Profile of a Statesman

IN my humble view, Nigeria has had only three statesmen at its highest level of governance. These are Zik, Balewa, and OBJ. A statesman is a senior male politician widely respected for integrity and an impartial concern for the common good. If we go beyond the politician, I would add the names of Ernest Shonekan and Abdulsalami Abubakar, who ruled under a military regime.

The late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe returned to Nigeria from the United States to rekindle the fire of nationalism, mobilise the youths, and ginger up the old to make a final push to end servitude to Her Majesty’s Government.

He was widely expected to take over the mantle of leadership of a post-colonial Nigeria but his vision of a united and strong nation was blurred by the dust of ethnic nationalism provoked by others who were driven by distrust, fear, and envy.

Zik was a statesman because he decided that Nigeria was greater than his personal ambition, and accepted to play a nominal role in the power equation of the emerging nation. A grateful nation conferred on him a string of firsts – first president of senate, first indigenous governor general, and first (ceremonial) president. When he retired to Nsukka, his Onuiyi Haven became a political Mecca for succeeding Nigerian rulers.

Then came 1979 when Zik was conned into identifying with a political party in order to give the Igbos an identity and place in the then evolving political order. It was a spectacle to watch the old man pummeled both within and outside the ring by the likes of late Chuba Okadigbo who equated him to an ant, and Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo who mocked him in a book as a man that fell from Olympian heights as Zik of Africa to hit rock bottom as a local chief called the Owelle of Onitsha.

Zik got his recognition as father of an independent nation largely as a result of the acknowledgment of one man – Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Although his votes would make him head of government of Nigeria in 1960, the late Sir Ahmadu Bello preferred to remain in Kaduna and complete his programme for the Northern region. He sent Balewa to rule Nigeria, who accepted to work with Zik as president, and allied with him until his death.

Tafawa Balewa was a statesman because he was respected across board for his integrity and his commitment to the common good. Today, 44 years after the first gun was fired to kill him and signal military rule in Nigeria, no one has found evidence of his having salted away public money.

The charges that instigated the first coup of 1966 would not have been sustained in court if Tafawa Balewa was arraigned as a political gangster and corrupt politician.

It took 13 years before the army produced its first statesman. The man, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, successfully ended military adventurism into Nigerian politics (for a while) in 1979 when he handed over power to a civilian regime. He thereafter retired to a farm at Ota, but what a farm it turned out to be! A grateful nation and an awed international community replaced Zik’s Onuiyi Haven with Obasanjo Farms as the political Mecca of Nigeria.

After the Abiola debacle, occasioned by arbitrary exercise of power, Nigeria saw in him a stabilizer, who could lead us once again on our journey to the Promised Land.

But did he lead us? The jury is still out on this one. What is sure is that he achieved an unflattering exit from power, with his image as a national and international statesman seriously dented. Ironically, even before he left power, it was interesting to watch the President who once derided the Owelle title quickly grab a local chieftaincy title and meddle in the affairs of the Owu palace, even as he attended to affairs of state.

OBJ is no longer a darling of the international community and, outside the PDP, has become a spent force in Nigeria.

OBJ’s second coming would not have been possible if Nigeria’s first graduate ruler, Chief Ernest Shonekan, was allowed to consolidate his power in the Interim National Government that a departing IBB hurriedly contrived.

Shonekan inherited a deeply fractured and bleeding nation, settled down to flush the political mess he inherited, only to meet an implacable opposition mounted by activists fighting to reclaim the mandate that was denied millionaire businessman, late Moshood Abiola.
The pro-democracy group was determined to throw away the dirty IBB bathwater with the new born Yoruba ruler. Shonekan would have none of it, threw in the towel, and thereafter retired to his business. Today, Shonekan is sought after by Nigerian presidents looking for sensible advice.

The army’s second statesman inherited the odiferous stable left behind by Gen. Sani Abacha, the late maximum ruler. General Abdulsalami Abubakar shunned the temptation that ruined the reputations of his uniformed predecessors Gowon, Buhari, and IBB. His predecessors went against public opinion and reneged either on their promises or the popular expectation that they would deliver democracy within a deadline date.

Gen. Abubakar, on the other hand, promised and organized reasonably credible elections, handed over power, and like Obasanjo, also retired to a farm. Unlike Obasanjo, he did not make his farm famous, and his personal house, which I am told is also grand and sits atop the same stretch of hill, is not as famous as that of his brother general who stepped aside.

