Hampered by the Visionless, Hampering the Visionary, By Pius Adesanmi

Visionless appointees may be hampering President Buhari (who isn’t doing well anyway). However, the bigger problem is that Nigeria hampers the visionary. Our social dynamic sets up the visionary for failure at every level of life in Nigeria.

In an Aso Rock Villa novelty match recently refereed by my friend, Reuben Abati’s witches, Mr. and Mrs. Buhari played what in Nigeria we would call a one-one goalless draw. My maigida, wallahi talahi you are hostage to visionless appointees. No, my amariya, wallahi talahi you belong in my kitchen.

What I think of kitchengate is a matter for another day.

Suffice it to say for now that Mrs. Buhari’s confession that her husband has been hijacked by visionless appointees he barely knows presupposes that things would and could be different with a different set of appointees. This raises the obvious question: would President Buhari, and indeed Nigeria, fare better with visionary political appointees?
The answer, I’m afraid, is no.

Nothing would work to change Nigeria in our current circumstances. Beyond the usual Nigerian pastime of mining every occasion for partisan and invidious callow carping; beyond the usual puny recourse to the scoring of cheap and petty points along familiar political lines, the spectre of a president hampered by the visionless, of kitchengate, and of witches and dildos invites a transcendental and sophisticated reflection on the Nigerian tragedy. (Hint: this is the part where you are advised to pass if you can only operate from the prison house of ethno-partisan point scoring.)

The summation of that tragedy is to be found in our social dynamics. Until we find the collective will to recalibrate our social dynamics, a million visionary appointees surrounding our president would have no impact and Reuben Abati will continue to attribute our problems to witches and dildos.

Back in July, I spent some time in Abuja. I touched base with a number of political players to exchange ideas. Particularly, I was happy to be able to spend some quality time with a buddy of mine who had been appointed Director-General of one of the federal establishments. I was keen to brainstorm with my friend because he is an intellectual in my generation and whenever any of them goes into government, via appointment or the ballot box, I am always keen to impress it upon them that they have an obligation to my generation to do things differently; an obligation to shine and succeed; an obligation to put everything we whine about and sermonise about and write about into practice; an obligation to deliver.

I particularly wanted to remind my friend that Dimeji Bankole’s colossal failure and subsequent descent into smooth Britico-accented corruption, as usual, is a generational dent from which we have never really recovered. I thought my friend had a chance to redeem our generation and wanted to hear him out. I wanted to hear about his mission, vision, and game plan from his own mouth. Brilliant, urbane, cosmopolitan and erudite, my friend has produced a significant body of reflection and public intellection. What is more, the fire of pan-Nigerian patriotism burns in his soul. I rejoiced when I heard about his appointment.

The establishment he heads being in the Aso Villa precincts, I had gone there fully expecting that in his short few months in office, he would have introduced substance and style to the immediate physiognomy of public office as opposed to the characteristic Nigerian indulgence in the showy trappings and appurtenances of high public office. In other words, I was not expecting the usual Nigerian disease of the empty-headed big man arriving in a convoy in the office – separate entrance, separate elevator (where available and functioning), separate this and that, with the big man behaving like everybody else in the building is sub-human. Senator Dino Melaye is a good example of this empty-headed bigmanism that comes to mind.

No member of one of the three major groups can succeed somebody from the other two in office and, upon discovering corruption, successfully prosecute a case against his predecessor without being brought down by allegations of ethno-religious targeting.

My friend did not disappointment me. Access to his office was easy, direct, and straightforward. No airs. No Oga at the top syndrome in the oxygen I was breathing in that environment. I also noticed that everybody was very business-like, professional, and courteous. I was surprised. This level of professionalism in a Nigerian government office? Just two months in the saddle and my friend was already bringing 21st-century ethos to at least one federal government building in Abuja, I thought and beamed to myself, taking mental notes as I was led to his office.

I entered his office. We screamed, hugged, and did the usual Nigerian do between two friends reconnecting after a long break in transmission. My friend did not even wait for my questions before he delved into his plans. For nearly an hour, I listened as he took me through his vision and mission, his immediate and long-term plans and strategies, his deliverables, targets, etc. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I asked questions here and there to get him to clarify certain points. He was even thinking of occasional academic conferences to create an environment for critical thinking to feed policy. He mentioned a collaborative idea with our own Professor Jibrin Ibrahim. As he spoke, a part of me kept wondering how Nigeria could have people like him and still be in such terrible shape.

