Last week Thursday in Lagos, former Chairman of All Progressives Congress, Chief Bisi Akande, publicly presented his autobiography, My Participations. Excerpts of the book have circulated in the media, and aspects of Akande’s recollections severely contested. While the criticisms have been interesting, this column is unconcerned about the book’s contents. Nigerian politicians’ books tend to be self-obsessed and self-glorifying accounts of their so-called public service, but they offer little by way of insightful ideas. Even from the book titles, you expect to encounter navel-gazing: Not My Will! My Command! My Watch! Night of My Transition! My Participations! My Masturbations! The use—or overuse—of personal pronouns in these titles supposedly preempts the criticisms of the skewness of their narrations.
My concern is how Akande is consistently valorised as a man of integrity. We throw the word “integrity” around so casually and shear it of meaning. In Nigeria, integrity does not always describe having a sound moral character or the consistency of one’s ethical convictions. The import of “integrity” has been anemically whittled down to a basic symptom of not having been caught stealing public funds. At the book presentation occasion, even the president, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), described Akande as a man of “inflexible integrity,” someone who never accepted or offered bribes. Given that such a narrowed meaning of integrity also defines Buhari’s public persona, it is unsurprising his understanding of integrity boils down to bribe-taking. The myth about Buhari himself is that he does not steal public funds, but the truth of his integrity is that he also is a serial beneficiary of stolen wealth. While Buhari maintains a façade of integrity by claiming he has never enriched himself with public funds, his clique of friends actively loots the public treasury. That technique of keeping your hands clean and deflecting your sins to others is a unique case study of moral perversion.
In the case of Akande, the much-vaunted attribution of his integrity largely comes from his tenure as governor of Osun State from 1999-2003. According to his historical revisionists, Akande ran the state prudently but lost his re-election bid to the political shenanigans of then-President Olusegun Obasanjo. What they conveniently forget is that within six months of Akande’s tenure, he had fired about one-third of the civil servants. In a state where much of what constitutes the local economy relies on the civil service, Akande threw entire families into turmoil when—in some instances—even both husband and wife were sacked from work. It is curious that this man of inflexible integrity does not ascribe his electoral loss to his callousness. Instead, he has been fixated on blaming Obasanjo, and for almost two decades too. If he were not self-entitled, why did he take it for granted that he would be voted back into power after the mass retrenchment of workers? When you throw so many people out of work overnight, their network of dependents that get severely impacted will mobilise the resentment that will drive their votes against you. Does he think about these things or just find it easier to blame others?
At the Thursday ceremony, even Buhari regurgitated this old story of Akande’s loss. Buhari said Governor Akande—along with his Alliance for Democracy peers in the South-West—was a victim of “a diabolical double-cross which ended his gubernatorial career.” What should have been deemed an irony—if it were not tragic—is that this same Buhari, about three years ago, publicly confessed that their party won a governorship election in that same Osun State through “remote control.” Considering the circumstances of that victory, what he called “remote control” is a merely euphemistic description of electoral manipulation. The same people who claimed Obasanjo masterminded an “electoral massacre” against them also won an election through similar machinations. How do you square such double-mindedness and the gross lack of ethical awareness with “integrity”?
When Buhari backslaps Akande and declares him a man of “inflexible integrity,” their exchange says a lot about our collective memory and attitude to history. During Buhari’s first coming as a military dictator, Akande was one of his many victims. Like several other politicians during that era, Buhari’s junta indiscriminately sentenced Akande to prison for corruption. Akande wrote that much in his book, but for some curious reason, refused to name the autocrat who handed him an extended jail term. What exactly was Akande protecting when he redacted the name of the military ruler who sent him to jail on spurious grounds? As several news articles have serially noted, that information is already public. Why shy away from it? For Buhari to describe the person he once jailed for corruption as a man of “inflexible integrity,” without either a reckoning or even accounting for the past, shows the degree to which their ideas of what constitutes integrity is merely contingent.
Both men, of course, have come a long way since 1983. Buhari’s brutal past has been re-written and some of his victims like Akande have even become his fawner. Yet, it is still noteworthy that Akande could not properly face his own past in his own book. Having spent the past years since Buhari became president demonising others over Buhari, he could not dig into his own past without talking about his god’s clay feet. Recall that shortly after Buhari became president in 2015, and a crisis erupted in their party over who should occupy which political position, Akande was quick to ascribe the issues to the “subsidy thieves” and “corrupt businessmen” who had respectively enthroned Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara as Senate President and House Speaker just so they could thwart Buhari’s anti-corruption efforts. Rather than confront the self-evident reality that their party was a consortium of politicians like himself, all of whom are mutually bound by nothing more than their self-serving interests, Akande sought hell in other people.
In 2017 while there was a raging controversy over Buhari’s ill health, Akande urged us to pray for Buhari because the president’s health is the nation’s health. In a statement he published then, Akande claimed he had wept over Buhari’s health challenges. He said he had met Buhari and asked him why he looked stressed, and the man’s reply “connoted some allusions to circumstances where a(n) honest man fighting corruption is surrounded mostly by unpatriotic, greedy ruling class.” Akande’s conclusion in that press release was that Buhari was sick because “corruption has effectively been fighting back.” You read that and wonder how Buhari’s failing health and corruption in the polity correlate. Why the desperation to contrive a connection between Buhari’s poor health and endemic corruption when the man—and just like Akande himself—unabashedly associates with some of the most corrupt elements in Nigerian politics?
At the Thursday ceremony, listening to Akande brown-nosing his former jailer—he said he wished Buhari stayed longer in Lagos so that their children could eat with him, touch his clothes, make him feel younger, and let Buhari know that they love him—was cringeworthy. When Akande got to the point in his speech where he stated to Buhari that, “We accuse you of all that is wrong even though we know we are not honest ourselves. We know we are fraudulent; we know we are deceitful; we know we are cheaters; we know we are doing wrong; we blame you,” I felt bad for him. Noticed how, in extricating Buhari from his many leadership failures, Akande switched to the collective pronoun? That is disingenuous.
In his book, he could not name Buhari as his jailor. Standing before the man, Akande still could not do the needful. Instead, he obsequiously distributes Buhari’s responsibility among benighted Nigerians by saying “we”—the woeful victims of Buhari’s failures—are the ones with the problem. Look, Nigeria presently faces serious problems of diminishing economy and acute security issues, none of which Buhari’s regime has sufficiently addressed in almost seven years he has been in power but Akande does not think he is at fault. In what way could “we” be jointly responsible for many Nigeria’s security and economic problems when the resources that can redress the problems are at the behest of the same people even Akande dares not name? If there is anything inflexible about Akande’s integrity, it is his instinctive habit of protecting Buhari from his failures by blaming everyone else.