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Simon Kolawole: To Serve With Heart And Might

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Olusegun Adeniyi had just been appointed special adviser on media and publicity to President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. That was in June 2007. It was an appointment he reluctantly accepted after turning it down for weeks, during which he confided in me all the pressure being mounted on him to have a change of heart. As he left for Abuja, I stepped into his shoes as Editor of THISDAY. Before I knew it, a torrent of prayers started flooding in my direction on a daily basis as people congratulated me on my new position.

“Simon, by the special grace of God, you too will soon get a political appointment,” members of my ‘committee of well wishers’ would pray with passion and compassion.
“God forbid!” I would reply without remorse.

My response often shocked them. People think the ultimate desire of every journalist is to become a press secretary or commissioner for information. They think the highest attainment for any Nigerian is to get a political appointment. While I don’t have anything against political appointments, it has never been part of my DNA. I discovered many, many years ago that I can be a problem solver in my own corner without holding political power or public office. I have turned down offers that some people would die for — and I don’t feel less fulfilled as a human being. Indeed, I am happy tackling challenges and helping people make something out of their lives from my little space.
What has this story got to do with our discussion today? Here we go. Why do so many people pray fervently for political appointments — either for themselves or for their friends and relatives? Why do people desperately lobby to become special assistants and special advisers and commissioners and ministers and DGs and board members? Why do people kill to become governors? Is it that they have this burning desire to tackle the challenges stifling Nigeria? Is it that they are so desperate to solve our country’s problems? Is it that they are so moved by the plight of the ordinary Nigerians that they want to risk their lives and reputation to combat it?

I wish it were so. I wish we could vouch for every public office holder — elected or appointed — that their overriding objective is to solve problems. Truly, there are many Nigerians who are so worried by the Nigerian condition that all they desire is see how they can be part of the solution. They think by holding political power — perhaps the most potent of all human powers — they would be able to contribute their own quota to the development of Nigeria. I have come across such people with passion for the development of Nigeria. It would, therefore, be very unfair of me to conclude that everyone with political ambition is a vulture.

However, I have seen so many principled people go into government with a promise to “serve my people”, but as soon as they print their complimentary cards with the coat of arms, their vision becomes blurred. As soon as they are allocated security operatives and a siren, they begin to live in a different world, completely dead to their consciences. As soon as they lay their hands on estacode, they begin to speak in tongues. How many principled people come out of government with their hands clean and reputation intact? How many are able to keep their dreams alive in the midst of the aromatic smell of easy mint? Not too many.

We are in the season of appointments. CVs are flying around. Phones are ringing nonstop. SMS and voicemails are all over the place. Lobbying upon lobbying upon lobbying. Meetings upon meetings upon meetings. People just want to be in positions in government. As the prayer warriors and pastors gather to decree political appointments for their friends and relatives, and as their friends and relatives continue to double efforts to get the so-called juicy positions, it would be worth the while for them to step back a bit and ask themselves: are they ready to come out of government insignificantly richer than they went it? What is really driving them?

It is very easy to misunderstand my point. I do not suggest that those who don’t want political appointments are angels and those who want are devils. That’s not my point. I do not suggest that anybody who goes into government has an impure motive. My curiosity is: why has the enthusiasm to “serve” not turned to better life for Nigerians? Why has the desperation to be in public office not translated to the reduction of poverty in the land? Why has the enthusiasm been, instead, producing multimillionaires and multibillionaires in government? These are questions that need to be answered as truthfully as possible by those who are so eager to “serve”.

There are times I wonder why people celebrate extravagantly when their friends and colleagues get appointments. You see congratulatory adverts all over the newspapers. They organise dinners and thanksgiving services for the appointee, with full media coverage. Why? Is it that they are genuinely happy for the appointee? Is it that they are preparing the ground to benefit from the goodies that could flow from that office? Or are they just doing it as a matter of culture — this is what is expected of “friends”? I don’t know. I can’t say. But I can’t remember seeing congratulatory adverts for ministers appointed by Botswana or US. Maybe it’s culture. Or something else.

If a friend of mine were appointed minister of education, my first instinct would be to pity him, not to call a party. The challenges are so numerous that I would be bothered about how he is going to make an impact and leave a legacy. How will he tackle the poor quality of instruction? How will he tackle inadequate and rotten infrastructure? How will he bridge the funding gap? How will he rally states and councils to address the issue of millions of children out of school? So many challenges, more than I can list within this space. Now, fellow Nigerians, how does this call for champagne? How does this call for congratulatory adverts?

My challenge today is to the ministerial nominees of President Muhammadu Buhari. When they take the oath of office, they will become the eyes and hands and legs of Buhari in this journey to make Nigeria a land of delight. I hope they will be different this time around. My observation over the years is that the limelight of public office often takes precedence over service to fatherland. The perks are too juicy. The levers of accountability are too low. So we are attracting the wrong people into public service. We need to scale down the entitlements and see how we might attract genuine hands into government, not the gold diggers and winebibbers.

“To serve with heart and might” is a poignant line in the National Anthem. Heart. Might. Love. Affection. Commitment. Tenacity. Can we develop that into a proper mantra for public officers? Can we use this line to prick their consciences? Can it become a line they will recite to themselves when they get to office and when they close? I am not talking about a banner to be hanged in the office or a badge to be worn on the sleeves. I mean a line they can whisper to themselves, far away from the media cameras, far away from the glare of the public and their principals. The desperation for public office, I think, should go with a genuine desire to solve problems.

AMAECHI’S WEEK
What else can Chibuike Amaechi, former governor of Rivers state, pray for? His ministerial screening finally took place at the senate after weeks of fire and brimstone, and the elections petitions tribunal removed his best-friend-turned-worst-enemy, Nyesom Wike, as governor of Rivers and ordered a rerun of the April 11, 2015 poll. That Amaechi will eventually be confirmed minister by the senate is a matter of formality — the stars clearly favour him. Wike could yet win his governorship case on appeal or at the supreme court, but I’m inclined to think the muscle and the momentum now lie with the APC. Intriguing.

SHY GUY
Why are there so few women in the proposed cabinet of President Muhammadu Buhari? Gideon Samani, an aide of Babachir Lawal, the secretary to the government of the federation, has an interesting idea. “Buhari is very shy in dealing with the opposite sex,” Samani explained — or joked, to put it bluntly. Presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina, has denied and added his own joke: “The president has a wife, many daughters and female relatives whom he loves dearly.” I will now add my own joke: “How can somebody who has fathered eight children be shy of women? Was it by SMS?” Hahahaha.

COMIC RELIEF
Still on the theme of comedy, we need to commend the senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria for providing us with comic relief in these challenging times. This thing they call ministerial screening is nothing but a circus, a hilarious show. I hope it is only Nigerians that are watching it, though. It would be too embarrassing for any outsider to hear the kind of questions our “distinguished” senators are asking prospective ministers. The impression they will go away with is that we are a country of jokers, paying some extremely overfed potbellies to preside over our affairs. Lol.

CABINET COMPLAINTS
I’ve heard a lot of comments on the new team of ministers put together by Buhari. There is a lot of disappointment, which I share, about the lack of balance in terms of age and gender. Also, some people are disappointed about the presence of certain politicians and are asking questions about the “change” promised by the president. My take, however, is that we should wait for the allocation of portfolios. Most importantly, we should not forget that the driver of the team, Buhari, is expected to make a lot of difference this time around, not just the ministers. Leadership.

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Article written By Simon Kolawole

Email: simon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com

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