By Ikeogu Oke
Reuben Abati’s widely published piece, “The Spiritual Side of Aso Villa,” deserves very critical attention for its implication for accountability. That implication, which I consider harmful, is that it creates grounds for anyone who has operated and may operate from Aso Villa, our country’s seat of power, to argue their exoneration for any wrong attributable to them on the grounds that the villa, as Abati would have us believe, is a place where “the forces of darkness” hold sway and control the actions of its inhabitants. Indeed, if we accept that people act under the influence of such forces which they cannot resist, why hold them accountable for their actions even by law, which considers acting under duress – in this case the duress of demons – as a basis for the exculpation of an accused person?
So, if we asked the first tenant of the villa as Head of State why he annulled the June 12, 1993, presidential election, an act many consider wrong for the attendant economic waste and injustice to various stakeholders, he would be justified to respond that he couldn’t have acted otherwise considering the influence of such malevolent forces. And if it were possible to prosecute one of his successors posthumously over the loot being recovered offshore and said to belong to him, and ask him why he would engage in such rapacious plunder of the public till while in office, he could argue for his acquittal with a response that those “forces of darkness” made him do it.
And if we continued to blame the first occupant of the villa as civilian president for the disruptive “third term” project and some other wrongs linked to him while in office – like the corruption of the politics of a certain state with violence for which a renowned writer rejected a national honour he gave him – he might overturn our justification for blaming him by claiming that he acted under the influence of the same “forces of darkness.” And if we were to criticise one of his successors, whose Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, was quoted as having said that the government under him lacked the political will to save for our country’s future, he might tell us it was the same evil forces that prevented him from saving, and sue for our understanding.
And for those wrongs for which we may feel justified in blaming our leader to whom Abati apparently alludes with the remark, “No Nigerian President should be in spiritual bondage because he belongs to all of us and to nobody,” he may deflect our blame by attributing them to the “spiritual bondage,” and ask us to bear with him, rather than take responsibility for such wrongs. However, the most intriguing thing, for me, is that “the forces of darkness” said to plague Aso Villa do not prevent its occupants at the top from desiring to exhaust or extend their tenures in office. One of them, on leaving office, said he was stepping aside, implying his intention to step back in someday as he tried to do by trying to run for president. Another military Head of State like him sought to transmute into a civilian president, having set up sham political parties which a former Attorney General and Minister of Justice famously described as “the five fingers of a leprous hand.” Does that mean they would rather prolong their torment by those “forces of darkness”?
Another sought to wangle for himself an extra term in office. And yet another fought probably the most bitter and divisive election in our country’s history apparently to remain in the company of the same evil forces that had tormented him and his aides for almost six years.
Then think of this: in most cases they parted ways with the said “forces of darkness” with better stories to tell about their personal finances. Yet we are expected to believe that the forces, if they exist, are not being maligned as unkind to them.
Here, for the avoidance of doubt, is a summation of Abati’s views to which I respond: “When Presidents make mistakes, they are probably victims of a force higher than what we can imagine. Every student of Aso Villa politics would readily admit that when people get in there, they actually become something else. They act like they are under a spell. When you issue a well-crafted statement, the public accepts it wrongly. When the President makes a speech and he truly means well, the speech is interpreted wrongly by the public. When a policy is introduced, somehow, something just goes wrong … Those mistakes don’t look normal … I am therefore convinced that there is an evil spell enveloping this country. We need to rescue Nigeria from the forces of darkness. Aso Villa should be converted into a spiritual museum, and abandoned … I am tempted to suggest that this is indeed a country in need of prayers …The President … can make wrong decisions based on the cloud of evil around him.”
All the wrongs Abati attributes to “the forces of darkness” can be rationalised or explained in existential terms. For instance, if a president appoints his speechwriters based on primordial considerations rather than merit, and in spite of their questionable competence, then he may end up with speeches marred by embarrassing flaws including plagiarism, on which his critics may pounce.
I think Nigerians are already praying in excess, alas with hardly any proof that our prayers are being answered, unless we do not pray for the good life and a united, just, peaceful, prosperous, well-governed and corruption-free nation. If prayers could generate revenue, Nigeria could be the richest country in the world. Though a very prayerful nation, we import a wide range of goods from an atheist, prayerless nation like China without seeming to ponder what gives a nation that doesn’t pray such an edge of productivity over the one that prays.
My favourite definition of prayer is by the American philosopher and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. He says, “Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.” It is like reckoning that we cannot pray a bridge over a river with folded hands; but with the right knowledge of bridge building and effort we can build a bridge over a river even without praying. Nor can we pray ourselves to economic prosperity amid unbridled corruption and a poor work ethic. Or expect our prayers to be answered if misaligned with our actions, like praying for peace while fomenting crises. I believe we can overcome “the evil forces” in Aso Villa with positive and patriotic action. And if we abandon the villa and build a new one, can’t the same forces relocate to the new one and haunt its inhabitants such that they continue to make wrong decisions that derail our collective destiny?
Oke writes from Abuja