4 May 2005

Nigeria: Who's Maduekwe Without His Ideas?


Lagos — With little question, ideas have enormous power, since they form the frame of our understanding of the world and beliefs as well as drive our behaviours. Great ideas are indeed so profound that they easily topple many of the things we hold sacred, and transform our worldviews, our values and hence our actions.

On deeper reflection, we may realise that our framework for understanding our world is like an inverted pyramid: each idea built on a simpler foundation, and that if you can change the ideas in people's heads, shake the windows and rattle the walls of their understanding, you can cause them to rebuild their frame of thinking and refocus their world view. It is because we are in the age of ideas that we have men who are heroes while we also have those who resign themselves to what could have been.

Most often, the difference between the two categories of people is basically that the former realise that once you can persuade others that your model, your representation of reality, is more credible than theirs, then you have the capacity to do almost anything. Such is the power of ideas. And in civilized societies, ideas drive politics.

Given the character of the personality being paid tribute, this introductory excursion into the almost arcane territory of what ideas represent in our journey of life is not out of place. After all, who is Chief Ojo Maduekwe who clocks 60 tomorrow without his ideas?

As a man given to speaking with alarming frankness, Ojo (as we fondly call him) consistently has a message that is never frivolous and even why you may disagree with his position, as I have done on many occasions, you must also concede that the depth of his conviction could make him easily pass for a philosopher and it is easier to be on his side on an argument than to be on the opposing side.

In the last five years of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, I have come across not a few people who have asked me: "What has happened to Ojo?" and why I have not found the answer to the question, (which I must confess comes from those who oppose this administration and hence cannot accept Ojo's position), one thing I do know is that "nothing has happened to Ojo" in terms of his ideas.

Again, one thing many people should concede to him is that even if Ojo had not been a one-time Transport Minister, Tourism Minister and currently Legal & Constitutional Adviser to Obasanjo, he would still have been a controversial man.

As a matter of fact, controversy became his second name the moment he joined active politics some 25 years ago. Because he is not a man who likes following the crowd, he ran for the House of Representatives on the platform of the then National Party of Nigeria (NPN) rather than the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) of the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe seen then as the Igbo party in Nigeria's tripodal geo-politics. That decision would, quite naturally, have come with a lot of challenges from many of his kinsmen who would wish he had joined the NPP but with Ojo, that in itself, the fact that he was upsetting the status quo, could have been the attraction. That is Ojo for you.

I have known Ojo for as long as I have been a reporter which makes 15 years now and we have developed a sort of relationship which makes it difficult for me to be dispassionate where he is concerned. Because he is one of the few people who have helped, in no small measure, in my career development. Since proximity to a person can easily distort one's perception, it is possible that even if I want to be, I may not be objective in dissecting the man and for that reason, I have restricted myself to examining some of his positions on national issues with a view to understanding the essential Ojo Maduekwe.

With the intellect of an academic, Ojo believes that the best way to derail the art of governance is for public officials to concentrate on patronage without rules, to the detriment of policy. It is for this reason that he never misses any opportunity to emphasize a return to the culture of rule-keeping and one could argue that it is also for the same reason that he is so committed to the fight against corruption and to the enthronement of the structures of transparency, so as to enhance due process in the conduct of government business.

Whether as a member of the 1988/89 Constituent Assembly, member of the 1994/95 National Constitutional Conference, or as Special Adviser to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 1990/92, Ojo has always stood out because of his stand on issues and ideas-driven stance. To many, it was in his capacity as Transport Minister that he probably made the greatest impact and generated the most tempestuous of controversies. But only history can accurately locate where he made his greatest impact on the polity.

Only few will, however, forget that Ojo is a key intellectual architect of the extant National Reforms Conference. And as Transport Minister, he was in the forefront of the war against corruption in public office. This much was attested to recently by the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) Chairman, Justice Mustapha Akanbi who singled out Ojo as one of a few public officials who hold themselves as accountable to the people. Said Akanbi: "The one outstanding person I always talked of was Ojo Maduekwe. He supported us in every conceivable way and he talked it. In fact, I had once mentioned him to Mr. President."

Never afraid to speak or act in ways most Nigerians would consider "not politically correct", only an Ojo would sack kinsmen from high public office positions and say: "unless we are ethnic-blind in our actions in office, corruption will increase and Nigerians will not have faith in the State. Vernacular is not a prerequisite for performance in office and it is no excuse for fraud."

It would also take an Ojo to look his kinsmen in the face and say "It is idiotic to speak of an Igbo President when what you mean is a Nigerian President of Igbo extraction."

While this independent mindedness might have cost him a lot in terms of political capital in a nation where politicians say different things for different occasions and where it most often pays to play the ethnic card, Ojo believes that seeking short term gains in terms of populism does not in anyway show strength of character required of politicians in an evolving society like ours.

