Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, powerful individuals, mostly military men, have held sway over its affairs and shaped its destiny. Yet, you will never know why they ran the country the way they did and took the decisions and actions they took! Why?
Well, because, with the notable exception of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who frequently published accounts of his roles in the governance of this country, the rest have failed to contribute to the Nigeria’s historical narrative; they have failed to enrich our understanding of Nigeria’s political development and evolution.
A few weeks ago, two of these former leaders were in the news, talking about the past. General Yakubu Gowon reminisced about the 1966 coups and how he serendipitously became head of state, and how he restructured Nigeria in 1967 by creating 12 states to stop the then Eastern region from seceding. Then General Ibrahim Babangida, an absolute leader for eight years, spoke, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, about certain events during his regime. Of course, such occasional reflections can only produce shallow and incoherent snippets about the past. What is needed is something of an intellectual profundity from the leading figures of those epochal eras.
This may, in the broad sweep of things, seem inconsequential, given the economic challenges that this country currently faces; although, in truth, the challenges have their roots in the collective failure of the past leaders. After all, Nigeria is in a state of economic paralysis largely because of the failure to diversify its economy away from dependency on oil export. But that overdependence didn’t happen today. It resulted from policy failures of several decades, under the past leaders. As someone put it, “While other countries were taking oil money and putting it into other industries, Nigeria was taking oil money and putting it back into oil”. That failure to diversify Nigeria’s export base has resulted in an economy that is subject to the vagaries of global commodity prices. So, if Nigeria’s former leaders are self-satisfied, they need big dollops of humility and remorse!
But I digress. My focus is the failure of these past leaders to tell the stories of their eras to enrich Nigeria’s collective narrative. For me, it’s not acceptable that those who dominated the affairs of this country in such profound ways have no sense of responsibility or accountability to recount their roles and perspectives for posterity. Leaders whose actions affected their nations in certain fundamental ways should account for those actions in a memoir, after leaving office, not only to safeguard their legacy, but, more altruistically, for historical lessons to guide future political action.
There are, of course, reasons why a past leader would not want to do that, especially if such a leader lacks the moral conviction that he acted in the best interests of his nation. Surely, a leader whose actions in power were the result of deep thought, analysis and reflection, would have little difficulty in systematically explaining those actions and their consequences after leaving office. A past leader may, however, fail to publish accounts of his stewardship for another reason: he or she may lack the intellectual ability and commitment to engage in the serious arts of reading, thinking and writing. Truth is, few people can do what the English poet, Samuel Johnson, said is the greatest part of writing: reading. As Johnson put it, “a man will turn over half a library to make one book”.
But this raises fundamental questions about the quality of a leader. It was Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, who famously said that “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man”. Bacon’s words are true for everyone, but truer for leaders. If anyone must be full, ready and exact, it is a leader! Thus, leaders must be readers; otherwise their decisions would be rash and idiosyncratic rather than thoughtful, reflective and informed. It’s not surprising that one question Western journalists frequently ask their politicians, is: “What book are you reading?”
Nigeria certainly doesn’t lack political leaders who are readers and writers. One of this country’s greatest political leaders – “the best president Nigeria never had” – Obafemi Awolowo, read voraciously and wrote prolifically. His contribution to the development of Nigeria, captured in several outstanding and seminal books, is unparalleled. Nnamdi Azikiwe was also a deep thinker and writer, with books, such as “My Odyssey and “Ideology for Nigeria”. These were cerebral leaders who approached leadership from deep intellectual, analytical, reflective and experiential points of view. Their types are rare in Nigeria today.
Of course, not on the same intellectual plane as Awolowo and Azikiwe, former President Obasanjo is nevertheless a prolific writer. He is the only former leader who consistently gave written accounts of his stewardships. From “Not My Will” to “My Command” and his latest “My Watch”, Obasanjo never shied away from telling his stories. Of course, being Obasanjo, he is often self-justifying and self-congratulating, hardly ever self-critical! But that’s not a problem. After all, as an English biographer, Lytton Strachey, said, “Discretion is not the better part of biography”. What’s more, Obasanjo’s alleged one-sided stories have provoked others to write theirs. For instance, Godwin Alabi-Isama’s “The Tragedy of Victory” was triggered by alleged inaccuracies in Obasanjo’s “My Command”. The more the merrier!
So, coming back to the other former leaders: why are they sitting on treasure troves of knowledge and wisdom, and not sharing? Why has General Gowon not written about the periods before, during and after the civil war when he was the leader of this country? We have heard from the foot-soldiers and the commanders, from Obasanjo, Alabi-Isama and others, but Gowon was the political leader, the head of state. The story of the civil war is not complete without his version. Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Biafran leader, an Oxford-trained historian, wrote “Because I am Involved” and promised to write a full memoir. Sadly, he never did before he died! Gowon surely has the intellectual ability to write his memoir; he has a PhD in Political Science from Warwick University, for goodness sake!
What about General Babangida? Anyone who read his 75th birthday interviews would easily have noticed how much he cared about his place in history and wanted his regime to be portrayed in a good light, despite the annulment of the June 12 1993 presidential election. Around the time of the interviews, an Oxford University academic, Kevin Dutton, published a league table of psychopathy among world leaders, looking at such traits as fearlessness, cold-heartedness and Machiavellian egocentricity. Saddam Hussein leads with 189 points out of 224, with Donald Trump on 171 and Hillary Clinton on 152. It’s not clear what score Babangida would have had if he had been analysed, but many Nigerians would argue that he would be high up on the table. Babangida is certainly concerned about this perception, as he protested in one interview: “I am not the evil that quite a lot of people consider that I am”. He should publish his memoir to set the record straight.
Recently, when meeting the producers of a movie titled “76”, which depicts events that took place following the assassination of General Murtala Mohammed, Obasanjo said: “We can have more of this as there are more national issues that can be portrayed”. He is right. But while there is a place for political fiction, it can’t replace non-fictional accounts by the central figures in the epochal moments in Nigeria’s history. How great, then, would it be to read the memoirs of Yakubu Gowon, Shehu Shagari, Babangida, Ernest Sonekan, Abdulsalami Abubakar, Goodluck Jonathan and, of course, Buhari when he leaves office! These leaders, for good or for bad, have shaped the destiny of this country. Their memoirs would enrich Nigeria’s historical and collective narrative.