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Governor Nasir El-Rufai’s candour

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Governor Nasir El-Rufai

No matter how much you hate Governor Nasir El Rufai – and God knows there are many people out there who love to hate him with a passion – there are still some things you can’t, in clear conscience, take away from him.
You can’t, for instance, deny him the quality of candour which, in our clime, is fast becoming a rare commodity. And he can be brutally candid, almost to a fault. He won my heart again recently when he made a visceral dissection of the leadership question.  I chanced on the video interview via Whatsapp on the social media but because it is on social media I took my time to ascertain that it was not fake.  It was the quintessential El-Rufai at his best.

This self-acclaimed accidental public servant used the occasion to lament the yawning vacuum in the public service structure which exists today because good people are either denied the opportunity to serve or they refuse to touch politics and public service with a long pole.

Governor El-Rufai did not mince words and I am going to try as much as possible to report him accurately. Hear him: “Why are we surprised? If all the good people keep away from politics, who will be in politics? There will be a vacuum and it is going to be filled by bad people.

“If all the good people go abroad or join the private sector who is going to be in government, it will be people who are not so good. And that is what is happening. We are seeing an intersection of bad people in government, bad people in politics and our country is running down, it is going down the drain.”

Here the interviewer interjects by saying that “even the good people that want to go into politics, they have a tactical way of edging them out of the contest….” The governor’s explanation was that the good people were few, not the critical mass, “they are very few of them. When we were in government of (President Olusegun Obasanjo) only four of us could stand up to the president and tell him that we disagreed with his position, only about of four of us in a cabinet of 42 ministers. Everybody would keep quiet.

“This is the problem. If you pick people who have not achieved anything in their life and put them in the very top government positions, they would do anything to stay there.  They can’t criticise, they would not tell the president the truth, they would not tell the governor the truth, but they are there as advisers. Yes, the constitution talks about federal character, a minister from each state but the constitution does not say you should pick a criminal from any state. There are good people in all the states.

“The problem is with both the leaders and the elite. The elite must be ready to keep the leaders under check. Leaders must be checked. If they are not checked by good people, they become monsters and the country will be in trouble. We are going to be consumed by the trouble that will arise if leaders are not checked.”

Governor El-Rufai’s position may sound strange but not uncharacteristic. Strange because this is Nigeria and we are in perilous times. In other times and under different circumstances people had been invited into leadership positions not because of their ability to genuflect and flatter and humour the powers that be but because they had capacity and capability imbued with intellect and vision. El-Rufai himself earned a ministerial position in the second term of President Obasanjo’s administration not because he was lily-livered. He was seen as a rebel with a cause, an iconoclast that was deemed to possess a rare capacity suitable for the job that President Obasanjo had in mind. Though President Obasanjo was not enamoured of El-Rufai, in fact he found him to be cantankerous and rude even, he still went ahead to appoint him as minister.

Like President Clinton of the US during his second term in office, President Obasanjo was not looking for a yes-man or a praise singer for the assignment. Clinton, and this comparison is apt, had pencilled down Richard Holbrooke, foreign relations expert, to replace Warren Christopher as secretary of state. Dick Morris, a faithful ally and long term aide of President Clinton, had warned Holbrooke that Clinton did not like praise singers and for him to get the job, he must find a way to criticise the president and some of his policies during his job interview. But Holbrooke found this a strange and therefore difficult advice to take. At the interview he became a little chummy with the president and was even fascinated by Clinton’s personality. He lost the job to Madeleine Albright.

Obasanjo and Clinton seemed to have taken President Richard Nixon’s immortal admonition to heart as far as staff recruitment is concerned. Go for the best and the brightest, not necessarily the most polite, he would say. In fact, the mark of a strong leader, he says, “is the willingness to pick people who may be smarter than he is. They will challenge and inspire him with their idealism and sheer intellect. In turn, he will mould their ideas to fit his strategic and political vision and instincts.”

Local examples of such visionary leaders are scattered here and there but not in sufficient quantity to make a remarkable difference. The Jagaban of Borgu, Asiwaju Ahmed Bola Tinubu, national leader of the All Progressives Congress, APC, as governor of Lagos State from 1999 to 2007 did not shy away from tapping the best brains available to accomplish the task that changed the political and infrastructural landscape of Lagos State. He recruited the best and the brightest believing that he it was who took credit for all the brilliant advice any of them could give him.

The question to ask now is to what end is El-Rufai’s refreshing thoughts on the leadership question? This question has become acutely relevant in view of the diverse and contradictory, almost irreconcilable narratives underpinning the ruling party’s philosophy of governance.

Admitted that in a pretentious federal system like ours there cannot be a unified how-to-do-it manual, but should there not be a peer review mechanism that many of the states struggling to find their feet on the ground can avail themselves of?

Lagos State has a template for its development. Many other states may pretend to have similar or even better templates but they need a peer review mechanism that will force state officials to ape and copy one another. In terms of good governance, many of the states are labouring to come to terms with even the basic terminologies of politics and policies.

In a democratic setup, many state officials are still deluding themselves that any little effort made to justify the allocation they receive from Abuja is regarded as dividends of democracy as if there would not have been the sharing of national cake without democracy. Nigerians who were reviewing the journey the country has made in the last 59 years on October 1, were charitable enough to acknowledge that most of the solid achievements were recorded under the military regimes.

What would have qualified as dividends of democracy for us to crow about is the primacy of the rule of law and good governance centred on the will of the people and respect for human rights. But we are still to find the true meaning of democracy in Nigeria because people are scared to move around freely without the fear of criminal gangs some of them sponsored and funded by the state. We are still to find the true meaning of democracy where those saddled with the task of upholding the tenets of democracy compromise their positions because they cannot resist the intoxicating allure of the filthy lucre that corrupt officials of government are in a position to dispense to buy their favour.

The picture El-Rufai has painted is that of an Eldorado. It will take more than many accidental public servants imbued with the right intellect and vision to prevent an apocalypse that might consume us if bad people continue to have their way at the expense of the best and the brightest.


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