A Break With the Past

One scene I found rather fascinating in Tunde Kelani's classic, Agogo Eewo (Gong of Taboo) is where the corrupt chiefs were to swear on oath. In the days before the public occasion, many of them had resorted to seeking spiritual help from marabouts, pastors and Imams.

Knowing the implications of what was to happen, the embattled chiefs sought help to ensure they were not caught and you could see their worries because they were well aware of the consequences. It is an interesting scene which I recommend to politicians seeking our votes because it has to do with a situation that deals with an abuse of public trust.

This is the moment that confronts many of our politicians across the country today as the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) begins its screening of candidates for the coming elections. If what we have been reading in the media in the last few weeks is anything to go by, then there are signs that many of our political office seekers are afraid of what could come. And one will not be surprised if many of them are already seeking spiritual help from our men of God, a growing tribe of professionals in Nigeria today who can conjure anything in the name of the almighty provided the pay is right.

The point indeed remains that going by what is already unfolding before our eyes, and those we may yet learn in this open season when politicians are ready to open the dirty closets of their opponents, we may be in for some shockers. And these may well affect the polity in rather significant ways. Because in the past, for some of our political gladiators, if I may borrow the title of Arthur Haley's bestseller: something happened!

So in essence we are in a season of sleaze and the issue in this campaign is not what our politicians will do for us or what they have done for us (may be because they know we are not blind hence can see the decay that pervades the landscape). Rather the campaign issue in most states today is who our public office seeker or holder is. Or perhaps was. Instead of mounting the rostrum, political office seekers are busy looking for documents with which to nail their opponents and whatever we may feel about this, the point we cannot shy away from is that anybody seeking to rule must be above board. But as it would seem, not all of them are and that is why the next couple of weeks could be interesting especially if there is any quake from INEC.

How we handle the fallout of such potential eventuality will no doubt affect the future of our democracy and as journalists we have enormous responsibilities on our shoulders, especially in this crucial, some would say injury time, period. The focus may be more on the media because in times like this, political opportunists masquerading as do-gooders would want to use us, even blackmail us. And I have heard a lot in the last couple of weeks: "Oh, I heard that you editors cannot write against so and so person because you are all on his payroll". Never mind that he too is willing to pay if you have a price!

Basically, all they want from you is to publish, even without verification, whatever dirt they might have dug up about their opponents. And there seems to be so much dirt to dig around confirming that most of our public officials may not be what they claim to be or who we think they are. But this is not even a problem. While we do our job, the ultimate decision, we should remember, still rests with the people.

In times like this when several events are unfolding before our very eyes, when we don't know who and what to believe anymore, I want to go back to a piece I did last year. This approach may seem escapist. But for now, I consider it the only way I can contribute to the on-going silent but deafening discourse across the nation without jumping into conclusions that may not only be hasty but may end up being inaccurate. As I stated earlier, we do not know who and what to believe again. We are back to the Orwellian 1984, the more we look these days, the less we see.

I had last August written on a novel sent me by Lagos lawyer, Mr. Edo Ukpong, titled “The Incumbent”, written by an American journalist, Brian McGrory, a former White House Correspondent. The message in it is simple: when it comes to choosing leaders, the voters may look beyond the facts presented by the media or the opposition, knowing that every man has his dark spots though at all times, the public deserves the right to know. What is the story all about?

It has to do with a reporter who witnessed a botched attempt to assassinate an American President. Even though the shots did not do the fatal damage to the President, he was nonetheless wounded and so was the reporter. Who was after the life of the President? Having been part of the drama, the reporter felt it was his obligation to get to the bottom of the story. As one source would continue to tell him, "nothing is as it seems". The reporter, as the story developed, became part of the sub plots. But let us look at the President first.

From his rags to riches story, President Clayton Hutchins himself is an amazing character and his rise to power and fame was no less so. With no family background, he rose from poverty and obscurity to establish a technology company that produced personal finance software called Cookie Jar into the big leagues, eventually becoming a staple in households across America and earning its inventor hundreds of millions of dollars.

That was how Hutchins became a folk hero, lauded for his ambitions and his brains and loved for his massive acts of philanthropy. He was seen as "a uniquely American story-born and raised on a farm miles and miles from his closest neighbour, schooled at home, college educated later in life, entirely self-made in both the worlds of commerce and government". To cut a long story short, he was actually drafted into politics where he rose to become president.

Let us now fast-forward the story. In trying to unravel who could have wanted to kill the President, the reporter encountered difficulties from the FBI whose agent, as it would turn out, was involved in the plot. But he trudged on and with the help of an anonymous source who kept on giving him valuable leads and clues he was able to realise three names held the key to the murder. The first name he came across was Tony Clawsons. With the aid of the computer, he conducted a cyberspace manhunt. First, he checked Social Security Administration records, on-line, for all Tony Clawsons in the country in the previous twenty years. For each one he found, he checked for current telephone numbers, for death records. If they didn't have a phone number or a death record, he checked for a credit report to see if there was a recent activity.

