All posts by Chude Jideonwo

Bursting the bubble – A theory about those who “lose their heads” inside government, By Chude Jideonwo

Chude-Jideonwo

The real issue is the cost of governance and then government waste.

I have taken to cracking a particular joke with my friends over the course of the past two years as I have paid close attention to the way that power and politics work in our society – that it is difficult to correctly see Nigeria’s problems from the penthouse of the Transcorp Hilton.

The Hilton – that pulsating centre of much of the elite action in the nation’s capital – in this case is of course a metaphor for the plush conditions in the much-talked-about “corridors of power”.

What I refer to is a social phenomenon that has confounded many Nigerians, including young people, over many years. How is it that perfectly reasonable and principled people, get into the Nigerian government and suddenly begin to speak in tongues that normal people cannot understand?

How does it happen that what is crystal clear to everybody is not at all clear to those who make and drive public policy – or how is it that people say one thing before they get into government and another when they are in?

I have come across three theories. One, as I have noted before, is that we thoroughly underestimate the length and width of the problems that afflict Nigeria in many areas, and do not take the time and calmness to dissect them rationally, and are thus caught unawares by their magnitude when we get the opportunity to solve the problems.

Two, we misjudge the character of those who enter government, projecting our principles and aspirations on to them and thus mis-imagine – or unfairly pre-empt – how they will conduct themselves in office.

But the third and most urgent: the trappings of government life in Nigeria are simply not conducive to reality.

You see, government in Nigeria is, ab initio, a corrupting influence.

Government in Nigeria is too comfortable, too lavish, too affluent, too wasteful, too obese; and under these circumstances, it does not lend itself to reason or reasonableness.

For instance, how does the government view public reaction when it announces that, as part of its expenditure, there will be an additional $9 billion allocated for the Vice President’s residence?

1. It does not understand what the outrage is about, and immediately blames it on a mis-informed press and a hyper-active opposition. After all, it says, this is how lodgings in the Presidential Villa have always been maintained, and the new vice president doesn’t understand why his case should be different.

2. This money was properly requested for and approved per government processes, just as a lot of monies – millions, billions – are spent in government circles daily on the most innocuous things, and what outrages you does not stand out as a sore thumb to those on the other side.

3. In an atmosphere of bloated contracts, over-invoicing, lack of monitoring and efficiency tracking, and a steady stream of revenue, no one used to the comforts of government life is immediately ready to question the log in the eyes of another government official.

Many of those who work in government are already used to its obesity. Before they join government, they do not understand how overpowering its allure is, so when they enter, they cannot resist it.

It’s a life too easy. It’s like living in a luxury hotel penthouse at the nation’s most famous hotel.

The rooms are plush, the food is rich, the service effusive and the company elite. Two rooms across probably lies a Minister of the Federal Republic, and a floor down, the publisher of a major government-friendly media, and in the elevator, a governor friend of yours. When you look across your window, all you see is Abuja in its splendor and finery – mountains, swimming pools, tall buildings, and the smell of fresh air.

It is a step above the real Nigeria; a place where all things are bright and beautiful.

Imagine that this is the life that the oil minister or a special assistant to the president lives in every single day – then you begin to understand how, from that position, it becomes very easy to be divorced from reality.

That is the mental zone from which government ministers take hundreds of aides with them to inconsequential foreign visits abroad; that is the zone from which they buy newer aircraft to make their bullet-proofed lives easier as they go from state to state; that is the zone from which they emerge when they block the Lagos roads on each one of their lavish visits to the state.

They come from a place where excess is a way of life. And when they get there, they want to preserve that lifestyle at any cost – they will delude themselves, they will shut down their consciences, they will make justifications for the ludicrous, they will ridicule their critics, they will fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo.

What you need to understand is this – they have entered into their rest. And from that place of unaltered comfort; of private jets and motorcades, endless foreign travel and new houses, first class travel and 5-star hotels across the world, they will refuse to listen to those who scream that they are crippling the nation.

