Adeyemi Adefulu, MFR
This is vintage Nasir El Rufai discussing a most contemporary issue of youth engagement in politics. There has been a lot of restiveness on this issue with many youths complaining that the old politicians just will not quit for them to take over. I have told many of them that nobody just hands over power. You have to know what you stand for, believe in something, get involved and be ready to go through the rough and tumble. If politics is the game of your life, if you are interested in making a change, you will never be able to do it from outside or by just being a critic or a social crusader.
Many of our youths don’t know where to start. That’s the big problem. They just want power handed over. To whom? To a mob? This was the problem of the EndSars protest. As credible and meritorious as that struggle was, it lacked the basic structure for managing change. It had no voice, no soul and no heart. There was distrust amongst them which dissuaded them from giving voice to a leader or some leaders. At the critical time when they had made their point and beaten government to a retreat, they had no clue how to seize their hour. The hoodlums which were always a threat because of their share abundance, moved in as did outlaws and anarchists like Kanu, the IPOB leader. These unwelcome interventionists messed up the idealistic EndSars campaigners. They became vicariously liable for the heavy offense they did not commit. The result was the monumental mess that we saw in the reign of anarchy. They learnt the lesson of a lifetime. A struggle with no leadership is bound to fail.
But our discussion in this piece is, how do the youths get involved and take advantage of their numerical strength? Numerical strength which is not organized is like uncharted storm water on the road out of the channel. Most times it is out of control. Barack Obama was a social organizer working for the underprivileged in the suburbs of Chicago. It was from that preoccupation that he joined politics at the state level and moved up. Chief Awolowo was a trade unionist, a journalist and activist. He fought his way up and paid his dues. He wrote that at a stage he used to write articles for more accomplished people, get their support and put the names of such people as the authors. Gradually, by the time he had cut his teeth and showed his face he already had goodwill to lean upon.
The trouble with our youth, as Nasir El Rufai rightly said, is an entitlement mentality. Many of them, bright as they are, arrogantly, do not know that politics is an art which must be learnt. Nobody becomes a master craftsman of any trade without learning under a master or paying his dues. Let me tell you my story just by way of an example.
In 1969, I was President of the University of Lagos Students Union. I was 23, boisterous and bubbling. Politics for me was always the end game. Even the law that I was studying was only a means to an end. In my early years I had religiously pre-occupied myself with studying the biographies of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello and many of the greats of Nigerian and African politic- Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyata, Tom Mboya, Abdel Nassar etc and beyond- Winston Churchill. Charles de Gaule, FDR, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy etc. When my campaign for the presidency of the students union was structured, it was after the style of the charismatic John F. Kennedy who all the youths of the world admired and emulated.
Of all the Nigerian leaders the one that struck me most, as a philosopher-king, was the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo who was then the Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council and the Federal Commissioner for Finance. He was a forward-looking, hands-on development economist and a deep and an original thinker. He knew there was a genesis to development and that you can’t start from revelation as many leaders of today want to do. I had studied everything written by him or published on him and followed the impressive record of the monumental achievements of his government as Premier of the Western Region which 60 to 70 years on is a reference point to this day. He was an uncommon pace setter dominating the debate on the direction Nigeria should be following for decades. Even his enemies now agree that Nigeria would have been a powerful nation by now if it had followed the purposeful and disciplined course Awolowo tirelessly charted.
I was a pupil in the third year when the Awolowo government introduced free primary education. People who were already learning to be bicycle repairers and vulcanizers because their parents had no money to educate them, went into schools and became professionals, professors etc. I know first hand, what an impact the programme had on the lives of people and families. Awolowo changed their lives. He was an avatar, a wonderful achiever, and an empire builder.
By some coincidence, Awo also happened to be from my homestead and grandma moonlight tales were told about this incredible man who seemed to have the power to change the world! I had been his secret admirer and the record of his achievements shows that my admiration was not sentimental. I have always loved achievers. Awo was an exemplar. His treasonable felony trial was so totally engaging to some of us and taught us lasting lessons about criminal justice administration and the legal profession.
Nigeria and the welfare of its people, particularly the poor, was uppermost in his thoughts and his many writings. In our university days, under his influence, the Federal Government started an indigent students programme as a grant for students from poor parentage. This was at a time the country was fighting the civil war all from own funds and internally generated resources.
So in 1979 as President of the students union I had a platform. I wrote to Chief Awolowo for an appointment which he promptly gave me. I was ushered into his office like a visiting head of state! He gave me such a rapt attention for over one hour with no interruption whatsoever. He answered every one of my questions in details with candour. He gave me some writings of his as gifts at my departure. I was totally elated!
Awo, contrary to many fables about him which called him a dictator etc was the finest of the human species. He was a gentleman’s gentleman, dexterous, prolific and intense. He was a vigorous debater who always wanted to hear the other side of an argument. He was a prolific researcher, a seeker of truth. He loved the youth and invested in them heavily. The scholarship programme he started in the west was what enabled the likes of MKO Abiola to go for training abroad.
