By Immanuel Lokwei,
Perhaps when people think of intellectuals, what comes to their minds are individuals whose daily activities amount to nothing more than the practice of their “expertise.” But can intellectuals, whatever our definition of them may be, do more than the mere scope of their intellectual capacity mandates? Is there such a thing as a “public intellectual?”
In Kenya, it is quite hard to tell the intellectual apart from the political, since the two play synergistic roles. If we evaluate both of these professionals, the intellectual and the politician, according to their readiness to pursue self-advancement in their respective careers, the evenness of their match in this regard is startling. There is nothing wrong with seeking self-advancement. But there is something insane and horrible about egoistic and narcissistic pursuit of advancement and elevation without respect for the basis that makes each pursuit, be it social or “personal,” possible.
Evidently, ambition is not the only thing Kenyan intellectuals and politicians have in common; they also have their disguised contempt and disrespect for the common and unacknowledged Kenyan citizens who despite their unmerited low status are still the essential base, both for the formulation of what constitutes a Kenyan identity and the meaning of being part of it, and for actualization of the possibility of prospering as a member of Kenyan society. And so these commonalities among Kenyan intellectuals and politicians include intentions to siphon and aggrandize gain from the unsuspecting and easily swayed Kenyan populace. A union between the Kenyan intellectuals and politicians has therefore been formed for this purpose. There is nothing as more horrifying.
Intellectuals in Kenya and politicians (exist for each other’s expediency) are a marriage made in heaven. The former are usually servile while the latter, due to their political advantage, reward the services of the first. In this way, both the intellectual and the political are of service to each other. It doesn’t take psychoanalysis to understand how this “rub-my-back-and-I-will-rub-yours” culture exists between the intellectual and the political. But we can, without effort, see that the intellectuals’ practice in their designated domains, be it in mechanical engineering or administration of the public sector or journalism, is minimally focused on nothing beyond the prospect of attaining material gain, and often framed within guidelines favorable to the political class.
The so-called pursuit of intellectual interests for the sake of intellectual curiosity and satisfaction has never been heard of, let alone seen in practice, in Kenya. Material success is a major motivator for these intellectuals to practice their art. That is why many of them would rather waste their ability than receive no pay for their services. The politicians therefore tap into these intellectuals’ priorities, since they need intellectuals to help them further their ambitions and since they too (the politicians) share the same priorities.
Though the above statements may sound speculative, your cynicism is due to your lack of critical connectedness and familiarity with forces shaping the course of Kenyan social and political affairs. The union of the intellectuals and politicians therefore is a very toxic and corrosive one; it is a marriage that doubly exploits the Kenyan populace, both politically and ideologically.
Of course, as any existentialist would argue, every generalization or system of analysis has exceptions. Those few Kenyan intellectuals who do not take advantage of the politicians’ need for their services usually stick, in a very cautious and practical way, to their trade and fear to venture beyond their official areas of practice, lest they incur the politicians’ wrath; political wrath means either losing authority to practice their expertise freely, or death threats. These intellectuals are therefore crippled and cannot apply their intellects or at least orient their practice toward the moral and political enlightenment of the Kenyan populace. Theirs are hermit lifestyles , completely isolated from the social engagement of the “public intellectual” — such as offering sharp critiques of the social and political courses of events. So it is like the implied agreement between these few intellectuals and the ever-enticing politicians is “keep-your-peace” and “I-will-let-you-live.”
The work of the majority of the servile intellectuals, for instance the so-called political scientists and analysts and journalists, entail a prognosis of current affairs for the political class and a contract to invent means to channel the predicted course of events to favor politicians’ appetite for power and maximum control. If the practices of these servile intellectuals were true to their art, the least they could do would be to provide a candid diagnosis of current affairs to the public. But they never do (of course it is always risky doing this, besides its materially “unprofitability”), and so the servile intellectuals serve their “bosses” instead of their true boss — the Kenyan people, without whom nothing would be possible. These servile intellectuals forget that their expertise (in engineering, medicine, law, journalism, etc.) would be rendered useless were it not for the existent and surviving Kenya populace. Every intellectual activity exists and is sustained over time solely because of an inherent social function in these practices.
Let’s take for instance the case of Miguna Miguna (MM), which is both interesting and pitiable. While it might not be true that there were or are people who have sold their souls to the devil, there is no doubt, as exemplified by the character of MM before his tragic fallout with the office of the Prime Minister, that Kenyan intellectuals have sold their souls to the politicians. Anyone would wish to receive the same homage that these Kenyan intellectuals pay, while they are in good standing, to their “bosses.”
But then again, the devil, like the crafty Kenyan politicians, only knows the utility of his equipment and has no attachments whatsoever with the equipment themselves. That is why it was so easy for the Prime Minister’s office to chuck out MM when they had no use of his service any more. What Kenyan intellectuals must know, or learn from Miguna’s case, is that if they have really set their minds to nothing but attainment of “personal” gain, if they do not recognize that they are indebted in many ways to the Kenyan populace, then they must enjoy their union with their beloved politicians while the union endures. You know what the devil does to objects that have become useless to him. Perhaps the intellectuals must consider, before they form a pact with these politicians, whether they want, at the end of their intimate affair, to be caught between a hard place, which is to become a laughing stock among the majority of the Kenyan populace, and a rock, which is to despair and be frustrated for having carelessly joined the union in the first place.
I will part with these wise words from a Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. As he directed his message to European intellectuals, I wish to direct and impart his knowledge to Kenyan intellectuals: “A true intellectual does not resolve problems posed by others [politicians per se]. The first step of intellectual work is precisely to reflect on the problem itself. What if the way we perceive a problem is already part of the problem? What if the way we spontaneously formulate the problem mystifies the problem?” By partnering with politicians, the intellectual not only lies to himself but also becomes part of or perpetuates the problem.