In fact, as far as they are concerned – those screaming hoarse are only looking for an opportunity to join the train.

If we want to change our country for real, we will first have to start by changing the way its government works; the way its officials live, the way its functionaries spend, the expansiveness within which they are allowed to operate.

This does not mean that government should not be comfortable. Leaders need, perhaps have earned, a certain level of comfort, even luxury – and a knee-jerk response to every expense must be eschewed in favour of context. Excess is where the problem lies.

The president of America can launch an operation to defy the sovereignty of another nation in search of Osama bin Laden without any domestic uproar, but Barack Obama lamented to Vanity Fair last year about his inability to change furniture in the Oval Office without an uproar over fiscal responsibility.

Governance should be made unattractive to those who only want the easy life. It should be functional and purpose-driven, and former president Olusegun Obasanjo understood this when he began the process of stripping civil servants and public officials of free cars and houses, attempting to ensure that they gave value for what they used or took through the monetisation policy.

We have to fill up the gulf between the governed and the govern-er to such an extent that perhaps the only thing that separates the two is power, maybe influence – certainly not money.

You only need look at our country’s recurrent expenditure to wit, how much it takes just to run the government in order to understand the depth of our challenges – which is why it is a shame that the true value of the #OccupyNigeria protests seem to have been swallowed by our nation’s incestuous oil politics. The real issue is the cost of governance and then government waste. The waste also makes graft easy, even inevitable.

As long as we continue to make public life a bubble, as long as government committee members find it easy to fly first class only to submit White Papers that are exact copies of White Papers of the same content submitted two decades ago, it will be unable to attract, and sustain, the kind of character and discipline-driven people that we need to restructure our society.

Our government is one continuous ‘owambe’ party, and it’s time for the music to stop playing.

It will be hard, and those on the dance floor will fight with all they have – but what other choice do we have as a nation? We need to fight this #CostOfGovernment battle to the finish.
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Chude Jideonwo is publisher/editor-in-chief of Y!, including Y! Magazine, Y! Books, Y! TV YNaija.com. He is also executive director of The Future Project/The Future Awards. #NewLeadership is a twice-weekly, 12-week project to inspire action from a new generation of leaders – it ends on March 31.

What exactly happened to the Nuhu Ribadu we fell in love with? (#NewLeadership Series with Chude Jideonwo)

Chude-Jideonwo

I have to confess; I never really understood the concept of round pegs in round holes as regards governance. Or to put it more directly, I had never understood it in relation to people who are competent or effective at their jobs.

My assumption was: if a person has a track-record of success, then that person will always find a way to get the job done even in the absence of experience or specific knowledge.

I began to better understand the dimensions of the concept, however, when Dora Akunyili moved from the National Food and Drug Administration and Control Agency to the Ministry of Information – moving from an assignment very well suited to her personality as a happy warrior to one that required intellectual heft and nuance. The honourable minister didn’t seem to understand that the information ministry wasn’t a project to be managed, and not even a problem to be solved.

Of course, as a continuing student of governance, my perspective is limited by my collective out-of-government experience, but from that position it appeared clear what the problem was: armed only with a hammer for tool, she began to hit on water. And she failed as the government’s information manager.

 

There is a reason for that pesky maxim: you’re only as good as your last job. Competence is good, it turns out – but you cannot wish away capacity.

 

But tragic as the still-admirable Akunyili’s evolution was, it was not, for me at least, as depressing as The Tragedy of Nuhu Ribadu, a man who was hitherto the moral face of Nigeria’s fight against corruption as founding chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to which he was appointed in 2003.

Not to be a hypocrite, I must confess that I wasn’t exactly a fan of Mr. Ribadu’s brand of what many termed selective justice – any appearance of unfairness or vindictiveness rubs me raw; and it did appear that he was carrying out the political agenda of his principal at the time.

But hindsight is 50-50. And, as one has learnt of Nigeria, that every time you think it cannot get worse, it actually does.