But no matter: a grateful nation and an appreciative international community applauded General Abubakar who is now widely consulted and used on democratic and international peace keeping assignments worldwide. Who would not love this type of “retirement”?

To his credit, the less-famous Minna general has kept a low profile, shooting up his integrity quotient, has avoided local chieftaincy squabbles, and thus far refrained from engaging in political games. I daresay his work for the nation has not ended.

There are lessons that can be drawn from the lives and times of these statesmen.

In Nigeria, it has become clear that, by accident or design, power will not devolve to those who pursue it with single-minded commitment, their earthly resources, or indeed a robust ethnic support base. Power has always been conferred on those who do not seek it, but who at the same time are widely acknowledged for their integrity and impartial concern for the common good. In addition, those who assume office with these basic “qualifications” find it easy to retain power as long as they maintain these character traits for which they were elected.
This may not have served us well in the past, but it nevertheless exposes a common reality that every Nigerian who has been conferred with power must take into account.

It is clear that there is no substitute for hard work. To illustrate with a manager’s example: when a worker is promoted to a position of responsibility and members of his family begin to focus on how long he would stay on in that position, (rather than what to do for the company within the job contract period), the manager may find it difficult to do the things that will mark him out as a man of integrity, and to focus on things that will promote the common good.

The final lesson is that Nigerian presidents who reign, reign and go away, peacefully, buy their tickets to statesmanship, a jet setting retirement, and a chance to come back to power again another day.

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Yar’Adua’s ‘Untimely’ Death

Vanguard 12 May 2010

THERE is an aspect of the life and times of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua worth examining. This aspect holds the key to understanding the way that the late president sought to exercise power and to reshape the post-Obasanjo presidency he inherited.

When, on 29 May 2007, the late president declared the process that brought him to power as irregular, he may not have been referring only to the presidential elections. He could as well have been referring to other political maneuvers that the strongman of Nigerian politics engineered to bring him to power. Yar’Adua looked clean on the campaign rostrum, but behind the scene, he was being smeared with political dung.

He did not seek the office, a necessary qualification for the Nigerian top job. He was terminally ill, and therefore could not rule for long, or effectively, and he must have known that his tenure could become a liability to the political North, whose turn it was to produce a PDP president for eight years. To have known all this and accepted the job implies that he was hoping to last for four years, and be in a position to organize another election that would produce a Northern successor. What was important was to wrest power from the strongman.

Nuhu Ribadu’s EFCC splashed the first dung. Yar’Adua was initially proclaimed a thief, but the EFCC pulled his file when Baba expressed interest in him as a successor. He must have known that the file could miraculously appear and be celebrated both by the media and the National Assembly any time he carried out executive action that angers the kingmakers.
The possibility of this embarrassment becoming real was very high – as long as Ribadu remained chairman of a post-Obasanjo EFCC.

The final straw came when he was allegedly wedded to a governor who was alleged to be the biggest thief of all. This governor allegedly bankrolled his campaign, to dump the biggest political muck on the incoming presidency.

It did not matter if 1000 Bode Georges were jailed during his presidency, or whether one million ministers, federal directors and daughters of ex-presidents were caught in the act of corruption and arraigned, nothing impressed Nigerian media unless this governor was prosecuted and jailed.

Not doing so would do irreparable damage to his reputation as a man of integrity, and ginger up the governor’s numerous media foes to attack his commitment to the anti-corruption war. Attorney General Aandoaka’s bid to handle the matter as a legal brief was his undoing, and it was an albatross that hung on the president’s neck in death.

Yar’Adua apparently did not want this baggage and was determined to break free. He served notice of his intention shortly before his inauguration as President, when a Time magazine reporter suggested that he would surely become a puppet.

The president-elect laughed out loud: “Puppet? You obviously don’t know me,” he said.

Groomed by an aristocratic family that has been at ease with power through the generations, Yar’Adua knew how to break away from the iron-grip of any godfather and create a powerful counterforce, from where he would seek to recreate Nigeria in his own image. It was a long shot but, in my view, he did give it a good try.
He began his attack by acknowledging the shortcomings of the political process that brought him to power and promised to tinker with the Obasanjo electoral law that the whole world held to blame. The subsequent Uwais Report on electoral reforms has been hailed as a charter to get Nigeria out of its many election false-starts.

He then went on to depersonalize the many federal institutions where the Obasanjo tigers roamed freely in the wild, and completed the rout through the policy that pegged the tenure of directors in the federal civil service, which weeded out most of the permanent secretaries that supported the tigers. These policies received general acclamation because they assured the survival of these institutions.

