The Accidental Public Servant Summoned to Serve Again

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By Eke AGbai

In his book “THE END OF GREATNESS”, Aaron David Miller asked a rather rhetorical question – Where are those whom we could honestly describe as potentially great, heroic or inspirational leaders? How many are not only great, he continued, but good – with compassion and high moral and ethical standards? How many can author some incomparable, unparalleled and ennobling achievements at home or on the world stage, an achievement likely to be seen or remembered as great or transformational?  Each time I ponder over the challenges of leadership in Nigeria, thoughts of one or two people always come to my mind. These are relatively young leaders whose emergence at the national stage and their great performance continue to sustain my pathological believe that in no distance future, Nigeria will witness the dawn of a new generation of leaders whose views of all-inclusiveness, broad mindedness, detribalisation, secularism anchored on the admonition of our past great heroes that keeping Nigeria one is a task that must be done.

Life of great men, all reminds us to make our lives sublime, so departing leave behind indelible mark on the sand of time.  The import of this statement by Longfellow came alive to me in the experience I will share with my readers. It was in 2009 I believe, when my friend and brother Sagir Hamidu asked me to escort him to see his former boss. The timing of our arrival could not be more perfect because dinner has just been served and a small frame man invited us to join him. I hadn’t eaten all day and I was so hungry that l probably would have invited myself had I not been invited, at the risk of all social consequences. Half way during the dinner, this small frame man stepped out to answer a call.

I used that opportunity to ask Sagir when his boss, whom he reverently calls “MALLAM” will come out to see us, reminding him of his promise that we were not going to stay long.  That’s him, he said. I looked up at him and quipped: “YOU MEAN THIS SMALL MAN IS EL-RUFAI?”  This man I have heard so much about, from different people, mostly those who incurred his wrath during his fight to stop them from distorting Abuja master plan, in what I call EL-Rufai War of Re-engineering and restoring Abuja city’s fading beauty, I envisioned him to be a huge, mean-looking type of man.

By way of anecdote, I came to remember that I had met El-Rufai, not in person, but through a story a senior friend of mine, late Chief Dike Udensi Ifegwu, told me. Dubic (or Lord/Chief) as late Chief Udensi was fondly called was the pioneer shareholder of the defunct Alpha Merchant bank under the managing directorship of Jimi Lawal, a very brilliant, aggressive young banker then, with an admirably audacious high appetite for risk. Dubic told me of an encounter he had with a young man who headed the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE) and wanted me to follow him to another scheduled meeting in Abuja just so that I could match what he thought was intellectual intimidation from El-Rufai and his team at the BPE. Unfortunately, the meeting didn’t hold. I have read about Mallam El-Rufai, but hadn’t seen him in person.

That humility and simplicity are not common character traits amongst most modern Nigerian leaders today. He got my attention and with that died my quest for an early departure from his home.  Because my constituency is the academia, nothing engages me more than intellectual discourse. We had over two and half hours of rich and well informed conversation from national to global affairs. This man is deep and very abstract, was my first impression. He did not conform.  Even if you disagreed with his conclusions, his reasoning pattern and his mode of logic presentation must attract your admiration. He is indeed a scholar.

I departed his house with the curiosity to know more of this man. When therefore as a young boy, from Daudawa village in Katsina State, his father, whose love and value for education led him to self-educate, enough to write an employment application, albeit in Hausa to a white man, called him on the eve of his death and said, “You know you are a very good boy, a clever boy, one thing you must do all your life, is to take your schooling seriously. Education is the key to your success. …”. It was this death wish and blessing from a dying father to a young son that put El-Rufai in a clearer perspective to me.  Since then, I became a frequent visitor to his house and has never gone home disappointed with his intellect.

Even at the risk of repetition, I have always argued that education remains the greatest investment in any human capital development. You can therefore appreciate why El-Rufai’s religious-like adherence to his father’s admonition significantly paid off.  From his early days at Barewa college to later years at Ahmadu Bello University, his intellectual and thus mind development and character moulding defined his philosophical views of life.  This will guide his accidental entry into public service, after a very successful private enterprise as an acclaimed chartered quantity surveyor.

