A tree is bent when it is still wet — African proverb
OUR family is very large and intensely political. Our father came from Mauritania to Nigeria in 1920 and died 1987. He was also passionate about sharing Islamic knowledge and rendering public service. Northern political and traditional establishments embraced, and trusted him to help nurture future Nigerian generations who will take over from the British with humility and sense of responsibility.
Our mothers, were great Nigerian women who understood the challenges of rearing a huge brood, managing a prominent citizen in great demand who straddled cultures and generations, and bringing up an entirely Nigerian family. We grew up under intense pressure to acquire Islamic and Western knowledge (even at a time the northern Muslim Hausa-Fulani were at best weary, and at worst hostile, to the latter). Our father had seen the best and the worst of Nigerian history intimately, as many of the key players in its twists and turns were his students.
Towards the end of his life, he would engage the senior ones among us in intense discussions on the state of Nigerian and global politics. His views were generally critical of our political systems that were not driven by our own basic values; leadership selection processes that were easily open to abuse, and institutional weaknesses that can only be explained by their alienation from our mainstream cultures and the people they are meant to serve. He had a particular disdain for a political system that tolerated, even encouraged conduct that was utterly condemnable, from people who aspired to lead.
He told us to be wary of the type of politics that will strip you naked in public, and then, at great cost to the integrity of leadership, dress you up and install you as a leader of decent people. He was certain that citizens can be upright and useful to society without submitting to a corrupt political system which drags you down with it. His position was that we should avoid the type of partisan politics that made heroes out of scoundrels, and reduced the best and the worst to the same levels.
It may have been lost to our father that he lost the battle at the point he exposed us to education, the values of service and the love of our country. His concerns were also severely challenged by the fact that the political process in modern Nigeria was the route with the highest potential to growing a just, competent and fair leadership; triggering social and economic development that narrowed the gaps between rich and poor, and building institutions that reduced the erosion of our civilizing characters.
He did not live long enough to begin to see his family’s wholesale involvement with public service, religious propagation and partisan politics. It was virtually impossible to avoid the plunge, given our upbringing and the very wide circle of his considerable extended family that jealously guarded the boundaries of his teachings and mentorship, which included the conduct of his immediate family.
Senator Datti almost brought up the rear in a huge family, but as soon as he was free of his formal education, he made the rounds seeking advice on joining politics. Wise counsel convinced him to build a step of personal achievement and a commitment that will say more than that he is from the Baba Ahmad family. He built BAZE University, run and won a seat at the federal House of Representatives where he stood out for his courage and com, became a Senator and lost it to the very same forces our father thought run our corrupt system. Still, he remained in the ring even while running two private universities in the North.
By the time Peter Obi went after him to run as his running mate, Datti was his own man: focused, visionary and achieving, hardworking and deeply embroiled in the murky waters of Nigerian politics, yet confident that there are ways to reverse the continuing national decline. His contemplation over Obi’s offer split our massive family and its extended component. It is that kind of family, and the issue was monumental. There were many positions which queried the propriety and utility of a partnership between two parts of the country that had a number of unresolved issues.
There were concerns over the prospect of success for a partnership that had highly questionable chances of success, and thus a huge potential to hurt Datti the politician, the family, and the North. There were demands made on Datti to make on Obi regarding his positions on matters related to the South East in Nigeria. There were, to be honest, a lot more on the side ranged between outrage and hostility than those who thought the partnership represented a unique opportunity to walk away from a crippling past towards a redeeming future. In the end, having agreed that he was neither going to be involved in a crime nor a disreputable venture, and after his arguments to be trusted to engage in vital national service, Datti was told to seek God’s guidance in taking a decision and do everything without forgetting his pedigree, his values and the challenges of good leadership.
In the recent election, the Obi/Datti ticket came third with six million votes and some spectacular scalps. They and their supporters believe they did better and are demanding a judicial review, amidst shocking quarrels (even by Nigerian standards). Anyone who thinks the judiciary will not be severely tested does not understand what is at stake. There is certainly a huge amount of anger in the land, and deep retrospection if you are in the sensible ranks of the winning party. This has been an election that is testing every inch of our journey to be a democracy, and the TV appearances of Datti showed him stating their cases with unusual passion. We discussed these, and agreed that a few weeks ago, they were telling Nigerians that they are good enough to be trusted to lead this country strictly on the basis of the rule of law, and leadership is about setting standards.
We agreed that today, they are exercising their constitutional rights to challenge an election which they believe has been rigged against them. He and Obi have made all the right and responsible moves and noises, asking their supporters to await the outcome of the full interrogation of the entire electoral process from a judiciary which, on the basis of enlightened self-interest alone, should not have its integrity and competence trashed.
Both of them have more that a passing familiarity with party spokespersons whose only job is to drag everyone into dungeons of infamy where they themselves are permanently consigned. They are not subversives who want to bring the house down, and they must use their awesome powers to rein in their supporters who may believe that an extra-constitutional adventure may yield the results they need. It is sad indeed that these characters today are digging in, signaling contempt for Nigerians and the principals they claim to speak for.
I was happy that the Datti that went into the fray and did justice to his responsibilities, is the same Datti I was engaging with: patriotic, law-abiding and passionate about the right thing being done. I reminded him that our father warned us to avoid speaking in anger. I reminded him about the biggest challenge he and Obi face: keeping the fire they lit burning, irrespective of the outcome of the litigations. Democracy is not a short walk, and you are not on a journey at all if you abandon it at the first bump on the way.