By Olusegun Adeniyi
For the past eight years, the joke among Abuja residents was, “When will President Buhari appoint a Minister for the Federal Capital Territory (FCT)?”. The once pristine city has gradually been reduced to a vast slum as mountains of garbage dot many areas. Even maintaining streetlights, including on the airport expressroad, has proved difficult for Abuja authorities. Beggars are everywhere, compounding the security challenge. And with touts waylaying motorists on street corners to enforce dubious revenue generation laws, land speculators have also been allowed free rein. So right from the moment the former Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike was sworn in as FCT Minister three days ago, Abuja residents knew that, for good or ill, they now have a Minister!
On Monday, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu inaugurated his Federal Executive Council (FEC) with the swearing-in of 45 ministers, the highest number of federal cabinet members under any administration (whether military or civilian) in the country. He has also appointed 20 Special Advisers, which is equally unprecedented. At a time when the singsong is about reducing the cost of governance, this bad example is being replicated in states across the country where ‘job creation’ has been given a whole new meaning. While we will come back to this issue another day, Tinubu has urged his ministers to discharge their responsibilities in a manner that would “meet the expectations of all Nigerians.”
The issue here is about what those expectations are. On the day the president sent the list of the first batch of his nominees to the Senate last month, I wrote, ‘Ministerial List: To Serve or To Eat?’. In that column, I cited the ‘come-and-eat’ altercation between Chief Bola Ige and Chief Sunday Afolabi (both deceased) during the Obasanjo administration and other examples to illustrate my point on how public office in Nigeria has been reduced to ‘looking for something to eat.’ I was shocked by the responses I received, most of which dwelt on the headline. And there were many. I got lectures, including from some prominent Nigerians, on why the headline should have been, ‘To Serve and to Eat’.
The notion that public officials should help themselves from a public till is alien to the concept of accountability. But apparently not in a society where it is now practically legitimate that people can live above their means without questions being asked. When I engaged a respected lawyer who also argued that it is quite okay to ‘serve and eat’ in the public arena, this was his response: “(Name of the former Nigerian leader he mentioned withheld) ate very well in his time and still eating. If public service as the name implies is all about public service without opportunity for self advancement, then the reality is that all over the world, there will be little interest. See the religious leaders who are supposed to be examples of selfless public service, many of them are eating very well! In Britain, Tony Blair and his wife ate very well. I don’t even want to talk of the Americans because they’re the worst. See the mess with President Joe Biden and his son!”
I have heard the argument that the Yoruba adage of ‘Eni toba se ni idi pepe lo n je ni idi pepe’ is the same message embedded in the Biblical 1 Corinthians 9, verse 13: “Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar?” Beyond the issue of context, I believe that nobody should justify or rationalize abuse of public trust. But I also understand the nature of government jobs and the reward system in our country. The major concern here, as we see with the excitement that comes with such an appointment and the congratulatory messages that usually follow, is that of public expectation.
Some 15 years ago, precisely on Sunday, 19th October 2008, I dealt with this same issue. I was in government at the time as Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. I recall that I had just finished reading Reuben Abati’s weekly column in the Guardian where he used lessons in Leo Tolstoy’s ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ to drive home a point about the Nigerian condition and the place of greed in our public arena. He was then the Chairman of the Editorial Board of The Guardian newspapers. In a moment of indulgence, I called Reuben to say that I had a different way of looking at the issue. He asked whether I would like to share my view with readers and I agreed. My piece, ‘Shooting an Elephant: Public Service in Nigeria’ was published in The Guardian a week later, on 26th October 2008. I want to recall excerpts from it before I draw my conclusion.
