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For An Elevating Cabinet By Sonala Olumhense

September 13, 2015

Very early in 1983, I took a job at a newspaper in Lagos which did not exist.  

That was during the tumultuous Second Republic government of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which had in 1979 taken political control from the military.  


My employer would be known as The Guardian.   Promotional materials for the newspaper, the first two titles of which arrived in February and July of 1983, made this emphatic promise: “Sooner or later, you’ll read The Guardian.”

It was a promise fulfilled.  Within months, the newspaper proved to be an excellent business and editorial success.  Behind the intellectual instincts of Executive Editor Stanley Macebuh and the business savvy of Publisher Alex Ibru—both now sadly deceased—the newspaper broke even within months.  You know you are doing something right when the vendor sells your paper only to those buyers who also buy another.

Then happened another Nigeria military coup, which sent home from Lagos the elected NPN government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari.  

It was the end of 1983, and the new government was led by a tall, unsmiling man known as General Muhammadu Buhari, who had in the two previous years been the General Officer Commanding of the army’s Third Armored Division in Jos, Plateau State.  

Not many Nigerians wanted a coup, but they danced on the streets anyway, celebrating the dispersal of the NPN nuisance.  

The Guardian, which swore by the best principles of republican democracy, was on a collision course with General Buhari, who ruled by decree and thought that the press was too free.  

The General and The Guardian would go on to become deeply acquainted, the military dictator promulgating an anti-press law under which two of the newspaper’s most formidable reporters were thrown behind bars.  Given the deep excesses of the overthrown NPN government, the Buhari government launched what it called a War Against Indiscipline, and tried to fight corruption.  

Over 30 years later, Muhammadu Buhari, now a “converted democrat,” is again Nigeria’s leader.  Ironically, the inaugural speech of the incoming military administration in 1983 could have been penned and delivered about the PDP in 2015:

“…Our economy has been hopelessly mismanaged.  We have become a debtor and beggar nation. There is inadequacy of food at reasonable prices for our people who are now fed up with endless announcements of importation of foodstuffs. Health services are in shambles as our hospitals are
reduced to mere consulting clinics without drugs, water and equipment. Our educational system is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Unemployment figures including the undergraduates have reached embarrassing and unacceptable proportions. In some states, workers are being owed salary arrears of eight to twelve months and in others there are threats of salary cuts…

To that end, President Buhari, like General Buhari before him, is trying to cobble together a cabinet of capable and honest Nigerians to support his government in taking on those problems.  He may find the early-Guardian story to be an instructive one.  

The Guardian was extremely ambitious.  It wanted to be one of the top newspapers in the English-speaking world: excellently-written, excellently published.  As a result, it went hunting, as President Buhari is now doing, for the very best men and women.  

To begin with, it identified and attracted a few key people who were the leading lights at what they did.  That explains how some of the people in and around the newspapers in the early days were “converted” journalists.  They were people of excellence and achievement who brought those trademarks into inventing The Guardian.  

Some mainstream journalists also made the cut: unconventional professionals who were headhunted more for their unconventionality and less for their professionalism.  Into the pot went their strong character and professional traits.

Together, these two groups accounted for the third and perhaps most fundamental step: the recruitment of brilliant young graduates, men and women, who were converted into the kind of reporters The Guardian had in mind.  

The key element was that the newspaper wanted to avoid reporters who had picked up “bad” habits in the trade.  The Guardian reporter was conceived of an original, confident thinker, digger and writer who could not be intimidated, one who would respect but not worship authority.  Some of the writers who joined the group came through a written interview, the best of them a young man whose work was better than that of many who wielded heavy academic qualifications.  

This explains how one business that I know built its success from the ground up, in response to the challenge of the industry at that time.  

In those first few years, and in reports and commentary that were seen by the military brass headed by General Buhari, The Guardian was written by a strong group of people that included (former) university professors of all kinds, and men and women of various ages who arrived from far-flung corners of thought, training, and the country.  They were found and hired all over the country and the world, some of them pried away from very lucrative positions.

Some members of the band were eccentric, to be sure, in terms of their lifestyles and their behavior.  But they bought into the objective and were united in their faith in the product and in their craft.  Such was the commitment that, in order to ensure the highest possible standards, senior members of the editorial staff returned to the office late at night to supervise production.

The result was an influential publication everyone seemed to want to read, write for, or associate with.  It was the collective expertise of the hands and heads that had been assembled according to specific recruiting criteria.  

The lesson is that there is very good reason to believe that there are Nigerians of the highest quality and character all over the country and the world who meet the same description, and who are easier for a government to find if truly sought for national service.    

I support President Buhari’s quest for, and desire to appoint Nigerians of integrity into his government.  Hopefully, he does not miss the very best because of the preconception that he already has the people he can trust. A person you do not know is not, by inference, untrustworthy.  

This is particularly important if he is installing a gerontocracy.  That might have worked for Nigeria 20 or 30 years ago, but the world is different now, and the one that is being fashioned in Nigeria is for a younger, more diverse population.  

Elsewhere, I have implied that the new government ought to reflect our national character.  What is even more important is that it must reflect Nigeria’s demographics.  Old age is not always wisdom; longevity is not always capacity; loyalty is not always patriotism.  

Nigeria needs to be re-invented, and part of the answer is to provide Younger Nigeria the position it has been denied through these years of the locust.  It is their world and their country, and there are excellent Nigerians ready for service if we were really to seek them.  

Put differently, it is their river.  The earlier they are permitted to swim in it instead of being shown pearls allegedly from another river, the better for us all.

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Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense