By Ignatius C. Olisemeka
Without ever knowing or meeting me, Buhari gave me a chance. As I now write, I have never met him one-on-one. We have never spoken to each other. It is an extraordinary experience of an unusual man.
I was sitting on my desk in the Ministry of External Affairs, 40 Marina Lagos in 1984, when I received a letter appointing me Ambassador to the United States of America. My place of origin did not matter. Incidentally, I am from Ibusa, a famous town now in Delta State; then, in Bendel State. My religion did not matter either. I had no worthwhile contacts with Dodan Barracks. All I knew, and had always known, was to work hard and to express my views as candidly and as courageously as I could, regardless of the consequences; provided I was convinced they were right. It was never easy or smooth-sailing. Of course, that had its bitter consequences; but at the end, now at 83, looking back, it worked out just right.
Of all the Nigerian leaders, with the possible exception of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, Buhari has been the one that has most approximated my dream of what a Nigerian leader should be. Without any attempt at self-advertisement, but simply as a matter of fact, I knew and had worked and interacted with most, if not all of our leaders. I worked with Sir James Robertson, the last colonial Governor-General of Nigeria, after graduating from the University College, Ibadan in 1957. I served as Clerk to the Privy Council and as Assistant Secretary (Administrative Officer) in charge of Security. I worked up to my immediate boss, Mr. C. O. Lawson, the then respected Secretary to the Cabinet in the Governor-General’s office. As part of my schedule of duties as officer in charge of security, I had the privilege and honour of being a member of a 3-man-panel, two of them British, which interviewed and recruited the first batch of Nigerian military officers into the Nigerian army in 1958. This batch included Olusegun Obasanjo.
In 1958, I transferred to the Ministry of External Affairs, making a career in the Diplomatic Service which lasted forty-two (42) years, from where I eventually rose as Foreign Minister, having served as Ambassador in Nine (9) countries, a few with concurrent accreditation, including Kenya under Jomo Kenyatta, Botswana under Sir Seretse Khama, Lesotho under King Moshoeshoe I, Spain, The Holy See under three Popes, (John Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II), the United States of America, Canada and, lastly, in Israel for six (6) years, a mission I established and rose to be Doyen of the Diplomatic Corps. In between, I was Chief of Protocol of the Federation to Zik and Balewa, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Directing Staff in the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, for two years (1988/1989).
I am now a retired pensioner, carefully minding my own business and tending my personal affairs. I do not belong to any political party and have never belonged to any. In the best tradition of the colonial public service of my days, I have remained strictly anonymous and aloof; occasionally, making my views and opinion privately known to the appropriate authorities of the day on any issue I feel strongly about. I seek no office and no financial or material favours. All I am doing is to put on public record my private opinion, views and experience, which may not be available and known to many Nigerians.
Major General Muhammadu Buhari not only gave me the opportunity to serve Nigeria as Ambassador in the United States, he did even more than that. He entrusted to me the care and welfare of his family; still without our knowing or meeting each other. He sent his wife and two children to me in Washington D.C. for medical treatment. He took his chance and dealt with me strictly on a professional basis. His family were with me in Washington D.C. when the General was overthrown in a coup d’etat. We did the best we could and sent them back home safely under the trying and traumatic circumstances they found themselves- still, never a word from this unusual person. In 1988 after I returned as Ambassador from Washington D.C., I was assigned as a punitive measure as Directing Staff to the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, for two years.
The subject of our research in that year led the Syndicate I headed to visit Buhari’s State of origin. With the approval of government, members of the Syndicate visited Buhari who was then under house arrest in his home town, Daura. This most extra-ordinary man received us with warmth and courtesy. We found him living in a modest, sparsely furnished three or four bed-room bungalow which was his house. He still did not know who I was; nor did I disclose my identity to him. It was unbelievable, even in those days, that a former General in the Nigerian Army and a former Head of State could live in such a modest, spartan abode. What further struck me was a complete lack of bitterness; unless the Fulani in him, concealed and dissembled it!
What do all these tell me about this man, Buhari? Others may have a different opinion of him. I absolutely concede to them the right to hold their views. As far as I am personally concerned, four short phrases summarise my overall impression and opinion of Buhari. An incorruptible man. A patriotic Nigerian devoid of any trace of ethnicism and parochialism. A deeply religious man. Above all, a sterndisciplinarian.
