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Requiem for a humble man:Yar’Adua and the future of Nigeria

By Dr. Joseph  O. Okpaku , Sr.

Death comes when it will or when it must, and we know not when or why. And so we learn, through faith, custom, hope and fortitude to manage somehow to accept that which we cannot change, even though we almost always do not and cannot understand.

Losing someone is never an experience that is easy to cope with, at any time, age or circumstances, whatever the cause or circumstances. It is that knowledge of the sense of helplessness that the shadow of death casts on the bereaved that must have led our ancestors, in their profound wisdom and mastery of the cycle of life and its aftermath, to create the sober and somber rites and rituals of the transition of life. The celebration and performance of these rites and rituals surreptitiously provides us the strength and courage we must have to bid our loved ones farewell even just when the last thing we really want to do is let them go.

A condolence register at the Yar'Adua's family House in Katsina, yesterday.

It is the capacity to celebrate life at the precise moment when we must accept death, with perhaps a few moments of separation between the two in order to enable the force of the motion of time, that propels and sustains the continuity of life, the perpetuation of hope and the profound sense that tomorrow will come as surely as today came out of yesterday, and that in time, all will be well.

This ritual, performed through song and dance, poetry and prose, recitations and incantations, has soothed our anguish of loss and enabled our accommodation with the passing of loved, revered or honoured ones through the years, that is, until funerals have become so elaborate and costly that they not infrequently threaten to impoverish and bankrupt surviving families. And just as we must let today go so that tomorrow can come, so we must let our loved ones go when that time comes, after we have done all we possibly can to man the fortress of the defense of their lives, so that they may at last have some peaceful respite from the struggle for life that most often except in sudden death, has tried their courage and fortitude beyond all limits of human endurance.

Such are the circumstances that all of us Nigerians, as a people and as a nation, find ourselves in today as we mourn the death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, our 13th Head of State. The thousands of Nigerians who thronged the funeral in Katsina to pay their last respects, decidedly just plain folk, speak most eloquently as no individual alone can, of the gratitude of a nation and a people whom Yar’Adua has served devotedly, even when the personal challenges of health and energy must have made the burden he had to carry doubly enormous.

President Yar’Adua’s tenure in office has been anything but routine, accentuated by public and personal circumstances that raised the decibel of public discourse quite exponentially, even after adjusting for the routine loudness of Nigerian hearty disputation that is our hallmark, and most often (unless when cantankerous) proudly so. Some of that high pitch arose from the process of party nomination, some of it from the conduct of the elections that made him President, and yet some of it from the dynamics of issues that arose during his tenure.

But a good deal of the cacophony actually preceded his Presidency, having been born of many years of public rancor and disaffection with the political process and with a fair number of those who have orchestrated it and, by virtue of that, have managed the fortunes or lack thereof of the people and the nation.  Unfortunately, and perhaps indifferently, the dynamics of leadership bestow on incumbency the sum total of all negative precedence, whatever their origin or cause, and no matter under whose tutelage they arose. This is a lesson that even US President Barack Obama, popular as he is, has come to learn as a segment of the population to the right of the centre noisily blame the not-yet-abated economic woes on him.

But the long-term assessment of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s legacy, especially that of his Presidency, is the responsibility of history. As for the short-term critique, the process will inevitably commence sooner than later. It has, in fact, already begun, especially overseas. But consistent with our tradition and the respect for those departed, we can only pay homage at this point, not examine or pass judgment. Our culture requires that in the period of mourning we may only sing the praises of our departed.
So let us do so. But in doing so, let us seek to take advantage of this period of mourning to reflect soberly on our experience of him, the experience of our nation under his tutelage, Nigeria today, and the challenges and opportunities before us which we must recognize and give voice to so that we can commence, at long last, the process of genuine nation-building that an incredible number of Nigerians truly believe has eluded us for quite some time. Let us do so as a people, one people, one nation, one larger extended family. Because to do it otherwise will be to perpetuate the malaise that has cast an awkward shadow over our destiny for far too long. This is the raison d’étre of this rather austere commentary, to reflect on the short experience of Yar’Adua as President in an effort to derive lessons that we can use to infuse our contemplation of (and strategic planning for) the future of Nigeria.

Critical attributes of good, responsive and responsible leadership

A political leader has a rather broad array of attributes with which to make an indelible impression on the people and their lives. The larger the combination of such attributes, the more synergy and coherence they share, and the greater the potential impact the leader can achieve.

