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The leader as a thinker, visionary and mobilizer

A review of Governor Ikedi Ohakim’s books on Challenging New Frontiers and Pushing the Limits

By Sam Amadi

It is said that a book is known by the company it keeps. Great books keep great company. Governor Ikedi Ohakim’s  “Challenging New Frontiers: Vision, Power, Courage and the Struggle to Transform Imo State, Nigeria” and “Pushing the Limits: Daring to Lead Change in Imo State” are great books because they keep great company. There is no better company for each of these books than one another. The books inhabit symmetrical universes of beauty of forms and words, of rhyme and reason; of syntax and semantics; and of sentiments and sensibilities.

Now, how do these books square up in technical quality? There is order in the structure and arrangement of the books. Order is not a marginal virtue in books. The human mind treasures order. Orderly ideas are easily assimilated. When we encounter ideas and insights in orderly manner, we are more likely to absorb and effectively use them. The two books are collections of speeches Ohakim delivered to different audiences as governor of Imo State. The first book, “Challenging New Frontiers: Vision, Power, Courage and the Struggle to Transform Imo State, Nigeria”, collects speeches delivered between April 19, 2007 and December 2007. The second book, “Pushing the Limits: Daring to Lead Change in Imo State”, contains speeches delivered at various times between 2008 and 2009. Although these speeches were delivered within a two-year period, they hold together in style, expression and ideas. The thematic and structural unity of these books suggest that the creative mind behind them is orderly.

Before examining the substantiality of the ideas and conceptions of leadership and governance in these books, it is important to dwell a little on the lexical and syntactic richness of the book. The speeches in these collections can stand unbowed in the company of the best writing anywhere in the world. Governor Ohakim has demonstrated in his speech an intuitive feel for the right word for the right occasion. He seems to take to heart the biblical admonition that a word fittingly spoken is like an apple of gold in a picture of silver (Proverb 25:11).

The craftsmanship displayed in the speeches is exquisite. It easily transcends the craft of the ordinary politician. His language is picturesque without being pedantic and hackneyed, his voice is learned without being academic and he combines the knowledge of a man of books with the simplicity of a raconteur. What the New York Times wrote about President Barack Obama can be said of Governor Ohakim: it is not oftentimes that a politician thinks well and also writes well. Governor Ohakim bridges the discursive and communicative gap between the politician and the writer.

A few samples from the books speak to the felicity of his sentences and unobtrusive flow of his thoughts. While speaking to faculty and students of Imo State University after receiving an honorary doctorate degree, Governor Ohakim makes the following comments: “Much as we recognize unionism under our democratic principle of freedom of association, it must not be reduced to a syndicate for arm-twisting, a breastplate for people constantly spoiling for showdown or a caucus for crude partisan politicking.

A trade union is a forum for negotiating and dialoguing. It is unedifying to see professors in picketing lines with academic gowns! Worse are those who enlist nepotism, clannishness, sectionalism, zonism and other clandestine forces to advance their interests and careers. Such peoples are not fit to be called intellectuals” (Pushing the Limits, pages 35-36). While defending himself before the leading lights of Imo State and taking a swipe against his traducers, Governor Ohakim waxes rhetorical, even lyrical: “In seven months, we have given Imo State a new vision, a New Face and a new confidence that we can be amongst the best in the federation even with our limited resources.

In seven months, we have rehabilitated 33 water projects and 27 micro water schemes, energized 33 idle transformers, completed 10 major roads in Owerri metropolis, with 21 on-going road projects, including the dualization of all entries into Owerri Capital. In seven months, we have secured jobs for 252 graduates through our Job Centre. In seven months, we have increased our Internally Generated Revenue from N200million a month to N400million. In seven months, we have made our Clean and Green Initiative a national project. In seven months, we have launched the Imo Transport Service, the first modern transport system since the creation of the state. In seven months, we have reduced crime rates in our state through our Operation Festival”.

The rich lyricism of these paragraphs cannot be lost on anyone. There are no tangled and turgid phrases; no opaque or hanging expressions; and no misplaced emphasis. The sentences are direct, short and luminous. The refrains are smooth, natural and not contrived. Although these paragraphs are discursively dissimilar, they are linguistically related in rhetorical felicity and structural simplicity. Whether speaking about such grandiose subject as leadership and governance or merely reporting his stewardship, Governor Ohakim’s masterful communication is always on display.

The literary and aesthetic qualities of the speeches in these collections, without any doubt, establish Governor Ohakim as a master communicator. I dare say that Governor Ohakim, by these offerings to the library of political leadership in Nigeria, has established himself as one of the best political communicators in the country. I doubt if any book of speech in Nigeria today can rival these in quality of ideas and expressions.

The speeches in these collections brand Governor Ohakim as the most communicative of Governors who have held sway in Imo State since its founding. Not even the iconic Dr. Sam Mbakwe comes anywhere near Governor Ohakim in scouring the intellectual landscape selecting words to define the present and envision the future. Where Mbakwe was folksy Ohakim is intellectual, nuanced and technocratic. Where Mbakwe localized his idioms and referents to the familiar universe of the established political order, Ohakim continues to transgress the familiar terrains of the political establishment, at least in the discourse of power and leadership.

No matter what the issues are, Governor Ohakim keeps to the same message of transformation. Reading through the speeches in the book, one will easily encounter the genius of staying on message. In the battle over the mind of the people, a political leader must decide on a message and stick to it. Great political communicators stay on message, whether Ronald Reagan with his government has no business in the peoples’ business; or Margret Thatcher’s ‘This lady is not for turning’, the great leader must have a strong message that provides beacon of light and hope for the followers.

