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.
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.