Everybody that has ever encountered Mallam will walk away with the impression of a man who says what he means and means what he says. While he does not have the skill of seeking refuge in silence in matters that may even cause him trouble, his openness and readiness to speak his mind when wrongs are being perpetuated, will allow you to appreciate the honour and integrity that come with people of veracity.

In a country where sycophancy has been institutionalized, the tendency to think that El-Rufai is disloyal to the establishment is there because of his strong believe in the supremacy of the Nigeria nation and her constitution which must take precedence over individuals.  To me, men with such mind set, development, philosophical inclination, principles and value, of which I subscribe to completely, are truly the loyal people. When a subordinate tells his principal, not what he wants to hear, but the factual truth of any situation, such protégé, as in El-Rufai are what leaders need more to have around them as advisers and counsel.

But why Nigerian leaders remain susceptible to these professional praise singers and sycophants continue to defy my comprehension. El-Rufai’s level of success both at BPE and at the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) was in large measure because he assembled the best intellectual minds and brilliant and talented professionals who helped him actualize his mission.  The test of a true leader therefore is in the ability to identify talents and align each talent to job assignment that helps the realization of his set goals, vision that guarantee the success of the bottom line.

What ignited my interest in El-Rufai was when my friend and brother Sagir said to me that my approach to handling issues, job assignments and debates reminded him of Mallam and said I needed to meet and be friends with him. He flattered me when he said, I am almost positive that Mallam would have brought you into his team if you were around because of his appreciation for strong cerebral gifts.

When I came to FCT as an adviser, that place has lost all appreciation for intellectual prowess. When in 2009, I started seeing the disheartening defacing of Abuja Master Plan, upon my return from Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, on an official assignment, I wrote an agonizing memo to my Minister then, calling for the urgent restoration of Abuja Master Plan along the strict lines of El-Rufai. When I saw the distortion of Gana street for example in Maitama, turning it to bank business district and construction of houses and structures in green areas, I knew why Nigerians and all the foreign nationals in Nigeria hold El-Rufai in the highest esteem. Today, regrettably, Abuja is now a ghost of itself.

In retrospect, one can now appreciate in full why President Obasanjo nominated him, against the background of Mallam’s so called stubbornness. Mallam is a courageous professional. The upper echelon, middle class and lower class of citizens were treated equally. Buildings that were in wrong places came down, irrespective of the owners. Green areas were preserved. Abuja started to reclaim her lost beauty and glory.  He executed his job at FCT along the lines of fairness, equity and justice, that I always prefer to call the El-Rufai doctrine.

Here again, El-Rufai and President Obasanjo share a rendezvous with destiny. I must confess, I love, respect and believe strongly in President Obasanjo.  I think Mallam and OBJ have a lot in common. First they both believe in excellence and whosoever they adjudge can bring about that excellence is given the job, irrespective of their personal opinion of the said person. Second, both men are very industrious and abhor gossips bordering on character assassination without proof. Both men are detribalized and their friendships cut across all regions of the country. OBJ and Mallam have very broad view of Nigeria. They are not parochial or narrow minded and believe in the future greatness of Nigeria. To them, as I do too, the best of Nigeria will soon emerge once a leader with discipline, vision and an antecedent of not seeing and living life from the prisms of materialism comes on board.  Both men are extremely intelligent and did very well in their respective places of study.  Both men will not hesitate to recognize your talents and achievements and put them to use and when encomium is warranted, will so do.

Hear El-Rufai:   “President Obasanjo is an intelligent, hardworking, dedicated and competent leader. I consider my experiences working with him, one of the pinnacles of my public service career, to be instructive of not just the political realities of Nigeria, but also of the meaning of loyalty, of democracy, of development, of success, of failure,………the dynamics of working in public service in Nigeria today” (from THE ACCIDENTAL PUBLIC SERVANT). Like President Obasanjo, El-Rufai nurtures and cherishes friendship and maintains a long time relationship.

