One of the easiest things to do in Nigeria today, is publicly declaim one’s love for and undying commitment to the country. In the end, it really does not invite the speaker and his or her audience to do much. It does involve some form criticism, though. Especially dense discussions of how the country’s considerable problems must be measured against those of the likes of Pakistan and Afghanistan (never Botswana). And how as an emerging democracy, it is only a tiddler compared to the many centuries the US has under its belt (Singapore?). The point is that the place is “work-in-progress”.
These excuses go hand in hand with a readiness to condemn as unpatriotic opinions that do not sit well with this perspective. I guess from this vantage, “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must (still) be done”. Even though much of the case made by those who ask questions of the country today is more commentary on how criminally it is being managed.
To continue to shout “One indivisible Nigeria” on the mountains, over the hills and everywhere is also a staple of our current leaders and those aspiring to supplant them. Unfortunately, it has very little substance to it. Across the diverse fields that I have had to work and collaborate with my compatriots (the civil service, print media, the financial services sector, and a little politicking), the most fervent advocates of the indissoluble unity of Nigeria are the country’s most corrosive elements – daily undermining the economy’s capacity for self-regeneration and growth by their avarice.
Thus, over the years, explaining this contradiction between the spoken word and action, between intent and outcome has become a favourite national pastime. At the macro-level this hiatus is most noticeable in the failure of governance in the public sector – where the distance between our loftily named annual budgets and our economy’s performance is as risible as it is unbridgeable. Until that is, you pay attention to an underlying tension. A large part of my 7-year stint in the civil service had me write speeches for a bewildering array of functions. I still write those speeches. And in over three decades of writing speeches, only one of the “owners” of my speech has ever asked that we sit together and agree the dimensions of his intent in taking up the invitation to speak.
With highs so few, the lows have been instructive. As in when one of my bosses, going through a speech with me standing across his expansive from him (poor etiquette, if you ask me) stumbles on a strange (to him) word, and goes “What kind of nonsense speech is this?”. It took me a while to persuade this captain of industry that he was wrong. You cannot pass judgment on a speech whose dimensions you and your speechwriter did not agree on. Or take the public sector case. Where having invited the state governor to a function, the Protocol Unit of the Governor’s office reaches out to your department to prepare a draft for the governor. I didn’t get it, first time – not sure I still get it. An invitation to a public office holder to speak in public is an opportunity for him to either reinforce a policy plank, or describe an entirely new platform. But no. The “Protocol people” informed me that having invited the governor, it behoved us to do a draft of what we’d want him to say. Draft? I cobbled a half-hearted speech together, persuaded that “they” were going to graft the governor’s vision on to it – he was a military governor, though, so I guess he was not strong on the vision thing. What an unpleasantly surprise, then, to have the governor read my draft verbatim.
That was my epiphany as a speechwriter. In that gap between the Nigerian leader’s aspirations and his eventual actions lie the ambitions of a speechwriter. The bigger the gap, the more ambitious the speechwriter, and vice-versa. Now, of course this relationship this true only for leaders big enough to have speechwriters. Aspirant leaders just follow their leaders’ penchant for ringing declamations. Both aware that the audience is too jaded to demand more.
In parsing President Buhari’s Independence Day speech, therefore, the gap between reality and aspiration that has been much commented upon, especially the exaggerated sense of the administration’s achievement must be squarely blamed on those who put the speech together. Our leaders having structured the country in a way that it is unable to manage consequences, tyrannical speechwriters, using their principals as stalking horses will continue to inflict their pet peeves on us.
Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.