These attributes include, amongst others, a genuine desire to lead and the corresponding ability and commitment to do so, a clear and articulate vision, character, knowledge and the ability and eagerness to learn, wisdom where possible (or at least an exceptional intellect in its absence), courage to act when action is called for and to do what is right when we do act, solid self-confidence that empowers integrity while enabling us to embrace the dreams, thoughts and excellence of others rather than fear being overshadowed by such persons, the power of persuasion, perspicacity, transparency and accountability of purpose, intent and conduct, candor, charisma, respect of self and for others, courtesy and style, and most importantly, exemplary behavior at an exceptionally high standard of conduct.

Late Musa Yar'Adua

The capacity to dream and to inspire
The requisite attributes also include two very critical capacities: The ability to dream of an immensely better tomorrow and how to bring it about and the ability to inspire others to embrace and share that dream and to commit to it. The notion of being a dreamer is often misconstrued to be the opposite of being serious, sober or realistic. That is hardly the case.

The dreamer is the person who is able to contemplate a world yet unknown, to imagine and conjecture the world beyond its present boundaries and just how those boundaries might be extended to further expand human possibilities. Creativity and innovation are impossible without the ability to dream by engaging human imagination to reach beyond the debilitating confines of routine or pedestrian goals. For the best and brightest, and, therefore, for society at large, such an imprisonment of the mind and imagination is patently destructive.

Dreams are empowering because they compel human genius to engage in new possibilities. This is why a dreamer holds immense capacity to inspire others to reach beyond themselves, confident that in so doing they will craft new configurations for their lives, community and society, innovations that are eminently much more attractive and yet achievable and sustainable.

One of the worst damage ever done to Africa, especially by many who have posed as experts and specialists on our development, has been the relentless badgering of our men and women, to accept the lowest common denominators of human possibilities through the unwholesome promotion of low level goals and objectives while those who so advise us ascribe to themselves the right and opportunity to pursue the greater possibilities of crafting a new world. When an Africa dreams of innovative possibilities, he or she is deemed to be presumptuous or unrealistic. When a non-African dreams, even of the same ideas, he or she is dubbed “innovative” or simply positively a “dreamer.”

A good leader for Nigeria must be able to inspire the people to seek perpetually greater heights of accomplishments in human endeavour, buttressed by the empowerment of knowledge, history, experience and, when and where relevant, science and technology. I have often said that survival and subsistence are two of the lowest levels of human existence. They set you up to take all the burdens of the world’s worst situations and circumstances without the ability and freedom to alter your position or condition. This approach to development, what I call poverty management, must give way to an enlightened strategic self-development.

The ability to listen to the voices of others

Yet another special attribute of sound leadership is the ability to listen to the voices of the people no matter how muffled, weary, shrill or strained, for as long as it takes, until one understands their thoughts, needs and desires. Listening to others, especially to the voices of the people, is not something to do occasionally when there is nothing else to pursue for distraction. It is a sine qua non of governance because people will act according to the dictates of what they think, and how they f eel. So if we choose not to listen, we place ourselves at risk because the people will act when they are ready to do so no matter what, and in all likelihood, take us unawares. Not surprisingly, the importance of listening is something that women understand and value highly. Not surprisingly too, they tend in general to be better listeners than men.


Listening to others, with a genuine interest to hear, understand, learn and respond, takes humility. Humility, especially in the Nigerian context in which so much bluster and bravado has increasingly come to replace genuine (if not excited) interest in others perspectives and the enlightened discourse that derives from doing so, is quintessential for modern leadership. Humility in leadership is not an optional disposition that a leader may from time to time deem to concede to a handful of citizens when their voices have turned into the din of anguish and anger. Rather, it is a quality of such compelling strategic importance that those who desire to govern and suspect that they are lacking in it should devote significant time to learn it.

Another critical attribute of political leadership character and personality is modesty. Besides serving as the antidote to arrogance, including the audacity to appropriate the exclusive preserve of the people who are the custodians of the power to grant the authority to govern or be governed, modesty reduces the frequency of being wrong and the collateral need to revise what should have been carefully considered strategies, policies, positions and actions after at least some damage would have been done. Further complicating the weakness of arrogance born of immodesty, is that it takes humility and modesty to be able to consider, even if only infinitesimally, the very possibility of being wrong and the consequent courage to admit to same in public and to act to undo or mitigate the damage done.

Even in the best of times such as Nigeria and Nigerians experienced such a long time ago as a young democracy with a most salutary effect on their wellbeing, pride and performance at home and abroad, humility and modesty remain desirable personality traits for those who govern or desire to govern. In troubled times, they are an absolute must. Arrogance and haughtiness before a people who are already angry, distraught or disillusioned is as volatile an incendiary cocktail as there could ever be one.

A humble man

If there was one quality of President Umaru Yar’Adua that offered the greatest prospects of success of his administration, all other things being equal, it was his humility which in turn enabled him to listen to the years-old rumble of national discontent and prodded him to seek to respond to them directly with his Seven Point Plus Two Agenda.

