by Ihedi Ohakim
It is on record that since I left office, I have refused to join issues with anybody in spite of several falsehood peddled about me. Honestly, I never wanted to react to issues raised by Mallam Nassir El-Rufai about me in his book, “The Accidental Public Servant”. This was especially as I never took a second look at the book, on account of its poor print quality and a rather pedestrian title.
But inundated with a barrage of calls from both within and outside the country…
I had to reluctantly but painstakingly go through the book. Mark Twain may have had El-Rufai in mind when he wrote: “From the moment I picked up your book until the moment I put it down, I could not stop laughing”. That was the same frame of mind I found myself in after reading El-Rufai’s “The Accidental Public Servant”.
I considered it in the public interest not to allow El-Rufai get away with the falsehood he peddled about me in the book – given especially the fact that the book may find itself in the hands of generations yet unborn and who were not privy to the events of the era. Pleasantly, those other Nigerians who, like me, were victims of El-Rufai’s “accidental discharges” have faulted aspects of the book.
Again, from the reactions of these eminent Nigerians who were mentioned in one way or the other in the book, it appears Mallam never took pains to find out the truth about most of the issues outside those that concern his personal life. Simply put, most of the comments he made about people were accidental.
According to Babatunde Fashola SAN, “An accident is something that you don’t have any control of in its entirety”. For a thing to be accidental means that it was not prepared for, something or an event into which no thought was put. True to the lead word in the title, the book is full of accidental discharges.
Here, of course, El-Rufai’s allusion to me and my administration on page 448-449 of his book fits in perfectly. Writing under the sub-title “October 2010: An Attempt at Humour Generates Unexpected Furore”, El-Rufai tried to give an account of what happened at the Leadership Newspaper’s 50th Independence Anniversary Lecture at which I was a guest speaker. In his narrative, El-Rufai wrote about me thus: “Imo State Governor, Ikedi Ohakim gave a long, boring, unapologetic speech in defense of his decision, a week earlier, to lock out of the Concorde Hotel, Owerri personalities like the former Vice President Ekwueme and prevent them from holding a meeting that would have resulted in a statement inimical to Jonathan’s emerging presidential aspirations”. He continues: “This gross violation of the rights of these South-East political leaders to associate and express themselves was further repeated when security men and the police prevented them from meeting in another privately-owned hotel in Owerri”.
El-Rufai then proceeded to give his verdict: “Ohakim’s conduct was not only culturally disrespectful, democratically intolerant but out rightly illegal and unconstitutional”. He further wrote of me: “He stood there justifying his act of impunity citing ‘security considerations’ as if the ever-peaceful and professional Ekwueme would be associated with anything violent or threat to security or against the public interest”.
Apart from lying that Ekwueme and other Igbo leaders were prevented from holding their meeting at a privately-owned hotel, the former minister demonstrated a crass lack of grasp of the issues in the way he muddled through the matter of security which he, himself, raised. If El-Rufai were thorough, he would have gone ahead to prove that we were wrong in “citing security considerations”. For him to have asserted that the security reasons we gave were not cogent enough is a clear confirmation of my earlier assertion that the book was hurriedly put together without the slightest consideration for accuracy. If as a sitting governor, I cited security considerations, why did El-Rufai not give superior information to the contrary?
For the avoidance of doubt, my speech at the Leadership newspaper 50th Independence Anniversary Lecture was not in defence of the Concorde Hotel security incident. The title of my lecture was: “Nigeria at 50: Looking Back, Looking Forward….”. Besides, my speech could not have been “boring” because the organizers of the lecture were time specific for each speaker and I did not exceed the time allotted to me. The summary of my speech was that Nigeria must remain as one, irrespective of our perennial challenges; that we require the size and prestige of Nigeria for any meaningful development; that those who magnify our weaknesses instead of emphasizing our advantages are enemies of the nation.
In other words, I tailored my speech to suit the overall theme of the anniversary lecture; not a response to issues that had to do with tribal proclivities. The issue of South East leaders and Concorde Hotel only came up during the question and answer session and my response was clear and unambiguous.
Looking back and taking that event in its totality, it would not be out of place to state that El-Rufai must have been instrumental to planting that question in order to achieve a pre-mediated objective, namely, to blackmail the entire South-East and its leaders. As narrated by the author himself, he sat with the crowd, having refused, he claims, to be called to the high table.
We may excuse El-Rufai’s ignorance on security issues because all the public offices he had held were mere appointments that gave him little or no exposure to the management of security matters.
It is important to recall that on Monday, May 7, 2007, as preparations for my swearing-in ceremony was in top gear, a mysterious explosion occurred at about 8.00am at Douglas House, the transit official residence of in-coming governors in the state. I nearly lost my three girls but for the gallantry of one police officer. Till date, the Douglas House steward who served us breakfast that morning has not been seen.
In the same vein, many Nigerians will recall that on Monday March 15, 2010, I and many other Nigerian leaders escaped death from three bomb blasts in Warri, Delta State while attending the Post-Amnesty Dialogue sponsored by the Vanguard newspapers. When we came out of the billowing smoke and rubbles, I said to the people that a security alert duly implemented would have saved us the trauma. So, how could I, with these experiences, have succumbed to the same type of lapses in order to please anybody?
