Book Review- ‘Making Nigeria Work Better’: The Bearable Weight of a Public Life

Prof. Wale Adebanwi reviews These Times, in Kaduna on Monday, 17 February 2020

A review of These Times: Selected Writings and Speeches of Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, Volumes I (Outside) & II (Inside), delivered in Kaduna on Monday, 17 February 2020

By Wale Adebanwi (Rhodes Professor of Race Relations and Director of the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford, UK; Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford).


Every good collection of essays and speeches tells a story. However, the narrative arc does not necessarily bend towards the will or intention of the author. This is because that arc is open to interpretations and reinterpretations by the readers. This is no less true of the two volumes under review, These Times: Selected Writings and Speeches of Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, Volumes I (Outside) & II (Inside).

Prof. Wale Adebanwi reviews These Times, in Kaduna on Monday, 17 February 2020

Therefore, in this review, I will deal simultaneously with the intentions of the author as expressed in the two volumes as well as the interpretation and reinterpretation to which the essays, speeches and the expressed intentions of the author are open. I end with the implications of the intention and the (re)interpretations for Nigeria’s politics and future.

Around late 2014, as the major political gladiators in the major opposition coalition, the All Progressives Congress (APC), were strategizing on how to unseat President Goodluck Jonathan and the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), being privy to the dominant thinking among one of the major factions of the APC, I sent an email to the author, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, on the contestations over the possible national flagbearer for the new party. It was the only email message I sent to him before he became governor to which he never replied. And I know it was deliberate. Why do I bring this up now? I do so because these two volumes, I believe, are, in part, a response to the question I raised in my message to the author – a question which shall remain confidential for now. As I go along, you will see why I think he has answered the question in part by publishing these two volumes.

The author’s brilliance, boldness, assertiveness, passion, facility for provoking political controversy as well as his indomitable spirit are all evident in this volume. It is for this reason that my review is partly entitled “the bearable weight of a public life,” So, how does the author explain why he decided to share his thoughts about the total organisation of the Nigerian state, its democratic potentials and realities, as well as its politico-economic developmental challenges, reflected at national, state, and sectoral levels? Writes Governor el-Rufai in the ‘Preface’ to the first volume, sub-titled, Outside, “This book presents edited versions of articles published in various journals, as well as papers I presented at various forums on aspects of the Nigerian economy and politics, in the last decade or so. As the writings cover many aspects of our lives, I thought it useful to compile them into a volume that will be handy for those interested in a quick appreciation of the socio-economic and political dynamics of Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.”  Why are the volumes important? The author answers that: “My first foray into democratic governance persuaded me that not only is genuine public service the highest contribution one can make, it is a vocation that every patriot must seriously consider. However, I found to my dismay that analysis and public policy-making were often lacking in rigour, and were typically not based on facts and evidence-based debate.” He then further justifies the two volumes: “My intention in virtually all of the articles and papers is to make good use of available and reliable data as a basis for policy analysis, formulation and recommendations for actions that I believe will make Nigeria work better.”

The author compares Nigeria to other nations such as Malaysia, Singapore, Botswana and Indonesia who “had their first set of elected post-colonial leaders going into offices” in the 1960s. Reflecting on the advances that these countries have made, the author asks, “What went wrong” in Nigeria? The books provide the author’s answers to this crucial question. Perhaps what we might see as the central message of this two volumes, or what we might call the author’s manifesto, as articulated in the books, is this: “It is time for Nigerians to stop passing the buck to God….As the world moves firmly into the 21st Century, we must firmly reject those that want Nigeria to remain in the dark ages – and move forward to restore dignity and hope in our younger generation. They must see a country that can work in their lifetimes – where electricity is stable, crimes are solved and criminals brought to justice – a Nigeria where capability and hard work are the primary tools for success in life.”

These two books, particularly Volume I, cogently – and dialectically at times – identify the core problems of the Nigerian federation, and reflect on the practical, policy, economic, as well as political solutions to these core problems. The author emphasizes the implications of all the problems of the Nigerian federation for “human capital infrastructure”, which the author sadly, though, correctly, concluded has “suffered irreparable damage under years of misrule” and under a “leadership that had no clear interest in developing the Nigerian state.” While Volume I is sub-titled Outside, Volume II is, instructively, sub-titled Inside. The speeches in Volume II include those delivered by the author in his bid to lead Kaduna State, after he became the candidate of the APC and then the governor-elect and also since he became the Governor of Kaduna State. Therefore, we move from reflections, intellection and critique in Volume I to articulation, action, and implementation in Volume II. Hence readers can use Volume I as the benchmark or scale for analyzing or measuring, respectively, Volume II, and by that token, as an appraisal of what the critic turn doer has accomplished, even if strictly within the lens of what he articulated as an “outsider.”