Those seven points, namely: The provision of steady and reliable power and energy through building the necessary enabling infrastructure; food security through a robust agricultural programme; the creation of wealth and employment as a means to eradicate poverty; the provision of mass transportation, especially through railways; land reform; the provision of security for a population long plagued by armed robbery; and the restoration of “qualitative and functional education” that was once the backbone of Nigeria’s rapid development.  The two additional issues of the highest priority that completed the promise of his presidency as highlighted in his inaugural address on May 29, 2007, were the resolution of oil and gas related violent insurrection in the Niger Delta, and response to the needs of disadvantaged citizens.

The late President specifically underscored the importance of humility and modesty in leadership and governance in his inaugural address to the nation and the world on May 29, 2007. First, he listed that he saw as the critical prerequisite attributes for building a successful leadership to accomplish the national dream:
“Fellow citizens,” he said, “I ask you all to march with me into the age of restoration. Let us work together to restore our time-honored values of honesty, decency, generosity, modesty, selflessness, transparency, and accountability. These fundamental values determine societies that succeed or fail. We must choose to succeed.”

The servant-leader
Committing himself to responsive and responsible leadership through exemplary conduct, President Yar’Adua issued a promise to the people. “I will set a worthy personal example as your president,” he pledged. “No matter what obstacles confront us, I have confidence and faith in our ability to overcome them. After all, we are Nigerians! We are a resourceful and enterprising people, and we have it within us to make our country a better place. To that end I offer myself as a servant-leader. I will be a listener and doer, and serve with humility.”

Against the background of a rather more than minimal display of the arrogance of power in our political governance pedigree over the last several decades, the notion of a Nigerian leader not only willing to be considered a servant of the people (the long history of the concept of the “civil servant”
notwithstanding) and having the courage to impose that notion on himself, was unprecedented and most refreshingly so.  I recall as if it was yesterday the night at the Waldorf Astoria in New York when I first heard President Yar’Adua hold up the appellation of “servant leader” as his preferred branding for his presidency, and again the next day at the launching of the books by Professor Ibrahim Gambari that my younger brother, Tom, had published.

I recall thinking and feeling, “At last. Someone gets the point about the fundamental premise of leadership—a leader as the humble servant of the people!” In incapacitating the late President, sickness and death deprived all of us the prospect of finally establishing the fundamental concept and construct of responsible and responsive democratic leadership, and that, is quite a shame. President Goodluck Jonathan now has the responsibility of infusing governance and leadership in Nigeria with the critical attributes of humility and modesty and in so doing, carrying a most important but unfulfilled promise of his political predecessor and mentor, to a much-needed and most desired fruition.

All indications are that he, too, is a humble and modest man. Ironically, the challenge is whether or not a people so used to a good measure of the arrogance of power in governance, may not have adapted so much to it in a natural instinct to survive that they might no longer be able to adjust back to accepting what they so desire and deserve, and have fought for for so long, namely responsive leadership.

I am not inclined to think so, knowing the resilience and indefatigable nature of the fighting spirit of the still irrepressible Nigerian.The late President sought to entrench this commitment to humility and modesty in governance as a critical cornerstone of good, responsible and responsive democratic governance at all levels of government in Nigeria by calling on leaders at the federal, state, provincial and local government to commit to being or becoming servant-leaders.

“To fulfill our ambitions,” he appealed to them, “all our leaders at all levels whether a local government councilor or state governor, senator or cabinet minister must change our style and our attitude. We must act at all times with humility, courage, and forthrightness.”

The democratic nature of our founding fathers
It is important to observe that with perhaps one or two exceptions here and there, the notion of the political leader as a servant of the people was an integral part of our early political leadership, right from the struggle against Nigeria’s colonial status right up to the early years of independence. It is my belief that what compelled this exceptional quality in our early politicians is the fact that they operated in a truly democratic environment within the confines of local Nigerian politics, that is, outside of the fact of our colonial status. In a way, perhaps they had no options.

Our early political leaders needed to persuade the people to support them and join them in the march of progress towards freedom and independence. They needed the people to vociferously support the arguments they made to the British government for the end to colonial rule over Nigeria. They needed the people’s support in order to build their political parties and to compete against rival political parties.

They needed the contributions of even the widow’s mite of as many of the people as they could persuade to fund their parties. They needed the people. So they appealed to them. In order to persuade them, they had no choice but to respect and woo them. But eth fact is also that virtually all of those early leaders were remarkably enlightened, whatever their credentials of lack thereof.

*Dr. Joseph Okpaku, Sr., is President,Third Press Publishers, and Chairman and CEO of Telecom Africa International Corporation,a globally respected experts on the Twenty First Century and on Governance and Strategic Development.


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