They Are Still Begging for Bones, By Olusegun Adeniyi
Three little girls were taking turns playing various roles, when one of them said to another, “Now, you be the daddy.” The little girl pouted for a minute and then said, “I don’t want to be the daddy. I want to talk, and besides, what would I use for a remote control?”
I could not but laugh after reading that story from “God’s Devotional Book for Dads”, and when my wife asked what was funny, I had to read out the story for her enjoyment. Her response, however, shocked me: “But you are exactly describing yourself.”
I was taken aback by that unfair (and absolutely false) characterisation of me because what my wife was saying is that while I may be good at pontificating to President Olusegun Obasanjo and the 36 governors on how to run the country and their states so they could make millions of people happy, I cannot even achieve such objective with four people right under my own roof!
The moral of the story is that despite our own personal failings and inadequacies, we expect our leaders to do everything right, from coming up with solutions to complex problems affecting our lives to having the charisma and prescience to rally millions of people around a perfect vision or perhaps no vision at all…
The foregoing was first published on this page on 7th March, 2007, as part of a 70th birthday tribute to President Olusegun Obasanjo. And as I mark the 20th year of being a columnist who has delivered “verdicts” on sundry topics with a website that will serve as a repository of all my writings, I cannot but look back. Twenty years! And so many things have changed in my country while many things have also remained the same.
Incidentally, when I started this column in 1996 at the instance of Mr Tunji Bello, the current Secretary to the Lagos State Government, who was my editor at the time, the population of Nigeria was 111.2 million, going by the United Nations estimate. Last Sunday, it had hit 185,787,025, with Nigeria ranked as the seventh most populated in the world even though when you look at indices that matter to the people, we are way down the ladder. Instructively, between 1996 and now, the population of my country has increased by about 67 percent while the median age is now 18! Given such dire statistics, the state of our economy and the absence of any coherent plan to redirect the course of events, we should be scared about the future of Nigeria.
Incidentally, even though I read several opinion pieces (both by foreign and Nigerian writers) when I started out as a columnist so I could hone my skills, the one that stood out for me was “Please Give Me the Bones”. It was written by Dr Dele Sobowale and published in Vanguard Newspaper early in 1996.
Dr Sobowale had attended a dinner where he encountered a man he described in very unflattering terms as “Michelin Tyre” who came to the party with a big dog and was specially treated with plates of food served with assorted pieces of meat. As this obviously important man was devouring the delicacies, he was also feeding his dog with huge lumps of meat after removing the bones. But there was also an evidently hungry boy standing close by, with an empty bowl, looking at the menacing dog with envy but could not go close because he knew he could be torn apart. According to Dr Sobowale, the man and his dog continued to enjoy themselves until the boy, in desperation, rushed forward to plead: “Please, give me the bones.”
Between the greed of “Michelin Tyre” and the deprivation of the boy, Dr Sobowale brought out several lessons about our country and I decided I was going to use such simple anecdotes to drive home my points as a columnist. Looking back, I know it has not always been easy but to the extent that I have retained some loyal readers over the years, then I must have done some things right.
However, I am also aware that there are readers who don’t like what I write or the positions I take on this page, even when they continue to read. Some of them even send in abusive mails and text messages once in a while. What I don’t do is to reply them in kind as I avoid remonstrating with, or making enemies of, those who don’t like me. What is the point fighting with people who don’t know me and I don’t know? It serves no purpose. Besides, I don’t read comments below whatever I write since those who have issues with my writings contact me directly and I respond to them.
It is interesting that when I left ‘Sunday Concord’ in January 1999 to join THISDAY, I had concluded that was the end of “The Verdict” but it turned out otherwise. A few weeks after arriving at THISDAY, the Chairman, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, called a meeting of the Board of Editors on a Sunday afternoon and said he had decided to designate the backpage to individuals. On that day, Mr. Obaigbena just asked for some sheets of paper and started writing. Then he said: “I am writing my backpage for tomorrow as I will be writing every Monday. Victor Ifijeh (current Managing Director of ‘The Nation’ newspapers) will be writing on Tuesday. Eniola Bello (current THISDAY Managing Director) will write on Wednesday. Segun, you can resume your Verdict column on Thursday. Festus Eriye (current editor of ‘The Nation’ on Sunday) will write on Friday. And Waziri Adio (current NEITI Executive Secretary) will write on Sunday. There will be no backpage columnist for the Saturday Newspaper.”
