Being an address delivered by Chude Jideonwo, Executive Director of The Future Project at the Nigeria Symposium for Young & Emerging Leaders 2013, Ikogosi Warm Springs Resort, Ekiti on 6 April, 2013
There is a dear friend of mine he is seated here, working in the change-maker spaces, who has approached his passion for country with a single-mindedness and aggression that can be compelling.
Everyone says he wants to be a politician – that the reason he is organising, mobilising and engaging, despite his repeated protestations to the contrary, is because he is building a network and goodwill that will serve him when he runs for office soon – and that all of this is mere positioning for that time when he declares his ambition.
And I say to that – so what?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with ambition. Societies are transformed by men and women who have ambition – ambition for fame, ambition for fortune, ambition for glory, ambition for legacy.
“The history of the world,” according to a quote attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, “is full of men who rose to leadership, by sheer force of self-confidence, bravery and tenacity.”
Nations are not changed by the innocent and the unscarred, and people who have an unblemished record. Actually, those people do not exist – anywhere from Paul Kagame (who continues to be accused of fomenting war amongst his neighbours) to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (whose record from the Liberian War is, at best, murky), to use African reformist examples. Nations are changed by people with the willpower, and the passion and the energy and the strategy to transform society in ways that benefit the greatest possible number of people.
What we now appear to have in Nigeria is an unending search for the perfect. Where we don’t find that, we have unfortunately begun to cannibalise our own: we have begun to attack those we should support, malign those we should encourage and second-guess those we should line up behind.
It is understandable. We are surrounded, as it were, by disappointment. This is a nation where role models are few and far between, and where lines of principle and integrity are blurred in a mad dash away from poverty, or towards more money.
The country has earned N48 trillion from oil alone in the past 12 years; out of that amount, at least N7.7 trillion has disappeared through abandoned projects and by some calculations over N10 trillion has been stolen. Poverty in the period has grown by at least 15 per-cent.
And someone says we should keep calm and eat chocolate?
Let me make this clear – it is better for us to be children of anger, than to be children of apathy.
So yes, our anger is legitimate – but that doesn’t mean it in effective in the way we now manifest it.
You take a look at our Twitter timelines and it appears we are busy … lolloxing, engaging in a mutual public masturbation, pleasing ourselves within ourselves and insulting all and sundry including those who are only working hard to build what they can in a difficult country. And the effect is that those we should be influencing no longer pay attention to what we have to say; to what we have to do.
The civic space is now defined by distrust and visceral frustaton. An industry of rage amplified in an age of social media – where everyone with a capacity or speech and a Twitter handle can simulate enough anger to call Nigerians to join their quest to burn the world.
That industry produced the rejoicing on the news that a Navy Helicopter carrying Patrick Azazi and Governor Patrick Yakowa exploded and then crashed in the creeks of the Niger Delta. It produced our lack of sympathy for an 82-year old Professor in retirement kidnapped from her home because her daughter is the country’s finance minister, and those who reacted with a snort when President Jonathan revealed that, in a heartbreaking example of infant mortality, his mother list eight of her children.
We no longer have a conversation. The unreasonable have taken advantage of our anger and taken over the debate, forcefully driving the terms, and eventually all of us, into an abyss.
And while we are busy validating ourselves, those we should be fighting to a standstill are organizing, and building, and consolidating their hold on power and influence.
The fact is, any of our leaders will be flawed and they will have undesirable attributes, but Bola Tinubu need not be flawless if he will create the political environment for a visionary like Babatunde Fashola. I will not waste my time on Olusegun Obasanjo’s many faults if I identify in him a man who understood the challenges of constructing a modern society, just as I will not join the unending joy at new chinks in Nasir el-Rufai’s armour when he has laid a foundation that future public servants can look up to as a model for good governance.
The issue, the foundational issue, is that Nigeria’s leadership is plagued by a depressing dearth of men with character who were born and shaped to lead a modern society. We need to begin to identify and support people with an agenda for our country – an agenda of competence, an agenda of development, an agenda to build. We need to build and sustain coalitions of people whose individual agenda drive the general agenda of a national rebirth.
Beyond identifying them, we need to build our own capacity to lead. We should stop pontificating when we should be listening; stop chest-thumping where we should pay attention. How can a young leader tell me that he has nothing to learn from a man who has been president of this country 3 times? How can I say I have nothing to learn from the governor of my state Emmanuel Uduaghan even if I do not believe in his party the PDP? Even if you don’t learn from their successes, won’t you learn from their failures, the challenges; the obstacles? How do you build your capacity if you don’t learn the tools, the language, the mechanics?
This is a major problem. This is the reason we are so many – 70 percent of the population! – and yet our impact is so small How have we allowed those whose only purpose is to burn the world limit our capacity to influence?
And that is a shame. Because we cannot use our generation as an excuse to fail the next generation. We must make the best of what we have. And there is plenty that is good in our midst.
The battle for Nigeria is not a battle between black and white, good and evil. Goodness, goodness, can we stop being naïve? It is not a battle between the PDP and those not in the PDP; not between Dr. Kayode Fayemi and Rotmi Amaechi or they would not be sitting here, together (in peace and harmony, praise the Lord). It is a battle against the systemic forces that have held Nigeria from marching forward and it this is enforced by people whose interest it serves to perpetuate those fault lines because they have nothing else to offer.
If people really do care about our country, their words their and actions will show it – are they willing to make the decisions and compromises that can encourage a forward march? Are they prepared, like the venerable Nelson Mandela, even to risk their reputations and the angers of their constituencies – to put nation above self, and progress above ego, function above form?
If that is the end game – then whatever the secondary agenda is, I suggest that we welcome them to the field of play; and welcome them to a collective and sustained effort to build a country that we can be proud of; while we continue to force them to get better.
But not all of us can be partisan. Seeking to build socity only by joining politics or joining government? NO! Don’t ask us to abandon our jobs and our destinies and queue for government appointments. As much as we need competent and vision driven people there, we also need those from the outside: activists, opposition politicians, effective lawyers, dogged journalists, informed analysts, progressive clergy, society-centered businessmen.
Japheth Omojuwa must continue to question, Gbenga Sesan must continue to fight, Hauwa Gambo must continue to name and shame, Kola Oyeneyin must continue to mobilise, Bobo Omotayo must continue to establish, Mfon Ekpo must continue to negotiate, Yemi Adamolekun must continue to connect, Zainab Galadima must contest, Akin Rotimi must engage, Olasupo Olusi must continue to strategise, Salihu Tanko must continue to spotlight, Subomi Plumptre must build the capacity to influence in her sector, Adebola Williams must create the platforms that bring us all together. Much is possible by Nigerians, in Nigeria, in spite of Nigeria.
And that is why we have come. To put heads together and raise and answer the questions our country poses, and learn from the pool of practical knowledge that our Speakers bring.
The calm and competent Hillary Clinton sagely said to the loud and angry John Edwards at the 2008 Iowa Democratic debate, “You don’t get change by hoping for it, and you don’t get change by demanding it; you get change by working towards it.”
We, as a new generation of leaders, have a lot of work to do. But are we the men and women for these times? Or are we kind that stand and argue while the house is on fire? Frankly, the volume of work we have ahead should overpower us into silence not more declarations of anger.
Let’s stop limiting our own capacity to change the only country that you and I have.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have to focus.
God keep you, and God bless Nigeria.
*Parts of this speech have been re-produced from the author’s #NewLeadership Essays.