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Stanley Macebuh(1942-2010)

By Obi Nwakanma

Far more incisive things have been said by those who knew Dr. Stanley N. Macebuh far more closely than I. I should in fact rather say that I did not work with Dr. Macebuh; I came into journalism at the moment of his dramatic ouster. I met only his tails at the door. By the time I arrived the Guardian as a cub, a sea-change had occurred; Macebuh and the great denizens with whom he made the paper tick had exited.

But Macebuh was a great inspiration to many of us. It was largely on account of Stanley Macebuh and of course the late Dele Giwa that I chose to become a journalist. I think there are many such testimonies about Macebuh’s influence from the eponymous dimensions of his presence in the Nigerian discourse.

He was taut and elegant, and deeply reflective. He had a Socratic grasp of issues and wrote with the kind of authority possessed only by people who were not only thoughtful but took the production of knowledge seriously. He was an innate classicist which I suppose is why his contemporaries at Ibadan named him “Caligula.” I read him avidly in the Sunday Times long before I understood what the hell he was talking about.

But it was the seduction of language rather than any particular conceptual verity that charmed me. The transition to democracy seemed to have freed the press from the strictures of government control. The Second Republic politics spawned the flourishing of new, independent newspapers which seemed set to interrogate the new democratic politics and create a powerful, even sometimes daringly oppositional challenge to Shagari’s government. First came Moshood Abiola’s Concord newspapers in which Dele Giwa and Ray Ekpu earned their colours as opposition journalists.

There were others that came, the Vanguard, the Democrat, and so on. It was a great moment for the press. Then came the Guardian and it had Macebuh’s imprimatur writ large. It was elegant and informed. Its politics was liberal; it affects subdued and mannered, rather than adversarial; but it made its presence felt forcefully by the power of its ideas. It caught our imagination because it was – it wanted to be – indeed for a while it felt like Nigeria’s paper of record. Looking back now, I think I see the sources of Macebuh’s concept of the Guardian; it was simply a hybrid of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The paper owed much to Stanley Macebuh’s admiration of these American newspaper institutions and the liberal tradition of American politics and letters. I have had occasion to think of Macebuh in biographical terms recently; a need to situate him within the alchemy of Nigeria’s social and intellectual history and its mercurial transitions. It is important indeed to situate Stanley Macebuh within that tradition because it seems to me to be what he attempted to construct and formulate in his entry into its process from 1975.

Cosmopolitan and worldly, Macebuh lived in the rarefied realm of ideas. He was powerfully read, and he affected the dash of the intellectual aristocrat living at the crossroads between the life of an intellectual challenged by the ambiguity of Nigeria operating within a world system in which it was set to play a crucial role until it made a tragic turn, and a certain demotic admiration for the sober laws of reason. From a certain self-aware, almost arrogant perch, Dr. Macebuh seemed to stare out, at once fascinated and at once troubled by the Stygian gloom that became Nigeria. Once, I had hitched a ride with Macebuh, from Ibadan to Lagos.

It was in the early days when he started slow recruitment for the paper, the Post Express. I was reading Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind which immediately caught Macebuh’s attention. Needless to say we spent the entire drive from Ibadan exploring Bloom’s ideas, and creating parallels with the Nigerian situation. Dr. Macebuh of course supplied much of the insight, for I was truly, plainly, out of sorts with Mr. Bloom. Macebuh took me on an exploratory dialogue that covered much of the “great books” of western tradition, down to Norman Podhoretz’s critique of Bloom’s book, to the philosophical and historical stature of Allan Bloom’s teacher at the University of Chicago, the modern Jewish philosopher Leo Straus, and an explication of what I came to understand as the two dichotomies he formulated between reason, embodied in Athens, and revelation, embodied in Jerusalem. I was impressed. By the time we arrived Lagos, he had invited me to consider joining the editorial board of the Post Express, an o
ffer which I had to decline on account of my commitments. Stanley Macebuh was a delightful conversationalist and a generous and charming host. One night, Nduka Otiono and I drove late to his home on Victoria Island. He was alone and quite pleased to have young, rambunctious company, and did not waste much ceremony in opening his best bottle of cognac and inviting us to a midnight’s rite of Bachae. If he was startled at the depth of our thirst that night he did not show it, but I feel certain that he might have had a slight twinge of regret for opening his best bottle of brandy to two young men, who sooner than he could have anticipated rapidly drank the bottle clean of any liquid. Then another. Then merrily home. I was of course to receive warm and generous compliments the next day from Dr. Macebuh conveyed through Nduka Otiono to me. I was, he said, not only fine in “cutting a good cognac” but betterstill an even finer wielder of the pen. Coming from a distinguished and thoughtful man such as Macebuh I felt
considerable elation. Testimonies abound in the various statements and eulogy issued in his passing that he was tolerant and trusting, and generous and accessible. I found these to be true. Dr. Stanley Macebuh was a liberal intellectual and gifted scholar. Spare in build, stylish in his indulgences, perhaps his most singular virtue was not mere toleration, but the truth made clear to many of us through his lived life, of the validity of the tranquil life and of ataraxia – a life of self-sufficiency and free of materialism.
, and lived surrounded by one’s friends and peers. He demonstrated that the true intellect must be unsparing of pleasure and must stoke the senses for the highest sensual experiences in order to enter “a state of perfect mental peace.” He was epicurean rather than stoical, although his later, curious entry into politics might seem in fact to contradict this claim. But I do think that there was an urgent and desperate need for this, for in the end, Macebuh may have finally, like the other great Epicurean, Lucretius, suffered despair about the nation to which he returned in 1975, among a great wave of Nigerian “exiles” returning in the middle of the 1970s, at a moment when it just seemed that Nigeria may amount to something and needed the best hands on the deck. Macebuh’s life reflects in the final analysis, the great unfulfilled promise of nation and the consequences of the tragic turns it made. Dr. Stanley Macebuh was a talented man of ideas. And he has batted his last inning. So shall we all.


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