We so often talk glibly of the giant strides Asian Tigers have taken to leap from the state of underdevelopment to developed nations. We refer tirelessly to the achievements of men like Lee Kuan Yew. I have, personally, met Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. I did so in the company of General Yakubu Gowon when he returned from exile from the United Kingdom. Little do we know or appreciate the agonizing hardship, pains and sufferings all Singaporeans, Chinese, Malays, Indians and other ethnic nationalities, had to endure for Singapore to attain its present height as a respected nation. Gold must be smelted in hot burning furnaces before unleashing its shine and purity. Lee Kuan Yew was a benevolent democratic autocrat. He subjected his people to a good dose of rigorous healthy discipline. No country makes that type of progress Singapore made without an unwavering sense of disciplined direction. Moreover, Lee Kuan Yew was an inspirational leader of his people. He governed by example.
It is not just the question of the number of kilometres of roads you build that elevates a nation. It is not a matter of the megawatts of power you generate nor the number of buildings you erect for the populace. Not even the refineries you build or the volume of agricultural products produced and exported. These are important. Any leader surrounded by brilliant experts, excellent technocrats and loyal advisers can achieve those basic and essential needs. Leadership calls for much greater attributes than the performance of those feats. A leader must have a strong, solid, moral and disciplined background, the inspirational ability to galvanize his people to higher, lofty and common purpose. These are not ordinary attributes available to every man. They are uncommon gifts and talents dispensed and bestowed only to a few. This makes the difference between one man and the other; one woman and the other. It is not often we have a Ghandi or a Mandela; an Ataturk, or a Winston Churchill, a Charles de Gaulle, or a Konrad Adenauer, who became one of the most respected Chancellors of Federal Republic of Germany at the ripe age of 81, a Margaret Thatcher, or even our own often quoted Obama. Nearer home, with all their imperfections, considering that a prophet is without honour in his own country, we must reckon with Azikiwe, the Sardauna, Awolowo, Aminu Kano and J.S. Tarka, the real and genuine ‘founding fathers’ of our nation.
Buhari, in my view, belongs to the last and passing generation of this group of Nigerian leaders. It was a pity that fate thrust him into leadership limelight at a period in time when military revolution and coups d’ etats were in vogue and held sway. In a democratic setting, as we now have, I believe that the real worth and essence of this man, encapsulated in an exemplary and enigmatic personal life, will blaze through and shine forth. It will soon be clear that those of his followers of questionable and dubious pedigree who think they can latch on to the reputation of this rare Nigerian would be the first to be highly disappointed.
I also believe that what is badly needed at this stage of our national life is a leadership that will turn the country around; and rescue us from the depth of chronic indiscipline, disorder and decadence we have, over the years, gradually descended and slided into. What I believe we need is a strong hand at the helm, with the support of our people, who will instil in us a much needed sense of order and discipline; inspire us into patriotic zeal and sacrifice; bring out the best in each one of us; and encourage in us the love of nation.
The nation’s sense of indiscipline and disorder is evident and all pervasive even in very simple things and matters of the day and moment. A road-side mechanic claims to be an Engineer (Engr) and insists on being so styled. A traditional herbalist insists he must be called and respected as a professional medical Doctor (Dr) and, indeed, hugs the appellation. An ordinary traditional village community leader who flamboyantly styles himself a Chief and clownishly attired in a self-designed robe, is addressed not only as “Your Highness”, but takes offence if he is not properly addressed as “Your Royal Highness”. A number of respected Kabiyesis no longer have regard for their beautiful traditional titles, unless we, their ‘subjects’, address them as “Your Majesty” or worse still, “Your Royal Majesty” The same applies to the ‘Ran kadades’, most of our Emirs and prominent men in authority revel in when interacting with the poor subservient so-called talakawas. May I also observe that the awkward title of ‘His Eminence’ is a misnomer which should be revisited and reconsidered.
Members of our legislative houses feel incomplete and uncomfortable until they are addressed as ‘Honourables’ or ‘Distinguished Senators’. They are no longer plain ‘Mister’ or ‘Madam’.
I believe it is time we became a little more creative and find suitable traditional and local substitutes for these foreign appellations which portray us as caricatures and ridicule us as people and nation in the outside world. What a pride and beauty to have one of the foremost traditional rulers of the land being regaled with the title Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo Oba Erediauwa! Why can we not start emulating and adopting this practice in most of our national institutions? It will give us a sense of pride and self-worth.
