Gimba Kakanda is a young Nigerian poet and public intellectual who has, over the last two years, contributed short essays to Blueprint Newspaper published in Abuja. He has, over the same period, posted full versions of these essays on his blog Flips of Commonsense and these activities have earned him great visibility in Nigeria as a thinker unafraid to share his views regardless of whether they are popular or dissident.
Amongst the topical issues he has dealt with most recently, leading to a lot of controversy, is the issue of terrorist sect Boko Haram operating in northeastern Nigeria viz a viz the cause of Palestine–his specific emphasis was in where ones solidarity should lie more effectively between local concerns and international ones. His essay, A Letter to that Nigerian-Palestinian , was published on on his blog on 25/07/2015. To this essay, a certain Mahmud Muhammad responded with a piece titled In Defence of the Nigerian-Palestinian published on Facebook on 27/07/2014 and archived in the Daily Trust Newspaper at the link above. Gimba Kakanda finally responded to this with a letter addressed to Mahmud, titled The Hysteria of a Malfunctioning Robot: A Response to Muhammad Mahmud’s Misinterpretation of Texts published today, 02/08/2014.
I wish to share a few thoughts about the value of ideas, about my country and why we are the way we are–benighted. Perhaps this situation is the same all across Africa? To clarify, I do not think that the word and idea, “Intellectual”, is a thing to be shied away from for either the sake of false modesty or to escape the “danger” of accusations of conceit. It is what it is and I embrace it. I use the word and idea confidently.
First, the ideas that intellectuals share in public, whether as status updates on Facebook or blogposts or articles in journals, are not arrived at the way one would pick up a common weed along a footpath on one’s merry way home. On the contrary, each is a product of a lot of thought, and of the refining of these thoughts to the point where a thinker is confident enough to share them. They are a thinker’s “representations”. It is important to stress this, for this is a fact all too easily forgotten.
Professor Edward Said defined what a “representation” is in his brilliant 1994 BBC Reith Lecture: “What I care about as an intellectual is what I say before an audience or to a constituency and what my representations are about is not only how I articulate them but what I represent as someone whose main concern is to try and advance the course of freedom and justice. I say or write these things because after much reflection, they are what I believe and I also want to persuade others of these views.” — Edward Sa’id, Representation of the Intellectual. (All errors in transcription are mine.)
An essay is a serious matter, to write one is not a joke. To respond to Gimba’s original essay in the way Mahmud did was not a benign thing either. It was a hostile attack, it was a declaration of war. And Gimba Kakanda responded to this in a correctly ferocious manner. If he had been more restrained than he was, it could only have been because he lacked conviction in his representations in his original essay. He would thus have become an apparent phoney. As the Igbo people in southeastern Nigeria say, it is not only when you see broken heads and limbs that you know a fight is ongoing. Ideas change the nature of reality: cooking today was forever changed by the idea of adding heat to meat, as it was by the idea of adding salt to soup. Our ideas have the same effect on our societies as heat and salt have on a pot of soup. Especially in Nigeria, this benighted country I love so much! Lives are saved by a chance comment in a newspaper, operators of systems find the strength to resist inertia because once upon a time someone spoke to them in a blogpost.
The ruin of contemporary Nigeria, perhaps one of the places most hostile to thought and their power and to intellectuals and their representations, is clear in the matter of these three essays. For so long as there exists an inordinate haste to reply to what there has been little effort to understand, so long as the itch is there for a sort of thinker to pander to the lowest common denominators of society for the sake of feel-good or a distorted ideal of power, for so long I pray for the strength for true intellectuals to defend their ideas as ferociously and as lucidly as if it was their physical homes with the lives of their children in it.
When one writes an essay, it is his best effort, but the essayist does not mean that his essay is all there is to it–an essayist never claims his position is The Truth. Only that: “This is the truth as far as I have discovered it, I believe this and I seek to persuade the world to this view, but I remain willing to bow to superior argument and I am willing to debate this essay with a view to arriving at an even truer truth.” The respectful manner of an essay should dictate a response to it–in a manner that allows for discourse. But a response that chops-and-dices with a mind to distort, so common in this country, or one that sentimentalizes the point of an essay in order to mislead a less intelligent constituency, an equally common perversity in this country, simply will not do.
This thing bothers me. But I will not belabour it. I hope that we all will learn from these three essays to deal with each other’s ideas with respect. An idea is no less concrete a thing than a building block. It can build, and yes it is also true that it can be pushed down, but it can also be hurled.