Discovering a Sense of Purpose: President Yar’adua’s Challenge

When General Obasanjo in his ‘infinite’ wisdom decided to bequeath the Nigerian presidency to Alhaji Umaru Yar’adua in circumstances devoid of the popular acclaim of the Nigerian electorate; Nigerians could be forgiven for viewing his ascension to power with a sense of foreboding and ominous déjà vu. For barely thirty years ago, General Obasanjo presided over a similar and controversial transition process with not too dissimilar an outcome. Back in 1979, just like in 2007, General Obasanjo handed over power to a man who by his own admission had neither the ambition nor the inclination for high office.

In 1979, the direct consequence of that handover of power to a lethargic and ill-prepared, but otherwise good man, was the onset of aimlessness at the heart of government and the hijacking of presidential power by a group of corrupt and unpatriotic political predators who set about pillaging the nation’s economic resources for their personal benefit, while at the same time setting unbelievable standards for official profligacy, that subsequent military and civilian administrations not only sought to emulate, but also surpass.

Just like the surprising emergence and adoption of the largely unknown Alhaji Shehu Shagari in 1979, in 2007 not much was known nationally about Alhaji Umaru Yar’adua beyond the fact that he was a recent two term governor of Katsina State and a younger sibling of the late Major General Shehu Musa Yar’adua. A man who ironically spent much of his early retirement from Supreme Military Headquarters and the Nigerian Army in pursuit of the job that fell effortlessly into the laps of his brother; such is the working of fate in the affairs of man. It is widely felt, that it was the pursuit of this ambition, which led to his untimely demise at the hands of the monstrous Sani Abacha and his murderous goons.

In addition to the above, it also emerged to the wider public consciousness that during the currency of the second republic Alhaji Umaru Yar’adua was a member of the Peoples Redemption Party led by the saintly Mallam Aminu Kano. His past membership of the Peoples Redemption Party is instructive from the perspective that during the second republic it was more fashionable and lucrative for the offspring of Northern elite families to align themselves with the ruling, but wayward National Party of Nigeria. What his past membership of the Peoples Redemption Party also reveals, is the fact, that at one point, if not now, he had a social conscience and was committed to alleviating the harsh living conditions of the mass of the Nigerian people, or at least, those within the sphere of influence of the Peoples Redemption Party.

Unfortunately, past political affiliations are not definitive indicators of present or future political mindsets. For politics and its practice in Nigeria have changed, and sadly not for the better, so what a man once was, is not necessarily an indication of what he now is, or may yet become. So only the passage of time will reveal the precise direction in which the needle of Alhaji Yar’adua’s moral and political compass is oriented.

Choosing a president in Nigeria is a difficult task at the best of times; a task made even more difficult by the paucity of information about the ideological leanings, personal aptitudes, style of governance, and particular political visions of competing candidates. As far as I am aware, none of this information was known about the current president’s political convictions prior to his ‘selection’ for office, and not much is known about his views regarding these areas up till this moment. This is not an encouraging development and it is one which requires immediate rectification, preferably through the presentation of the president’s vision for the nation to the nation.

This lack of knowledge about the president’s political vision for the country may in part be responsible for certain reports critical of his leadership in sections of the Nigerian press. Reports of which began to emerge in the media shortly after his assumption of office. Most of these reports were pejorative in nature and were summed up by the use of the ‘colloquial’ idiom ‘Baba Go Slow’ to describe the president’s perceived style. Barely concealed within the import of this idiom was the clear insinuation that the president is dithering, plodding, and lacking in dynamism in his approach to matters of State.

When I first read these views in the press, my initial reaction was that they were unduly harsh, coming as they did, so soon after his assumption of office. For anyone starting a new job, let alone one as difficult as the presidency of Nigeria requires a period within which to become settled into the role. And only after such a settling in period can a fair and informed assessment be made of the occupant’s style of governance.

After almost eight months in office, and with his support team of advisers and cabinet ministers in place, there is still a sense of drift at the heart of the government. We are still none the wiser as to the policy direction of the government in a number of key areas. We do not know if there is a grand idea that defines the government? Is there a leitmotif which provides it with a basis for its existence? What is its raison d’etre for holding office? Is there an organising principle around which it is centred? If there is, I can see no evidence of such. For example, I struggle to discern what the nation’s foreign policy is, and neither do I know what the policy imperatives are for the education, health and transportation sectors, to mention just a few areas. Little is known about the government’s priorities to arrest the declining standards in these critical areas of national life.

It is increasingly beginning to look like the government is a policy free zone. Apart from of course, the often repeated, but vague mantra about the Rule of Law being the aspirational cornerstone of the administration, everything else seems to be shrouded in mystery. The government urgently needs to put in place a framework for the development, enunciation and implementation of policy initiatives if it is to discover a sense of purpose for being in power.

Without a coherent sense of purpose at the heart of government a sense of aimlessness inevitably creeps into the affairs of State leading to executive idleness and mindlessness, which in turn encourages corruption at high levels. Too much time, with too little to do, is not good for any government. For when there is nothing to aim for, or at, ministers and other functionaries can very easily adopt the view that government funds are there, for them to do with, whatever they please. Without goals and priorities to work towards the achievement of, how can the progress of ministers and their ministries, and that of the government as a whole be assessed?

Winning office is clearly the ultimate prize in partisan politics, but winning office should be a beginning and not an end in itself. It ought to be an opportunity to provide quality service to the people from whom the mandate to govern is supposedly derived. And this should happen through the provision/renewal of infrastructure designed to make Nigerian society better. Rewarding party loyalists with political office, no matter how inept or unsuitable they are is wrong, and our political system needs to evolve beyond this narrow practice of patronage.

Reigning governments, like Yar’adua’s must recognise the importance of setting its own agenda and not following that of others. Rather than being reactive, it must proactively take charge of events, in order to avoid being dictated to by circumstances not of their making. A concomitant to political office is the availability of State power with which to effect meaningful changes in the lives of the governed. The present government must set its stall in place, in order to avoid falling victim to what I term the ‘Lamont’ syndrome of appearing to be in office, but not in power.

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