May be El-Rufai would have preferred that I acted against the counsel of the security agencies so that the conference would go ahead because to him, Dr. Jonathan’s Presidential ambition would have been truncated. If any calamity had happened, Mallam would have been the first person to rush to file necessary papers at both Local and International Courts of Justice to prosecute me for a crime against humanity and for exposing Igbo leaders to mass murder as he is currently doing in America in respect of the state of emergency as a result of terrorists attack in North-East Nigeria.
Was it not James Callahan, a former British Prime Minister who said, “a leader must have the courage to act for the overall interest of the society”. A leader must not pander to sentiments or special interests in executing a decision. Even when the result does not turn out as planned (because as Tolstoy puts it, no battle is ever won as scripted); a courageous leader admits his mistakes but asserts his good intentions and foresight.
El-Rufai should have known that the “privately owned hotel” he was referring to was MODOTEL which, at the time of that incident, was owned 100 percent by Dr. Alex Ekwueme. So, could anybody have prevented Ekwueme, a former Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and easily one of the most respected Nigerians, from holding a meeting in his private premises? It was A.E. Housman who said: “A minutes thought would have shown him that it could not be true but a minute is a long time and thought is difficult”. A moment’s thought would have told El-Rufai that it would not have been possible to prevent Ekwueme from having any meeting in his private premises.
Thankfully, when the Concorde security concern was flagged by the security agencies, I considered it in the public interest to intervene. I quickly invited the conference organizers to my office and explained to them why it was necessary to reschedule the event or change venue. I even offered to finance the use of an alternative venue. Although they refused the offer, the South-East leaders in reference saw with me. It is on record that none of them said anything in public to suggest that they were treated disrespectfully. Although some persons saw the incident as an opportunity to play politics and did just that. In any case, who is El-Rufai to speak on behalf of South-East (Igbo leaders) to the extent of telling lies about them?
By far more repugnant is El-Rufai’s claim that the South-East leaders were to hold a meeting “that would have resulted in a statement inimical to Jonathan’s emerging presidential ambition”. Personally, I take particular exception to that because, apart from portraying those (in fact all) South-East leaders in bad light, what El-Rufai’s claim shows is that there was, indeed, a plot against President Jonathan in his bid to get elected as President in 2011. If not, how did El-Rufai know that the meeting in Owerri was to lead to a statement “inimical” to Dr. Jonathan’s presidential bid?
More disgusting is the linkage of the planned statement with South-East leaders. Since he was privy to that intended “inimical” statement, was El-Rufai’s revelation not a betrayal of trust of those South-East leaders, assuming, without conceding, that there was a plan to issue such a statement? There must be a reason why Mallam decided to blackmail the South-East, an area from which President Jonathan got his biggest support for that election.
I put it as bluntly as I possibly can that El-Rufai picked up the Imo issue because, as he admitted in the book, the meeting was expected to nail Dr. Jonathan. Apparently, the realization that the opportunity to nail Jonathan was aborted, still gives him nightmares almost two years later. Even so, he translates his nightmares to the material world as Nigerians could attest to the fact that no day passes without El-Rufai conjuring one issue or the other as basis for attacking President Jonathan. I am not holding brief for the President but I think that El-Rufai’s pre-occupation and penchant for running the presidency down should begin to elicit the concern and reproof of every well-meaning Nigerian.
If I may ask, why does El-Rufai have such an acidic resentment for President Jonathan, the type the late Chinua Achebe described in his book, The Trouble With Nigeria, as “a flood of deadly hate”? Let me further ask, is opposition politics war? As H.J. Blackman asked, “if the prodigal son has destroyed his father’s house, can he still return?”. We must moderate our language and stop the blame game to avoid setting Nigeria on fire, because we are in the most delicate and terrifying period in our history. If we must blame, the only person to blame is the man in the mirror.
It is unfortunate, malicious, and extremely ridiculous for Mallam El-Rufai to describe my conduct as “culturally disrespectful and democratically intolerant” and my lecture “boring and unapologetic”. I leave the readers to judge whose conduct is disrespectful. There is no doubt that Mallam exhibited dangerous braggadocio, vulgarity, and a clear violation of decorum because to him, I aborted an event that would have nailed President Jonathan. Mark Twain advises us that “it is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt”.
Again could George C. Lichtenberg have had the likes of El-Rufai in mind when he wrote: “Some people come by the name genius in the same way as an insect comes by the name centipede, not because it has hundred feet but because most people can’t count above fourteen”. Today in Nigeria, El-Rufai is among those some people would refer to as “genius”. Can Nigerians now see the calibre of “genius” we have in the likes of Nasir El-Rufai?
In my considered opinion, Nassir El-Rufai’s book ‘The Accidental Public Servant’ is nothing but a piece of random jottings from hear-say, thereafter bound together for consumption of an unsuspecting and hapless reading public.
Finally and most importantly, I think the author may have meant well, ab initio; to give Nigerians a no-holds-barred account of his experience while in government. Ordinarily, that should be welcome. But it is a different thing, altogether, when the author, (a former minister), proceeds to write as if he was the only witness to the events of that period. Agreed that no book is perfect, my worry is that El-Rufai wrote what he just felt about issues and people he chose to write on without appropriate introspection and research. Even though he displayed a reckless courage but paraphrasing Boaz Augusto’s Pirelli Tyre Commercial of 2006: Courage like power is nothing without control.
Perhaps you will forgive me if I say that Cicero, circa 43 BC, may have had the likes of El-Rufai in mind when he wrote: “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents and everyone is writing a book”. A lesson? Yes, of course.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Ikedi Ohakim, the former governor of Imo