Lamentations and the self-destruct spirit

Vice President Prof. Yemi Osinbajo

Acting President Yemi Osinbajo was recently reported to have said that what Nigeria needs at this time are men and women of strong character to contribute positively to the country’s economic and political development. He reportedly made this comment, among other things, at the 50th anniversary of the death of that distinguished diplomat, Ambassador Isa Wali, which was commemorated on the 19th of February at the Musa Yar’ Adua Centre, Abuja. According to the acting president, Nigeria didn’t lack men and women of strong character that could contribute positively to develop the Nigerian economy, but what is lacking is the collective will to identify and allow such persons make their impactful contributions to national building.

“…the collective will to identify and allow men and women of strong character make their impactful contribution to national building”? Was the pastor-turned-politician openly lamenting Nigeria’s political evolution? It is common knowledge that religious leaders often engage in lamentations on account of their congregations’ stiff-necked recalcitrance. This has been the story of mankind from the days of yore down to the modern age. Therefore, for reasons of Nigeria’s post-independence unremitting political recalcitrance, I was inclined to see the acting president’s comment at the 50th anniversary occasion in the light of lamentation over Nigeria’s notorious self-destructive spirit of aggressively denying her identified strong men and women the opportunity to positively contribute to national development.

Perhaps better than many a contemporary politician, Osinbajo knows that Nigeria has had and still has an impressive collection of imminently qualified men and women who were forcefully denied, and are still being forcefully denied respectively the opportunity to give their best to the nation. As the grandson-in-law of the great Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the acting president is expected to have first-hand knowledge of how unpatriotic and self-serving groups and persons aggressively resisted the emergence of Chief Awolowo as Nigeria’s prime minister or president. Chief Awolowo had previously prepared himself for the high office; he had striven to acquire a string of academic qualifications, inclusive of a law degree; he acquitted himself well in business and in the practice of law before delving into politics.

Chief Awolowo was the premier of the Western Region from 1952 to 1959. His discharge of that office has remained a national reference point in public administration to this day. From 1959 to 1983, that imminently qualified Nigerian strove to serve the country at the highest executive office, but strangely came short time and again. At each attempt, he expectedly looked good for electoral victory, but somehow always missed the mark by the skin of the teeth. On one occasion, he was controversially handed a 10-year jail term to deter him. That controversial judicial pronouncement played a major role in Nigeria’s first military coup d’etat (January, 1966), and the consequent Civil War (1967-1970). A couple of years after turning octogenarian, Chief Awolowo finally gave up the protracted quest in 1983, with the prophetic verdict that the Nigerians of that generation will not witness the dividends of democracy.

A couple of years after, he gave up the ghost. Then, rather in bad taste, the same powers that had striven with might and main to frustrate him rushed to the great man’s lifeless body, offering him the headship of Nigeria; because, according to one of the more literary of those job sympathizers, “Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the greatest president we never had.” What blatant hypocrisy!” One of the great man’s grandson-in-laws must quietly have exclaimed along with other members of the Awolowo family.

By the same token, Osinbajo must keenly sense the ongoing hypocritical machinations against another potentially great president of Nigeria. I speak of no other than the quintessential Dr. Alex Ekwueme, the former vice president. Like the late Ikenne sage, Ekwueme had acquired a string of academic qualifications, including a doctorate; made a widely acknowledged success of his professional practice as an architect; before delving into politics. As vice president in the Second Republic, Ekwueme played a masterly role in developing Nigeria’s model new capital city, Abuja. And, as in the case of the late Awo, the military junta that truncated the Second Republic handed the ex-vice president a jail sentence.

Since leaving the Kirikiri maximum prison in Lagos, Ekwueme has played pivotal roles in wresting Nigeria from the strangling grip of the military, and in developing democracy in Nigeria. He is said to be the sole author of Nigeria’s existing six-geopolitical structure; a development that has stabilised the country a great deal. The soft spoken politician is a foundation member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). At the dawn of the Fourth Republic in 1999, the ex-vice president’s unique qualities for the office of president had become palpable. Talks of a potential President Alex Ekwueme became rife. But the military esprit de corps had the better of patriotism; the military contrived a subtle coup d’etat. They abruptly released one of their own from prison, washed him up, and prepared him for the PDP presidential candidacy, much to the lamentations of democratic Nigeria. Nigerians apparently let it pass in hopes that that “nocturnal manoeuvre” would permanently retire the military to the barracks.

Ekwueme openly took it all in his stride while he looked to 2003, confident that ex-military dictator, Olusegun Obasanjo, wouldn’t stand a chance against him in a free and fair presidential election. In 2003 the odds were once again in Ekwueme’s favour. And as in 1999, those self-seeking (and Nigeria’s self-destructive) forces were once again in their elements. They contrived the infamous PDP Eagle Square Convention, denying Nigeria another potentially great president. No doubt, when this statesman passes, many years hence, we pray, chick-in-tongue Nigerians will gather to lament about “another greatest president we never had.”

In 2007, Nigeria’s first roundly prepared president-elect emerged in the person of Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua. Pursuant of his vision for a cabinet of technocrats, the president-elect set up an Appointment Committee ahead of his inauguration. But for the umpteenth time, self-same unpatriotic forces, employing the hawks in PDP as vectors, brought the would-be president’s vision to naught: the envisioned cabinet of technocrats was substituted with a cabinet of ex-governors, most of whom were richer and, ipso facto, more powerful than the servant-president. In my opinion, these were the circumstances that heightened the late president’s decades of health challenges, which eventually led to his premature demise. Another great president denied.

Osinbajo’s perceived lamentation is therefore apt for the times. At Chief Awolowo’s passing, Prof. Wole Soyinka lamented that “We wasted the man!” I dare say most Nigerians couldn’t agree more. Therefore, it’s time we stopped wasting our most gifted nationals. Let us purposefully interrogate those self-destructive forces that continue to deny Nigeria the excellent services of her most capable hands.

• Nkemdiche is an engineering consultant based in Abuja.

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