Once upon a time, a certain businessman, who later became very infamous, named Godwin Daboh Adzuana, appeared on the Nigerian political stage. He actually burst on the stage in 1974 when he accused Joseph Tarka, a federal commissioner of communications, of corruption, which led to Tarka’s forced resignation. There had been a spat of back and forth accusations – with each persona in the conflict attacking each other on the pages of newspapers. But this never helped the cause of the Nigerian project. Nigeria did not become better; it got worse. Things haven’t changed, even today.
We are witnessing another spat. This time between a serving and influential governor, Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State, and a minister, Godson Orubebe, influential because of his link to the granddaddy of Niger Delta politics, who is believed to have recommended him to President Goodluck Jonathan for appointment into his cabinet. The spat is about performance – that is, who is performing and who is not?
There is either of two ways you can use to describe public officers all over the world. They are either performers or non-performers. They are either active or inactive. And then they end up becoming either famous or infamous. But to top it off, history either becomes kind or unkind to them. In the case of history, it is usually their choice what they want history to do to them.
In other words, except public officers are totally stupid, hopelessly useless, they have the power to influence what history does to them and their name. And this is because they know what to do to be on the side of history that is kind. Those who are internally clueless about what the public office they occupy means tend to see today, not tomorrow; they tend to see only their present state of being and are careless about the nature of the difference they make to society for posterity.
As a Nigerian living and operating your life in Nigeria, you are unlikely to blame the Nigerian public officeholders. It’s almost as if they are eternally left the short end of history – which is the history of today, not tomorrow. It seems as if they are permanently left clutching straws! They tend to choose what they want to understand about Nigeria and its history. And because they choose to do this, the tendency is that they forget a whole lot – including the fact that Nigeria’s history is unforgiving, and it’s ferociously dismissive and very quick to confine people into oblivion. No matter how you see it, history is captured by its people.
It is not so much the chapter that historians dedicate to a subject or personality that makes them stand out. But it is what is etched in the minds of citizens about the action or inaction of public officeholders that helps to establish their place or otherwise in history. It is what the people say about them, driven by what they do and how they did what they did! It is what the people remember about them based on their action or inaction, where they stood on issues and where they stood with the people.
Even though I am first a Nigerian before anything else, I am a student of Nigeria. As a student of Nigeria, I have learnt that the chapters of Nigeria’s history are brutal; they are quick to erase people from the pages and leave them without any mention, especially when people make no discernible difference in public service. If you doubt it, let’s go anecdotal. Nigeria will be 100 years old in 2014. I want you to take a good headcount of the people that the country’s history remembers kindly. You will find that you are counting but you find that your fingers are not finished because you can’t find enough people to count, yet you have only ten fingers! How sad you must feel!
Yet, you don’t really have to count all your fingers in your search for your country’s heroes for you to have a sense of satisfaction. In truth, one huge hero, turning a country around and making a significant difference that changes the fortunes of a country for the better, is enough. In Singapore, we hear of no other person than the remarkable Lee Kuan Yew. In the United States, their history is kind to such founding fathers as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. In Nigeria, there can be no agreement as to a role for founding fathers, because we are still struggling to understand ourselves and not surefooted about staying together as one . . . in fact, we are as confused about who we are, what we represent, and what we want to be as in the early days when the British bandied us together and named us Nigeria! It is a sad tale to tell. Of a country, where its citizens believe less and less in their government, but hold personalities as if they were gods and governments!
Government is a collective – it’s the people, it’s the officers occupying public office; it’s just that the latter act on behalf of the former. In Nigeria, it is not often the case. Public officers, for some outstanding personality defect, assume godlike characters, act with impunity, fail to make the kind of difference that would allow history to be kind to them and make cosmetic interventions, most times to prove they have a point to make. Yet, Nigeria is a harsh country as far as history is concerned. No matter how hard you try, if you put the old Midwest State, Bendel State, Delta State and Edo State together, in the area of governance, history is only kind to one man – Brigadier-General Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, as he then was, the military administrator of the old Midwest/Bendel State. And that’s because his people remember him for making a difference. In the Niger-Delta as a whole, history (seen from the eyes of the people) is kind more to Adaka Boro and Ken Saro-Wiwa than all the governors, administrators put together – perhaps in Rivers State, people will remember Melford Okilo, but history will ask the telling question, ‘for what?’
In the North, history is somewhat kind to Mallam Aminu Kano, but truth is, the man never held the kind of public office that would have enabled him to make an expected difference. In Kano, people talk about how Police Commissioner Audu Bako transformed Kano and since then the place is still searching for a transformer.
The truth really is that public officers in Nigeria are not making the kind of difference that would endear them to history’s kindness. They are consumed by cosmetic interventions when they live in a country that requires leaders who can make sacrifices, who can roll up their sleeves and make destiny-changing interventions to different facets of our society.
I have met Governor Amaechi up close in the course of my job as a journalist, interviewing him one-on-one two years ago. I haven’t met Minister Orubebe. I have a sense that Amaechi is chasing history and would like history to be kind to him. I do not know about Orubebe. But at the end of the day, truth is that nobody will remember any of them – not history, not the people – if they do not work to cause life-changing transformation in their respective public offices! There’s work to be done.