Someone once asked Sammy Davis Junior, the late American performer and actor, what fame had meant to him.
“Being famous,” he replied, “has meant going to get insulted where the average black man could never hope to go and get insulted.”
Reading the responses to Farooq Kperogi’s “Intellectual 419: Philip Emeagwali and Gabriel Oyibo Compared,” reminds me that the Internet may well prove, for the Nigerian commentator, the racist America of Sammy Davis’ time.
I have never met Mr. Kperogi. But he is a younger man I read partly to improve my English. As an Esan man [which is in Edo State, for those who accuse me of hailing from the South-East, or the deep West or the Chad Basin North], I recognize that when you have lived in the wilderness for as long as I have, you must be careful your writing has not transited into Ebonics—or Edonics. Mr. Kperogi’s excellent English language skills provide guidance. And he charges nothing and makes no outrageous claims.
In last Sunday’s article, Mr. Kperogi chose one of the biggest lightening rods in all of Nigeria: Mr. Emeagwali, the Nigerian who single-handedly pulled Nigeria into the information age in 1989. I hope Mr. Kperogi was wearing his flak jacket, as most of the debris has been aimed at his person rather than his testimony.
The temptation to lash out on the Internet is becoming a lifestyle. Everyone owns a keyboard now, and it seems when people observe that blinking cursor in front of them—especially when they are wearing a mask—few can resist filling it with it with acid.
But a keyboard is not the same as argumentation. Writing is not the same as reasoning. The object of writing, unless you are a reporter, is to persuade. Anger may sometimes be useful in the writing process, but it is a unhelpful emotion: difficult to channel into persuasiveness or even coherence. Insult and abuse speak louder about the insulter than the insulted.
I do not know much about computers, but in 1986, three years before Mr. Emeagwali’s giant leap, I had bought my first computer, an Amstrad system. It was so rudimentary it lacked a hard drive. But although I often needed the permission of the National Electric Power Authority to use it, it opened my eyes to the wonders ahead in information technology.
And then Mr. Emeagwali came cruising.
When I first heard about the technological exploits of this gentleman, my heart almost burst through my chest. To learn about a Nigerian so accomplished he had been able to programme over 65,000 computers harmoniously was not only a vindication of the brilliance buried deep in the earth of Africa, I thought, it was a warning to the world we were coming.
That sparkling moment, unfortunately, has yielded little more than controversy since then in terms of the significance of the event and the ways Mr. Emeagwali subsequently tried to maximize it. There is no doubting Mr. Emeagwali’s brilliance: the final question is: Was he a moment or a phenomenon? Is he a shooting star or a wax statue?
Nobody can take away Mr. Emeagwali’s 1989 achievement away from him. Indeed, I do not think anyone has tried to take it away from him, and he has made sure that that is impossible by recounting the feat again and again.
The problem is that Mr. Emeagwali appears never to have left that milestone or risen from it. In retrospect, he seems to have remained transfixed at that road intersection admiring it—or crushed by it. His critics say:
• He did not take a Ph.D, although he claims or encourages people to call him “Doctor” or “Professor;”
• On the basis of that 1989 event, he cast himself as the “father of the Internet,” and then, under pressure, as “a father of the Internet,” meaning that he overinflated his place in, and the value of, his contribution to that giant stride in technology;
• His claims of 41 patents are false;
• The good things the world says about Mr. Emeagwali loop back to Mr. Emeagwali’s carefully-manipulated public relations machinery, using the Internet.
This argument has returned with renewed ferocity in the past month. For purposes of clarity, I take sides with Mr. Emeagwali’s critics, for two reasons.
The first is that although we seem to be throwing names around, the issue is really about principle. In my world, you do not permit people to insult your father’s name, as Mr. Emeagwali has, without reacting. This has nothing to do with race or nationality or epoch: you hit back with ferocious abandon so as to assert you are whom you say you are.
You do not own your father’s name; you borrow it from him in order to pass it on to the next generation. But history is replete with evidence that before handing it to their children, some people change the spelling of the name; others choose to repaint it. Some people shine it to a glitter while some others gamble with it. Some people spit on it and leave it in a house of disrepute while others engage in mud-wrestling with it.
In my assessment, in 1989, Mr. Emeagwali took his father’s name to the roof of the world and burnished it in gold. The question is what he did with it after that, particularly when nobody was looking. Those who say Mr. Emeagwali should not defend himself are asking him to go on a drunken jaywalk on a highway and leave the job of preserving his life to strangers that are driving through at high speed.
The second reason I have taken sides against my former hero is that the Internet, of which everyone is now a citizen, used to be a distant country.
Originally, that distant land was visited only by a few—“been-tos,” as we call them in Nigeria—one of whom was Mr. Emeagwali. To be fair, it is difficult to be humble about a place only you or a few have been. That is why a “been-to” would usually bring back amazing stories that got embellished as he “recalled” more.
But the Internet did not remain the ultimate distant country: before our very eyes, it became possible for everyone to visit. Worse still, it proved impossible for early visitors to erase their exploits in that land or edit their exaggerated stories. Mr. Emeagwali, it is clear, did exaggerate a few impressions he not only benefitted from, but which he then found difficult to eliminate. He therefore owes a debt of humility, not to me or anyone else, but to posterity. You may be a scientist or a banker or a lawyer, but it does not pay to provide anyone with reason to question your credibility—unless you know that the answer is more dangerous than the question.
The danger is that when you leave your public relations machinery to the wisdom of the mob, their wisdom is your destiny. That is why many of the people who are defending Mr. Emeagwali on the web inflict more harm on him than he is accused of. Nigerians have a habit, when they lack an argument or see an idle cursor, of ignoring the substance in pursuit of the motive. They seek hidden agendas and comfortable clichés, or try to rephrase the question so that it becomes one they are more comfortable with. They discredit the writer without doing credit to the facts.
Sometimes, they may not even read the material. Recently, a man who disliked one of my articles wrote to insult my family, calling me “Nama.” I wrote back, patiently explaining why he was wrong. He then apologized, confessing that he had only read a few lines of my article when he melted down!
One of the most powerful “arguments” in popular discourse in Nigeria today is the Ph.D [Pull Him Down]. Thus a man never falls: he is “pulled down.” You are accused of pulling down a crook that has been ethically prostrate his entire life. You are accused of writing not because your subject is a forger or an impostor or a rapist or an election-rigger, but because you are “jealous.”
What I am saying is that the possession of a keyboard or the ability to hit the “Send” button does not an argument make, although it may sound that way. In the marketplace of ideas, you persuade a man through the information you present and the originality or sophistication of your argument. To look at some of the personal attacks on Mr. Kperogi and all who have called Mr. Emeagwali fraudulent is to observe a lynching, like the KKK baying for the blood of a man whose crime is not the inferiority of his intellect but the colour of his blood. Insult only wins an argument for those who lack the smarts for intellectual combat.
I do not think anyone hates Mr. Emeagwali, but there is reason to hate his pretensions, and only he can define his defence—or offence. It is unlikely he has one stronger than what his wife, herself operating behind a mask, has offered so far. If he truly wants to be fair to the battered image of Nigeria, he ought to be humble enough to clear his throat and start at the beginning. It is an awful image under which every Nigerian, especially those abroad, labour, and his silence is a contribution to the bloody toll.
Mr. Emeagwali has lived abroad for a long time, and he knows better than most that where the distant country was once a great hiding place, there really is no hiding place anymore. For as long as Nigerians are identified with Advance Fee Fraud, a man’s name is all he can really defend, if he cares.
His fatherland will defend itself.