 

So, compared to the present regime, which moral authority appears weakened by a global perception that it is soft on corruption, I now appreciate the effectiveness and passion of Mr. Ribadu. There are many who say he was a media creation, and that is a valid criticism, but it was an image comparatively well deserved.

Fast-forward four years after he left that office.

In December 2011, a gentleman, who was later to run for the office of Senator and win, gathered myself and about three other young leaders and gave us exclusive news: Mallam Nuhu Ribadu was finally returning to Nigeria and was going to be the presidential flag-nearer for the Action Congress of Nigeria.

He was inviting myself and another of the persons gathered to work for that campaign – no doubt giddy in the excitement that young people would automatically root for the man.

 

I said no to that offer as with other such offers; because I had no interest at the time in politics or public service.

 

But even if I had been open to the possibility, I would still have said no. Because I immediately knew that Ribadu the Politician was a very, very bad idea.

And he should have guessed by the reaction to the news – it landed with a thud. We weren’t uniformly excited.

It was of course a surprise, but it seemed as if we all knew immediately that this was the wrong job for the right man.

The next few months bore this out. Mr. Ribadu never seemed presidential, and it became apparent despite what his earnest, sincere and admirable supporters claimed that he had no revolutionary or even impressive ideas to change the country.

 

The only argument for his candidacy, it seemed, was his achievements while at the EFCC.

This inadequacy was painfully obviously – his interviews were meandering, his debate performances painful to watch (in one particularly searing spectacle; trying to fit into his role as politician, he made the nuanced but much ballyhooed statement that “Nigerians are not corrupt”), and sooner than later it became apparent that he and his party had very different agenda.

 

Mr. Ribadu was clearly not a politician, and didn’t have the skill sets to convince, to persuade, to influence, maybe even to inspire. It was like watching a train wreck – wasn’t this the same man who could fight crime with a visceral single-mindedness, and who found the words to speak against this evil with the directness of a crime fighter?

 

But that is what he is – a police officer, who would hate the crime and hunt the criminal even if it put his life at risk.

 

This – canvassing for votes – however, was a different ball game.

And it ended up with Mr. Ribadu shaking hands with the Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu he had once flambuoyantly called criminals, seeking the endorsement of an Ibrahim Babangida he once called unfit to lead; lifted by the resources of people he had once looked upon with luscious contempt. Stained in the eyes of many Nigerians who had once deified him, the failure of his candidacy was so spectacular that it was instantly forgettable.

There are those who will find this disrespectful to the man, and his supporters will certainly find these statements infuriating. But there is no disrespect meant. Mr. Ribadu was a fine public official, a role model for effectiveness in service that has and will inspire a whole new generation – that remains.

 

But if we are to learn from him and others, then we must learn this – his 2012 presidential run was a mistake. He should not have contested for the Presidency. He should not have entered politics, at least not yet. He should have said no.

 

Some people are fighters and others are builders, some are made to bring people together, others do not have that gift. Politicians need that capacity/skill-set (or where they do not, they have a system that ensures that – SEE: Babatunde Fashola/Bola Tinubu); but Mr. Ribadu suffered a scarcity.

He was a square peg in a round hole. He was put in a position where he could never been effective. He should have said no.

The extent to which that particular misstep diminished his capacity to drive the issues – especially as regards corruption was on full display just last year.

Mr. Ribadu returned to Nigeria in February 2012 after a hiatus to do what he knows best – find criminal activity and expose it through the Petroleum Revenue Task Force (of which he is still chairman), despite the objections of fans and critics alike.

 

This was a perfect fit for him and a match for his abilities; expect for one crucial fact he shouldn’t have missed: he didn’t have a principal whose agenda was clear. Even more, he didn’t have the power to enforce.

 

It was therefore sad to see him reduced to arguing with his deputy, Steve Oronsanye over technicalities in the task force’s report. Oronsanye clearly had a questionable agenda, but what was most striking to me as an image management professional was the reaction from the public.