…I am not surprised that Tolstoy’s thesis fascinates Reuben because as a practicing journalist, I had also interrogated the place of greed in our national life, using the same thesis. But now, from the vantage position of someone who can see both sides of the divide, I think there are some lessons being ignored. For those who did not read Reuben last week on the “primitive acquisitiveness of the Nigerian Leadership elite” and may not be familiar with Tolstoy’s writing which informed the essay, ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ is the story of a poor but seemingly contented farmer who eavesdropped on a conversation between his wife and her sister married to a city merchant. From here, let’s take a little bit from the book:
Pakhom, the master of the house, was lying on the top of his stove and he listened to the women’s chatter. “It is perfectly true,” thought he. “Busy as we are from childhood, tilling mother earth, we peasants have no time to let any nonsense settle in our heads. Our only trouble is that we haven’t land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” The women finished their tea, chatted a while about dress, and then cleared away the tea-things and lay down to sleep. But the Devil had been sitting behind the stove and had heard all that was said. He was pleased that the peasant’s wife had led her husband into boasting, and that he had said that if he had plenty of land, he would not fear the Devil himself. “All right,” thought the Devil. “We will have a tussle. I’ll give you land enough; and by means of that land I will get you into my power.”
The Devil granted Pakhom’s wish. He got a chance to acquire as much land as he wanted by marking out its perimeters on foot, but the catch was that he had to be back to where he started before sunset. But Pakhom got greedy such that by the time he felt he had acquired enough land, a better one beckoned. At the end, there was no time for him to return to where he started, and he was already exhausted. He eventually slumped and died and was buried like any other mortal on a piece of land not exceeding six feet!
What Reuben sought to illustrate with Pakhom’s story is the greed in public office and the evident rot in our society which he ties to that greed. While I agree with Reuben to the extent that we can see a direct correlation between the opulence of a few elites and the poverty of our people, I fail to agree with his summation that many of the otherwise good people who join government only to come out with serious moral deficit do so on account of personal greed.
Incidentally, there are two literary works, also very popular with the Aspen Leadership series, which I consider important to interrogate this issue. The first is ‘No Longer at Ease’ by Chinua Achebe which tells the story of a brilliant young Nigerian who was given a scholarship by his community to study Law in the United Kingdom during the colonial days. He went, bagged his degree in English rather than in Law and came back home to secure a top job in the civil service. He, however met a decadent society in which corruption was seen as a way of life and decided he was not going to be part of the rot.
For a while, Obi Okonkwo resisted the pressure, but a combination of unpleasant circumstances forced his hands. First, he had problems paying back the loans he took from his community and there were implacable foes. Then he had problems with a woman he wanted to marry who happened to carry a societal stigma. To compound the situation, his mother was dying, and he needed money for her medicals. On the weight of all these personal conflicts, Obi Okonkwo succumbed by subverting the lofty ideals he had espoused. The issue here is the kind of pressure public office holders are subjected to because it is almost as if society expects them to go and steal given the kinds of demands that are made of them.
Before I share my own experience, I will use another literature which is also a compelling reading at the Aspen Institute Leadership series. It is George Orwell’s classic, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, generally regarded as reflections on his time while serving his country in Burma. In the tale, Orwell (real name, Eric Arthur Blair) recounted an incident where a young colonial police officer was summoned to a provincial village to kill a ‘rogue elephant’ which had injured one of the local people. Upon his arrival, the elephant, far from being wild and on a rampage, was now calm. But the British officer had a gun and a huge crowd had gathered expecting him to shoot the elephant:
I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd –seemingly the lead actor of the piece; but I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life trying to impress the “natives,” so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. I had got to shoot the elephant.
From the narrative, the officer had a moral dilemma in that he did not want to kill the elephant. But because the mob expected him to, he eventually shot the elephant. The point of the story is that we are all sometimes forced into actions which we know to be wrong, to meet the expectations of our friends, our family members, our community, political peers and several other ‘crowds’ in our lives. I have been in government for about 17 months now and I cannot recall a day when I have not received about five text messages from persons seeking financial help. The messages are often similar and usually end with details of the bank account I am expected to pay certain sums of money into. I have since discovered it is the same with virtually every public official. These solicitations come from family members, long-term school mates whose names and faces you may not even remember; distant relations and some no relations at all; church members; people from the village, neighbours, and casual acquaintances of the spouse. All they request is that you do ‘something’ to help them.