Right from the first speech, Governor Ohakim has decided on the two phrases that will define his leadership. He offered the people “A New Face of Imo” and the “Hand of God”. The strong refrain of his message is ‘transformation’. This means that “All that is needed to transform Imo to a modern model state with the strong diversified manufacturing-based economy, anchored on emerging skills, midwifed by science and technology, with guaranteed employment opportunities for our citizens, is our collective will, determination, dedication to the cause of Imo State and selflessness. And, of course, the anointing hand of God” (Challenging the New Frontier, page 12). The idea of transformation captured in the memorable phrases: A New Face of Imo and the Hand of God are not limited to lectures and important speeches on grand occasions.

Governor Ohakim utilizes every opportunity to win the battle of mind and institutionalize the consciousness of transformation in the minds of Imo indigenes. For example, during a Christmas broadcast to Imo citizens in 2008, the Governor, in a two minute speech, mentions the New Face of Imo twice and the Hand of God once: “We welcome all those returning and visiting our state this Yuletide. Your government, in the spirit of the New Face of Imo, has provided free transport to ease the financial burdens of those who cannot afford the cost of returning to unite with family and friends… we have reinforced the Operation Festival and the New Face of Imo Vigilante to watch your back…. In this season of Joy, Imo remains firmly in the hands of God” (Pushing the Limit, page 241)

Governor Ohakim, in his speeches, follows the greats who have learnt that transformative leadership requires strong and compelling stories told in a credible voice. In his extended lectures at different forums, he grows tall like a Philosopher-King. These lectures show remarkable scholarship that we don’t often associate with the run-off-the-mill politician. Apart from the scholarly merits of these lectures, their public intellectualism and moral outrage are usually not associated with men and women called upon to deal daily in the dirty and prosaic world of politics.

In his lecture at the launch of the Nlogha Okeke Foundation Lecture Series, Governor Ohakim astutely explores the crisis of leadership in Nigeria with great scholarship and acute sense of reality. While analyzing the various forms of leadership enunciated in the literature, he smartly interrogates the Nigerian condition and concludes that until we dissociate leadership from quest for raw power, we will not witness the transformation that only a truly great leadership can bestow. He argues that Nigerians “have mistaken political office for leadership. What seems to be evident at every level of our political structure and at every political post is that the struggle is about how to capture, control and appropriate the resources belonging to the people, not who inspires hope or leads the people to embrace change or remove the barriers confronting them” (Pushing the Limits, page 15).

The two lectures Governor Ohakim delivered at the World Igbo Congress Conference and the Aka-Ikenga Lecture Series are masterpieces of political thinking and intellectual leadership. His speech at the World Igbo Congress lecture (Challenging New Frontiers, page 286) titled “Ima Onwe: the Way of the Future” stands out as a departure from the self-laceration and self-immolation of the past. Governor Ohakim draws from the diverse worlds of philosophers, historians and anthropologists to define the Igbo predicament and chart the path of transformation through Socratic self-awareness and Aristotlean solidarity. Drawing from rich Igbo oration and repertoire; and the tapestry of Igbo heroism Governor Ohakim exorcises the demons of the Civil War defeat and counsels Ndi-Igbo to renew themselves through a new leadership that is “bold, bright, brave, forthright and above all compassionate”.

Speaking to Igbos and non-Igbos at the Aka-Ikenga Lecture, Governor Ohakim, once more, revisits the vexed issues of the battered psychology of political leadership in Igboland today. Exploring two iconic narratives of Igbo heroism and transcendentalism in the Amistad by Howard Jones and The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equino or Gustavus Vassa, Governor Ohakim tells the story of renewal and revitalization open to the Igbo nation if it refuses to behold itself in the mangled mirrors of Nigerian politics. In a hubristic and daring reference to the fable of the unconquerable Jewish race, Governor Ohakim counsels the Igbo race to seek transcendence over the incubus of Nigeria politics and rediscover their greatness through an inclusive heroism based on the unrelenting quest for excellence.

Governor Ohakim’s speeches are characterized by a can-do spirit that transgresses every limitation and traverses existential landscapes. His message to his countrymen and women, whether in the form of ‘A New Face of Imo’ or ‘Ima-Onwe’, is deployed with great communicative acumen that they vibrate continuously in the carapace of collective consciousness. Governor Ohakim knows what Ronald Reagan knew, that transformative leadership requires a compelling story. As Howard Gardner puts it in his classic, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, “Leaders achieve their effectiveness through the stories they relate…. As a rule of thumb, creative artists, scientists, and experts in various disciplines lead indirectly, through their works; effective leaders of institutions and nations lead directly, through the stories and acts they address to an audience”.

Like President Obama, Governor Ohakim embraces the bully pulpit in his bid to sow the seed of change in the minds of the Imo people and his Nigerian compatriots. With seductive and luminous words, he has defined the future and has infiltrated the discourse of power and politics in Imo State with a transformative concept called ‘The New Face of Imo under the Hand of God”. This ‘semantic infiltration’ will hopefully prod the Imo people on the path where the quest for power converges with the pursuit of truth. As Tony Dolan, President Reagan’s Speechwriter, enthuses, it is such ‘semantic infiltration’ that makes the difference in history. “It was Churchill’s rhetoric which made the difference in the world war. People respond to the truth. With ‘evil empire’ people said, “That’s right. Cut out all the bull. The emperor has no clothes”. I pray that truly there is a New Face of Imo and the politicians in Imo State will act as if Imo is in the Hand of God.
* Amadi reviewed the books, “Challenging New Frontiers” and “Pushing the Limits” written by Governor Ikedi Ohakim.


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