Kongi: Portrait of Africa’s Premier Public Intellectual

I’m entirely unsure why I was chosen to lead a conversation on Wole Soyinka (Kongi) as a public intellectual, convinced as I am that I am probably unqualified for that role. It is, nevertheless, proper to acknowledge the utility of convening this conversation in honour of a man for whom no thank you note is adequate.

It is arguably beyond my brief and certainly beyond my ability to say who is or isn’t a public intellectual. Few would dispute that Wole Soyinka is one but it is still necessary to establish this point rather than merely assert it.

Chielozona Eze describes Kongi as “one of Africa’s premier public intellectuals and moral voices”, pointing out that “[i]t is symbolic of Wole Soyinka’s career as one…. that his play, A Dance of the Forest, was presented at the Nigerian Independence celebrations in 1960.” Ngugi wa Thiong’o agrees that Kongi is both “a writer and public intellectual who has voiced his concerns over major happenings in different parts of the continent over the last fifty years and more, he has become the moral and democratic conscience of Africa.” Olúfémi Táíwò acknowledges Kongi as “one of contemporary Africa’s most important of philosophers… given his books, his lectures, plays, films, …. the sublimity of true intellectualism.”

Who is a Public Intellectual?

Being an intellectual is not necessarily a nice thing and being thought of as a public one is not universally seen as a virtue. The line “[h]e made love to me like an intellectual” from Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting was not intended as an endearment nor did it mean to flatter the intellectual. AC Grayling reminds us that “that the word ‘intellectual’ made despisers of the term reach for their guns; the term ‘public intellectual’ assuredly makes them reach for a bomb. To critics, the term connotes the cheap and easy option of pontification, of commentary without responsibility, rather like the luxury enjoyed by a political party in opposition—the luxury of having to move nothing but your lips.” Russell Jacoby declaims the public intellectual as a category with “big brains; small impact”.

Not everyone is necessarily as damning of the public intellectual. Many trace the origin of this label if not necessarily of the species to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 lecture/essay “The American Scholar”, in which he describes the intellectual as “One Man” – One Person – or what Alan Lightman, himself an accomplished member of the club, describes as “the complete person, or the person who embodies all dimensions of human potential and actuality.”

In his 1993 Reith Lectures, “Representations of the Intellectual”, Edward Said thought the public intellectual had the role to “advance freedom and knowledge,” at once part of society but outside it and its institutions; with a capacity to balance both private and public, reaching out to the widest possible publics and with a capacity to disturb the status quo.

In answer to his own question “Who is a Public Intellectual?” in the New York Times in June 2008, Barry Gewen responds that s/he is “someone deeply committed to the life of the mind and to its impact on the society at large.” AC Grayling suggests that “[t]here is no bar to anyone’s being a public intellectual other than having nothing to say. One thing this implies is that public intellectuals are, generally speaking, a self-selected group; they are those who step voluntarily forward, as enfranchised citizens of ancient Athens once did in the agora, to make a point”.

But, Alan Lightman says of the public intellectual that s/he is “often a trained in a particular discipline, such as linguistics, biology, history, economics, literary criticism, and who is on the faculty of a college or university. When such a person decides to write and speak to a larger audience than their professional colleagues, he or she becomes a “public intellectual.” He distinguishes between three possible hierarchies or classes of public intellectual:

Level I public intellectual speaks and writes for the public exclusively about his or her discipline or field of expertise;
Level II public intellectual speaks and writes about his or her discipline “and how it relates to the social, cultural, and political world around it.”
Lightman recognizes what he calls “[t]he Level III” public intellectual membership of which is “[b]y invitation only”, is the intellectual as “a symbol of gentle rationality and human nobility.” About this category, he says:

The intellectual has become elevated to a symbol, a person that stands for something far larger than the discipline from which he or she originated. A Level III intellectual is asked to write and speak about a large range of public issues, not necessarily directly connected to their original field of expertise at all. After he became famous in 1919, Einstein was asked to give public addresses on religion, education, ethics, philosophy, and world politics.”

When a person enters the world of the Level III public intellectual, therefore, he “become(s) in a sense, public property because he represents something large to the public….he is an idea himself, a human striving. He has enormous power to influence and change, and he must wield that power with respect.” The Level III public intellectual in this sense is both activist and intellectual. But Lightman equally cautions:

One can move slowly and even unconsciously upward through these various levels I have described. But I would argue that one should be conscious of the movement, and especially the increasing degree of responsibilities. In particular, Level III should be entered with caution and respect. Here, there is the greatest responsibility. The public intellectual is often speaking about things beyond his or her area of expertise. Some people will refuse such an invitation; others will accept the responsibility that has been given them. Einstein, an inward and essentially shy person, but at the same time a man of great self confidence and awareness of his stature, and accepted the responsibility of the Level III public intellectual. Such a person must be careful, he must be aware of the limitations of his knowledge, he must acknowledge his personal prejudices because he is being asked to speak for a whole realm of thought, he must be aware of the huge possible consequences of what he says and writes and does.

