Leadership in a Time of Ebola and Insurgency

Since we are in church setting, let me begin with this story of an old woman who was very spiritual. She would step out of her house every day, raise her arms to the sky and shout "Praise the Lord." One day, an atheist bought the house next door to her, and he became very irritated with the daily shouts of this old woman. So after a month or so of her spiritual chanting the atheist went outside and shouted back at her: "There is no Lord." But the old woman ignored him and continued to shout praise the Lord every day.

One cold, winter evening, when the old woman seemed helpless, she went out of her house, raised her hands up to the sky and said, "Help me Lord, I have no more money, it's cold, and I have no food in the house." The next morning, she went outside; Lo and behold, by her door were three bags of groceries, enough to last her a week. "Praise the Lord," she shouted in excitement as she raised her hands to the sky in supplication to the God she believed came to her rescue.

At that point, the atheist stepped out from his house, walked up to the woman and said, "There is no Lord, I bought those groceries!" With smiles on her face, the old woman raised her arms to the sky again and said, "Praise the Lord. You sent me groceries and you made the Devil to pay for them!"

The message from that story is simple: on a day such as this when we celebrate the independence anniversary of Nigeria, we should not allow anybody to mess up our testimony. No matter the situation we face, and regardless of the state of affairs in our country, there is always something to thank God for, as individuals and as a nation. So as we mark the 54th independence anniversary of Nigeria, it is a day of thanksgiving to God for His mercies.

However, as I said two years ago when I had the opportunity to be on this programme, today is usually a day of lamentation in our country as many of our politicians take turn to remind us of our failings. And it doesn’t matter that most of the people who would be pointing fingers have had opportunities to be in government at various levels with no record of having made any appreciable difference in the material condition of our people. Yet one thing we should bear in my mind is that as bad as the situation may seem in our country today, they could indeed have been worse. However, I am not here today to preach any sermon since Pastor Poju does that most eloquently all the time but rather to share in a few minutes my thoughts about how we can all make a difference as we seek to make our society a better place for all of us.

On a personal note, I also have a lot to thank God for as I contend with what my pastor would call a good problem. In the last two years, hardly a week comes when I would not be invited either to speak at an event or review a book. Quite naturally, I have had to politely turn down many of those requests because I just cannot cope. But when I was sounded out by my sister and friend, Susan Eyo Honesty, about the possibility of being here today, I instantly jumped at the opportunity. I am sure that many still remember that exactly two years ago, I was here and I am glad to be back here at The Platform, especially on such a day as this. October 1 holds a special place in my family not only because it’s our independence anniversary day but also because it is the birthday of my son who clocks 11 today though for the first time in his life he would not be marking it with a cake because the Loyola Jesuit College where he is now a boarding student has no room for such frivolities.

I am aware that this programme is about interaction so I am not going to bore you with a long speech. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to speak briefly about what I have titled leadership in a time of ebola and insurgency. I got the inspiration for that last Saturday in Sokoto where I witnessed the turbaning ceremony of Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, Speaker of the House of Representatives as the Mutawalle of Sokoto. Even though it turned out to be another political jamboree, the highlight of the event for me was the brief remark made by Sultan Muhammadu Abubakar (the third) after the turbaning ceremony. In the political season that we are in, it was no surprise that the media missed the real essence of what the Sultan said as the reportage in virtually all the newspapers was about the admonition to politicians to work together: But the Sultan said more and I want to quote the unreported part of his remark which would form the kernel of my brief presentation here this morning:

“I cannot end this short note without calling on all our politicians gathered here to please close ranks and work for Nigeria. All of us must work together irrespective of our political, tribal and religious differences to salvage our country. We know the problems we are facing, especially the issue of insecurity particularly in the North-East. Alhamdulillah, to some extent now, we have seen some changes but more needs to be achieved because when you hit your enemy in one area, there is tendency he will relocate to another place.

“We must work together collectively to fight insurgency because there is no politics in insurgency, there is no religion in insurgency. We must advise our political leaders at all levels to shun political leanings when dealing with insurgency. It will not help us as a nation and it has never helped any nation anywhere in the world. We have seen nations coming together to fight terrorism so we must come together and in doing this, government must carry everybody along. We have seen how when faced with challenges, we rise up to be a bigger country. We have seen how we came together to fight the Ebola disease as one people and we succeeded. When Nigerians unite, we will win and overcome any challenge no matter how tough it looks.”