 

It was obvious that Mr. Ribadu had taken a reputation hit long before this, one that had now reduced his moral authority and his ability to drive an issue solely on the strength of personality. The nation’s most famous crime fighter had been diminished.

There are many theories, but I am more interested in the lessons for me and for others who are in search of honest answers to our nation’s leadership questions.

 

This is the most important – one must pick one’s battles. This is more so in a country like Nigeria, where our situation has become so desperate, as I will not tire to point out, that the room for error is slim; where the rot is deep and where we need all public officials to understand the imperative of not making things worse.

More to the point in this case, there are some jobs that you should not take, some assignments you should not accept, and some roads you should not travel.

One should not be so blind either with ambition or with passion for change that one makes a step that ultimately limits one’s capacity to actually change anything.

When it comes to the deeply corrupt morass that is Nigeria’s governance, sometimes NO is the right answer.

It requires the painful process of self-awareness, humility, and what the Holy Bible calls a “multitude of counsel”, but we cannot fight every battle, especially those ones that we are not equipped to fight.

At the end of the day, there are no hard and fast rules of course and a lot will depend on personal principles, circumstances, and capacities – but a new generation of leaders must have these lessons constantly at the back of our minds.

We must always remember that in Nigeria, because it can be so easy for one to lose one’s way; our challenge our challenge is clear – we need to drastically reduce the number of us who fall by the wayside.

“To thine own self, be true,” we learn from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

 

God help us all.

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Chude Jideonwo is publisher/editor-in-chief of Y!, including Y! Magazine, Y! Books, Y! TV YNaija.com. He is also executivedirector of The Future Project/The Future Awards. #NewLeadership is a twice-weekly, 12-week project to inspire action from a new generation of leaders – it ends on March 31.

There’s something about government (#NewLeadership Series with Chude Jideonwo)

Chude-Jideonwo

My orientation about our government began to change in 2009. Before this time, I had always felt – sadly without any historical or evidentiary perspective – that Nigerians can transform Nigeria, in spite of our government.

It was easy for me to believe this. I came into awareness of my country’s place in the world in an atmosphere of hope in the late 1990s and at the turn of the millennium as we embraced democracy and the opening of many social spaces. There were very many examples to point out.

Some are now cliché, like Nollywood, an industry that has been hailed for rising up like a rose amongst thorns, and had become Nigeria’s biggest cultural export to the world; or our music industry – also thriving simply by grit and talent; or its youth who from art to advocacy, technology to the media, had charted courses that didn’t depend on government patronage or ‘support’.

Surely if Nigerians could do these, in spite of Nigeria, then surely we could end up regenerating Nigeria – through a network of us empowered economically and by knowledge working to rebuild our country, step by step.

That’s what I thought.

That’s what drove our passion and our work with The Future Awards, and its evolution into The Future Project – and our focus on identifying the most inspiring of our generation as strong, positive role models to motivate others to transcend Nigeria’s difficult environment and do great things.

The idea was – and it is still the fulcrum of our work – that this network of inspired, effective new leaders would create a flywheel effect that will change Nigeria.

A chance comment from a friend got me thinking beyond the box, however. He asked: how far will we actually be able to go in transforming our society before we have to connect those efforts with what government is doing or what it needs to do? How much could we achieve if the government fundamentally remained the same?

The more I thought of it. The more I realised – not far.

My experience over the past few years have made apparent to me what has been apparent to the world’s real change-makers in modern societies over the past few years. It’s the same reality that confronts you when you read books like Lee Kuan Yu’s From Third World to First World, Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracles – we can only go so far in changing our world without connecting with or transforming government.

Focusing on inspiring a network of progress outside of government wasn’t a wrong message however; it just wasn’t the complete message. Just like many of us, I was falling into a well-worn trap of the single solution, of the single story.

