Hunt for Successor 39: Ivory-tower intellectuals

By Field Ruwe

Justice Minister Sebastian Saizi Zulu had hoped for a good day. It had taken this most distinguished State Counsel and advocate of the Supreme Court of Zambia months to compile the report. He was a stickler, he always had been. Even in real life he spiced his lingua with legal anecdotes. When the president gave him the assignment, he knew it was one for the national archives and an additional bragging right.

As he compiled the report, words like “contributory negligence,” “demurrer,” “escrow,” flickered at the base of his medulla oblongata.

“We’ve nailed it,” he told his team after months of rewrites.

April 10, 2012 was presentation day. Dressed in his best suit of dark gray, he picked up his report, bound in the national color of green, and left for State House on Independence Avenue. When he stepped into the room scores of politicians were already present. They saw in him a little swagger, of satisfaction, perhaps.

Moments later, the president stepped in. Silence fell in obeisance. He too was dressed in a gray suit and a tie the color of a fire engine. He surveyed the room as if taking roll call. When his eyes met those of his Justice Minister, there was a smile only from the latter.

After the president had taken care of other matters he called upon the honorable minister. It was his moment to shine. He gathered himself and walked over to the president in measured steps and handed over the report. Aficionados rolled their cameras, clicked and flashed.

“This report is very useless, very complicated,” the president suddenly said. “We wasted our money.”

“No!” the minister exclaimed.

The boisterous laughter from the crowd ripped through his ego and left him wounded. The crudeness of the president had reversed his gains. For a brief moment he was appalled by the turn of events. He stared at the president as if saying “how dare you! It is not my fault that you didn’t go to school.” Actually, he was going to tell him precisely that, but his sapience prevailed. With drooping shoulders, he recoiled to his spot, his swagger blasted as if by dynamite.

The power of politics had claimed an intellectual. This is a common motif. Zambian politics have always prevailed over the power of thought and turned intellectuals into ivory-towers. A politician with little or no education is mightier than an intellectual with roof-level degrees. He can humiliate him; frustrate him; turn him into a pauper; throw him into the gallows; drive him out of the country; or lead him to his demise.

That’s the barrier to our advancement. It is not the lack of economic power, but too much political power invested in an individual called the president. Although, to his credit, president Sata has appointed learned people to cabinet positions—Professor Luo Nkandu, Professor Nevelyn Willombe, Dr. Effron Lungu, Dr. John T.N. Phiri, Dr. Joseph Kasonde, Dr. Patrick Chikusu, Dr. Joseph Katema—he has failed to turn them into an integral feature of the country’s political landscape. They are all ivory-tower intellectuals who have failed to have a decisive impact in reshaping conventional wisdom and setting a course of advancement for us.

All the afore-mentioned have chosen to wear their political hat. They have assumed the idiosyncrasies of a politician, and sit in the back seat of a bus taking us to nowhere. Let me pick on “high flyer” Micro-Biologist and Immunologist Professor Nkandu Luo. On September 1, 2011, University of Zambia students gave her a thunderous welcome of “don’t kubeba,” in the hope that if she became their Member of Parliament, she would improve standards of living and education on their campus. Professor Luo left them with the following words: “We need to restructure the university, we need to change the way it is run. Once elected I will work hand-in-hand with the university council to devise ways of making money for this institution.”  The pledge, as we now know, falls in the “money in your pockets in 90-days” category.

How about Dr. John Phiri and his deputy Professor Nevelyn Willombe at the Ministry of Education? These two intellectuals have adopted the old rigid subject centered education system that churns out thousands of kaponyas and Grade 12s each year and damps them on the street. They can’t seem to come up with a progressive system that builds on a student’s natural talents and interests. Yet they know how education reformers in successful economies have added various measures designed to ensure as many of their young people have at least a two-year college diploma.

Our education system lacks rigor because it does not reflect an upward social and economic mobility that meets 21st century standards. The non-vocational curriculum on Dr. Phiri’s desk is useless and he knows it. It is of no use to a generation faced with a fast changing world in which the common denominator in social and economic exchange is technology. As an intellectual Dr. Phiri ought to be fighting for a system that reduces the number of dropouts. Above all, he should be urging the president to invest massively in his ministry, perhaps in more than any other wing of government.

Maybe he is trying, who knows? We will never know because the Sata cabinet is not in the business of developing and promoting ideas. There is no minister who has presented a “visioning” coherent and excitable exercise to the public; one that should lead to the advancement of the Zambian people. Not one of these intellectuals has presented new and important ideas and brought them to public attention. Why? It is because they are not sure what to expect from their boss.

The president treats intellectuals as people detached from the everyday concerns of the poor. He believes that he alone is the champion of the common folk. He therefore thinks he does need an intellectual to tell him what to do. It is the same reason he ridicules and discredits his opponents rather than address their concerns. Like some of his predecessors, he has kept intellectuals in total subjection and rendered them inept and wasted. For years, they have been unable to participate successfully in the handling of complex and dynamic circumstances facing our nation. In failing to bring them to the fold, he has created a big gap between the academic and political worlds.