A Man, an Idea, and Our Own

If the public intellectual is thus marked out by “intelligence and engagement, and the fact that they speak out”, then surely those who describe Kongi as one merely acknowledge the obvious. Through his life and works, Kongi shows calm comfort with both the intrinsic role of the public intellectual and the agency that comes with it.

But Kongi is not any mere public intellectual; he is a fully paid-up member of that rarefied world of the Level III public intellectual. Therefore, those who describe him as one of “Africa’s premier public intellectuals” do not do his stature or contributions justice. By definition, the Level III public intellectual defies geography or specialty. His geography is the universe and his specialty is polymath.

Yet, we in this part of the world feel called upon to lay special claims to Kongi because this is where it all began and this is where he has also made his most substantial case and claims upon our consciousness and imagination. I would venture that we treasure Kongi not merely because we’re entranced by the artfulness of his grammar and or the invention of his drama. The true reason, Olúfémi Táíwò suggests, is his “overall hell-raising activities” through “years of humanism…; of fighting for humanity; of speaking the truth to power; of nurturing and celebrating youth and challenging us to grow.” In one sentence, even more than his literary stature, Kongi means what he does to us because of his activisms, his commitment to ensuring that we do not take freedoms for granted or treat our shared humanity with levity.

Kongi’s career in that role is as long as and arguably now difficult to distinguish from his storied literary career and perhaps just as decorated. While his literary career has been crafted mostly in words and productions, his life as a public intellectual has been defined as much by his deeds, his actions, and the privations that he has endured as the trophies for these. This distinction between words, deeds, actions and privations is, of course, largely a tool of analytical convenience. In reality, they could be largely indistinguishable.

Thus, Biodun Jeyifo, a Wole Soyinka scholar, speaks of “Soyinka’s career in the theatre and his activism as an outspoken and increasingly influential public intellectual.” This is probably one reason among many why Olaokun Soyinka, Kongi’s first son, complained that he was “never totally sure why” his Dad was famous. Of course, being famous is not necessarily the same as being public but now, no one seriously disputes that Kongi is public property, owned by the world of ideas and of striving whether on loan from us or donated by us to the world.

Words, Actions, Symbolisms

Defying the calling of the public intellectual while re-defining it, Kongi’s life has been at once a commitment to the idea and ideals of our shared humanity; to our geography; and by his opposition to tyranny in any form. He clearly illustrated this triple bottom line in his exertions in pursuit of a humane ending to the Nigerian Civil War. For this, he suffered incarceration from where he reminds us, in one of his most famous lines, that “[t]he man dies who keeps silent in the face of tyranny”.

A.R. Crewe points out that The Man Died, “rests on a single unified purpose: to challenge the Nigerian conscience out of a state of increasingly self-corrupting apathy.” In The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis Kongi himself argues that “that space, Nigeria, cannot be the duty and the burden of the writer and intellectual alone’ It is arguably this realization that has defined Kongi’s “overall hail raising activities” of public communication using words, actions, and symbolisms on behalf of both good conscience and freedoms.

His major contributions in defence and advocacy for our freedoms, in my view fall into five categories. First, Kongi has been a principled humanist, advocate for non-discrimination and for humane governance. This he has demonstrated repeatedly in his interventions in situations and on behalf of victims of wars of mass atrocity from Biafra to Darfur. Even before these, Kongi had dramatized the extent of his commitment to humane governance through in real life as the “Mystery Gunman” who substituted took over the radio studio in Ibadan in 1964 to speak some home truths to a renegade regional Premier, his party and the people of Western Nigeria over what was widely believed to be malgovernance and rigged elections. Given that the prosecution in the ensuing case was never able to establish the identity of the Mystery Gunman and that Kongi was indeed discharged and acquitted in the subsequent prosecution, I’m obliged here to add a caveat here that we may never, as a matter of the law know the identity of the Mystery Gunman.

Second, because he is a writer and artiste, we take Kongi’s commitment to freedom of expression for granted but pay little attention to his equally storied practice and defence of freedom of association. Recognising as he does that the fullest potentials of civic life do not exist in any straitjackets, he has as a matter of habit, lent his star quality in recalibrating or disrupting otherwise hopelessly unbalanced balance of power on behalf of good civic causes that would otherwise not have no chance against the forces of tyranny.