Of course, when you face a system like Nigeria’s, where successive governments appear to govern by default; where it appears there are no values or visions from on top and all the other clichés about our leadership that you and I are now familiar with it is easy to give in to the temptation to want to desperately ignore that government, to belittle it, to make it seem inconsequential.

With the acute awareness that it is a huge, thankless task to change a government like ours, and the abiding fear of the daunting path ahead transforming the way government thinks and functions, it is very easy to hope that we can change our country without it.

Unfortunately, that ostrich needs to bring its head out of the sand. Nigeria is not going to be changed by non-governmental organisations digging boreholes; it will not be changed by advocates pushing for probity in government. No matter how earnest and well-organised they are; their efforts will be thwarted because they are not in charge of hiring competent officials and firing corrupt aides, the maintenance of an independent judiciary through responsible appointments or the judicious allocation of public funds.

In the same way Nigeria won’t be changed by the USAID or any other international do-gooders because that is not what they are structured to do, just as a war will not be stopped by the Red Cross or Amnesty International, but by the governments and their enemies which started the war.

This is the reason, in fact, that many donors and international organisations from the British Council to the DFID, the U.S. Government to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation prefer to support organisations that interface with government, or they just partner with the governments themselves.

Where they are not doing that, they are working with organisations that are in opposition to government, or that snipe at the heels of government. Either ways, there is an implicit global understanding, honed by years of ineffectual interventions and a vicious cycle of good intentions with little result that it all comes back government.

The reason is simple: none of them have the budget, the resources, the reach, the weight, the capacity to affect all levers and layers of society. Even when they do – which is almost impossible except when one country violates another’s sovereignty – none of them can muster enough required to effect the kind of change that can be facilitated by the full power of the state.

Perhaps we can find Egypt a perfect example. While its exemplary people have turned protest into an art form, arm-twisting their leaders into taking responsible decisions and sustaining the tempo of change leading from the Arab Spring, a people-driven revolution has still come back to the character and nature of the new government that they have – and what Mohammed Morsi decides to do (and not to do) in his relations with the judiciary, the military, and civil society will turn out being more important than the revolution that brought the Islamic Brotherhood into power.

Like Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, who is King of Jordan, told participants at the World Economic Forum in January, the revolutions were the easiest part of the work that they have – building a political culture, driven by their elected leaders in government is the major task that lies ahead.

The message is simple: no matter how dirty and slimy we find our government (and maybe we are justified, and maybe we are exaggerating), we are making a terrible mistake to think that we can transform our country without it.

Government is the singular most important force for change in any society – print that and paste it on your day if you really want to do something to change your country.

It doesn’t matter if, with government officials behaving like asses and the deplorable behavior that passes for administration, government has become a dirty word; the dirtiness should not obscure that simple reality.

We need a government that works – one way or the other. We cannot, cannot change Nigeria without its government.

The tragedy, of course, is that the clamour for working with government or joining government is usually championed by people whose motives are largely questionable.

So it is important to note that joining government blindly, especially the legislature and executive, is not going to solve our problems even if it is important. And, of course, if precedent gives us any pointers, blind ambition causes more harm than good.

Fortunately for us, there is not just one way to make our government better. What we need to do, like I have mentioned in an earlier piece, is to find our positions in relation to this organ.

We need enough competent and vision-driven people who are transforming the government by working with it and helping it; or we have others working from outside: activists, freedom fighters, opposition politicians, radical lawyers, dogged journalists, progressive clergymen.

But whatever we do, we need the government in our sights. Whatever we do, where we want it to have a lasting impact on the way our society is structured and governed, we have to find the nexus where these efforts connect to government – and modifies its behavior. Either that or we push it aside, and work to get a government that will act right.

In my next piece, I will be sharing the example of two impressive people who provide a signpost for how one can step into those troubled waters and bring calm to the storm. I will also share examples of two people working outside of government who have found effective ways of putting it on its toes.

We will need more people like them, who are self-aware enough to make a step that is selfless and purposive. That job isn’t for each and every one of us – but there are always men and women made for a time like this. And e fit be you o.