For many Nigerians the Accidental Public Servant (APS) will be a gripping story about, politics, power, friendship, ambition, greed, fear, betrayal, leadership and love all set within running the affairs of government. It will provide insight for many with little knowledge of the pretenses that passes for governance and for others, it will be an affirmation of legends told and heard– made personal by knowing the characters as intimately as citizens can know their leaders from afar. And for the 1% personally touched by the story and thus burdened with unshakable frames, the book might be indistinguishable from their knowledge of and feelings about the author, Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai.
For a long time to come, it may be impossible to discuss the book and its contents without discussing the author. Perhaps there is no removing the man from the book and vice versa but after the emotions ebb and the shock of oxygen igniting exposed secrets abates, the book will still hold value and lessons for historians, political scientists, policy wonks and people who want to understand Nigeria once upon a time, the better to appreciate where Nigeria is.
Books are hard to review because every story is personal in its telling and in its interpretation. APS reveals messages in tune with the internal wiring of each listener and while the book covers many layers – a central theme is captured in the first three sentences of the Epilogue: What next?
What is Nigeria’s future? How do we make things right? There is no topic today more delicate, complicated, emotional, scary, polarizing and energizing as the 2015 general elections and the book is a gift for all Nigerians who wonder why progress is slow and dream of doing things differently. By sharing his story in order to ‘make the case for public service’ there are clear lessons for anyone thinking of public service and how to navigate the problems and opportunities with governance and politics in Nigeria.
Lesson 1# Accidents are not strategic
The stories of how El-Rufai (and others) entered into government confirms what we know: that we leave the most important aspects of our public life to chance. The chance of birth and family name or the chance dinner party with vibrant conversation can catapult a person into a position of authority which they are ill equipped for as we see with President Yar’adua. While a system of referrals based on college ties is not unique to Nigeria and is indeed not an entirely bad way to recruit people, our ‘accidental servants’ seem to be predominantly unprepared and that is the problem. The results are glaring and the occurrences of the odd pleasant accident where the servant is willing and capable are too few to make this system sustainable. There is a lack of strategic preparation for government which pervades our system and this is where the opportunity lies. People can be prepared from within the public and private sectors to ensure Nigeria gets more deliberate public servants – people who can and want to serve and whose records of service can withstand close scrutiny.
Lesson 2# Question ‘second comings’
Leaving power is painful and the description of Obasanjo as a man who looked and acted like a man heading for the electric chair on the morning of May 29th 2007 is telling. And so are the anecdotes El-Rufai shares about phones that don’t ring any more and his theory of second comings. People who enter government never want to leave or always want to go back. They miss the considerable comforts, prestige, and adulation and never quite ‘take’ enough and live with the pang of regret and a desire to rectify the lost opportunities. These serial servants need no introduction but what is required is healthy skepticism about their objectives and analytical, public assessment of their tenures to determine if they added value and are still capable of adding value.
However, we also learn from President Obasanjo’s attempt to engineer a third coming that sometimes the scheming to stay/return cannot easily be dismissed as ill intentioned. Sometimes there is a strong desire to finish or protect an initiative knowing how easy it is in Nigeria for successors to unravel the work done. And as the painful unraveling continues, the blame and the remedy are in the hands of the same people.
Lesson #3 – Proper Succession Planning is Critical
When Nigeria did not end because we rejected ‘third term’, all that was left was to hand over…but to whom? The reasons why President Obasanjo did not want to hand over to his Vice President, Abubakar are all laid bare and as early as 2004, Obasanjo must have made this decision. He had four years to groom a worthy successor in case his master plan failed but he didn’t. Or did he change his mind?
Picking a successor for reasons that are personal – someone who will protect interests, not outshine, etc. is not the stuff success is made of and is sadly linked to the number of ‘accidental servants’ in office serially happening to us. Ironically, these accidental successors rarely turn out as expected and drag the accident curse into their relationship with their anointing predecessors. While Lagos provides one relatively healthy example of successor planning, there are elements of ‘accidents gone right’ – a result of having a person prepared for the right opportunity. As we contend with politicians in their early 70s who have been in office since they were in their 30s, it is time to start asking them who their successors are and what they are doing to prepare them adequately for public office.
Lesson #4 Good Teams Work
In spite of the stories of betrayals, egos and flip-flopping on issues, insights into the workings of the Economic Management Team during the Obasanjo administration and the collaboration of those who orchestrated the campaign to defeat the 3rd Term agenda shows how vital it is for
Nigerians to work together. We need strengths of our diversity to work together to contribute meaningfully to the affairs of the country which belongs to all of us. The stories of friendship across ethnicity, religion and even continents is one which inspires hope and courage to eschew the dogma of zoning and ethnic representation.
Despite the 489 pages, there are still topics and issues which could have benefitted with more analysis, more insight from an insider who co-held the reigns of power and lots of questions have been and will continue to be raised by the book. And this is precisely why this book will endure and hopefully encourage more honest discussions about public office.
As the gloves come off and attacks on the book and the author commence, a common complaint will be that those who come to equity must come with clean hands. But if that were the only way to look at books that document a personal narration of history, then none would be eligible to write. The balance between sharing for posterity and upholding codes of silence is a delicate one which few have to straddle and decide for what purpose do they want to keep silent. If we do not have the opportunity for honest discussions about what takes place in government, Nigeria and Nigerians will be worse off. If there are three sides to every story: my side, your side and the truth, then between the telling of ALL, the truth will emerge.