. I believe he is not intellectually deformed to defend himself. After all, as my friend GimbaKakanda wrote in a recent essay about the man, I am no supporter of his many elitist policies while in the helms at the Federal Capital Territory.

This, rather, is a defence of commonsense and a defence of the culture of public discourse which, unfortunately, is dived below the mark of decent coition of ideas and cocktail of facts. I find myself agreeing with the Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka who wrote in a 2007 essay; "We have gone below the ground zero of public debate".

Just as 2012 was folding off, Nigerians got engrossed in a heated debate following the release of "There Was a Country," Chinua Achebe's civil war memoirs. The hell, to use the cliché, was literally let loose as Nigerians took each other by the throat. You could say this was a healthy engagement in ironing out some key national questions and revisiting our haunting history.

It was not. This was because most of the loudest voices, especially in the early days of the quasi-debate, were of the people that had not actually read the book. Opinions were developed based on second-hand information that in most cases were subjugated to subjective interpretations or selective revisionism.

The only knowledge to the book held by most commentators then was in form of some early reviews published in foreign titles and, in some cases, snippets of the book published as excerpts by the media. I had wanted to do a meta-review of There Was A Country especially after reading the reviews of the book penned by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chika Uniagwe and NooSaro-Wiwa.

In particular, I was angered by some careless lines of fiction in Adichie's review that I had intended to take up. However, I restrained myself to wait and read the primary text first; which I had ordered by then. Alas, I never got around to writing the piece.

Recently, former Minister of Education, ObyEzekwesili delivered a pre-convocation lecture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where she alleged that our foreign reserve has been deflated by $67 billion since the 2007 election.

A cheer group of semi-intellectuals, who, thanks to Dr Reuben Abati, we now come to know as"today's men" viciously launched a character-assassination attack on her, and anything she was thought to be representing. That also served as a lunch pad to take all her co-travellers, the "yesterday's men", to the cleaners.

Enter Nasir el-Rufai's 'The Accidental Public Servant'. Since the commencement of some media reviews of this book, some people began hauling stones, even if aimless. Typical of the age-old orientation, the media went for the more explosive parts; some areas in which some leading dramatis personae of our politics space are 'negatively'portrayed.

And then came the most banal, even grotesque campaign to rubbish the author and, ultimately, throw the bath water with the baby. The book has now become a spring post from which the personality of the author is attacked. Of course his adversaries have been waiting for it thus the spontaneous firing of verbal missiles and the hysteria.

However, as with the case with Ezekwesili's UNN lecture, those who disagreed with el-Rufai's assertions have not shown readiness to present us with superior arguments. What we have been dished all these days is a confetti of hate-words with an unruly tincture of half-truths. This is the level to which public debate has been reduced. Sad.

I am writing this not with the mind that el-Rufai wrote the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In any case, as a student of deconstruction, I know truth itself is contestable and often subjective. However, we must give it to the former minister for not only writing the book but also putting names to faces even when he knows that these people are largely alive and can go any length to defend themselves or fight back. The Atiku Media Office has gone public with invectives while sponsoring adverts in print and broadcast media to point "inconsistencies" between what el-Rufai claimed in the book and what he told the Senate during his clearance for ministerial post.

Some of the more civil critics of the book thought that el-Rufai, in writing the memoir, had thrown ethics of"statecraft" (whatever that means!) and confidentiality to the dogs, thereby baring it all. This is another sad story of our country's decent into paucity of public discourse. Memoirs should be explosive, political memoirs especially.

The advance democracies that we are wont to copy use memoirs to deepen democratic culture and foster transparency. Government business is not a cultic venture. People have the right to know and memoirs are written to reveal what was not in the public knowledge. If all that is written in a memoir is a mishmash of jejune facts that are already known, what is the essence?

We will do this country and indeed future generation a whole lot of good if we begin to water the culture of a more fertile public debate. Let there be more memoirs, let there be more sincere engagement of the memoirs.

-Abdulaziz is an Abuja-based journalist.

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