By Solomon Bob
I’ve long been enthralled by the writings of Richard Stengel (Nelson Mandela’s award-winning biographer and former Time editor) and my fascination with his artistry and gift which draws as much from everything he has put down as from his magisterial work on effective ingratiation among politicians which he generously titled, “You’re Too Kind: A Brief History Of Flattery”.
This book courses through history to examine the eternal struggle between frankness and fulsome hot air or demagoguery as art forms in statecraft. Unfortunately, but realistically, Stengel underlines the primacy of the latter. His ringing endorsement of demagoguery is a corresponding dismissal of its opposite – another exotic word of Greek origin – parrhesia or, simply, candor.
“You’re Too kind” is an apocalyptic work because there is no future in a world where capacity for leadership is defined by fib-telling and unconsciousable emotional manipulation of the electorate. And Joann Gutin’s unflattering review sums up its thesis: “When someone asks you to be candid, don’t. Nobody really wants candor…Our enemies supply all the candor we need.” This, interestingly, reads like a concise paraphrase of Stengel’s own 1998 blockbuster op-ed on political dissembling entitled “Lies My President Told Me”.
As a general rule, Stengel is right, and after you’ve read “You’re Too Kind” you would be forgiven to think that to succeed as a leader in a democracy you’re fundamentally required to lie and manipulate the demos. But that conclusion starts to jar after encountering the disruptive iconoclasm of Governor Nyesom Wike who is in many ways an unusual leader.
For Wike, what works is brutal honesty. He doesn’t make a promise he can’t keep and would rather not make it. If you were to take a poll among Rivers people, a great majority of them would say that atop the governor’s many endearing qualities, his quaint direct-talking and invariable dislike for double-talk is the draw. And as if to underscore that attribute as the reason for the apparent governor-people love-in, they haul an assortment of adoring monikers and epithets every time he walks the streets. The governor rides a raucous crest of them from frenzied crowds every single day of his countless project inspection visits, which are proofs of his unbelievable street credibility.
And he expects the same level of honesty from others. You’re as likely to be promptly cashiered for lying or prevaricating as you’re to be treated to a warm, throaty guffaw for truth-telling however unpleasant the news.
In addition to his legendary directness, the governor is a meticulous and hands-on planner with keen eyes for details. Some accuse him of micro-management and unwillingness to concede delegated functions by reason of his inquisitive approach. But the charge is preposterous and untrue; he already has his work cut out for him as governor of a state of the size and dynamism of Rivers, with the orchestrated partisan chaos of a volcano to boot. However, this much is true: gone is the era of precipitate and reckless spending that brought Rivers State to her knees.
Perhaps, one of the great imponderables in modern political economy is how a state that pocketed a monthly average of N25 billion in federal revenue alone for a period of about 7 years, boasted easily the worst and most disgraceful road infrastructure in Nigeria. Such was the magnitude of the state’s riches from 2008-2014 that it would have been harder to fail to provide basic infrastructure than to fill up Helm’s Deep with a spoon. Instead, a N50 billion boondoggle, called Monorail, distorts Port Harcourt landscape; a testimony to hazardous leadership, unexampled waste and criminal irresponsibility. At a site where an ultra-modern hospital ought to be standing after a whopping $39million (N11 billion) payout, not even a single block can be found! And the plunder involved asset stripping at a time of economic boom. All four state-owned gas turbines were sold off, netting in excess of $300 million (N111 billion) which nestled anywhere but in the state’s coffers.
Gone, too, is the laissez-faire that permitted government officials to treat public office as an invitation to a bazaar or a search for the storied out of gold at the end of the rainbow. Particularly during the last administration, the means by which public officials lived outdistanced the value for which they lived by a country mile. Political positions were havens for plundering and display of crass insensitivity.
Which is why it has to be said that as well as the governor has done with regard to essential infrastructural projects, his effort at changing attitudes and mindset is just as critical.
And it is impossible to over-state his stellar achievements in addressing dire infrastructure. Remarkably, he has delivered big and done so in perilous economic times. He has delivered over 150km of top-standard roads, changed the embarrassing Port Harcourt landscape by fixing decrepit roads and building new and ambitious others. Savings from plugged sources of waste have been ploughed back into rebuilding and equipping schools and health institutions state-wide, not pocketed. He has delivered a world-class leisure park in record time, the likes of which cannot be found in these shores, and which is having a tremendous impact on recreation and tourism. State-owned tertiary institutions are experiencing a level of attention that is the stuff of dreams after decades of neglect.
The governor’s outstanding work has caught the eyes at home and beyond. Port Harcourt’s makeover has made it a destination of choice for various local and international conferences and numerous social events in the last two years. These constitute a telling rebuke of the tendentious narrative on insecurity being concocted and promoted by partisan interests. And investments in the development of urban renewal programs recently earned him the Global Human Settlements Outstanding Contribution Award at the UN headquarters in New York.
At home, recognition continues to pour in thick and fast. Besides being christened “Mr Projects” by vice president Yemi Osinbajo and bagging several newspaper man-of-the-year awards, he has just done an unprecedented encore and as back-to-back The Sun Governor of the Year for 2017.
Unlike previous years, Governor Wike’s accomplishments are tangible and verifiable, not the illusory hoodoo of false media propaganda. If anything, the deliverables and concomitant acclaim have come despite an elaborate and sponsored de-marketing media campaign.
While the governor’s instinctual honesty, gravitas and pragmatism clearly resonate with people, his performance quotient is what has cemented his place in their hearts. What underpins that performance is preparation in offering to serve. This has never been a strong forte in Rivers politics, unfortunately. With a few exceptions, we’ve been accursed with leaders who had no business leading and more or less happened on the scene by accident. But Governor Wike is different; he came well prepared and ready and is unsurprisingly sweeping squeaky clean like a new broom. Under his watch, it is not only impossible but inconceivable that a contractor would bolt with billions of Rivers people’s money without doing the job. The consequences would be swift even for far less infractions. That is partly because he is beholden to no special interests.
In February, Egalitarian Mission Africa asked me to present a paper on “Media, Politics and Elections in Nigeria” as part of their bienniel program of events in Abuja. My paper was well received and subsequently published by two national newspapers. But it dawned on me during the interactive session that rather than the subject matter of discourse, much of the audience’s interest centered on the governor’s perceived wooden or deadpan persona. I explained that his appearance belied the most good-natured and friendly man in and out of power. They were surprised and, strangely enough, that’s when I earned the loudest applause!
Governor Wike ticks every leadership box. He is a genuinely kind-hearted leader who believes that electioneering contestation or political differences shouldn’t translate into permanent binary fissures that defeat the very purpose of contesting for public office – service to the people. Accordingly, despite the unrelenting conspiracy and self-annihilating scorched earth tactics of his opponents, he continues to eschew bitterness by implementing a broader strategic workaround that promotes inclusiveness and even development. Unlike the common practice in previous years, road construction does not stop at the doorsteps of his friends. In many cases, instead, he has done the roads leading to his opponent’s houses first.
Governor Wike’s leadership is redemptive and inspiring after many years of aimless groping. He is the type of leader Rivers people have long yearned for, one who is acutely self-aware and understands that all politics is local and that a leader cannot build a legacy abroad at the expense of his people. That knowledge has helped him keep Rivers money at home to work for Rivers people. He is more than a breath of fresh air; under him Rivers State is reborn and feels like a flower sensing spring warmth in the air after years of exhibitionist hedonism and puerile attention-seeking.
Bob is a lawyer and Special Adviser to the Governor of Rivers State.