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The Accidental Public Servant: El-Rufai As The Grand Inquisitor

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By Valerian Agbaw-Ebai
It usually takes a lot to rattle the political establishment in Nigeria, but Nasir El-Rufai’s got a knack for doing just that. El-Rufai, former minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and former Director General of the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE), knows how to stir controversy and draw attention to himself. Since returning from his self-exile, El-Rufai has settled into the role of Nigeria’s chief inquisitor; a position that has given him new life as an informal leader and public intellectual, so to speak.

Never has that status been more evident than in his political memoirs which he released in a book recently. The story of The Accidental Public Servant is told in 17 chapters over 627 pages, including 38 pages of source notes; 90 pages of appendices and 490 pages of the author’s own narrative. There are another 60 pages of prefatory, introductory material, including a captivating insider account of the drama of President Obasanjo’s Third Term project as a prologue.

The Accidental Public Servant is Nigeria’s political story told from inside-out of the corridors of power. After a successful career in the private sector, El-Rufai rose to the top ranks of Nigeria’s political hierarchy, serving first as the privatization czar at the BPE and then as FCT Minister under former President Olusegun Obasanjo. In his tell-all memoir, El-Rufai reflects on his life in public service to Nigeria, the enormous challenges faced by the country, and what can be done while calling on a new generation of leaders, notably from the Diaspora to take the country back from the brink of collapse.

As a prolific opinion leader and public policy advocate, El-Rufai has become one of the country’s most outspoken voices on issues of governance, leadership and social justice. Given the strategic positions he has held in government, when people like El-Rufai speak, the nation is forced to stop and listen. The shocking revelations El-Rufai disclosed about how Obasanjo hand-picked the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua-Goodluck Jonathan ticket and the actions of prominent statesmen in the third term debacle make his book a must read for anyone seeking to understand the dynamics of power politics in Nigeria.

This point resonates better, especially considering the monumental, indeed, inestimable damage the politics of the third term inflicted on the country. The excruciating state of national security, loss of lives and property, international image crisis, psychology of fear and attendant socio-economic dislocations, among others, represent the countless losses experienced by Nigerians as a hang-over of the failed third term project that resulted in Yar’Adua and ultimately Jonathan coming to power.

Why El-Rufai chose to publish his book at this time or what he intends to achieve by his spiteful comments against some national leaders, including his so-called former friends and enemies (dead or alive), remains fuzzy. However, what cannot be ignored are the deleterious and uncorroborated assertions of El-Rufai about his role in national politics and his interactions with national leaders. Most people after reading the book must wonder whether they just read one man’s fictional and exaggerated accounts of national events.

But you don’t have to wander and wonder too far. Here is why. Right from El-Rufai’s comments in the introduction, you could see that the man wanted desperately to project himself in various ways: as a national hero and an infallible warrior; as the conqueror of the political establishment; and as the pillar of wisdom on which previous heads of state leaned for advice and national direction. “… At my age and in my political circumstance, writing a book that attempts to open the black box of politics and governance in Nigeria is a very risky endeavour. Deciding on what experiences to reveal and what to leave out, exposing oneself to risk of being accused of having an agenda, even when there is none…” If anyone wanted evidence that The Accidental Public Servant was driven by a number of self-serving motives, the evidence exists in the man’s own words.

“…I am writing this book to put on record my version of events in my voice and in my own hand…In the intervening two years between the time Umaru Yar’Adua emerged as the president of Nigeria and the onset of writing this book, I have suffered a lot of harassment. My house in Abuja has been invaded once by security agencies (read agents) with my family imprisoned for hours. Warrants have been obtained thrice to search my house for suspected ‘subversive materials’ I have been serially investigated by various committees of the National Assembly and by virtually every regulatory and law enforcement agency in Nigeria. I have been accused of phantom crimes and declared a wanted man by the Yar’Adua administration with empty but media-grabbing threats of arrests by the Interpol, extradition and so on. Yet the same government ordered all Nigerian diplomatic missions not to renew my passport when I completed my studies and announced plans to return home.”

It is unimaginable that one man could talk so intensely about his relationship with national leaders, his in-depth knowledge of Nigerian politics, and his overriding love for his country and yet hardly admit that, in his previous capacities as FCT Minister and BPE Director General, he made some fundamental errors of judgment. El-Rufai didn’t talk about his flaws because, as a super-human “accidental public servant” and a folk hero in Nigerian politics, he had no blemishes; just a victim of “public accidents”.

Ironically, virtually everyone that El-Rufai talked about suffered from human flaws or was weighed down with a baggage of human weaknesses. From Obasanjo, Atiku Abubakar, Muhammadu Buhari, Yar’Adua, Jonathan and others like then Transport Minister, Ojo Madueke; none of them escaped El-Rufai’s acid test of human character. In El-Rufai’s judgment, Obasanjo was an unforgiving politician; Yar’Adua was spineless; Nuhu Ribadu was vindictive and politically naïve; even Buhari, who received a sprinkle of praises from El-Rufai, came across as too rigid and inflexible.

While El-Rufai was hard and often vicious in his assessment of these national leaders, he never acknowledged that he had his own imperfections. This makes El-Rufai the patron saint of righteousness in Nigeria. He radiates the image of a man who is specially equipped with an over-abundance of wisdom. But the image that El-Rufai cuts in the book is that of a deeply frustrated and embittered red-eyed vindictive and cantankerous man who is determined to exact vengeance against his real and perceived enemies. He often spoke as if people owed their lives to him, or, as if the nation owes him some kind of public debt. His judgment of Yar’Adua’s leadership qualities is too narrow-minded and extraordinarily selfish. His comments against Jonathan depict El-Rufai not as a true Nigerian patriot or a loyal public servant but as a callous man whose activities are driven by a tribal agenda.

On the controversial issue of the third term agenda, El-Rufai’s assessment of Obasanjo, his former boss, exposed his capriciousness: first, as a man who should never be trusted (evidence in the sabotage he orchestrated behind the scenes against the third term project) and; second, as a man without principles; whose loyalty bends with the wind. Of course, Obasanjo has many flaws but why did it take El-Rufai too long to discover Obasanjo’s blemishes? And why did he choose to talk about them now?

There is reason to question El-Rufai’s sense of judgment of human character. At 53, we cannot attribute his inconsistencies to creeping senility. Rather, it is the by-product of selective amnesia arising from the “Messiah Complex” and Actor By-stander Effect (ABE). There are indeed worrying cracks in El-Rufai’s understanding of human nature because, on two occasions, El-Rufai misread the sign of the times. First, on the confrontation with Ojo Madueke over the privatization of Nigerdock, El-Rufai judged Obasanjo to be on his side and went shooting his mouth on the pages of newspapers boasting that only Obasanjo could halt Nigerdock’s privatization. Granted, that OBJ derided Ojo Madueke for publishing disclaimers and questioning the BPE’s authority to privatize Nigerdock.

However, when push came to shove during the bitter war of attrition between El-Rufai and the Senate Public Accounts Committee, Obasanjo went ahead and did the unthinkable by a sitting president. He wrote an apology letter to the Senate. Baba later told El-Rufai that: “…my short friend, I have a duty to train you… to make sure you learn to work with everyone, not just people you like.” To drive home his point, Baba went out of his way at one point in time to summon El-Rufai back to Nigeria after he learnt that El-Rufai was in London with the Economic Team to discuss debt relief with the British government.

•This is a review of Nasir El-Rufai’s book The Accidental Public Servant by Agbaw-Ebai whos based in the USA.  E-mail: [email protected]

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