Then we got to his challenges. I wanted to know about the challenges and difficulties he had already identified. His immediate challenge was – you guessed right – corruption. As he discussed the level of corruption and racketeering he “met on the ground”, I nearly had a heart attack. He was mentioning corruption figures you’d expect to hear from NNPC or NPA. I was shocked to hear that his establishment was also a cesspool of Category A corruption with figures rivalling NNPC and NPA. His predecessors had established a very elaborate system of rackets and contracts and the sums involved were humongous. Hardly had he settled down in office than contractors started coming out of the woodwork, seeking payment for phantom projects not executed. And there were all kinds of rackets.

Of course he is refusing to pay. And he is also rearing to attack the corruption dossiers he inherited. And this is where the terrible Nigerian social dynamic entered into the picture. In Nigeria, the corrupt tend to favour their own kinsmen and people of their own faith. If a Nigerian heads a Federal agency for five years, it means he would most likely have spent five years building a mountain of corruption favouring his own kinsmen and people of his own faith. He will hire hundreds of them illegally. All the overinflated contracts and other financial rackets will go to his kinsmen.

If you succeed this Nigerian and you are from a different ethnic group and a different faith, how do you clean up this mess without appearing to target a single ethnic group and a single faith? This terrible social dynamic, which makes fighting corruption a deadly affair, is particularly heightened between the three major ethnic groups and the two dominant faiths in Nigeria. No member of one of the three major groups can succeed somebody from the other two in office and, upon discovering corruption, successfully prosecute a case against his predecessor without being brought down by allegations of ethno-religious targeting.

On hearing the long list of names in the corruption racket on my friend’s desk, nearly all from one part of the country, I said to him, “Ol’boy, wahala dey o. Dis is dynamite! How are you going to go after these people without the predictable charges of tribalism? Somehow, you have to dig deeper and farther back in time to find federal character in this corruption picture o”. At this point, a Senator of the Federal Republic arrived. My friend was not expecting her but she said she was just passing by in the neighbourhood and decided to drop by to congratulate him on his recent appointment. Oh, and by the way, she was applying for so and so and her application should have reached his desk by now…

As she spoke, I thought about that treacherous dimension to my friend’s new assignment. Here is a visionary, brilliant, and patriotic man determined to prove a point that my generation can deliver for Nigeria based on due process, fair play, and integrity. Here is a man who absolutely abhors corruption. Yet, you are a Senator stopping by to say hello and to remind him of something you had applied for. There is an established procedure online for such applications. You didn’t have to stop by his office to lobby.

Until we reset our social dynamics – starting with parenting and civics at all levels of education – no visionary can help Nigeria.

I started to pray silently for my friend. Not only will Nigeria’s social dynamics not let him confront the corruption he inherited in a straightforward way without the fear of charges of tribalism, every big man and woman in Abuja and Lagos will also happen to just be passing by his office to say hello every day because they have applied for this and that. How can even the world’s best visionary deliver in such an environment?

When the Senator left, my friend took me out for lunch at Nkoyo restaurant. His determination and optimism never waned, even in the face of all the challenges we had evinced and discussed. My admiration and respect for him increased. He was sure that his superior vision and stubborn determination to do the right thing would help him overcome all the challenges. I encouraged him and pledged my support.

Back in my hotel, my mind went to another problem – a more vicious aspect of the Nigerian social dynamic that could cripple even the most ambitious visionary determined to serve and do right by our country. All the civil servants I met in my friend’s office had been very polite, business-like, and professional. However, it suddenly occurred to me that these were the same people who processed all the files of the bogus contracts and rackets that were now on his table, waiting for his signature and approval. For now, they are still making a show of adopting their new oga’s personal ethos and work ethic and that is why I was so impressed.

However, there is this mountain of files that they processed for contractors. The way Nigeria’s corruption architecture works, they get their own cut when the contractor is paid – after getting an initial mobilisation cut from the contractor’s mobilisation payment. That is how civil servants are able to afford houses in Maitama and Lekki, as well as frequent junkets in Europe and North America. And now my friend is looking at the contract files on his desk, doing shior, refusing to sign, and pondering how best to start a probe without appearing to be targeting a faith or an ethnicity. Once the civil servants discover that “dis our new oga no jus gather at all”, will they still cooperate with him?

Yet, all his dreams, his plans, his strategies for change and innovation, his mission depend on them.

Everything depends on them.

And I know that my friend will not play ball.

Visionless appointees may be hampering President Buhari (who isn’t doing well anyway). However, the bigger problem is that Nigeria hampers the visionary. Our social dynamic sets up the visionary for failure at every level of life in Nigeria.

Until we reset our social dynamics – starting with parenting and civics at all levels of education – no visionary can help Nigeria.

Pius Adesanmi, a professor of English, is Director of the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Canada.

PremiumTimes