The intellectual, physical and psychological wherewithal to prosecute an arcane campaign of reintroducing bicycle riding to Nigeria was a project only an Ojo could initiate and push to considerable distance. At the peak of his ride-bicycle project, Ojo maintained, and still does, that Nigerians should embrace cycling as a partial solution to a growing gridlock that is crippling Nigeria's economy.

Incidentally, his zeal for cycling is neither diminished by nay sayers who accuse him of pursing quixotic ends, nor by bad weather, as he was reported to have cycled through a torrential downpour on his way to a cabinet meeting. "Rain doctors did their worst, I defied them. In this business, rain does not really matter," said Ojo at the time.

Even being side-swiped into a ditch by an Abuja commercial bus never killed his bicycle dream. His ideas about Nigeria, a nation he passionately argues would only achieve its potentials if all stakeholders agreed to take our destiny in our own hands have been pushed energetically at various fora. Hear him at once such occasion in Canada: "As one that is currently engaged in the political trench warfare for bringing about the desired change in the continent of Africa, I am leaving the business of analysis of the history or even evidence of our failure to scholars and researchers. I did not come to Canada to tell you what you already know about Africa."

And more "I am more inclined to heed the advice of Bernard Lewis who once observed that when people realize things are going wrong, there are two questions they can ask. One is 'what did we do wrong?' and the other is 'who did this to us?' The later tends to conspiracy theories and paranoia. The first question leads to another kind of thinking: 'How do we put it right?' In the second half of the twentieth century, Latin America (Africa) chose conspiracy theories and paranoia. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Japan asked itself 'How do we put it right?' I frankly prefer we place ourselves as decision-makers in Africa in the position of the question that Japan asked itself in the second half of the nineteenth century. My reason is simple: the world is tired of excuses for African failure"

On Nigeria itself, the ever-optimistic Ojo had this to say: "The Idea of Nigeria is also the Idea of the Black success story humanity has been waiting for. It is our challenge to raise from Black Africa a nation primed on the best ideals of community, driven by positive conflict and defined by self-confidence on the pedestal of global admiration. That is the Nigerian Project. That is the Idea of Nigeria. That is the meaning of atonement by a generation that has taken far more than it has contributed. That is the demand now being made of our diverse peoples and cultures. We chanced into Nigeria in 1914: the Idea of Nigeria needs not wait till 2014. This, I submit, is the essence of the Obasanjo Revolution."

On culture: "I have always hungered for a society where culture, the defining essence of a people and the cement or capping stone of their values, is elevated to the highest pedestal in the polity. As one humbled by the privilege of a pioneer role as the first Culture and Tourism Minister, my testimony of the role of culture as an effective instrument for geo-political positioning, at the junction of the local and the global, has been reinforced by the outstanding success of my sister and colleague, the current Minister."

Sharing his thoughts on epistemic authority at the annual dinner/awards night of the National Association of Philosophy Students of the University of Lagos recently, Ojo held that "the crisis of the Nigerian state today can be justifiably described as consequent upon the denigration of knowledge and the nurturing of mediocrity; in short, the demise of epistemic authority."

According to him, "individuals with no proven competence in governance and some of whom were not even committed to the ultimate well being of the nation violated the constitution and our sensibilities for about two decades. Knowledge and truth did not guide most of their actions at a time humanity was striving for a knowledge-driven world."

Ojo told his audience, young folks who represent the future of Nigeria, that "it is now time to restore the original lustre of epistemic authority. Such authority is conferred by superior knowledge and its notions of excellence derive from the 'aristocratic Principle of Nature'. It is not like the authority of a military oligarchy, which comes from the barrel of a gun.

"It is also not like the 'knowledge' of the ignorant and unlettered who see 'what people say,' or public opinion, as the ultimate criterion for distinguishing between right and wrong. Epistemic authority is what empowers one medical doctor to ignore the taste of potential patients and press on with a prescription that will heal."

Still more nuggets from Ojo: "Those with knowledge should rule. Artisans and the others should keep to their trades. A society is headed for the rocks once epistemic authority does not guide the management and hierarchy of the institutions of state. It is not my place to remind you of Plato's views on the linkage between the disregard for epistemic authority and corruption of the professions (and the state).

"Surely we know that a person who makes a dunce a professor is corrupting both scholarship and the University, just as the person who takes the highest office in the land because he has the instruments of terror is corrupting the art of governance."

One can go on and on about Ojo's interventions in the public arena but is no use here. There will be another forum for that in yet another day. All we can do for now is to wish him a happy birthday at 60. He eminently deserves it.

Adeniyi contributed this piece for a book on Ojo Maduekwe

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