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Our statesmen and us

By Hamilton Odunze

IT was historian Charles Beard who wrote in The American Mercury that: “The statesman is one who divines the long future, foresees the place of his class and nation in it, labours intelligently to prepare his countrymen for their fate, combines courage with discretion, takes risks, exercises caution when it is necessary, and goes off the stage with a reasonable degree of respectability.” Incidentally, these are also the desired qualities of a leader.

Perhaps no other pronouncement on the subject of statesmanship gives a better yardstick for assessing the qualities of a statesman. It is against the backdrop of these qualities that I want you to make a general assessment of those whom we refer to as statesmen.

Dating back to ancient Rome, every successful nation has at some point had statesmen who blazed the trail of national consciousness. For instance, Cicero was a Roman statesman who came from humble beginnings to become one of the greatest minds of ancient Rome. He is credited with introducing Romans to Greek philosophy, which was at the time the essence of civilisation.

Another exemplary statesman is Nelson Mandela, who has set a standard of exemplary sacrifices for South African youth. Upon retiring as president, Nelson Mandela set up a foundation that has made immense contributions in setting South Africa apart from other African nations by promoting values, vision and ethics.

If we go by Beard’s definition and the achievements of notable statesmen, it is obvious that as a society we Nigerians have yet to identify who our statesmen are.

A political leader can be a statesman, but in today’s world to refer a political leader as a statesman is rather a narrow and superficial application of the concept. Even in societies where politicians seem to have a broader perspective on issues without the usual partisan inclinations, it is still too narrow to refer to them as statesmen.

When one talks about political leadership in Nigeria, immediately our antennas bend to ethnic, partisanship associations that have characterised our Nigerian society. A statesman is more than one of these phoney characters that have been seen in our polity over the years.

My argument does not preclude statesmen from having political inclinations; it does not also preclude them from serving their people in whatever capacity they can.

However, a statesman is more than that; according to Beard, a statesman should be one who can tell the future of his people and who labours intelligently to prepare his countrymen for their fate. When circumstances call for a statesman to redirect the undesirable fate of his people, he should be courageous and sincere enough to undertake such ventures.

But most importantly, a statesman should be willing to get off the stage with a reasonable amount of respect and dignity. Put it this way: He is one who would be willing to quit the stage when the ovation is loudest.

It is observable that the people we refer to as statesmen fall short of these qualities. Our “statesmen” stay in office until they are forced to leave by nature’s providence. From all indications, we have men who continually dress themselves in borrowed robes and prey on our collective ignorance.

Is it me or is anybody else disturbed about the increasing list of people to whom we refer as statesmen?  In a recent statement, the Senate President referred to Dim Odimegwu Ojukwu as “elder statesman”. Obasanjo, Babangida, and Buhari are all parading themselves as “statesmen”. I pray that Yar’Adua have a happy and fulfilled life so he can join our growing list of “statesmen”.

If we have this long list of statesmen among us, why is it that responsible and meaningful leadership continues to be the bane of Nigeria?  We as Nigerian youths lack a good example of an ideological foundation usually initiated by statesmen and essential in determining the destiny of a nation. We have watched our list of statesmen grow, yet Nigeria spirals down without a good moral foundation as a nation.

This trend of ascribing honours and encomiums even when they are not deserved underscores the extent of mediocrity that has permeated Nigeria. Whether it is honouring the so-called living legends, giving out traditional titles or titles depicting academic achievements, as a culture we have been very generous in ascribing such honours.

The historical role of the statesman in a society is to promote public good. However, our ex-presidents and leaders engage in political networking aimed at covering up their loot instead of taking on the role of  promoters of public good
by building foundations and charity organizations to help education, poverty, and diseases.

Those we call statesmen have no achievements befitting that honor. They bend and twist the law to serve their personal purpose. Just before we started calling them statesmen, they were the same men under whose watch corruption permeated the fabric of Nigeria. It was under their guidance that we sank into decline. Yet they want to be known as statesmen because statesmanship echoes respectable attributes like nobility, benevolence, and patriotism.

All this put together, think of it this way: the statesman is the human version of angels. Do we really have them among us?

Hamilton Odunze Co – editor African Analyst


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