Whether we realize it or not, the Ebola challenge was a huge one for our country and as it has been globally acknowledged, it is one menace we handled with an uncommon dexterity while the lesson from the experience, as the Sultan said, is that a people united can never be defeated whether by a disease or by insurgency. That message was underscored by President Goodluck Jonathan last Sunday when he said at an interdenominational Church service to mark Nigeria’s 54th independence anniversary in Abuja: “…If we are united, there is no problem we cannot conquer. We were able to defeat Ebola because Nigerians were united and agreed that we should fight it. We have not defeated Boko Haram because Nigerians are not united yet.”

The president is right but only to an extent. While I do not subscribe to the belief that we have defeated Ebola, it is a fact that it is one emergency that we have handled with a national resolve and there are reasons to be optimistic that we will ultimately banish Ebola Virus from our land. But we are not yet there, and given how fragile our healthcare delivery system is, we should refrain from getting ahead of ourselves as Ebola remains a challenge. However, the questions to ask are: What did we do right with Ebola and what lessons can we internalize from that experience in the battle against the Boko Haram insurgency?

Of course, I must point out that fighting the spread of a disease, however deadly such a disease might be, cannot be compared with fighting a bunch of violent and misguided sexual perverts who hide under religion to perpetrate all manner of crimes and are prepared to destroy our country. Nevertheless, I am also of the view that there are lessons to draw from the Eboola experience that will indeed serve us well as we face the insurgency. And I will highlight just four.

One, with Ebola, we recognized from the outset that it is a national challenge that required a unity of purpose by critical agencies of government at all levels and the cooperation of all Nigerians regardless of where they may be. Therefore, between the Lagos State Government and the Federal Government, there was no acrimony, there were no recriminations and the officials worked together.
On the insurgency, we have not seen any demonstration of such cooperation between and among governments and the people. It is a notorious fact that the Federal Government and governments of the affected states of Borno, Adamama and Yobe have not always worked together, essentially because there have been too many people interested in exploiting the tragedy for political end.

To worsen matters, the cynicism of government officials at all levels has been transferred to the citizens. In most of the Northern states, many of the people have been made to believe the lie that the federal government is behind the insurgency while supporters of the president counter that with their own theory: Boko Haram is a Northern campaign to make the country ungovernable for the president. Under such a climate of mutual suspicion, how can we successfully fight terrorism?

Even in the South, the disposition of some of our people is better captured by the Yoruba idiom: “Ki lo kan Olorun nibi ejo san aya, omo eranko lo n da eranko lara!” Why should God be bothered that that a snake bites a monkey when it is a case of one animal fighting another? This is the position of those who have always seen Nigeria within the prism of North and South and has never really looked at the Boko Haram violence within the broader view of it being a challenge to our common humanity.

Two, in dealing with the Ebola challenge, the health authorities in Lagos and Abuja collaborated smoothly and so did the political authorities. Health Minister, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu deserves accolades for his efforts but the greater credit goes to the Lagos State authorities. Whatever differences they may hold on other issues, President Jonathan and Governor Fashola were on the same page in the fight against Ebola. We have not seen such cooperation in the fight against insurgency either at the level of those who superintend our military and security institutions or at the war theatres where many soldiers are deserting. Between the presidency and the states concerned where emergency rule (whatever it means within the context of the reality on the ground) is in place, there are hardly any meeting grounds.

In fact, the kidnapping of over 200 female students of Government Secondary School Chibok almost six months ago and the unfortunate drama that immediately followed the tragedy is symptomatic of how the war on insurgency has been mismanaged, essentially due to mistrust and the cold calculations over the 2015 general elections.

Three, on Ebola we saw a demonstration of leadership, especially in Lagos State where the Governor took charge immediately. Unfortunately, on insurgency, we have not seen anything like that despite the fact that our nation is at war. For instance, the moment Fashola’s attention was brought to the index case of Mr Patrick Sawyer, he did not prevaricate on the issue. He moved in quickly not only by making bold symbolic gestures (visiting the hospital, speaking with the affected people, empathizing with them etc.) but also by putting in place the necessary structures to contain a possible spread. He also cultivated critical constituencies that shape public perception while making effective use of direct communications with the people through regular broadcasts. It is indeed noteworthy that while the crisis lasted, Fashola had regular sessions with religious leaders, traditional rulers, market men and women and community development associations, to brief them of the risk, to re-assure them that his government was gaining control and to advise them to be cautious but not to panic. A memorable line from his first broadcast of 17th August: “Dear Lagosians, the challenge of managing the Ebola virus is big but our resolve to contain and defeat it is bigger.”

In speech after speech, Fashola brought new hope and a conquering spirit, using the power of words to great advantage because that is essentially what leadership at that level is all about. He spoke of the challenges but he also never failed to highlight the sacrifices of the health professionals and how the situation was changing until we arrived at a point in which the possible spread of the virus was contained. Unfortunately, in the fight against insurgency, either at the centre or within the operational areas of Boko Haram, we have not seen any demonstration of such hands-on leadership.

