God And The Nigerian Public Space By Olusegun Adeniyi
For the first time in a long while, I spent four days in Lagos last week to participate in three events. But it was last Thursday that I experienced what is usually described as a good problem. On the same day that I was attending the inaugural meeting of the African Institute for Governance (AIG) as a member of the Advisory Board, I was also supposed to be at the Nigeria Breweries Plc for the interview session to select the 2016 Maltina Teacher of the Year Award. At the end, I could only breeze in and out of the Nigeria Breweries panel session, thanks to the understanding of the chairman, Prof. Pat Utomi, who gave me permission to stay at the AIG event.
Meanwhile, earlier that morning at the AIG meeting, we had the inauguration of the seven-member Advisory Panel with Mr. Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede and his lovely wife, Ofovwe explaining the whole concept to us after which we “unanimously” ratified the chairmanship of President Olusegun Obasanjo. In attendance were Dr. Enase Okonedo of the Lagos Business School, Mr. Ken Offori Atta from Ghana and Prof. Ngaire Woods, Dean of Oxford University Blavatnik School of Government that is partnering with AIG for the Scholarships and Fellowships. While the NBA President, Mr. A.B. Mahmoud, SAN, joined us later, former CBN Deputy Governor, Mr. Ernest Ebi and Mrs Yemisi Ayeni, the two other persons on the Advisory Panel, were absent.
The idea, according to Imoukhuede, was borne out of a realization that the overall economic development of the continent would require a combination of both strong public leadership and private sector entrepreneurship. “We believe that at the root of Africa’s poor record of public leadership and governance are factors that prevent or limit talented and committed individuals from joining the public service. We believe that the solution lies in a broad set of initiatives to establish a pipeline of high potential leaders”, said Imoukhuede.
Interestingly, the meeting started with its own drama. Imoukhuede had asked Offori Attah to lead the opening prayer (as we always do in Nigeria before every meeting!) to which President Obasanjo interjected, “I am happy you did not ask Segun to pray.” But with the prayers done, Imoukhuede turned to Obasanjo and said: “Baba, I am surprised you would not want Segun to pray when it is obvious there is a call and favour of God upon his life.” To that, Obasanjo responded: “That is because God is very merciful”. I couldn’t possibly argue with that. And throughout the session that lasted the whole day (from 11am to 5.10PM), I made sure I was a good boy.
With Prof. Woods (who has had extensive experience spanning two decades, dealing with public sector in Africa and Asia) leading discussion, the session was enlightening as we reviewed the failings of governments on the continent, including in Nigeria and the quality of manpower that is often a problem. With one anecdote after another, President Obasanjo was a valuable resource in the discussion which was broken into two sessions.
Invited to join the Advisory Panel for the afternoon session were former federal permanent secretary, Dr (Mrs) Ajoritsedere Awosika, popular television personality, Ms Funmi Iyanda, Presidential media assistant, Mr. Tolu Ogunlesi as well as Dr. Fiyinfolu Oladiran, Associate Principal at Mckinsey. There were also Mr. Seyi Wright, a former Bank CEO who now conducts capacity building programmes and strategy sessions for companies in various sectors of the economy; Mrs Bolaji Agbede, Group head of Human resources, Access Bank Plc as well as Dr. Jeya Wilson and Messrs Bemeke Masade and Diran Olajoyegbe.
At the end, what came out of our engagement was the necessity for reform of the public sector, especially in Nigeria even when we also agreed that would only come about by creating an environment that is both financially rewarding and also intellectually challenging for the idealistic and talented young men and women who may want to take the gamble. That then explains why the main objective of Aig-Imoukhuede, who initiated the AIG, is to begin to build a critical mass of such outstanding public servants from where the next generation of leaders could emerge.
With five Scholarships and one Fellowship, beginning from next year, at the Blavatnic School of Government, University of Oxford, the AIG will support citizens of Nigeria and Ghana “who are outstanding senior practitioners in the public sector and who have made a significant impact on policy issues through their direct work.” At the end of their programmes at Oxford University, the Scholars and Fellows are expected to return to their respective country–Nigeria or Ghana–“informed by knowledge and understanding gained through their research into regional and global best practices to help shape and influence policy decisions.”
However, one disturbing issue that came up from our discussions last Thursday is the place of political leadership in the whole arrangement. Indeed, the main conclusion from what transpired throughout the day was that without the right kind of leadership, it will be difficult to bring about any enduring change in the system. That incidentally became the dominant theme last Saturday at the 2016 edition of ‘The Platform’, an annual programme of Pastor Poju Oyemade’s Covenant Christian Centre, where I was, for a fifth time, one of the speakers.
Although I left for the airport immediately after my presentation titled, “Between Luggage Economy and Knowledge Economy”, by the time I got to Abuja, the presentation of Mr. Peter Obi which dwelt largely on resource management in the public arena, had started dominating discussions on social media. While I have watched it, Obi’s intervention on the waste that defines public office in Nigeria resonates not only because it speaks to this season but perhaps more significantly because he drew from personal examples.
Incidentally, about six weeks after he left office in 2014, I wrote about the former Anambra State Governor on this page in a piece titled, “Peter Obi and Democracy Day”, where I used him to illustrate the kind of moderation expected of our political office holders if this democracy were to endure. Against the background of his intervention at ‘The Platform’ which has generated considerable public interest, below are excerpts from what I wrote two and a half years ago:
“In a nation where accountability is in short supply, there is perhaps no greater threat today than the impunity with which government officials and their spouses, at practically all levels, appropriate to themselves and cronies scarce public resources. They fly private jets (where they don’t buy one with government funds), stay in the most expensive hotels both within and outside the country, erect big mansions they hardly live in while moving around in convoys of the latest automobiles.