From his role in the foundation of what one critic has described as “the non-conformist, non-conventional ‘social’ club, the Pyrates Confraternity” (now better known as the National Association of Seadogs) to his associations with such formations as the Citizens’ Forum, Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) and the Campaign for Democracy (CD), among others, Kongi has always been willing to test the frontiers of, support and abide by the disciplines of multiple associational forms. One part of this is Kongi’s passionate investment in inspiring and mentoring the youth.

Thirdly, Kongi has himself been a distinguished leader in the advocacy for democracy in Nigeria and beyond. Apart from his stout support for and association with such groups as the CLO and the CD, he was himself the founder, during the darkest days of the regime of General Sani Abacha, of the National Liberation Council of Nigeria (NALICON); the proprietor of the pirate radio station, Radio Kudirat and the all round Svengali of the coalition that made it impossible for the regime to achieve the international legitimacy it was desperate for.

Fourthly, Kongi has been an implacable advocate for the dignity of the African life based not merely on accurate historical memory but also of accountability. This perhaps is the earliest strand of his life as a public intellectual, dramatized in his A Dance of the Forest, which at once recognized the mixed value of Africa’s history but cautions against the tendency to uncritically lionize this past as reflected in the works of such earlier African writers as Leopold Senghor.

Above all, Kongi’s contribution as a public intellectual has been emblematized by his willingness to endure privation and make sacrifice in defence of his views. For this, he has been arrested many times, detained, imprisoned, prosecuted, persecuted and been exiled. Yet, on each occasion, he has returned to the beat with his voice louder and his appeal broadened. Not too far away from the present venue, in Sandgrouse, Lagos, as recently as May 2004, a 70 year old Kongi was gassed and arrested by agents of the government for marching in protest against “the inhuman policies” of the Obasanjo administration.” The full extent of the price he has paid and the trophies in scars collected, is evident from his prison diaries, The Man Died and from the two chapters in his most recent autobiographical work, You Must Set Forth at Dawn devoted to “Nation and Exile” and “Homecoming”.

It has been suggested that Kongi’s “approach to the question of exile in You Must set Forth at Dawn is one that goes a long way at suggesting the expediency of agency even when it bears its attendant costs including exile for the writer or the intellectual. The tension that results from the taking on of agency by writers in most African countries or even the developing world in general becomes one of the major precursors to nomadism on the part of writers and intellectuals with its attendant consequences on both the society as well as the individuals who become so alienated.”

Before the Day after Eternity….

Kongi’s record demonstrates the worldliness of the public intellectual; his otherworldliness and alienation from his immediate surroundings and the permeability of both worlds. The former role entitles us to always claim him as one of us. The latter has saved and spared him for us, offering him escape into exile when our limitations proved too intolerant of his spirit and our institutions threatened to suffocate him and his agency. It is in this sense that his many privations, especially, his exiles, count as part of the trophies from his life as a public intellectual. For these we are entitled to be grateful that he has lived beyond four scores and there is good reason to celebrate.

Some would suggest that Kongi’s qualifications for this are mostly genetic because he is the nephew of Rev. I.O. Ransome-Kuti and his wife, Funmilayo; and the elder cousin of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Beko Ransome-Kuti. Yet, there are multiple ironies in the trajectory that has been pursued by the life of this man educated on government scholarship, who broke the bond that bound him to return to the public service in our little geography in order to become a global exemplar for a life of leadership, conscience, and service.

We would all, of course, wish that he could hang around and enrich us with his presence, wit, wisdoms, courage and moral leadership until the day after eternity. But even as we pray that he should continue to enjoy many more years of robust health and productivity, we are duty bound to recognize, as Nelson Mandela acknowledged in his eulogy to Walter Sisulu in 2003, that Kongi will someday approach “the age when (any) of us would protest against the brevity of life.” For the moment, we are yet unwilling to do so.

The risk we run in our unwillingness so to do, however, is that we defer the task of accepting the responsibilities he has bestowed on us. We may not be able to fill Kongi’s literary or theatrical productivity. But we will be irresponsible to squander the legacy of his life as a public intellectual. While, therefore, we remain grateful for the many gifts that Kongi has given us, we must also accept the responsibilities that come with his legacies of striving, of agency, of selflessness and of sacrifice – to work tirelessly for a better country and to defend humanity in the fullest majesty of its diversities.

* Being the keynote presented at the Wole Soyinka Day, Lagos Book & Art Festival, 14 November 2014.

Chidi Odinkalu

Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is the Chairman of the Governing Council of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).