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Obadiah Mailafa: Nasir El-Rufai and the pursuit of Sunday


Obadiah Mailafa: Nasir El-Rufai and the pursuit of Sunday

by Obadiah Mailafa

One of the great thinkers of the 20th century was the British philosopher G. E. Moore (1873–1958). A member of the ‘Apostles’, an elite club of brilliant Cambridge young men which included the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Moore was revered by his friends on account of his exceptional purity of soul and nobility of character. He was a genius to boot. His only defect was in the way he walked. Legend has it that he had the eccentric habit of walking with his head tilted to one side. Apparently, when he was a young lad at Eton, Britain’s most elite public school, he was always bullied by the rich, beer-guzzling, rugby-playing Etonians. As a consequence, he always had to look out for the bullies — even after he had become a world renowned philosopher.

Nasir El-Rufai’s highly political autobiography, “The Accidental Public Servant” (Ibadan: Safari Books, 2013), reminds me of the tragedy of G. E. Moore. He was born into a humble homestead in Daudawa in the backwoods of Faskari Local Government, Katsina State, circa 16 February 1960 (there were no records of the date of his birth). When his father passed away in 1968 he was taken to live with an uncle in Kaduna. Far from the succour of his real family, the poor boy had to look out for himself. His small frame and obvious intelligence must have made him the butt of the ubiquitous bullies. I was myself at the receiving end of bullying at school and can relate to what the young El-Rufai went through. One of his first tormentors was a boy named Sunday.

On this unlucky day, he received a totally unprovoked beating from Sunday. “That first night at home nursing my bruises, the matter was probably over and done with to him, but for me, all I could think about was what should be done next. The following day, I watched him until we went for lunch break. He got his food and started eating. I took some sand in my hands and went and poured it on his food. This meant that he had no lunch that day, so he beat me up in anger. The next day after that, I did the same thing – and the next day, and every day after that” (p. 12). He would accompany these torments with hit-and-run attacks on the boy when he was not watching. For months, the hunter became the hunted. Even after Sunday had apologised, the school authorities could not restrain El-Rufai from tormenting him. He was determined to see the back of Sunday. In the end, so we are told, the big bully dropped out of school, joined the army and was rumoured to have perished in the civil war.

Nasir El-Rufai, it would seem, inhabits a world peopled by imaginary bullies. The public enjoys a good David and Goliath tale, he reminds us. Once he identifies you as a bully, he will go for you with every weapon that he can mobilise. He does not take prisoners. And he does not give up until either you or he goes down. This, in my humble opinion, is the tragic psychology that defines the character of one of the most gifted and most successful public servants of our generation.

I have gone through line and syntax of El-Rufai’s 627-page tome, including the 197 footnotes and 14 appendices, keeping a statistical note of the frequency of subjects that came up in the index. It is a breathtaking epic story that captures some of the important landmarks of the first decade of our young Third Republic.

I first met Nasir El-Rufai after I left a well-paid pensionable job at the African Development Bank to work at the Central Bank of Nigeria from 2005 to 2007. I had heard of him before then, his reputation having preceded him as one of the most fastidious intellectuals of my generation of undergraduates at Ahmadu Bello University. At a rather precocious age he made a small fortune as a chartered quantity surveyor. He was to become one of the Young Turks in the Obasanjo administration, first, as Director-General of the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) from 1999 to 2003; and then as Minister of the Federal Capital Territory Abuja from 2003 to 2007. A courageous and fearless technocrat, he was one of the more successful members of the Economic Management Team EMT).

For the first time, we got a detailed account of the inner workings of the EMT — how the group was constituted and – what made them tick. El-Rufai paints a fairly objective portrait of his comrades-in-arms: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Oby Ezekwesili, Nuhu Ribadu and Chukwuma Soludo. They were no doubt a gifted bunch – our own equivalent of President John Kennedy’s magical Camelot. As the author reveals, they started off with a ‘blood pact’ of sorts; that they would stand by each other and look out for one another through thick and thin. The solidarity of the group began to unravel when Chukwuma Soludo (El-Rufai insists on calling him Charles), the principal architect of the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS), began to assert himself and insist on having his own independent voice. When Okonjo-Iweala was transferred to Foreign Affairs and eventually forced out in 2006, the EMT had all but collapsed.