That intentional meeting I had with him in his office was the beginning of a life long relationship. Later on, I became a regular visitor to his home and a partaker in the wonderful dinners served at his table and the instructive discussions which went with the meals at that table almost on every topic under the sun. Awo was an incredible learner.
In 1978 when, at the advent of the lifting of the ban on political parties, he formed the Committee of Friends, my friends and I jumped into the fray. We had the privilege of being part of the evolution of the formation of the Unity Party of Nigeria and it’s a clear programme which was pace-setting. The policy sessions were like serious academic discussion groups- papers were presented and the debates were vigorous. Policies settled, I joined in his campaigns all over the Federation and was sent on critical errands to different parts of the country. When a meeting was arranged between Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe of the Nigeria People’s Party and Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria with a view to the two parties working together, I was there. And I was also there when the decision was made to challenge the election of Alhaji Shehu Shagari in court because it did not satisfy the constitutional requirement that the successful candidate must win a quarter of the votes scored in 122/3 of the states. Indeed, I was the coordinating counsel in the celebrated cases led by Chief GOK Ajayi SAN. We the young ones were there in the lows and the highs. We didn’t have any red carpet rolled out for us but Chief Awo and a good number of the oldies encouraged us.
When the Unity Party was formally launched Chief Awo handed some of my friends and I over to the late Mr Olaniwun Ajayi to take us home and introduce us to the political family in Remo. That was the beginning of our grassroots involvement. The Political Science Faculty of a University only teaches political theory. Practical grassroots politics is taught in the field. Some of the professors in the school of practical politics are stack illiterates. If there is any field in which you have to stoop to conquer, it is in the field of practical politics. Those “professors” know they are handicapped and have nowhere to go, nevertheless they know their positions as kingmakers. Just as the hooligans taught the EndSars agitators a serious lesson in life, the political thugs and wheeler-dealer political practitioners also have lessons to teach all aspiring politicians. Like the hooligans, those are the real Nigerians. I know that many of our children with their Harvard, MIT, Oxford and Yale degrees find it difficult to relate at this level. But therein lies their problem. If you cannot deal with the people at the gate, there’s no way you will enter the promised land.
The political route is filled with spikes, the rough and tumble everywhere and Nigeria is not an exception. I read a book on Abraham Lincoln once. “Honest Abbey,” as he was called, was the most decent and honest of men. The book says that the politics of his day was characterised and dominated by thugs, never- do-wells and miscreants. Honest Abbey meandered through the thicket, found a basis for accommodation and rapprochement. In the process, he lost 6 elections winning only one, the Presidency. He became the greatest American President with prodigious achievements- the man who ended the slave trade and fought the civil war which kept America as one country.
Those who aspire to political leadership, or to change society must be ready to pay the price. The punishment for the wise”, said a Greek philosopher, “who refuse to take part in the government of their people, is to be ruled by fools.” Politics has never been a tea party.
It was during the expectant days of the Committee of Friends days that I first made the acquaintance of the late Chief Bisi Onabanjo, the prolific journalist, a very mischievous and extremely intelligent man. I later became a Commissioner in his government. It was like being taught of Plato and Socrates- the master and his student. Onabanjo was a hands-on, deft politician with a heart for the people. He was as quick as a razor. He was accountable and imbued with a deep sense of proportion. With his uncanny instinct, he could see our promise and our shortcoming. I had come from a fairly successful commercial practice and was already mingling with the leaders of corporate Nigeria and operating a practice based in the Lagos “financial district” our equivalent of Wall Street. He said very calmly that political office was a different field but represented the “real Nigeria”in which we had to go back to school. “If you are patient and humble, you will learn this new trade,” he said over and over. It took time before the message sank. When it did I knew I was back to school. He was the “headmaster.” He even bruised me deliberately moving me from the Ministry of Health & Social Welfare, where I was having a ball, to the Ministry of Forestry to go and deal with timber merchants, the people who, according to him, “controlled the local economy”. From there I was moved to the Ministry of Home Affairs ie Local Government which is a political ministry.It was, unknown to me, what some people called a deft preparation for the a future career. This was the “plan “ before the military struck. But that’s the story for another day.
Coming back to the issue in debate, I am in full agreement with Nasir El Rufai on his scathing remark on the entitlement mentality of the youth. My personal experience is not presented as a model. There’s no model. It is just presented to underscore the need for preparation in every field, particularly, in the political field. The nature of the preparation will differ from one person to the other. But one thing is clear, those with inadequate preparation will always prove themselves to be poor leaders. There are many people holding high offices in Nigeria today with little preparation. This is why they often demonstrate such mediocrity and a lack of preparation. It’s garbage in garbage out. A man can only give what he has.