Ambitious pseudo-intellectual self-publicists cleverly thrust their mediocrity and opinions on us and flaunt their borrowed, half-baked, ill-digested ideas, concepts, jargons and clichés. Pages of our national newspapers are replete with lavishly self-serving advertisements of obituaries, weddings and birthday celebrations. Why not severely tax those who place these wasteful advertisements to rake in and release funds to charities or other good causes such as sporting and educational development of the country.
Hitherto decent, pretty, confident young ladies on our television sets in order to make themselves more attractive and acceptable, bleach their skin to pale sickening white, with their veins thinly exposed; their bare knuckles and elbows still looking jet black. They should be reassigned to the back room offices, decorated with mirrors, left to rue their new look which has become an eyesore to many viewers. Our television channels have suddenly become a babel and cacophony of crude and embarrassing noise makers, reflecting the values of a sick society, drunk with democratic excesses.
Honorary degrees are sold, bought and conferred on underserving personalities by many of our Universities and these personalities shamelessly parade them at will. A few prominent church leaders have relocated their pulpits from their churches to the seats of secular power while a number of Imams have not been able to teach their adherents the purity of their religion which preaches respect for human lives.
Our youths need impeccable high level connections before gaining employment at any level, both decent or menial. Impunity freely reigns in the land more than ever before. The temples of justice are daily being desecrated. The Lady now has her eyes wide open; seductively beckoning and soliciting for favours.
More painful still, is the near-absolute control of our entire being and lives as a people by others. We appear helpless to cast off that yoke and burden even though we claim to be independent; helpless to govern ourselves with any modicum of self-respect and dignity and take our destiny into our hands.
The list is endless. Am I a part of this messy order? Certainly, yes. None of us can pretend not to be part of it, in one way or the other, in differing roles. Only that some exacerbate it more than others. This situation calls for a man who, by personal example, can firmly and fearlessly put an end to these vulgarities and inanities.
This is one side of the coin. There is another side of the coin to our national life for which we can proudly hold our heads very high. This is the side no other single country in the world I know can ever match. The list is inexhaustive and much longer than our shortcomings. We do not, however, necessarily need to dwell on them or spell them out here, as we search for positive measures and values that will enhance and edify our nation.
Buhari represents, in my opinion, the last opportunity we have to get things reasonably right before the baton passes permanently on to the next and coming generation. After him, the generation of the ‘founding fathers’ would have faded away; with their legacies, left behind, hopefully for good. He should be given the chance to restore and consolidate the disappearing values of that ‘golden age’ so sadly disrupted by the military, to which paradoxically and tragically, he and those in that generation, and that before him, were willy-nilly pressed into being a part of.
He carries on his frail, ageing but reliable shoulders a historic responsibility and burden of getting it right. He has a bounden duty to realign the nation towards achieving its manifest destiny. He has no excuses for failure. Otherwise, why should he be seeking power at his age? It makes absolutely no sense. Why not take a comfortable and relaxed back seat like most of us. History will judge him very harshly should he fail.
The immediate challenge before him, I feel convinced, is how to curb the excesses of the teaming mass of followers who, undoubtedly, adore him. The next, is to rein in the display of empty, hollow pompousness and offensive arrogance by a few of his elitist, lazy patronage-seeking associates; who, if victorious, will flock to him without discrimination. I had always instinctively recognised and resented this feeling at first hand, even from a distance.
I believe it is time for us to begin anew. Let us begin to lead our lives as normal human beings; and not in self-delusion and self-deceit. This is the real transformation needed. This is the revolution we yearn for at this point in time in our national life. I can now start understanding what drove past Chinese leaders into staging the “Cultural Revolution”. Nigeria is ripe; indeed, over ripe for a non-violent revolution which will shake us all up like a volcanic eruption from our present national stupor. Who will sweep out the quacks and charlatans in our midst? Who will guarantee us enduring values? Who will cleanse the cobwebs from our national home?
All said, let no one forget there is no better country than Nigeria in the whole world. I feel happiest when I am in Nigeria; despite the agonizing frustrations; despite the infuriating hardship; and even when I am being driven daily to the brink of desperation.