With that, the idea of backpage column for THISDAY was born, even though I can count on my fingers how many columns Mr Obaigbena has written in these past years. However, reflecting on the last 20 years, in between which I have also had a three-year stint in government, it is most depressing that the material condition of many of our citizens (young and old) have not improved such that they are still begging for bones! That then explains why as columnists we have virtually been writing about the same issues which in themselves tell a compelling story about our country.
On the website that I open today for interested readers are some of my lectures and books as well as my columns from July 2011 to May 2015, which I upload with the kind permission of Mr. Obaigbena since the copyright belongs to THISDAY newspapers. The earlier ones between 1999 and 2007 as well as the ones published in ‘Sunday Concord’ between 1996 and 1998 are not yet updated. But they will eventually after being processed into soft copies. For now, the plan is to post, on the first Thursday of every month, some new picks from the past (Echoes from the Past) until I have all my writings uploaded. For today, I have selected eight, written between 2002 and 2007, for different reasons.
I am dedicating the first one, “But the Cactus Survived” to Bukky Shonibare. She told me when we first met two years ago how the piece ministered to her at a time she needed to take a critical career decision. The second one, “Leaving My Comfort Zone” is to my long-standing readers for whom I wrote it on June 13, 2007, two weeks after assuming office as spokesman to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. It also tells the story of how this column started. The “Memory of My Father”, was a personal tribute, published in August 2006.
I am almost certain that former External Affairs Minister, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, knows why I am dedicating to him “A Fate Most Cruel…”, because at about 7am, on Thursday, 1st March, 2006, he called me on phone with tears. It is a great testimony to his compassionate spirit that the unfortunate story of a girl he never knew would move him that much. Unfortunately, I never got to start the Foundation Prof. Akinyemi proposed I set up in Justina’s honour even when he promised to support the idea both morally and financially.
I dedicate the next one, “When Last Did You Shoot an Elephant?” to the Bishop of Sokoto, Matthew Hassan Kukah and Zenith Bank Chairman, Mr Jim Ovia, both of who have never stopped asking me the loaded question ever since we all left London as the first set of the Nigeria Leadership Initiative (NLI) Fellows in January 2006. The next one, “No Longer ‘Alu Janjan Kijan’ in Yorubaland” published in January 2002, is for the benefit of Yoruba leaders, past and present. Of course, there must be something about football and to all my friends, I dedicate “Forget Politics, Soccer is More Important” published in July, 2002.
Finally, I include a 15th November, 2004 “right of reply” from the late Dr Chuba Okadigbo, titled, “Liberalization as Magun”. It was a response to my piece, “Deregulation as Magun” published a week earlier. The reason for the recollection is to show how some of my own views have also evolved over the years. Today, I am in total support of deregulation in the downstream sector of the petroleum sector, a position I adopted in 2005; whereas, just a year earlier, I was arguing against it.
All said, the axiom that history repeats itself has a more worrisome meaning in Nigeria’s public discourse. All the issues that I have spent the better part of the last 20 years writing about are not necessarily earth-shaking historic events. Neither are they about great conquests of new frontiers or of major foreign policy strides or of breakthrough in science and technology or of memorable initiatives on the major things that distinguish great nations from perennial banana republics. Instead, what we have repeatedly grappled with, and I have had to deliver “verdicts” on, are mundane issues that do not in any way advance public good: fuel queues, shortage of food, kidnappings, violent elections, looting of public funds, ASUU and doctors’ strikes, killings between farmers and herdsmen, electricity systems collapse, exchange rate fiasco, settler-indigene crisis etc.
Twenty years on as a columnist, it is very sad that the question that confronts me and the new generation of writers remains a simple one: how can we find more ennobling issues to write about tomorrow? Perhaps, as Eni-B suggested yesterday, we should all just start writing fiction!
To all my readers, I commend olusegunadeniyi.com