Today, our nation is at war and we have actually been for more than a year now yet there has been no official call to arms or an address to the people to make us understand the nature of the challenge we all face, the sacrifices we must make and the need to rally behind our troops, while making provisions to those who would be caught in the crossfire of the war. Hundreds of thousands of our people are being displaced with many running to Cameroon for succor but there has not been any assurance from the highest political authority in the land that we share their pains nor have we made provisions for their welfare. Yesterday, an official report of a visit to Cameroon by one of our institutions still alive to its responsibilities, the Nigeria Human Rights Commission (NHRC) stated: “we met a group of refugees today from Nigeria, they are packed at a stadium, coming mostly from Banki and some forests in Borno State. Being a refugee must be the worst thing ever. Packed in a stadium like animals waiting for the UNCHR to send in trucks to take them to the formal camp…”

The people we are talking about are our compatriots, mostly women and children, innocent poor people who were living their lives before some lunatics came to turn everything upside down. Do we care about them and if we do, what allowances have we made for them? But we are even going too far given the welfare situation that once made our soldiers to mutiny and their wives to intervene that their husbands would not go to war. So in the absence of any coherent official declaration either to provide for the young men and women we have sent to fight on our behalf or to reassure the direct victims of the insurgency that they will not be abandoned, it is not too difficult to understand why the nation is divided on what should clearly unite all of us.

However, I must point out that the failure is at all levels and nobody, not even those in the opposition can claim any moral high ground on the issue. For instance, I fail to understand the motive of those who are ever quick to put down the achievements of our armed forces while romanticizing whatever claims made by some Boko Haram lunatics. It is even sad that many of these people talk about Boko Haram as if it was a charity organization that only became violent just because its leader was killed. Indeed, in the political season that we are in, it is no surprise that many have, at least in the past, tried to take advantage of the insurgency before it exploded on all our faces.

This now brings me to the fourth and last lesson we can learn from the Ebola experience as we seek to put an end to the Boko Haram madness in our country. It is about taking personal responsibility as citizens. Whether we realize it or not, the choices we make in our little corners are as important as those made in Alausa and Aso Rock and that for me is the greatest lesson the Ebola challenge taught us.

I began with what both the Sultan and the president said about how we have successfully fought Ebola but if we can reflect, the first demonstration of leadership was at the First Consultant Hospital by private citizens. As most Nigerians now know, the late Dr Stella Adadevoh, a consultant physician at the hospital, was at the head of the resistance against having Sawyer forcefully discharged as his prominent Nigerian friends and the Liberian embassy officials in Lagos desperately canvassed. By insisting that Sawyer could not leave the hospital until she was certain about his ailment (which eventually confirmed her suspicion) and by alerting the Lagos State Health authorities immediately the Ebola Virus red flag came up, Adadevoh saved many lives even though she ended up losing her own. That was leadership.

We need such commitment to duty, sense of patriotism and professionalism on the part of our soldiers if we are to win the war on insurgency. And if our country is to attain peace and prosperity, we need such responsible citizenship at practically all levels of our society. What I am saying in essence is that all of us must play our parts. There is so much that we can all do as we seek to put an end to the Boko Haram insurgency but the least is to support our troops.

Before I take my seat, I must say that at this critical point in the life of our nation, when several of our people are hurting and we need men of God to speak healing, it is unfortunate that some otherwise respected men of God would rather sow hatred and division.

At a time the Church should stand up to preach love, the message of the Cross is being perverted to serve the partisan agenda of some pastors who give our Lord Jesus Christ a bad name. More than ever before, we need peace in our country and for that reason, Christians should be discerning about the kind of messages we listen to, especially in the build-up to the 2015 general elections. No matter the pretensions to the contrary, and regardless of whatever party they associate with, Nigerian politicians worship on the same altar and they know where they meet. So let no pastor deceive you into believing some politicians are better than the other because of the faith they profess. According to the Bible which is our Constitution as Christians, by their fruits we shall know them. A word, as the common saying goes, is enough for the wise.

Pastor Poju, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I think my job is done so let me now end my presentation with what is called the “Supervisor's Prayer" in "God's Little Instruction Book for men". It is a prayer I love so much and one I want to leave as my take-away this morning, apology to Governor Fashola who seems to have patented the take-away phrase.

Now to the prayer: “Lord, when I am wrong, make me willing to change; when I am right, make me easy to live with. Strengthen me so that the power of my example will far exceed the authority of my rank.”

• Text of a speech delivered on October 1, 2014 in Lagos at THE PLATFORM, an annual Independence Day programme by Pastor Poju Oyemade’s Covenant Christian Centre

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