The stories are usually the same: they need money to pay the school fees of their children; to settle hospital bills for dying relations, to feed after days of hunger. They paint pathetic pictures of themselves and their circumstances that one would seem wicked not to want to help. They would remind you of tales from the past and may even refer you to Biblical passages that it could even be because of them that you were placed in the position of trust. They don’t ask you to steal but then you ask, where is the money with which you are expected to ‘help’ supposed to come from? Unfortunately, this is the kind of pressure public officials are exposed to in our society.
Here, I must make a clarification because there are many politicians who seek public office as a form of investment on which they expect to receive a bountiful return. I am not talking about such characters who loot public treasury without any pang of conscience. My disquisition is on those who go into public office with the intent of making positive contributions yet come out with their integrity battered. I believe that in some such cases, society must share part of the blame. What Orwell’s elephant story teaches is that there is a form of complicity from society in some of the primitive accumulative tendencies we have seen over the years. That explains why some of our big-time crooks still draw huge crowds from their people comprising mostly those who benefited from their perfidy.
The lesson from the foregoing is that the ultimate responsibility for one’s actions and integrity rests with the individual. In Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, while the young British officer may have found himself in a difficult situation, he clearly had a choice between following his own inclinations or that of the crowd of natives. My view is that if we all remember, like Tolstoy tells us, that “whichever way a man goes, he is destined for no more than six feet of land or worse, the crematorium”, we will think twice next time we have that elephant within our shooting range. That is the message for everyone.
As the renowned Professor, Peter Ekeh (formerly of the University of Ibadan but currently at the State University of New York, Buffalo) reminded us in his seminal work, Nigerian officials are caught between two contrasting publics and their expectations. And for that reason, a public officer must choose which expectation to meet. The challenge lies in deciding how to navigate the pressures that follow.
In President Jonathan’s book, ‘My Transition Hours’, there is a profound statement I once referenced. “I have learnt from political ascendancy in the sixteen years that I served from Deputy Governor to President that power is a shield, for those who wields it and for the people it serves,” Jonathan wrote. “I understand that power will protect you and enable you protect your charges. It will provide shade from the blistering heat of the sun. When it is raining you can use it as an umbrella to protect yourself and the people you are meant to serve. And when you come to a river, you can convert it to a vessel that will help you and those who you lead to cross.”
Since Jonathan is talking about the power that comes with holding public office, I cannot fault the argument about “opportunities for self-advancement” made by my lawyer friend, including even in the Western world. It must be said though that in those societies, such ‘opportunities’ come by way of consultancy, book writing, speaking engagements, appointment into corporate boards etc., but only after office. These are legitimate earnings. In the peculiar nature of the Nigerian environment, the real challenge is the disposition by public officials to use their positions to provide ‘shades’ only for themselves and their cycle of friends and families.
Last Sunday, Daily Trust newspaper published an extensive story of how children of prominent politicians are now getting appointed and elected to public offices in the states and Abuja through the influence of their parents, with politics being turned into a family business. Many of these young people have no visible means of livelihood beyond parental ‘legacy’. One of the Ministers appointed by Tinubu from the Senate is a former Governor who got one of his children elected to the State House of Assembly with another holding a powerful position in the same state. For the Senate seat now vacant by virtue of his ministerial appointment, he can only think of his brother as replacement!
In a society with limited opportunities for honest livelihood, public office has become a gate pass to the things that many wish for or dream about. Those who come by this gate pass are naturally expected to enter ‘paradise’. If they fail, it will be because they are either foolish or mentally unhinged. If they ‘make it’ alone, they are selfish and wicked. If they help their community, they get a hero’s welcome. If the public officer serves the wider nation meritoriously, he may be publicly acclaimed. But if he fails to enrich himself in the process, his wide acclaim will come to nothing. There lies the moral burden.
As I said, we will come back to interrogate some of these issues another day. The charge today is for the new ministers. To build a society that works for the greater majority, they must understand that the ‘shade’ they need to provide should be able to shield not only their family and friends but also many of the ordinary people. I wish them success in their assignments.
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