Our economy is still on life support; our rural dwellers are still “primitive;” and our ingenuity and talent remains untapped. Instead of addressing these teething issues, our intellectuals are hurtled in institutions of higher learning where they teach students what to think and not how to think. Students are often subjected to arcane theoretical and methodological assignments and not shown how to make stuff—kilns for brick-making in rural Zambia, radios, television sets; automobiles, food processors, or sewing machines.

Relying on his populism and demagoguery, the president thinks he can fix the country. He’s joking. He cannot succeed in a country devoid of ideas. He won’t succeed if he can’t provide clear roadmaps for action. He will lamentably fail if he can’t mobilize political and bureaucratic coalitions. At the end of his reign he will exit the same way, or perhaps worse than his predecessors. And for us as a people, it will be another era wasted.

The foremost role of a president is to think, think, and think. In the case of our president, he must apply out-of-the box thinking. He should be thinking about how to make a difference; how to improve the economy. He cannot fix the economy by depending on the Chinese and other foreign investors. He can’t build a unified and well informed country by spending much of his time inside State House and on trips abroad without getting immersed in the concrete day-to-day demands of the people.

Fine, the president may not be a deep thinker. He may lack intellectual curiosity. But if he is truly dedicated to taking us out of the doldrums, he has enough help around him. There is a good crop of Zambian intellectuals capable of shaping public opinion and generating a “new thinking” attitude that could change the way we live and conduct ourselves. I dare mention but a few; Professor Francis Tembo, Professor Dickson Mwansa, Professor Vernon Chinene, Professor Chifumbe Chintu, Professor Stephen Simukanga, Professor Enala Mwase, Professor Clive Chirwa, Professor Anne Sikwibele, Professor Michelo Hansungule, Professor Muna Ndulo, Professor Kelly Chibale, and many other Zambian professors and PhD holders. These people reached the highest level of academia for one reason—to provide intellectual leadership. Why can’t they be given a chance?

President Sata must embrace them. He must use them to bridge the gap between ideas and action. He must create out of such intellectual giants an unencumbered and most authoritative think tank that can propel Zambia to prosperity; one that will be in the business of buying and selling ideas around the country. The names of such people must be known to us. We must have access to them. They must be in the media often, presenting their findings and offering constructive ideas. They must announce launchings, exhibitions and discoveries and celebrate breakthroughs.

The think tank must be an autonomous, non-partisan and non-profit broad-range institution created to address urgent national issues. Supported by all wings of government, the organization must operate mainly in the areas of economics, health, and technology and offer research and analysis. Its location should be the University of Zambia where an innovation lab should be built as a symbol of change. It is here that various institutions of higher learning will translate theoretical concepts in the arts and sciences into novel applications; and it will be here that the country’s outstanding individuals, with no education, but with projects of direct benefit to our country, will be invited to showcase their talents.

The think tank should also serve as an umbrella for a compendium of other think tanks run by independent professionals and accomplished researchers and scientists who will conduct research in areas of political strategy, economics, technology, and others. Its organization should serve as a source of funding that encourages, promotes and agitates for the scientific research and technological innovation by talented individuals, companies, and other universities and higher education institutions around the country. It should offer repayable loans to support industrial research or experiment projects.

Gone are the days when presidents shaped public policy and opinion. Think tanks are doing it for them. That’s how they are succeeding. They are using think tanks as a stepping stone to their success. Ronald Reagan did just that. First World countries and those of South America have been successful because their leaders have created a constructive relationship with intellectuals. They use intellectuals as agents of change and harbingers of ideas.

You can take a horse to the river, but you can’t force it to drink, so the cliché goes. As is always the case, our president will lend a deaf ear. It is not within his interest to accord Zambian intellectuals a pivotal role in the transformation of our country. He will not entertain such ideas because his reign is as good as it gets. In as far as he is concerned Zambia is doing pretty well. He does not want intellectuals to claim credit. But the candid truth is that because he does not know how to apply the procedures and standards of economics and science to politics, he does not know how bad things are for us. He sees a slight drop in inflation as tremendous progress.

Countrymen, it is time to see our intellectuals not as ivory towers, but as pillars of advancement. We must make use of their knowledge and critical thinking while they are still alive. For decades, our politicians have mistreated and scared them away. These outstanding individuals who sit in small cubicles called offices with a zero balance in their bank account, due to poor pay, love what they do. They are visionaries in the real sense of the word. They are a treasure. If we are to change our country, we should allow them to influence the ranking of our priorities and shape the future of our country.

Field Ruwe is a US-based Zambian media practitioner, historian, and author. He is a PhD candidate at George Fox University and serves as an adjunct professor (lecturer) in Boston. ©Ruwe2012






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