He thereafter turned to security, another area where inherent lapses harmed the electoral process and depressed Nigeria’s earnings from its mono-crop economy. He initiated the reform of the Nigeria Police and was pursuing this with vigour.

The MD Yussuf report on reform of the Nigeria Police was also hailed as the document that could get Nigeria out of the security mess that she finds herself in. The deft appointment of Ogbonna Onovo, a seasoned but frequently by-passed officer, ensured unexpected outcomes in subsequent elections.

In addition, Yar’Adua began the process of bringing peace to the Niger Delta, initiating an amnesty programme that brought a ceasefire to the creeks, spared foreigners from incessant kidnappings and its damaging impact on the country’s image, and most importantly, ensured that crude oil began to once again flow uninterrupted.

It was on the political front that Mr. Yar’Adua was warming up for the final onslaught, when illness interrupted him in November 2009, and death finally halted him on May 5, 2010. He was attacking from many fronts:

One of his first actions, even before he was sworn in, was to quickly make friends with the Lagos governor and Bola Tinubu, perhaps to get the critical media leverage, even as he aligned with known Obasanjo political foes. He was committed to the restoration of Lagos, the entity that his father once presided over as a federal minister.

He then went about quietly and methodically sidelining the strongman, thereby stoking a revolution that swept like wildfire through most states of the South (he did not have to worry about the Northern states).

The reliable godfather strongholds of Enugu, Ebonyi, Uyo, and Abeokuta collapsed, as their governors emphatically rejected local godfathers aligned to Ota and quickly settled down to work for their people, in order to consolidate their political bases for future elections. Yar’Adua looked the other way as the remaining strongholds were dismantled by the judiciary at Awka, Port Harcourt, Benin, and Akure.

Through these maneuvers, Yar’Adua was able to build a strong political base with the “independent” Nigerian governors, which was fully expressed by the creation of the powerful Governors Forum. It is clear to perceptive observers that the Forum silently functions as a counterforce to the strongman’s political machine.

The “untimely” death of Mr. Yar’Adua has put a spanner in the works. The sloppy attempts to “manage” his health status were merely efforts to buy time, consolidate Yar’Adua ascendency and deal a final blow to the looming image of a strongman whose evil grin echoed distinctly in the background. It may in fact, have had nothing to do with Turai, a woman who, in my view, saw widowhood staring her in the face and sought to make the most of it to ensure that she and her children never lacked, again.

Yar’Adua’s “untimely death” gives the strongman another opportunity to quickly rally and reclaim his waned power and influence. There are two forces standing between the strongman and this ambition for power: the governors and Goodluck Jonathan, the new President.

The governors wield enormous powers to alter the results of any upcoming PDP presidential primary, and thereby complete the Yar’Adua initiative to lay the ghost of godfatherism to rest in Nigerian politics.

At the same time, Dr. Jonathan is now the top dog. He has the power (even beyond EFCC) to call out the troops, whip the governors back in line, and return the country to what she has been programmed to be for the next 50 years.

What will Mr. President do? This would depend on the briefing he received and what he agreed to do at the time he was handpicked for the VP job, and how he wants history to remember him. Will he continue the Battle of Liberation from where his departed “brother and friend” left off, by siding with the governors? Will he reach out for the big stick and create an elbow room for the strongman take charge, again? Or will he strike out on his own, in order to carry out a political surgery that could put our ailing country on the path of recovery, and give us respect in the world? Or will he play everything to his chest, waiting for the opportunity to do what he must do for history?

His decision will be known by whoever he chooses as his vice president.

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Guns Against the Journalist

Vanguard, May 5, 2010

IT was as if someone poured cold water over me the other day when I read from a friend’s posting on Facebook that Tayo Lukula, a journalist, was murdered, somewhere in Ogun State.

I do not recall ever meeting Tayo face-to-face, but I remember him with pleasure as one of the most reliable reporters during my tenure as News Editor of The Guardian.

Tayo was then a correspondent based in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. Like all versatile reporters, he did his best to satisfy desk editors in the newspaper group, contributing general and specialist news and features, something that is still alien to most state correspondents.

It never occurred to me that he was not from that area because, in a typical newsroom, what matters to the professional editor is the fat, juicy, distinctive copy and not the ethnic background of the by-liner. In retrospect, we did record excellent results from some of the reporters operating outside their ethnic origins – Tayo Lukula in Port Harcourt, Ransome Emenari in Kano, Saxhone Akhaine in Kaduna, and Bayo Ohu in Katsina.