Against this backdrop, I will suggest that the publication of the two volumes at this point in the political career of the author is an honest endeavour. Someone else in the author’s position would either not include some of the critical speeches and essays in these books, or if he did, would hope that no one reads them. I am persuaded that Mallam el-Rufai included such potentially controversial speeches and essays deliberately. Therefore, this intellectual honesty has crucial implications. For one, it means that the author is willing to engage in a serious debate about the state of the nation under his party’s watch and also under his own stewardship. While readers may have disagreements over the political and economic paths canvassed by the author, as well as the substance and style of the arguments, I think that most serious readers will agree that this kind of intellectual honesty marked by a preparedness for a serious debate about the direction of the country must be praised, encouraged and promoted among those who have the great honour of occupying public offices in this potentially great polity. Beyond that, readers and critics would be eager to use the promises and lofty statements in Volume I in testing whether the author has been faithful to the ideals espoused in his discourses about socio-political and economic transformation in Nigeria, generally, and in Kaduna State, specifically.

Under Section 2 of Volume I, while reflecting on leadership (“In Search of Leadership”), the author examines “the extent of … institutional destruction [in the country] and how it occurred, amidst the claims of good intention in some cases and complete malevolence in some. The purpose of this is not to apportion blame but to learn from past errors and move our nation forward.” In another chapter, the author writes: “We are about to elect a government that must work for us, because those elected will know that they serve at our pleasure.” He adds that as Nigerians prepared to go to the polls in 2011, “They see an opportunity to reinvent our democracy.” Against this backdrop, the author states that “Nigeria faces five key challenges that a future federal government must address decisively.” The five challenges, as identified by the author, include: i. “high levels of insecurity and near-state failure in many parts of the country”; ii. “Infrastructure deficits like perennial electricity supply shortages, poor transportation and logistics infrastructure, near absence of rail and mass transit systems nationwide and the like, unemployment and youth hopelessness;” iii. “collapse of social services like public education, and health care”; iv. “the complete absence of a social safety net for the vulnerable groups;” and v. “the destruction of governance institutions and corruption.” Readers can judge how the author and his party have responded to these five key challenges since 2015.

One other major asset of this book is that it raises interesting, or what some might describe as pertinent, questions. However, when a book or, say a public intellectual, raises a critical question, the book or intellectual doesn’t even have to satisfactorily answer the question. It is sometime sufficient that one raises a question. The question can take a life of its own and continue to challenge others to find answers. Therefore, some of the questions raised in this book, particularly the kind that I will speak to in a moment, are even more germane now that the author has formally become an old man – having clocked 60 yesterday. An example of such questions is this: “How do we restore hope in our younger generation, our nation, and democracy?” This is one of the most critical questions faced by the present political formation and its leadership.

Apart from reaffirming the author’s profile as a proficient public intellectual and policy wonk, Volume I also fully demonstrates the author’s capacity and facility as a tormentor of those in power. This is where these two volumes constitute a double-edged sword. In a sense, the author is taking a risk by publishing these volumes, and thus inviting critics, including existing and potential political adversaries to size him up and/or take him up, or even take him on regarding the issues he addresses in the books, especially in terms of how his record of service measures up against the criteria he sets up in the book for good and transformational leadership.

Members of the ruling party will find that there are parts of the two books – particularly Volume I – that would seem if they are reading an opposition newspaper or listening to Radio Kudirat! If you want to know what parts of I am referring to, read the books. And if you insist on a cue, start with the chapter, “In Search of Leadership – Roots of Historic Crisis (1).”

Beyond what the author suggests, you can also read these volumes in many different ways. I suspect that the author would want us to approach the volumes as statements of public policy options, directions and reflections, as well as patriotic contemplations on the crisis of nation-building, including the impediments to, and opportunities for, national transformation. And he will be right. But there are other ways to approach them. You can approach them as bold statements of ethical and political provocations; you can read them as political manifesto or as a testament for constitutional reform; you can read them as an indictment of the Nigerian ruling class or as a catalogue of the fundamental crises of the Nigerian state; you can read them as a testament of collective hope and shared optimism about the future of Nigeria despite the grave odds facing the country; or you can read them as a re-affirmation of the incredible and abundant human resources that Nigeria possesses which make it possible to envision a better future – despite the mathematics of subtraction imposed by competitive thievery, vexing ethno-regional enmities, terror, and the aggravating administrative impotence which the country has experienced.

Prof. Wale Adebanwi reviews These Times, in Kaduna on Monday, 17 February 2020

If you read the books as political manifesto, you might, for instance, be pleased with the author’s almost absolute conviction in the possibilities of transformational leadership. To give an example, he calls for “a paradigm shift in leadership identification, selection, and nurturing” (“In Search of Leadership: Restoring Hope by Avoiding Breakdown,” part 2). He then suggests some parameters for ensuring this shift. I will mention only two, the first of which is often overlooked and the second which has been repeated so often that its importance may seem to have been denuded. The first is “Strong, Dedicated Advisers and Inner Circle.” As the examples of Lagos and Kaduna States have shown in recent times, a leader’s performance is often a function of the quality of advisers and aides that s/he surrounds himself/herself with. The second is “Recognition for the imbalance in our Federalism.” The author argues that due to years of administrative centralization by the military, Nigeria is a federal system only in name. As if in anticipation of contemporary debates, Mallam el-Rufai stated in January 2013 as contained in the book, “We must … demand the legislation of state and federal crimes and cause the amendment of our Constitution to enable states and local governments establish community-level security agencies to address our disparate internal security needs.” [See also “A federation without Federalism”]

