Today, I was at the presentation of the long awaited book titled The Accidental Public Servant by Malam Nasir El-Rufai. I went in a sceptic and came out hopeful, but a sceptic. What was I sceptical about before the launch and why was I sceptical after the launch?
Over a year ago, a book by Olusegun Adeniyi Power, Politics and Death was released to an eager Nigerian public. Nigerians were just coming out of a troubling time, when hearsays and rumours were the most reliable information about the state of the Country. The end of the time was marked by the assumption to office of the President, by the former Vice President, after the death of the Former President. However, there were too many unanswered questions, situations that needed explanation, gaps in stories that needed to be filled, gossip mongers that needed to be vindicated, politicians that wanted the truth to remain hidden, and politicians that wanted the truth to come out. Who better to clear the air than the late President’s Spokesman; who authored the mentioned book. I didn’t read the book.
I had two reasons for not reading the book, or bothering to do so. The first was that I know there will be so much juicy news and gossips that keeping an eye on my social media would give me most of the gist. Second reason was that I considered it to be only slightly more credible than the usual hearsays, which may well be true, but cannot hold as evidence in a legal court. To me, it was a political drama literature… and I had already watched The West Wing on TV.
My worries were sedated when I took a peek at the 90-page appendix, of The Accidental Public Servant, that seemed like large pages of international passports decorated with stamps, and signatures. These were no immigration stamps because the stamps read “RESTRICTED”, and the signatures were of former top government officials. I understood that the appendix was loaded with documents adorned with RESTRICTED stamps, perhaps to serve as evidence to some of the author’s claims. There was some other document that looked like minutes of a meeting. This book might be interesting and relevant after all.
There was still a stone in my shoe. It is amusing, at best, to hear about political dramas and scandals, but it is careless to accept unproven claims as true, especially when the information originates from a partisan in politics. The author, Malam Nasir El-Rufai, probably has the most ears of Nigerian youth, especially those on Twitter and Facebook. Now that is a dangerous man! Any person in such a position is indeed a force to reckon with. It doesn’t matter that some of his “followers” don’t like him, what matters is that he can decided what issues are being debated about on and off social media. As for those who look up to him, they are lucky to be guided… or misguided. In a country where evidence is a strange word, where narratives of a war from forty years ago still decide public attitudes and government policy, my fear of a monopoly of a narrative is forgiven; even if this book’s narrative is not along tribal and religious variables. So regardless of what a nice person I think the author is, this recognition scares the hell out of the Leftist in me. Thankfully, this fear was calmed at the Presentation; in what follows.
Disclaimers and clarifications were given early. There were many top current (& former) government officials, and Civil Society Members at the Book Presentation. Even though many of them consider themselves friends with the author, they were not spared in the book, their bad nor their goods. Some, who had already read the book, gave accounts of their sides of the story, where they disagreed with the book. This is remarkable. It calms my fear of a person, or group, having hegemony of narratives to story. This distributed opportunity of narrative is a key feature of (proper) Academia; which is the source of credible knowledge used in all sorts of applications. The fittest theory survives based on evidence and validity. In the political realm, the fittest narrative may henceforth be based on evidence; or be open to alternative narratives that must counter the opposing evidence with at least an equivalent quality of evidence. Instead of a peer-reviewed journal, we could have a peer-reviewed Narrative.
Many speakers at the Presentation called for public servants to write books. I thought it was a joke because frankly I have never thought of public servants as intelligent. Even after some recent personal dealings, I came to see them more as cunning than intelligent. I must have forgotten the ritual of how money can summon Ghost Writers. However, many of those present could easily write books I would like to read. If not for the sake of writing, it seems this is a book that could ignite responses of narratives especially by those featured in the book.
On a different note, the book may well be what I have been waiting for, to justify taking a stand on political matters. For long, I have taken the high road when it comes to taking a stand on government policies (except Subsidy removal) because I fear the tendency of being carried away by orchestrated misinformation. Unfortunately, many others take a strong stand on public policy issues, when interactions with them shows that they don’t quite understand the issues enough. One of the speakers at the launch mentioned that the book contains information about how the economy is planned, how projects are run, why projects have succeeded or failed etc. These are gold for citizens that want to (really) engage the government. Knowing that the author has a way of simplifying the complicated, as in the case of his frequent articles analysing government budget, then this book could serve as an introduction into the workings of public service. A reader of the book then will be more justified in taking a stand in policy matters and government dealings.
It was also pointed out that the book is a rich source of the history of Abuja, and that should interest residents of Abuja.
The book launch was very interesting and there is a lot more to be reported from the funny and captivating contributions by speakers at the launch, but I definitely recommend reading the book review by Prof. Chidi Odinkalu. I went to the book launch a sceptic, I became hopeful from the available evidence pool to back claims, I became hopeful from the promise of an academic-type responses and future books, I became hopeful of enriched citizen awareness into the engines of public service. But I left as a sceptic… which I picked up sitting among fellow audience. I left sceptical of whether those who respond will respond with quality arguments and evidences on the relevant issues, not the distractions they have so perfected. I left a sceptic of whether Nigerians will use this book as a resource to enrich engagement with the government, not a tabloid for juicy gossips.