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JONATHAN: PUTTING A FACE TO THE BOOK

By NBF News
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President Goodluck Jonathan
President Goodluck Jonathan's recent 'Bring Back the Book' campaign has been rightly commended for its topicality and discernment in a country where aggressive illiteracy even among the so-called educated is a distinct problem. Recently, Jonathan. accompanied by his campaign coordinator for the south-west, Otunba Gbenga Daniel, governor of Ogun State and other party chiefs excited the imagination of the artiste community at a carnival in which his new book entitled 'My friends and I' was presented to a crowd consisting mainly of young Nigerians. The book itself consists mainly of conversations between the president and young and not so young Nigerians relating to governance issues on the social network entitled Facebook.

Book reviewer; Dr. Reuben Abati, is substantially correct in describing Jonathan's new attentiveness to the views of the citizenry as well as to the need to rekindle the dying appetite for reading as constituting innovations and rare departures in our national history. For, a distinct lacuna in our national leadership experience has been the divorce between productive intellect and political exertions illustrated for example by the fact that the late president Umar Yar'Adua was the first university graduate to occupy the presidential office, an office that has been populated by no less than eight parsonages before him.

The quest to unite fine intellect sharpened by a voracious appetite for books and political leadership goes back to antiquity and the well-known prescription of the Greek philosopher Plato who posited that for the ideal city state to emerge, 'philosophers must become kings or those now called kings must genuinely and adequately philosophize'. Our experience has been such that our philosophers or the intellectual class neither become kings at least at the federal level nor did those who became kings attempt to any substantial degree or with any profoundity to philosophize. Was it not recently that one of our presidents shocked the intellectual community by disdainfully writing off the arts and social sciences as worthless? Need we recall the drone like recitation of speeches obviously crafted by speech writers by successive heads of government whose indifference to or boredom with the text of their speeches were barely concealed? In Jonathan, the first doctorate degree holder to occupy the highest seat of power we have a possible counter-narrative to the recurrent cycle and paradox of a nation with a highly diversified technocracy being ruled by those who appear to be out of their depths when confronted with complex governance problems.

But having said that, let us situate the 'Bring Back the Book' campaign more properly. If the enterprise is to be more than a passing fad, we need to know what President Jonathan himself reads. Is he an avid reader of books and related literature? What kind of books does he read? As is well known, American presidents maintain an official reading list of books; hence we know for example that President Obama a former professor of constitutional law reads several influential textbooks ranging from Shakespeare's tragedies through Lincoln's leadership methods to new novels such as Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom', which he took with him while on vacation at Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

We also know about the American founding fathers, some of whose appetite for a diversified menu of books, is legendary. Take for example, Thomas Jefferson who not only had a magnificent library of his own but was both an intrepid reader and influential writer. It was to him that President John Kennedy alluded while at a dinner featuring the best and the brightest, in the American national elite which constituted the Kennedy intellectual power house in these terms: 'This is the most extraordinary collection of talents, human knowledge that has ever gathered together at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone'. The thought of that moving encyclopedia, intellectual and literary giant can be glimpsed from several books which he authored including portions of the federalist papers.

I bring up this allusion to make the point that there is a role modeling dimension to the capacity to bring back the book about which Jonathan must be more forthcoming; that is to say, he needs to put a personal stamp and the force of his own example on the campaign by letting us as it were into his library. Of course, it can be argued that one does not have to be well read to be a good leader considering for example that some well read leaders have turned out to be disasters, thus bringing up the distinction between reading and reflection, between knowledge and wisdom.

On balance, however, a keen intellect trained on a large appetite for books and reading in general has served as intellectual nurseries as well as inspiration for many of the world's great leaders who in turn influenced their generation in those directions. It is unlikely that leaders who did not read much before taking office will suddenly groom the habit while trying to cope with the rigorous demands of high office. Harold Macmillan, former British Prime Minister was already a compulsive and prodigious reader before taking political office, a fact which explains his legendary ability to have read 55 books in one year when he was foreign secretary and an Olympian 119 books in one of the years when he was prime minister.

Let us domesticate this narrative, by recalling that several politicians who led Nigeria to independence – Azikiwe, Awolowo, Aminu Kano and Enahoro cultivated reading both as pleasure and purposive activity. Their erudition issued forth in several tracts, books and homilies on national life. Azikiwe's oratory did not consist only in the ability to manipulate words and images or even in mere alliterative grandeur; rather it rested on a magisterian command of history, both classical and modern. In the same vein, Awolowo's copious interventions on the structure of the Nigerian state and the national question were informed by an intimate acquaintance with great works of political theory from Plato through Montesquieu to KC Whare. The drop in the quality of mind of the nation's leaders became evident in the years of military rule when a snide burn the book culture usurped the capacity for incisive reflections on governance. With that slide came the downgrading of academic culture and the enthronement of philistinism and crass materialism in the national ethos.

And indeed, the chickens have come home to roost in the bitter harvest of barely literate Nigerian graduates and a proliferation of universities situated at the backwaters of the global quality perkin order. If the book must be brought back in one form or another considering that books and libraries are becoming endangered in the light of digital innovations; then we must pay attention to a whole range of problems and disincentives such as incommodious learning environments, warped value system which privileges the material and the instant at the expense of the cultural and spiritual; the high cost of publishing, the low esteem of intellectuals and cultural workers as well as the dearth of policies targeted at revalidating a much abused educational sector.

Prof. Olukotun writes from Lagos.