We’ve all heard the maxim: To avoid arguments “don’t discuss politics or religion” But take a closer look at that maxim and ask yourself if it is possible to avoid religion and politics in our contemporary discourse. Apart from the two themes being very central to the life of any nation, public debate is essential in a democracy. Without it, truth doesn’t rise to the top.
This was the debate that went through my mind on that auspicious day many years ago when I received an invitation from Chief Ojo Maduekwe, the then Special Adviser to President Obasanjo on Legal and Constitutional Matters for “an evening of coffee”.
The reason for the invitation from the late ex-Minister of Culture and Tourism, ex-Minister of Transport and ex-bicycle buff, ex-Special Adviser, ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs and ex Ambassador to Canada was my piece ABUJA AND OTHER ILLUSIONS (The Guardian, November 25, 2003). In that piece I had, among other things pointed out the difficulties of being a federal legislator in a climate of poverty and ignorance. I also mentioned the several misconceptions people have about Abuja and those in power, especially as it relates to corruption, which I concluded is not limited to politicians but also firmly entrenched in the civil service system. Also worrisome is the frequent friction between the legislative and executive arms of government, which I considered unhealthy for our democracy
I concluded by insisting that some of the excesses and expectations of the electorate have contributed in no small measure to the corruption of the political class. In his response to the article, Chief Maduekwe had agreed with my postulations. As he put it, “What came out of your excellent article was an inspiring and robust vindication of why sensitive, sensible, cerebral members of the elite like you are needed to make a major intervention in the political space through quality participation”.
My interaction with Ojo Madukwe dates back to the time of his tenure as the Minister of Culture and Tourism. In my position as the then General Secretary of the Association Of Nigerian Authors and later National President, we had met at many local and international events from where I had taken a liken to his candid and progressive positions on many issues. And while his attempt to popularise the use of bicycles during his tenure as the Transport Minister was seen as melodramatic by many, I had admired his innovative skill despite the lack of support from his colleagues in government.
As we later discussed over breakfast in his Abuja, Aso Drive residence, that January morning, the ex-minister expressed his desire to put his experiences as a politician on paper so that the public can know that it is not everybody that goes into public office went there to steal but to uplift the country.
Maduekwe recounted how his people were disappointed that as a two-term minister, rather than build a mansion, all he could afford was a small bungalow in his village. They were equally angry with him when they discovered that his accommodation in Abuja at that time was a rented apartment. As he put it, “your people will believe that you are either mad or a liar if you tell them that you want to live above board while in government. To them, as a public officer, you are an investment which should bring dividends of office.”
Just like Aldous Huxley, Maduekwe believed that once you decide to play politics by being straight, you must be ready to be a lonely man. He recounted his experiences at one presidential retreat under former President Obasanjo when, to the consternation of his colleagues, he had said that from his experience as a former minister, resistance will come from some senior government officials who may not be happy with the president’s fight for transparency and accountability while in office.
Maduekwe was also very bitter with the church, which he accused of being collaborators in the game of “cash and carry politics.” He observed that as long as you give fat donations to your church you’ll remain in their good books. However if your tithes and offerings don’t measure up to much, the church will complain of having wasted their prayers on you. He believes therefore that if we really want to change the nation we have to begin with the church.
He was also of the opinion that the political parties should play a leading role in educating the public and the electorate on the urgent need for accountability while in office. Unfortunately, according to him, political parties are also part of the problem through the exorbitant levies and dues, which they demand from their members.
When I told the then Special Adviser that many people did not expect him to still remain in public office after two terms as a minister, Maduekwe observed that he too was surprised by the then President Obasanjo’s decision to appoint him as a Special Adviser. “After serving four years in two key ministries, and surviving six cabinet reshuffles, I never expected the President to call me back. I was one of the very few former ministers to move out of government quarters in May 2003 believing that I was gone for good.”
On the then Anambra State’s crisis, the ex-minister was of the opinion that both parties acted dishonourably and should therefore stop apportioning blame but try and forgive each other. He was particularly pained by the way President Obasanjo’s name had been unfairly dragged into the matter. As he put it, “President Obasanjo has repeatedly told the world that his hands are clean and I believe him”. While accepting that government could have made some mistakes by not communicating clearly and effectively enough, he believes that the issue will soon be amicably resolved.
He also reiterated his time-worn belief that it is idiotic for the Igbos to beg the country to give them a chance at the presidency when all they need is to present a good candidate and work towards making that candidate acceptable to all.
As we tackled the egg and bread breakfast in his tastefully furnished residence on that January morning many years ago, the Special Adviser observed that for a Legislator to be successful in the job of lawmaking, he or she will need to work hard since the job is tasking and very important for the success of our fledgeling democracy. He believed that constituents who expect their legislators to source for contracts and jobs for them are unwittingly turning such legislators into contractors who will spend all their time carrying files from one ministry to the other rather than sit and do the work they are paid to do. Maduekwe believed that any self-respecting legislator will in the long run contribute more meaningfully to his people by making laws that will improve their lives instead of extorting money from government officials.
So intense and passionate were the themes of our discourse that the discussion would have gone on and if not for the fact that we both had other matters to attend to. And so with great difficulty, I had to take the leave of someone I had come to regard as an older brother and friend.
As we later posed for photographs at the gate of his imposing residence, the early morning sun brightened the day and the anxieties and weariness of the past few months flew away in the warmth of my host’s reassuring words. Suddenly, I no longer felt lonely.
Now that he has left us, the loneliness has returned and I am back with my old worries of finding a meaning to all the ‘bolekaja’ (come down and fight) politics that is currently going on in the nation.
I pray that the good Lord will rest my friend and comfort the family and friends he has left behind, amen.
Dr Okediran is a former member, House of Representatives.