Not all superheroes wear capes
If you grew up on comics, or followed the television series and movies; from Superman, Batman and Robin, Spiderman and their types, you may believe that all superheroes wear capes. You may also believe, as one superman film was promoted, that if you see the movie you will believe a man can fly. I was not one for believing those but I once met Nigerian public servants who almost could fly without capes. They were the superheroes of Nation building. Their types are sadly so scarce today.
The privilege of watching nation-building from a ringside seat as a student activist, academic researching political economy matters, entrepreneur trying to build enterprises in several sectors, and playing Business Angel mentoring young entrepreneurs has thrown up for me, with the benefit of hindsight, a great sense of indebtedness to these men.
My epiphany in how nations are built came from engaging with these group of men of the right stuff who we can truly celebrate as superheroes. The challenge is they do not wear capes.
In this vast wasteland of people parading themselves as leaders in the quest for plunder, it is so very easy for consciousness to be fixated in search of capes and lose sight that we have had heroes amongst us.
The recent passing of a super patriot and pioneer public sector Architect, Chief Fola Alade, brought this quickly back to me and I began to remember them from researching my PhD thesis about 1981. Extraordinary and simple but passionately committed people from an era that understood service. They were significantly in the public bureaucracy. What is interesting is that we have even mocked some of them at different points in time. Thank God that hindsight can be 20/20 and that academic research for an embedded activist can provide insights not generally easy to see on the streets. I feel fortunate to have been so privileged.
I can therefore remember many of the men and women of yesterday from sitting before them for hours, probing the depths of the challenge of nation-building, economic policy choice, and leadership priority. That journey which took me across Nigeria and even to Europe in search of then self-exiled former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, opened for me a window not commonly available. Even though I was a precocious 24-year-old PhD candidate with a cynical view of power and its use by the poorly formed and character challenged, that window showed me the profundity of the commitment and the assiduousness in the task of nation-building by a majorly technocratic elite in the federal bureaucracy. I found then but kept it my secret waiting for the time of passages of personages so worthy.
In due course, I had always said, I would share the fact that these men were superheroes who wore no capes. Time would confirm the validity of my disposition as Nigeria stumbled, fell into wrong hands and upon thorny fields.
It was obviously not a shortage of textile materials that saved the superheroes from the awkward fashion statement of dorning capes, but those who wore the right goggles could see the capes, that knowledge, love of country and hard work strung across the shoulders of these men sometimes called super permanent secretaries. Like night vision goggles you saw these men only with lenses that pulled aside their humility.
When Fola Alade passed, it was signal to me that the time had come to carve unto the stones of time the path to immortality for these men who, valiant as they were, walked gently as if in accord with scripture which uses the metaphor of the servant returning from a hard day’s sweat to first wait on his master at table before checking if hunger pangs lurked in his own belly; a reminder that to serve is duty and praise for the servant, happenstance, far from entitlement, for the diligent servant.
They came from the regions, Chief Simeon Adebo, Chief Jerome Udoji, Mallam Abubakar Imam, and at the centre, the legendary Abdul Azeez Attah, Allison Ayida, Philip Asiodu, Ime Ebong, Ahmed Joda, and even those sacrificed in the heat of policy crisis like Ibrahim Damcida.
Few can imagine what it took for the Architect, Fola Alade, and the planner, John Odigie-Oyegun to create Festac Town out of pure jungle and both fail to become rich, possibly with neither owning a plot of land or house in Festac.
The remarkable Ime Ebong presiding over tireless planners of enormous courage and outstanding intellect who manned the planning department, Chukwuemeka Ezeife, before retirement and Anambra politics made of him a villager living in the city, but never short of capacity to see the tree from the forest; John Odigie-Oyegun, before APC chairmanship in retirement exhausted him as he watched the democratization of mediocrity from his window, a cruel punishment, and even the ‘younger’ bright sports like John Edozien, and the pool of talent in that ministry. I watched them play tennis at the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, share the glass of beer and talk about what was right for Nigeria even after some of them had been unfairly kicked out of service in the prime of their lives.
It is altogether an undeserved farewell to these dream merchants that the Autumn and Winter of their time of being would see a Nigeria faltering so badly that even governor’s call it a failed state on national television. But their passion inspires me to believe that Nigeria will rise up again.
The youth have a duty to honour the days of youth of these aging superheroes so that their own old age may not be like the final days of the once feared lion who the weariness of time make easy prey to the Hyena and the patient vulture.
As many nations draw on the legend of their founding fathers and the waves of their spirit in Ascent, to face today’s challenges and construct brave new futures, we are obliged to dance to the drum beats of the days of the unsullied confidence of these civil and public servants, and vow a regeneration of the Nigerian spirit. The spirit was as diverse as it had common purpose when the superheroes bestrode the Nation building landscape like colossuses.
Debonair sharp witted Philip Asiodu of a voluble intellect and wry humour; practical but very thoughtful Allison Ayida, wise, calm and kindly Ahmed Joda, and urbane energetic Ime Ebong.
This country had a gift in these so different men who cared much for Nigeria. It is hard sometimes to understand how the sheep looked after by such shepherds got to where we are today.
Nigeria should and can rise again. That passage from rot to regeneration will depend much on understanding how the characters of these men were moulded. Utomi is Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.
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