By ABBA MAHMOOD —
Like their contemporaries elsewhere such as France where a 39-year-old is now president, younger elements are coming out to take the centre stage. Like the duck, it is now the elders who follow the younger ones. One of my favourite columnists, Mallam Mahmud Jega, captured this eloquently under the caption “New Face of Leaders of Thought”, which I hereby reproduce below:
The last time that “Leaders of Thought” took centre stage in Nigerian affairs was in the wake of the two bloody coups of 1966 and the run-up to the Civil War. Trust the Federal Government to revive that scheme 51 years later.
The past two weeks in Nigeria were dominated by a parade of gaily dressed “Leaders of Thought” from the North and East strolling into State House to meet with the Acting President. They were followed in quick succession by traditional rulers from the two regions, newspaper proprietors and then state governors. Although the presidency said there was to be a grand finale where all the leaders would be brought together, it later abandoned that plan and said the governors’ meeting with Prof Yemi Osinbajo was the final one.
I thought the Presidency made a political and psychological mistake by inviting leaders of thought and royal fathers only from the North and East. Its reason is that it is these two regions that are locked in the current inter-regional combat that has created political and security tension in the country. People who regard themselves as leaders of thought in the West, Middle Belt and Niger Delta looked on with envy while those meetings were going on. Every Leader of Thought in Nigeria wants to be invited to the State House. It is not a small thing for personal ego to receive an invitation letter from the SGF’s office, to be ensconced in a choice Abuja hotel, to be ferried into State House in a shiny Coaster bus and to be seen on television shaking hands with the Acting President and sitting at the Federal Executive Council’s conference table. My fear for the Presidency now is that Western, Middle Belt and Niger Delta leaders could soon generate crises of their own in order to be invited to the State House for dialogue.
Just like in 1966, government’s bending over backwards to negotiate with leaders of thought is indicative of the collapse of its regular institutions of governance and mobilisation. While this crisis lasted, no one mentioned leaders of political parties. Back in the Second Republic, the biggest meeting in Nigeria was when President Shehu Shagari met with UPN leader Chief Obafemi Awolowo, NPP leader Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, GNPP leader Uncle Waziri Ibrahim, PRP leader Malam Aminu Kano as well as NPN national chairman Chief Adisa Akinloye at the State House in Lagos. Nigerians knew then that there was no problem in the country that those six men could not solve; there was no youth group anywhere in Nigeria beyond the control of one of them; and there was no regional agitator who was not linked to one of them. Today we don’t have any such men in Nigeria.
From the final lists that emerged, I suspect that the process of compiling names of people to invite for the State House meetings was a hit-and-miss affair. Each delegation was a collection of retired civil servants, soldiers, policemen, diplomats, businessmen and academics. They were probably chosen from all the states of the North and South East but since they were not elected, no one is sure to what extent they could speak for the people of their regions, especially the young firebrands who were excluded from the meetings. The Presidency was operating on the old African saying that “where there are elders, things never get out of hand.”
That saying was true of old African societies but these days there is an open rift between the aspirations of the youths and the experience and wisdom, such as it is, of the elders. The best evidence I have seen of this was a statement made on Saturday by Ohanaeze President General Chief John Nwodo. As part of a long speech he said, “The jury is still out in Igboland regarding the choice between self-determination and restructuring as a solution to our current impasse. Whereas a lot of the elderly, the business class and the professionals want to preserve our continued existence as one indivisible, united and restructured Nigeria, a number of the young ones are resolute about self-determination.”
Very interesting. Elders, business class [which in Igboland means the majority] and professionals think “Biafra” is a bad idea but the restless youths want to forge ahead. Any society that suffers an open opinion rupture between its intelligentsia and the grass roots is in trouble. Most of Nwodo’s belligerent speech last Saturday was bending over backwards to appease the restless youths. In that case, is he a Leader of Thought or a Follower of Thought? In 1999 when President Olusegun Obasanjo had been in office for about a month, he addressed a meeting of Niger Delta leaders in Port Harcourt to discuss oil facilities’ vandalisation. I saw him on live television saying, “When pipelines are attacked and I ask who did it, you say it is the youths. Where are the elders? You are the only community in Africa where youths lead the elders.” If not because Prof Yemi Osinbajo is much more diplomatic than Obasanjo, it is time to ask Ohanaeze why “Biafra” agitation festers when the elders think it is not a good idea.
I am not alleging here that Northern Leaders of Thought are more efficacious than their Eastern counterparts. When Boko Haram exploded in the North six years ago, Northern leaders totally disapproved of it but had no influence at all over the fanatical sect. Some elders also harbour a lot of selfishness. Just as some Eastern leaders probably hope that IPOB’s agitation for “Biafra” could secure political concessions for Eastern politicians, some Northern politicians probably hoped that Boko Haram would help them to disorganise Jonathan’s government.
Apart from Leaders of Thought, the Presidency also leaned heavily on traditional rulers from both North and East to call their youths to order. This is awkward considering that royal fathers were not mentioned in the 1999 Constitution even in passing. How did it come about that institutions and offices that received elaborate mention in the Constitution and have control of the treasury and numerous security agencies are unable to secure the country and instead fall back on an institution whose only assets are history, deep cultural roots and elaborate regalia? If indeed royal fathers can avert trouble more than parliaments and ministries, then the first restructuring that is needed is to insert them somewhere in the Constitution.
At the meeting that he held with governors, the Acting President read a speech that outlined what he said was the agreement on the areas to be tackled. They were very sensible points but I could not help wondering if indeed all the elders, governors and royal fathers agreed on them. The government usually writes the communiqué of such meetings well before they take place. The most notorious case that I recall was in 1998 when the late Sultan Muhammadu Maccido led a delegation of Traditional Rulers and Leaders of Thought to see General Sani Abacha. The Sultan read a speech and said, “We have looked around and concluded that you are the only person capable of leading this country.” I later asked the Secretary to Sultan Maccido’s Council how that happened. He said the Leaders of Thought’s secretariat secretly prepared the speech which FCT Minister Lt General Jerry Useni, who arranged the visit, handed over to the Sultan while he was already seated and asked him to read it. Since then I have been wary of government speeches and communiqués.