The Devil Advocates In Our Public Sphere: Nigeria's Molue Masses, On The Street, On The Mimbars...

25 June 2012

By Abdul-Warees

Shafruddin Hashim is an intellectual giant. An associate professor while I was at UBD, Brunei, he was a very engaging scholar. I admired his style, as he gave no room for any back bencher in the core public policy class. It was just impossible not to contribute in his class. But he could be very stingy with marks. In Dr. Shaf's class, everybody gets what he or she deserves. In my respect and admiration for this scholar of Malaysian descent, I picked on him to supervise my case study. But he turned my request down on the premise that he was about finishing his term at UBD after so many years of teaching a number of core undergraduate courses and managing executive development and graduate studies programmes in  UBD's Department of Public Policy and Administration, Faculty of Business, Economics and Policy Studies. It was from him I understood the deep meaning of devil advocacy.

Manifestly, a devil advocate is an agent provocateur, but in the public sphere the devil advocate exists to strengthen our convictions and properly channel our courses of actions. But they are often hard and bitter. So we misjudge them as our enemies. How did I come about this understanding of devil advocacy? I had gone to his office to share some thoughts on my dissertation proposal on the dynamics of mass media and the public policy process. Trying to gauge my depth of understanding of the subject, Dr. Shaf as we fondly call him threw me a barrage of questions which I rose up to. And the final question, he began, ‘now, let me play the devil advocate….' I've forgotten the direction of that question now. But I did not chicken out as I laboured to answer the question like someone using a hot fine toothcomb to straighten the convoluted dreadlock of a Dada. He saluted me. From thence, I understand the stance of every devil advocate.    

What do they do for us? Or what is their role in the polity? They criticize our actions to see the logic of choices and decisions we make; they suspect our motives to expose our sincerity or hypocrisy; they question our intentions so that our real meaning can come to the open; they condemn our moves for us to retrace our steps; they deride our judgement for us to have a rethink; they find fault with our decisions for us to be benefitted by fresh insights; they taunt us on our mistakes so that we won't go on misadventures again; they oppose our choices so that we can have new and better alternatives; they inspire fear and defeat in us so that we can strengthen our resolve; they're salesmen of  pessimism for us to rise above the mentality of short-sightedness; they label us on our strategies so that we can become more creative and pragmatic; they stereotype us on our convictions so that we can show them our other softer side. We see them taunting and tormenting us most of the time.

But they are also good for us and our polity. Even in their blindness, harshness and indiscretions, they deepen our reasoning; they keep us on our toes; they beam for us new searchlights; they return us to the drawing boards in our confusion; they sharpen our instincts; they open for us new vista of choices and alternatives and of opportunities; when we're subjective, they force us to become objective; when we are pedantic and simplistic, they fire us to be rational; when we are myopic, they widen our lenses and perception; when we have tunnel view, they open for us new and multiple windows of ideas; when we are lazy or complacent,  they force rigour on us; when we are flippant, they drive order in our thoughts and words; when we forget to do our homework well, they give us the hard knocks to awaken our senses; when we become arrogant, they bring us down from the clouds to the world of reality; when our preparations are shoddy, they point out our shortcomings; when we are superficial, they ignite in us the flame of originality.

These agent provocateurs are everyone with power, influence and capacity to engage the authorities and the leaderships at various levels of government and governance. They are in the labour movement and the phone-in contributors, they are among the students and the molue masses, or the man on the street, they are on the mimbars and the pulpits pontificating on godliness, they are among the oppositions and the defeated; they are among the neglected and the relegated; they are in the academia and the press; they are in the parliament and on the bench; they are among the specialists and technocrats, retired bureaucrats and unlucky candidates for public offices; they are among donor agents and international civil servants. They are everyone with interests to protect, vested or patriotic, or voices to be heard, whether sane or lousy.

It is normal that as public officials, we will see these devil's advocates as enemies and paid agents.  But it is smarter not to play into their hands. You don't play the same game with the devil or its surrogates otherwise he will outsmart you. He will expose your stupidity and competence. You don't respond to the devil fire for fire otherwise he will trick you to exhaust your arsenal before he unleashes on you the killer punch.  What to do is to be prepared for the imaginary devil at all times before he shows face. Be open and transparent so he cannot hood wink anybody. Be anticipatory of the public mood before any statement or action so you don't always recant and retract when the devils react. But most importantly, carry all along, and be sensitive to their demands and values so that when the devil advocates want to talk, they won't have any substance and the world will differentiate who is working, selflessly, and who are noise makers,  rabble rousers, hungry critics or who are sincere advisers and informed, constructive critics in all the devil's advocates that exist in all polities.


Abdul-Warees Solanke, Head, Voice of Nigeria Training Centre, Broadcasting House, Ikoyi Lagos studied Mass Communication and Public Policy and  writes via


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