Fani-Kayode and his history teachers

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*Fani-Kayode

Abimbola Adelakun

If by now, faux historian and professional agitator, Femi Fani-Kayode, has not responded to the rejoinders of Professors Banji Akintoye and Farooq Kperogi on his Yoruba identity flippancy, we can conclude he has nothing further to say and move on to drawing some lessons from the brouhaha of “Yoruba” and its etymology. In some ways, Fani-Kayode’s attention-seeking ways represent the flawed ethics of the present milieu. We live in a post-truth world; the traditional structures that regulated popular inanities have broken down and given way to the reign of alternative facts.

These days, “social media influencers” whose pedigree for igniting discussion is premised mainly on their ample following now lead debates on core social and national issues alongside intellectuals and informed analysts. In the spirit of democracy, anyone should be able to comment on any matter whatsoever. However, the structure of the new system turns clout chasers into authorities that – and while garbed in scant knowledge – frequently run into the digital village square shouting, “Eureka!”

There are two lessons that I took away from the Yoruba/Yariba episode. First is the role that the media played in helping Fani-Kayode brew his pot of mischief. There was no other apparent motive about his claim that the Fulani bequeathed the Yoruba their name other than troublemaking, and it fits into a larger pattern of his anti-Fulani sentiments. He did not cite any source for his discovery, and the way the more astute scholars dislodged his argument shows that there was no rigour invested in his ideas before he hit the streets. He just wanted to arouse the ethnic chauvinists permanently resident on social media as he is wont to do. Judging by how tribal irredentists crawled out of the woodwork to feast on his historical dabble, he pretty much succeeded.

In these present times, it would have been mere wishful thinking to expect the media to have ignored him. Before, the maxim used to summarise media reporting was, “If it bleeds, it leads.” These days, what leads is what trends. Once some “gist” ignites on social media, it becomes newsy and gets reported in even serious newspapers. With digital technology, traditional media lost much of the primacy of its function as agenda-setters and instead plays reactionary roles to the agenda set from the social media networks. Coupled with the spectre of fake news, troll farms that skewer the realities of unsuspecting targeted populations, and the bewildering absurdity of deepfakes, the traditional press seems to have settled to the role of agenda-moderators instead. What they still cannot afford is to yield their advantage of a core of trained professionals who can source well-researched and edited news items to the mercenaries of social media.

By way of an example, we can borrow from the USA and their reporting of their President, Donald Trump. If there is something Trump is renowned for by now, it is his incredible capacity to tell needless lies barefaced. Each time he comes on TV, you can expect he will leave you open-mouthed with his falsehoods. The American media, finally worn out from helping him broadcast his mendacities, reconsidered their ethical ideals of objectivity and neutrality. Journalists were traditionally trained to strive towards dispassionate reporting and not make themselves the news. But they found it was naïve to be passive while the president used them to broadcast blatant lies that are hurtful to other people. So, they rethought their tactics of reporting the president’s live events – “lawn chats,” press conferences, and rallies – and withdrew the courtesy of remaining objective with him. Now, they fact-check Trump right away. As he is making another false claim on live TV, they are also pulling up a sidebar on the screen to dispute his lies for their viewers. Yes, calling out the president that way may shift the notion of “objectivity” for reporters, but they cannot afford to be uncritical of their roles in sustaining what remains of their country’s democratic ethos.

There is a lesson in that drift for reporters who source their news from social media fora. It is important they be circumspect, so they not become the handmaidens of “social media influencers” whose desperate need to trend and accumulate more followers lead them to say outrageous things. There should be more reflexivity in their process, so they are not complicit in helping mischief-makers broadcast garbage.

For instance, the reporters who went to town with Fani-Kayode’s story did not bother to run his claim with serious history scholars before publishing it as “news.” Even the ones who did a follow-up report consulted some “Yoruba elders,” and asked them to comment as if the issue had any merit in the first place. The other problem with that approach is that they put some of the respondents on the spot with a question that is outside their area of primary competence. If the media had to report Fani-Kayode’s story because they thought it was newsy, they could have consulted actual historians who have devoted their lives to studying these issues and used the historians’ informed opinions to bracket the account. That way, we will not risk combusting our society with wild tales concocted to sow the seeds of disaffection in an already fragile polity.

The second lesson I took away from the episode was triggered by how much pleasure I derived from the beauty of erudition that both Akintoye and Kperogi displayed. After the moment passed, I was struck by the realisation that their adept scholarship might also be a shrinking enterprise. Between the two of them, they made a valid case for why society needs to invest in the knowledge of history with the same passion we advocate the sciences and the social sciences. They also remind us what our society is about to lose if we do not favour studies such as history and the rest of the humanities.

These days, it is not uncommon to hear someone advocate striking off humanities courses from the university curriculum because they have no more relevance to our society. They, of course, base their observation on the fewer opportunities available to those trained with the set skills that the humanities imbue. The universities (public ones, mostly) keep producing them, but when they fail to find employment opportunities that match their areas of strength, they end up in the bank as tellers. Things are so bad that many of the leading private universities – which will be graduating the bulk of our children in the future – do not even offer courses like history, philosophy, languages and linguistics, fine arts, classics, and religious studies.

The few private universities that offer history as a course shore it up with studies of “international affairs.” That likely means the history their students learn is oriented towards foreign affairs (not much considering Nigeria contributes zero to global diplomacy!) These days, some university vice chancellors want to build airports, while some others advocate the development of courses on entrepreneurship. Underlying the persistence of the call for raising entrepreneurial students is the presumption that the complex problems of economic growth and development that confront Nigeria can be tackled if the university curriculum privileges a managerial manifesto.

While the present reality is that the knowledge enterprise itself is subject to the push and pull of neoliberalist forces, we should also be mindful that our failure to train historians means that we are undoing ourselves. We are building a future where we will always be at the mercy of fly by night historians who scour limited archives in search of knowledge with which they can cause a ruckus. It can never augur well for a culture that fails to build the life of the mind, the thinkers whose thoughts uphold the ethical pillars of society.

Just imagine for a minute that there was neither Akintoye nor Kperogi who has devoted their lives to studying history and have cultivated their scholarship long ahead of Fani-Kayode to intervene as ebulliently as they did. Who knows the kind of sentiment-mongering and antagonisms that would have accompanied Fani-Kayode’s faux history by now?

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