Another strength of these books, particularly Volume I, is that they show again that the author is a good student of Nigeria’s political arithmetic. In 2011, he already prefigured the alliance that was to defeat PDP in 2015 – though he initially thought that arithmetic would work in 2011. Hear him: “Approximately 42.5% of the voters are resident in the South of Nigeria with 57.5% in the North. Indeed, what is now evident is that two zones, the North-West and South-West have between them some 34 million voters — nearly half of the voting population.” This was in fact the foundational political arithmetic that influenced those who came together to form the political alliance that eventuated in the APC. Therefore, in many ways, the author must enjoy the ease as well as carry the burden of the consequences of this insight.

In the piece “Budget 2012 – N3 Billion Daily for Insecurity,” the author provides the rationale for his public intellection: “The democratic space can only be expanded with more freedom to express opinions and disagree often, and it is not just about politics. It is about improving our nation, enlightening our citizens and raising the levels of accountability.” Under “Nigeria and the Oil Fortune”, he laments the country’s refusal to “take and give effect to rational decision about the oil sector.” Mallam el-Rufai even makes radical proposals. For instance, he argues that one of the most important national goals ought to be restoring our educational institutions to their past glory: “And this will only start when all public officers and political office-holders are compelled by their oaths of office and terms of appointment to enroll all their children in public primary, secondary and tertiary institutions in Nigeria. That will be some really fresh air indeed.” I wonder if the members of the ruling elite will agree with him.

The two volumes cover other issues, including the transparency of elections; integrity of electoral management body; electoral violence; the responsibility of leadership; resilience of Nigerians; elite politics; party politics; building democratic institutions; the role of the judiciary in democratic governance; leadership crisis; economic reasoning and rationality; local government in a federal state and local governance; the armed forces and defence spending; economic and fiscal analyses; policing; the politics and economics of oil revenue; land use act, public service; unemployment; girl-child education; housing; transportation; and there is no much luck for President Goodluck Jonathan in Vol I! In fact, Section 5, ‘Sleeping with both Eyes Open,” is mostly about President Jonathan.

As we all know, the author does not suffer fools gladly. I suspect that some might regard him as the stormy petrel of Nigerian politics. He can be quite biting in his critiques. For example, in one of the chapters, he writes: “But Nigerians now know better because the people currently in control of the PDP have no altruistic guiding principles and ideology to shape the party and promote good governance.” He then mentions a few people in the PDP, including at least one serving governor at that time who now shares the same party platform with the author, all whom he accused of engaging “in a naked dance that amounts to exhibition of little more than raw and unbridled ambition.” He continues, “None of the naked dancers is interested in seeking solutions to the problems of growing poverty, de-industrialisation, deteriorating infrastructure, rising inequality, falling standards of education or decaying health care.” If you want to know who they are, read the books!

Furthermore, the author accused the PDP of levying a “nuclear war on the Nigerian people”! Even for the APC, the author warned in the early period of the merger, “[The APC] has to ensure that we do not eventually become another failed merger bereft of individuals who truly have the interest of the nation at heart.”

In these volumes, the author not only apportions blames but also praises outstanding efforts. A few examples include the essays, “Lagos government, sound budget” and “Nasarawa’s Budget of Social Inclusion” both of which he later contrasts with “Bauchi’s Hopeless Budget” and “Anambra’s budget of misplaced priorities.” Also a few individuals receive praises such as the then Governor of the Central Bank, and now Emir of Kano, whom he describes as “my friend, brother and can-do-no-wrong-in-my-eyes” and “the best performing public servant in an otherwise incompetent Jonathan administration.”

Between the author’s intention for publishing these volumes at this critical period in Nigeria’s history and the ways in which we can (re)interpret the essays and speeches in the two volumes, it seems to me that one central message that the author and his readers will need to grapple with  is el-Rufai’s warning about the dire consequences of failing to do what is right for and about the country in this grave period: “Failing to do that [that is, address the fundamental problems of the Nigerian economy and polity] within the next decade [that is by 2023] will lead to the breakdown of our society if not the total failure of the Nigerian state…. In this avoidable scenario, none of our great grand-children may have the opportunity of seeing Nigeria celebrating its century of independence. That will be a sad indictment on us all, particularly those born just before or around the end of colonisation.”

These two volumes constitute valuable additions to the political literature on contemporary Nigeria. We should not only read them, but also engage with them. To borrow the insight of the Cameroonian social theorist, Achille Mbembe, the ultimate key question that these two volumes raise is this: “How do we construct, or bring to place a Politics of Hope that is at the same time a Politics of Principle, yet retains its ultimate value as a Politics of Possibilities.”