“To compound the situation, it is not enough that they enjoy such luxury at the expense of the people while in office, they also want to continue with it after office hence they now make laws to confer on themselves such criminal indulgences as private citizens. But Peter Obi is different. He remains probably the most modest person to have been governor under the current dispensation while his lifestyle must have saved Anambra State billions of Naira, especially when compared with the cost of maintaining his colleagues. Even when he was already a wealthy man before assuming office, Obi exhibited uncommon decency and humility while in office. Within the country, he travelled light, just with one aide and always on commercial airlines as opposed to his colleagues who travelled by private jets. And whenever he travelled outside the country, you would only find Obi in the business class compartment.
“Obi is different because he managed Anambra State resources as he would his own. What is even more remarkable is that in a milieu when many governors have virtually bankrupted their states with loans that can hardly be accounted for by any meaningful projects, Obi left substantial amount of money for his successor without any debt. Yet we are talking of a state that is number 22 (among 36 states) in revenue sharing.
“In a way, we can link Obi’s frugality to his background as a successful business man prior to going into politics. He merely transposed the virtues of private business practice onto the management of public affairs. This contrasts with the vast majority of governors who prior to coming to office had no track record in the management of any organization. Because Anambra State has the added advantage of having one of the most entrepreneurial people in our country, a population that uses self-help for development can only complement the work of a frugal and result-oriented governor.
“The greatest challenge of our country today is poverty accentuated by the gulf between the haves and the have-not, which seems to be getting wider by the day. Yet many of our public officials flaunt their decadent lifestyles and revel in ostentation at public expense. Today in Nigeria, the cost of maintaining public officials is huge, and accounts for most of the resources that ordinarily should go to development. That is what endears Obi to me. In or out of office, he remains a simple man and a shining example of what a public servant should be.
“That I have singled out Peter Obi for commendation is because he has a sense of responsibility when it comes to public fund and has chosen the road less travelled. Even at that, I hope governors who are making laws for their own post-office comfort can see the danger of what they are doing and the dire implications for the future of our democracy. The lesson is all too clear: If and when they eventually push the people to the wall, there will be serious consequences, not only for them but also unfortunately for all of us.”
I wrote that on 30th May, 2014. However, as insightful as Peter Obi’s speech was at ‘The Platform’ last Saturday, it was not the most remarkable for me. The one that struck me the most was the presentation by Sam Adeyemi, Senior Pastor of Daystar Christian Centre, who used the embedded message in “the parable of sheep and goats”, as recorded in the Bible (Matthews Chapter 25, verses 42 to 45) to drive home his point about the hypocrisy of religion in Nigeria.
Here is the Bible passage:
“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
What makes that passage very significant, especially for a religious country like ours, is that it is one that Muslims can also easily relate to given a popular Hadith:
“Allah will say on the Day of Judgment, ‘Son of Adam, I was sick but you did not visit Me.’
“My Lord, How could I visit You when You are the Lord of the Worlds?”
“Did you not know that one of My servants was sick and you didn’t visit him? If you had visited him you would have found Me there.”
“Then Allah will say, ‘Son of Adam, I needed food but you did not feed Me.’
“My Lord, How could I feed You when You are the Lord of the Worlds?”
“Did you not know that one of My servants was hungry but you did not feed him? If you had fed him you would have found its reward with Me.”
“Son of Adam, I was thirsty, but you did not give Me something to drink.”
“My Lord, How could I give a drink when You are the Lord of the Worlds?”
“Did you not know that one of My servants was thirsty but you did not give him a drink? If you had given him a drink, you would have found its reward with Me.” (Al-Bukhari)
What that says clearly is that since practically all our public officials are either Christians or Muslims, and we all profess to love God so much, such should reflect in the conduct of government business in Nigeria. That it does not is what leads me to the conclusion of the presentation by Pastor Sam last Saturday at The Platform. It is the closing statement for this week, as it reflects my 15th November, 2012 column titled, “Religion and the Nigerian Condition”. But let us hear it from Pastor Sam and learn:
“Jesus said that, on the day everyone appears before God to give an account of the life that they have lived, people will be divided into two groups: There will be those to whom God will say: ‘I was hungry you did not feed me, I was thirsty you didn’t give me water to drink, I was naked, you didn’t clothe me’. And there will be an argument on that day, because some people would want to contest that statement. ‘How could I ever have seen you hungry, you God?’
“I have a feeling that when Jesus said that, He had Nigerians in mind, since majority of us believe in God. Every week, we troop to our religious houses but the question I will like to ask the Nigerian is: ‘Yes, you believe in God but if you see Him do you think you will recognize Him?’ On that day, people will argue, ‘if I saw you (God) hungry, even if it was my last meal, I would have given it to you. And God will say, ‘for as much as you did not do it to any of the least of these people, you did not do it to me’.
“My interpretation of that is: ‘You met me but you did not recognize me. I was that person that you had the opportunity to lead as a Governor or Local Government Chairman or President; that person you had the opportunity to represent as a Senator or member of the House of Representatives or House of Assembly. But you did not realize that was me’.
“Because there is a part of God in every human being, and whatever God does not deserve, a human being does not deserve it. The next time you have the opportunity to clean a chair before an event, if you have at the back of your mind that it is God that will sit on that chair, you will clean it well. The next time you have the opportunity to construct an airport, and it crosses your mind that it is God that will use that airport, you will build a world-class one, sorry and ‘heaven-class’ airport. Any person or structure that will not give the average Nigerian the best and more importantly, empower us to dream and to fulfil our dreams, should not be allowed to lead our political institutions. The time to crash them is now!”