“What our leaders should know is that Mandela became a universal legend because his heroic exploits in the era of apartheid and the long years he stayed in jail were complimented by his very rare and ‘unafrican’ decision not to seek a second term at the expiration of his first and only term. He shunned both local and international pressure for his continued stay in power” – Williams Ifidon
It is freaky that none of our leaders since independence, particularly those who are alive, has transformed into a statesman. It is more confounding that all of them but one stumbled and fumbled while in power.
Yakubu Gowon, a repentant born-again General, was shovelled out of office in 1975 by Murtala Mohammed and company for being unfaithful to even his own promise to hand over power to civilians. His repentance and present vocation of praying for Nigeria has earned him the forgiveness of the nation for whatever role he played in the Dimka Coup, but forgiveness does not erase the recording of history. Therefore, he has to leave with that stigma.
Obasanjo was not badly rated in his first time as Head of State in 1976 to 1979, albeit his careless sarcasm which had a veiled reference to chief Obafemi Awolowo almost affected his rating. His statement, “We know those who will not succeed us” was undignified and impertinent. This explained why the whole 12 2/3 saga was seen as part of the plot by his government to prevent Chief Awolowo from succeeding him. Nevertheless, Obasanjo’s second coming in 1999 to 2007 was an anticlimax to an image already on the slope. His third term project signposted a major deterioration in whatever was still left of his credibility and integrity. It is sad commentary on Nigeria’s leadership that is dominating national discourse pretending to be a statesman. Why must we continue to desecrate our national altar by allowing men who are indebted to sanity to induct themselves as oracle of the nation when indeed we all know that they cannot even put their houses in order? Aside from the nonsensical controversies which Obasanjo’s contributions to national discourse normally provoke, there is virtually nothing intellectual, sensible, “statesmanlike” and edifying in most of his contributions. At best, and possibly because of their dramatic presentation, they only provide a sort of comic relief for a nation that is perpetually under tension. Statesmen are not made by lousy Visibility and promotional theatrics but by their discretion to maintain dignified silence when there is no uproar.
Shehu Shagari, Nigeria’s President from 1979 to 1983, is a failed ‘statesman’. The profligacy of his government has no precedent. It was a government that was bereft of vision, mission, character, ideas and wisdom. He secured a political victory through a court judgment of the supreme court because of its peculiarity. If the election that brought him to power was controversial, the one that swept him from power was a monumental fraud with a notorious slogan tagged ‘landslide’. So, what does he have to say on electoral malpractices as a statesman? There was nothing about Shagari and his government that was good for precedent.
Muhammad Buhari is one man who would have stepped into the shoes of a statesman but as a military head of states, he had some flaws in addition to his statements after he lost election three times. Certain statements he made in the past which did not dignify his personality as a statesman.
Ibrahim Babangida that was favoured by many positives and projections to be Nigeria’s statesman that ever lived having conducted the most peaceful and credible elections in the history of Nigeria in 1993 bungled the opportunity when he annulled the same election. By this heinous action that plunged Nigeria into many days of infamy and mayhem, everything called honour and integrity was squeezed out of him. These days, when he speaks on national issues, nobody pays attention. It is the people’s way of telling him to contend with shadow of his evil. Babangida is a ‘staleman’ not a statesman.
Abdulsalam Abubakar, another General that once occupied the highest seat in Nigeria from 1998 and 1999 kept his transition programme by handing over to Olusegun Obasanjo. But his short intervention was not enough to enrich his profile for the status of a statesman. He was just a providential opportunist.
I have respectfully excluded Nigeria’s dead leaders from this list in order to allow them to rest in peace. The turbulence of their sojourn on earth was sufficient trouble to contend with in their graves. Besides, their departure does not make any difference to the fact that a nation of about 170million people has never produced and may never produce, going by the decline in the quality of leadership, – a Statesman of the same aura and personage like Nelson Mandela of South Africa.
What our leaders should know is that Mandela became a universal legend because his heroic exploits in the era of apartheid and the long years he stayed in jail were complimented by his very rare and ‘unafrican’ decision not to seek a second term at the expiration of his and only term. He shunned both local and international pressure for his continued stay in power.
If we claim that Mandela’s enigmatic status was only because of his role during apartheid, what do we say of Robert Mugabe who was also a colossus in the emancipation struggle in Zimbabwe. Of course, Mugabe’s image has nosedived tragically even within his own country because he stays too long in power to command respect just as it would have happened to Mandela if he also overstayed his welcome in power.
Wole Soyinka, an intellectual who does not indulge in extravagant adoration and exaltation of political leaders, surprised me when he referred to Mandela as an avatar – a God in human form – in his book, “You Must Set Fort At Dawn”. We need somebody like him (Mandela) in our public space at this critical period.
A statesman therefore, is a person around whom there is a mystery of a God, a belief of a genius, a similitude to the supernatural, a tale of the unusual, a story about the uncommon, an explanation for the unknown and a testament of a mythical narrative.
A statesman is a person whose perceptive power moves him to the level of a prophet. He sees many years ahead when others are battling to understand the present. He is like a god. He is one of us; he does not enjoy any immunity against mortality. What makes him special are the incredibility of his perspective instinct; humility and the rarity of his sacrifice to humanity.
I have carefully approached this discourse and evaluation from a captious angle in order to restore the quality of our value system. If we keep encouraging value fluidity, we will one day find ourselves in a situation when the society Will attach importance to what every Tom Dick and Harry calls himself. Already, those who have never added value to our collective corporate existence are calling themselves ‘elder statesmen’.
In virtually all the political parties, every elderly person (including those with questionable characters and antecedents and zero – credibility) in the party is an “elder statesman” as if statesmanship is about old age. If we therefore decide to liberalise the template for statesmanship in order to accommodate people on the basis of sentiments, the value we are trying to enhance will sink into banality.
The question now is: when shall we have a statesman that will become an exemplary for all that is good in leadership?
• Williams Ifidon writes from Benin.