In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Or so we are told. But looking at Nigeria, sometimes I wonder if it is indeed so. Have you ever heard the story of a village where everyone but one man drank from a contaminated lake and became mad?
In the story, the man that was sane was considered to be mad because he was not like everyone else. What is madness, after all, but the abnormal? With everyone else being the same, insanity became the norm and the sole sane man went and drank from the lake, too. So, in the land of the blind, will the people really crown the one-eyed man king?
I was reflecting on the challenge of fostering change in this our context over the last few weeks as we all anticipated the President’s ministerial list. When the list was announced, I asked, likely as you have done, about those names that I didn’t recognize. While many said that the list seemed to be aimed at satisfying political interests, it was generally acknowledged to offer several people with strong credentials who we could count on to work with the President in driving the change mandate.
But there was one phone call that gave me pause. A friend who had worked under one of the star performers in the 2011 administration confidentially shared his experience. All was well for the first eighteen months, he said, until some people succeeded in convincing the person that he was undermining the dignity of his office by being accessible to members of his team. From then on, seeing the public official became an exercise worthy of Sisyphus. After waiting for hours in his antechamber, his staff would be old to return the next day, wasting time better spent carrying out their assignments. Somehow, that waiting around that would in other climes be evidence of dysfunction and poor organisation, was re-presented to symbolise the boss’ power, prestige, importance.
The problem is that political leaders wield so much discretionary power that few dare call them to order. Indeed, the more out of control a leader is, the larger his cheerleading squad will become. It is no wonder that over time, our leaders become disconnected from reality. In the previous administration, Mrs. Mobola Johnson drew widespread praise for jettisoning the paraphernalia of office, insisting on standing in line to buy groceries or to board flights, like everyone else. At the other extreme, her colleague, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, felt that the dignity of her office required that she charter private jets and limousines to get around. Today, as Alison-Madueke is being investigated for money laundering in the UK, she is quickly becoming the principal star in a cautionary tale about what not to do in public office.
If the new cabinet seeks to guard against the tendency of public office to corrupt with its weak accountability mechanisms, they would be setting the bar too low. What we want are public officials who are capable of being public servants. Arrive at functions on time. Work with your teams instead of holing up in your office protecting your dignity. Allow, indeed reward debate so that every initiative is well considered before being rolled out. Foster merit by dropping the culture of celebrating intentions and launching ideas. Let your results dignify you. The kind of change that will lead to improvements across the board in Nigeria would require nothing less.
Michel Foucault wrote about the difficulty of bringing about fundamental change in a system in a series of essays titled Power. In it he suggests that changing forms – such as a change from one ruling party to another – is not enough to bring about fundamental change. For that, one must change the very instruments power uses to express itself. If we celebrated showmanship, bringing about fundamental change would require us to celebrate substance. If the norms of leadership to which we have grown accustomed aren’t consciously dismantled, we will wake up one day in the not too distant future wondering why the new crop of leaders sound so much like the ones we heard before.