El-Rufai’s attitude towards gratitude was revealed when he felt the emotional necessity to attend the funeral of his Barewa college principal, Mr. Crampton, in England.  After the visit, the man’s son, George, wrote this about El-Rufai: “Zaria: what a wonderful city, which is still indelibly part of The Cramptons’ DNA.  It was most definitely where my father had the most memorable time of his life. He was so proud of his students’ achievements, none more so than hearing of your accomplishments. …. I once probed him several years ago on whom he felt were his best students when he taught in Northern Nigeria, and he said that you were, and I paraphrase: “someone he knew would turn out to be a pillar of his community due to his formidable academic prowess.”  And I have also heard OBJ speak in same complimentary manner of El-Rufai too, on many occasions. President Obasanjo remains an AFRICAN LEGEND in my opinion.

This pursuit and dream for a new dawn for Nigeria caused Mallam to start very early to cultivate relationships with people from the south-western region, and south east, realizing that such coalition was a sine qua non to capturing power at the centre to usher in a Nigeria that will reclaim her place of standing amongst the comity of nations.   While the south west seized the moment and invested hugely, thanks to Tinubu’s leadership, the south east, on an account of naïveté and inability to read correctly the mood of the silent majority of all Nigerians as to their demand for change, did not rise to the occasion, except for few people like the current Imo governor, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, Senator Ngige, Dr. Ogbonna Onu and a handful of others. In politics, relationships matter.  Dividends of Mallam’s political sagacity and ingenuity came with the merger of Tinubu’s led party and that of Buhari’s led party, culminating in the birth of APC, and the eventual April 18th Presidential victory at the poll.

I was not surprised when Pastor Tunde Bakare, one of the few remaining men of God I have immense divine respect and affinity for, wrote in his FOREWARD to Mallam’s memoir -The Accidental Public Servant,   “It is character that maketh the man! In getting to know Nasir, I have gotten to know an exceedingly courageous, inherently honest, highly intelligent, extremely loyal, humble and, above all a God fearing man”.  When Sagir and I visited Kaduna during Senator Adamu Aliero son’s wedding, we went to greet and visit with EL-Rufai’s mother.  While language was a barrier for me, but her love, warmth and goodness were in abundance. She prayed numerously for us with each passing statement. I felt blessed and realized where Mallam got his humility and love of people from.

Three indices must be present to define a true leader. These indices are what Aaron Miller called the three Cs: Crisis, Character and Capacity.  Check EL-Rufai closely, and you will see all these indices.  It is the presence of these three Cs that brought about the success idea and success popular culture of the old northern leaders.  There was a deliberate focus on formation of character ethics like integrity, fidelity, courage, compassion, responsibility, justice, service, contribution, altruism, humility and veracity.  This will explain the reason for El-Rufai’s success, and why he enjoys popular general acceptance, high accolade and recognition in terms of how he is perceived and received by others outside his region. This is what anybody aspiring to be an authentic national leader must imbibe. Most people join politics in Nigeria for the sake of money.

El-Rufai and Buhari quest for political power is, in my opinion, to use it as a veritable tool to address the problems of the greater majority of our people, social and economic development of Nigeria. That’s why inherent in his overall strategy is the creation of a network of cooperation to combat a network of isolation.  El-Rufai tactfully elicited inclusiveness through a network of identity politics.  In it, people started seeing that our common humanity is greater than our individual differences.  He utilized very judiciously, the modern social media to reach the youths and others, and engaged them on issues of national concern.  Always on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc.  He wrote extensively on the back page of THISDAY newspapers. Simply put, El-Rufai had opinion, stepped up to the mic, as we say in USA, put them out to the public and people knew them and judged him on the merit. That’s the hallmark of a true champion.

He didn’t hide under the instrument of state power to smuggle himself into office. At all times in his career, assignments were given to him because of his identified capacity. He is a man who never stops learning, continuously taking advantage of every opportunity to upgrade his knowledge. Leaders must renew and improve themselves through continuous education.

This imperative saw El-Rufai going to Harvard back in 2002 to sharpen his management skill and later during his years in exile took some courses in law at the University of London. Sadly, majority of our present day office holders are intellectually lazy. They do nothing to upgrade their knowledge and that’s why it’s easy for them to be misled by this sycophants, who feed them on a diet counsel of falsity.

  • Dr. Agbai, the executive Vice-President, Center for Policy and Foreign Engagement, USA; is a foreign policy and strategic communication management expert
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