Now in quick succession, two of these very good reporters that I knew and was fond of – Bayo Ohu and Tayo Lukula– have been gunned down by yet-to-be-identified assassins. I mourn with families that have been deprived of their breadwinners in such a violent, brutal, and senseless manner.

I grieve over the fact that certain of our country’s young men and women (Bayo was allegedly shot dead by a woman), are now accepting that becoming hired guns is a possible answer to the question of growing unemployment in our country.

I marvel that our country’s young men and women would accept money, for whatever reason, to train their guns on those who struggle every day, through their pens and microphones, to right the oppressive system that created the unemployment situation in the first place.

Journalism in Nigeria is currently challenged by two realities – the desire to hire those with excellent writing skills, regardless of their professional preparation, and the desire to use willing, unprepared recruits to wage the war against impunity and arbitrariness ravaging our political system. The result is that efforts to tame the monster of arbitrariness and impunity have produced excellent results, and horrible unintended consequences for the profession.

The excellent results are the many occasions when fearless practitioners, some operating underground in guerrilla-like fashion, were able to bring down cabals and powerful individuals that intermittently rise to seize and hold Nigeria hostage, bringing her to the edge of the cliff at certain points in our history.

The horrible unintended consequences are the many assault, jailing, and murder that journalists have had to suffer in the course of challenging the monster.

It is largely through the efforts of journalists that the military’s 28 years of power stranglehold over our country was broken.

The media war waged by radical journalists from the early 1980s provided the impetus and support for civil society organisations to come into being and join in this fight. The haste with which Generals Obasanjo (1979), Babangida (1993), and Abdulsalam Abubakar (1999) either stepped aside or handed over power to civilians is partly credited to the dogged efforts of the radical media, aided by the civil society groups that they encouraged and empowered.

This may in turn explain why journalists, more than the civil society groups, bore the most brutal brunt of the counter-assault from the monster. Too many journalists were creatively or crudely murdered for daring to challenge the oppressive status-quo, beginning with the letter-bombing of Dele Giwa in October 1986.

In the year 2010, the monster appears to be returning to Nigeria. It is manifested in two realities. The first is the return of the “expelled” actors into powerful political reckoning. The second is the return of the murder of journalists as a pastime in political or business gamesmanship.

I do not imply that there is a link between the two, but I believe we could use our memories of the recent past to advise ourselves, as journalists, on how to approach or challenge the new, unwelcome order. If it requires us to return to the trenches, we should approach the matter like professional editors and go beyond ethnic bylines to objectively identify, challenge, frustrate, and contain the monster (or monsters) that harm our profession and retard our nation.

I say this because certain actors in our better-forgotten era of impunity and arbitrariness appear to have made full recovery and transformation, as they now control the political establishment in agbada. Whether in the leadership of the National Assembly, the Board of Trustees of the most powerful parties, the advisory committees of an acting presidency, or jockeying for prime spot on the 2011 presidential platform of both the ruling and “mega” parties, the actors appear to be back in “respectable” mode. Still a leopard never changes its spots: only in a few instances did their ascendency conform to democratic standards.

Nigerian journalism may need to transform and renew, once again, to keep pace with the new ways of power. I do not pretend to know how this can be done, but we could start from basic, time-tested tenets of our profession. How many of our current practitioners are prepared for this job?

To be prepared means undergoing a basic training in journalism and ethics that equip them with the professional skill to handle written or spoken words with care and caution, approach every story as an independent investigator not beholden to an interested party, hold the country’s interests (especially her national security and economic stability) as sacrosanct, challenge new attempts to mount the throne of arbitrariness and impunity, and for the sake of our profession, carry out the necessary spadework to find out why our colleagues are being killed, rather than leave the job to the police alone.

All too often, we are obsessed with the “who?” whenever a colleague is murdered, even though in journalism, the meat of the story is in the “why”. I have since found out that as it is in journalism, so it is in police investigation: Any investigation that fails to solve the “why?” (motive) never progresses to the point of revealing the “who?”.

In our environment, an investigative journalist is probably more equipped with the skills and goodwill to identify the “why” faster than the police. Therefore, part of the proposed transformation could be to use our investigative skills to assist and empower the police, especially when our colleagues become victims of political, business, or other interests.

This could be one way to unravel the identity of journalist killers and bring them to justice. At any rate, such findings would certainly educate us on what we need to do to clean house, should this be what is called for.