by Emmanuel Ojeifo
Ever since Mallam Nasir El-Rufai’s controversial book, The Accidental Public Servant (2013) entered into the hands of the reading public, there has been a torrent of reactions and a barrage of criticisms from different categories of Nigerians across the political, ethnic, religious and social divide, some of whom were toasted to bad publicity and indecent portrayal in El-Rufai’s book. We are yet to hear the last word on the book and I don’t assume that my modest contribution to the on-going discourse will be the last word.
Every critical Nigerian who has been attentive to the unfolding of the conversation generated by the book will agree with me that there has been intense trading of words by members of the political elite on the claims of El-Rufai, so much so that intelligent discussion has been supplanted by political and ethnic biases, and vigorous exchange of insults and foul talks substituted for rational arguments. The bitter part of the bargain is that this angry trading of words has been conducted by people who have high stakes in our society as men of learning and character, and who should ordinarily be the ones teaching the younger generation the value of mutual respect, decency and courtesy in speech.
That said, let it be clear to everyone that El-Rufai’s book is a work of history and no one should attempt to downplay its importance, whether one agrees totally with the views espoused in it or not. In a society where very little documentation is done to preserve institutional memory and the inner workings of government, El-Rufai must be highly commended for painstakingly documenting the core personal experiences of his public service years. This means that no one should take the book as a dogmatic treatise that cannot be subjected to public scrutiny. It is a personal account and should be seen as such.
In his recent memoir, There Was a Country, Achebe made it very clear that it is impossible for a writer to write without some kind of commitment, “some kind of message, some kind of protest.” Being a protest writer, as Achebe admits, goes with the realisation that “words have the power to hurt, even to denigrate and oppress others.” In this light, one can easily sympathise with those who feel aggrieved about the way they were presented in El-Rufai’s book. It is an issue about ego, perception, memory and truth. However, decency and civilisation would insist that the writer or respondent never forfeits the moral obligation of conducting his protest in decent language.
Nigerians with objective assessment of the book would readily concede that the book is not a sham, as some reactionary commentators would have us believe. In my honest estimation, El-Rufai has done us a great world of service, especially the younger generation of Nigerians who aspire to public service in a nation with many dysfunctional public institutions, a nation that, as Pastor Tunde Bakare said in his foreword to El-Rufai’s book, is “in dire need of more capable, competent and decent public servants.”
That is why I think that there is something fundamentally wrong with a class of people who call themselves objective intellectuals, but who are so puffed up and intoxicated by an over-bloated sense of self-esteem to the extent of scooping out a cluster of some sentences in a book of over 600 pages, just because those few sentences seem to cast aspersions on their personalities. Any good student of literature knows that there is a vital interplay between the parts and the whole; and that the parts cannot be separated from the whole in the quest for meaning.
I therefore make the case that the whole fuss about El-Rufai’s book is simply a sad reversal of the immense resources that the writer has deposited in that book for us to understand and appreciate the inner workings of government. While I think that El-Rufai may have been rather too harsh in his verdict on many political actors that crossed his paths during his public service years, I still strongly believe that the amount of fruitless discussion, accusations and counter-accusations the book has generated is a real distraction to the stimulation of honest, critical and intelligent conversation on the future of our great country that the book is supposed to generate.
To those who are angry about the way El-Rufai portrayed them in his book, I humbly implore you to seek redress in the court of public discourse by doing something that the late Professor Chinua Achebe calls “gentle recreations of the past”. If one reads page 59 of Achebe’s recent memoir, There was a Country, one will arrive at a point where he said that, “every generation has a chance to execute its own model of art.” In other words, if you are dissatisfied with El-Rufai’s book, write your own version of history. At least El-Rufai himself was generous enough to say that on page xxxi of his book: “This book is an appeal to persons that have held public office to document their experiences and tell their sides of the story.”
For me, El-Rufai’s memoir comes across as an all-time classic that provides interesting points of convergence for students of history, sociology, law and political science and for future generations of Nigerians, on the prospects, challenges, dangers and fascination of public service in a troubled country like Nigeria where it is possible to have “more deputy directors than real staff” in some public institutions. Above all, that history is winding and bendy, primarily because it is individuals that shape it, who in turn must know they must be judged by it.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Emmanuel Ojeifo, a priest in the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja and the personal secretary to the Cardinal