“I have always thought that those of us,” Professor Taban Lo Liyong, without excluding himself, began to explain the problem of the Western-educated African elite, “were taught to criticise Mother Africa and its leaders.” It is an observation that cannot simply be dismissed as an empty critique as it comes from one of Africa’s leading thinkers, the likes of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Léopold Sédar Senghor (to mention just three), since independence. The African elite, “the so-called intellectuals have been seized by the tribal god. They are pseudo-intellectuals whose knowledge can’t apply because it is irrelevant. They are conveyor belts,” says Lo Liyong. Let me break it down. First, the African elite is trained to be ‘irrelevant’ to his community. Second, he is trained to act as a ‘conveyor belt’ for ideas that perpetuate his irrelevance. Third, he is trained to ‘criticise Mother African and its leaders.’ In otherwise, the irrelevance of the African elite in efforts geared towards uplifting his or her community is by design. This ought to alarm education reformers, but also all of us – you and me. In his usual no-holds-barred style, Mwene Kalinda virtually paraphrased Lo Liyong. In a lengthy comment on a piece in this column last week about the existence of persistent, almost obsessive, efforts to undermine Rwanda’s legitimacy as a vehicle to cause regime change. “Now, as then,” Mwene Kalinda wrote in reference to our tortured history as a people, “there will be plenty of our own to lend them a hand in these endeavours in the hope of personally benefitting from their status as house slaves.” Is the Rwandan elite a ‘conveyor belt’? Let’s see. For one thing, most have, time and again, chosen to seat on the fence when their voice has been needed the most – to come to the defence of Mother Rwanda. It may not be obvious, and one may be excused for not knowing, but in this country we have universities, think tanks, institutes, and the like that employ people who count thinking as a major preoccupation. However, when things have heated up, the tendency has been for them to go underground, and to reappear, unscratched, above surface when the winds have calmed down, and things have normalised. You will never know, for instance, what they think about Rwanda’s pursuit of the FDLR in the Congo; nor will you hear their views on the BBC’s airing of a documentary that makes a mockery of the genocide; and they will not utter a single word about whether poverty is on the increase or on the decline in a country in which they live. Why are they silent? Because they may find themselves defending the government. This, they were taught in university, is a very bad thing. It is a disposition that falsely takes silence to constitute a ‘neutral’ stance. Thus, if they can’t criticise the government they’d better remain silent. Which, to paraphrase Prof. Lo Liyong, is why the African intellectual is able to masquerade as a thinker in an environment of political misrule and wilts in irrelevancy in a situation where a competent government runs things. It is a condition that renders them unable to nurture the skills – criticism for its sake –that they were taught at the university. As a result, they become redundant and intellectually disabled, unable to make any meaningful contribution to the societies in which they live, which Lo Liyong has labelled ‘irrelevant.’ Arrest that thought that is creeping in your mind that what is being advocated for here is for African intellectuals to toe the government line. Elites, when conscious about their role in society, can be crucial to its progress. Indeed, it is by critiquing society’s assumptions, the things that are taken as a given, that societies grow. However, this role has been misperceived by our elites. They think – and have been taught to think – that they must criticise their governments in order for them to be taken seriously as thinkers, and as relevant. Moreover, where Western intellectuals are taught to critique their leaders, we are taught to criticise ours, a difference that is not unimportant. We have also proven to be excellent students: our hate for our governments often runs so deep that we end up hating the state altogether. This is akin to disliking the shirt on your back and wanting to peel the skin beneath it. However, the condition whether to love or to hate ought to be driven by an assessment of whether the government in place is ‘doing the right thing’ in terms of fulfilling its obligations towards its citizens, whether it is making a genuine effort to provide them with ‘the good life.’ Where there are shortcomings, one’s disposition towards the government ought to be driven by whether there are genuine attempts –the goodwill –to improve things. Indeed, that the shortcomings are in good faith and not driven by predatory instincts. When that happens, all of us ought to be Republican Guards – to protect Mother Rwanda. This is how strong societies are built. Otherwise, we, the people, remain in auction, up for sale to the highest bidder.