On one he could find nothing-no death record, no phone number, no credit activity, no marriage records, no birth record, nothing. Going deeper into his Social Security history he (Clawsons) hadn't been assigned a Social Security number until 1979, when he was listed as forty years old. He also began paying into the system the same year and continued until late 1988 when he disappeared abruptly. This was, of course, interesting because in 1979 Curtis Black had ceased to exist, the year Tony Clawsons took shape.

As it were, Curtis Black had become Tony Clawsons in the witness protection programme in 1979 (in exchange for freedom in a criminal case in which he was involved). A few years later he changed his name again but to who? That was the puzzle which the reporter unravelled: Curtis Black or Tony Clawsons (now Hutchins) had changed his identity, done a facial surgery, made good and had become the President but there were still a few ghosts from the past that haunted him.

That was the story which the reporter, with much tenacity, was able to eventually ferret out. In my last piece I recounted the final confrontation between the reporter and the president when the number one citizen tried to prevent the story from getting to the public and I will capture again some of the interesting exchanges.

Said the president to the reporter: "It's one thing I always liked about you, Jack, one thing that always drew me to you. You know what it is to lose everything you ever wanted, all of your hopes and all your dreams and all of your expectations for the future, all in one incomprehensible act of God...I paid a steep price. I struck a deal. I traded in my entire life, or what was left of it. You know what that's like, to give up your life? And now that I've turned myself around, now that I've made it on my own, you're going to hang all that around my neck and choke me to death, all over again?"

The reporter who probably should have felt pity did not, all he really felt was relief. Relief that he had at last had his story. He even had his quotes, which he repeated in his mind several times to help commit them to memory. "Sir, you may be right. But you had a deal with the American people, and that deal was to tell the truth, to let them know who you are, to be judged on the whole rather than just the past few years."

To this the president replied: "I did tell them who I am. I am Clayton Hutchins. I made my money on my own, with no help from anyone. For Christ sake, I gave up a lucrative life to be Clayton Hutchins, I succeeded. And now you're about to burn me with my own success. Where's the fairness in that...You think I've been a bad president? You think any of those people who are planning to vote for me tomorrow believe I will make a bad president for the next four years? You think my policies aren't carefully thought out? You think I have been corrupt? No."

The reporter was equally unrelenting: "The voters have a right to know who they voted for. They have a right to know your background, your experiences, the truths in your life, and the lies. All of that shapes who you are, and dictates how you'll act in the future as the country's leader, in times of good fortune and in times of crisis. The voters have the right to the truth."

In a moment of reflection, the reporter told himself that truth is an amazing thing which keeps a democracy vibrant based on the conviction that informed people are usually wise people, or at least practical. "This wasn't about his sex life or some ancient two-bit misdemeanour. This struck at the very foundation of who our president is, and in this case, was." And rather than agree to a deal, he told the president "The public is entitled to the truth"

In the final dialogue with himself, a moment of introspection that confronts every reporter on the verge of breaking a big story, he reflected: "So is the truth even important anymore? Do we really need it, in life, in the body politic, or is it just better, easier to go with what feels good, to tell lies, to accept them, with understanding that even if lies hurt, the truth too often hurts even more? Truth is an immovable foundation. Lies shift and collapse. With truth, even at its most painful, you can address it, build on it, and move on. I believe the people can take the truth, decide if it’s important, and make sound judgments on the people put before them. Which is why journalism, for all its drawbacks, is still a decent calling..."

The next day, the story was all over the United States. And all over the world. The choice was now left with the American people. As they went to the polls, the voters now knew who their president was, or is. But it did not matter much because Hutchins still won by 50.4 per cent of popular votes and took the Electoral College votes by a margin of nine votes. The bottom line according to the reporter: "the people, the voters, knew what they were doing, and enough of them believed in the concept of redemption."

Of course we know we are dealing here with a fictional situation in which as far as they were concerned their man was doing well and they could not be bothered about his past. In any case, is there anyone without a past? It is, however, not always that simple in real life where there are political sharks waiting for blood while there are some pasts that do effectively cut off the future. Especially if they border on criminality. In such situations, if you gamble, then pray that you don't break the eleventh commandment: Thou shall not get caught! That is, however, a tall order given that for every political office holder, there is at least a dozen people out there waiting for the opportunity to take over.

One significant lesson which we, however, cannot, and indeed should not, ignore while damaging documents fly around is that not all facts represent truth. Because facts in themselves are most often subjective depending on the motive of the person supplying them. That is why we may never know the truth in some of the things we read in the media. Because we are in a situation where there is too much politics; where there is a penchant to settle petty scores; where those who seek to undo others may themselves have worse skeletons in their closets; where even those institutions charged with enthroning or enforcing these noble virtues act more for political expediency than for altruistic purposes.

In the season we are in today, there is only a thin line between the accuser and the accused. That is the tragedy of public office in our nation today. But even these do not excuse serious constitutional infractions from which no serious people can look the other way. That is why moments like this task all of us. And as Alhaji M.D. Yusufu would pray in those dark days of General Sani Abacha, "may God give all of us the will to do the right thing..."

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