The eighteenth century German poet Johan Wolfgang von Goethe was prone to depression when he was invited to serve as jurisconsult and advisor at the imperial court in Weimar. He was shocked to find that nobody cared about state policy as such, and that the palace intrigues centred on gossip about who said what and to whom – and who had cuckolded whose mistress at which ball. Instead of giving into despair, Goethe deployed the wisdom of lateral thinking. He decided to play the fool and go with the flow, gathering in the process vast material that enabled him to write his immortal plays and poems.

At the risk of equating myself to von Goethe, I would say that I myself was a participant-observer in Obasanjo’s imperial court and can identify with much of the drama that has been recounted in these pages. I watched the intrigues with bemusement. The backstabbing, avarice and cupidity would have fascinated the Medicis of medieval Florence. Because I had been schooled in the gilded pavilions of French public administration and had worked in international banking – with an abiding interest in Metternich and classical European diplomacy — nothing came to me as a real shock. My extracurricular readings of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Kautilya and Ibn Khaldun enabled me to see through what the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin termed ‘the crooked timber of humanity’.

Of the members of the economic team, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was by far the wisest and most gifted. Then as now, she is always the alert and well composed matriarch; an uncommon reader of human character, with a deep understanding of the complex algorithms of power. Her extensive and far-reaching international networks were among the most prized political and moral capital that the administration could boast of. Oby Ezekwesili knew her sums, but was otherwise too often a victim of her own voluble sanctimoniousness. Soludo was too clever by half, his ultimate tragedy being that he was approaching that fringe zone where some people imagine themselves to be god. Steve Orosanye and Bode Agusto had this uncanny ability to say much by saying nothing at all. They were smooth operators that would have been worshipped as ideal princes by the mandarins of imperial China. Nenadi Usman, who later chaired the EMT, was not in their league, if truth be told. But she was politically the wiliest, with a charm that was as seductive and perilous as an adder’s.

Nuhu Ribadu was the Warrior Great Heart of the lot. His failings at the EFCC lay in the fact that he would listen to no one. He came to believe in the illusion of his own absolute self-righteousness – in his unlimited power as uncrowned kingmaker. In civilised countries, people who do his type of work would go about it in a quiet, anonymous and professional manner. Not our Nuhu. He was easily mesmerised by the glare of television; arrogating to himself powers that were intended neither by the letter nor the spirit of our constitution. He remains, in my estimation, the best Inspector-General of Police that we never had.

When I first met Nasir El-Rufai sometimes in the spring of 2005, he reminded me of a crab: sharp, quick and vexatious. He had the look and presence of a genius, albeit a raw and tempestuous one. Inside that lean and hungry frame was a soul that would be willing to challenge Mike Tyson to a boxing match if sufficiently provoked.

Whatever their shortcomings, we cannot take away from these men and women their success in rolling out the most important economic reforms in the annals of our great Federal Republic. The stabilisation of the naira, the rebirth of Abuja as a decent and liveable city, sanitisation of the banking and financial sector, settlement of our debt with the Paris Club – the unprecedented growth in the macroeconomy – are no mean achievements by any standards.

It was by no means a uniformly successful effort, of course. While growth averaged over 7 percent between 2003 and 2007, the indices of poverty and unemployment continued to worsen. The World Bank described the phenomenon as ‘jobless growth’. The civil service, in spite of the rhetoric of reform, remained a Byzantine behemoth characterised by graft, venality and sloth. Overwhelming dependence on petroleum for the bulk of our revenues remained a stumbling block. Failure to provide something as mundane as electricity for the majority of our people is something for which we ought to feel real shame. By now, someone ought to have been put behind bars for the over $16 billion that was invested in the power sector, with absolutely nothing to show for it. And the fact that we needed trillions of naira to rescue the financial sector in recent years meant that we did not know the full extent of what some people were really up to with regard to our much vaunted ‘banking consolidation’ exercise of 2004 to 2006.

It says much about the book that its contents have been greeted with such wild howls from Ota and Yola. Nasir El-Rufai had a rather complicated relationship with his political masters. With the former President, it was apparently a ‘love-hate relationship’. When he was to be appointed Minister for FCT, for example, Obasanjo drew him aside and bellowed: “You know you are a useless man…But I am going to nominate you to be a minister” (p.65). The President explained that what he needed done in Abuja could only be accomplished by someone with El-Rufai’s type of guts. Their quarrels were interminable, “…in a single 45 minutes meeting, I argued with Obasanjo twice, and our debating took up nearly one third of the time” (p. 65); “My disagreements with Obasanjo did not end…” (p. 131). On and on he goes.

– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Obadiah Mailafa, a former deputy governor of the CBN

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