By Sam Akpe
First, I listened casually, then attentively as Vice President Yemi Osibanjo spoke on October 21, at the public presentation of the book: Standing Tall (Legislative Reforms, Third Term and Other Issues of the 5th Senate), written by Senator Ken Nnamani.
His speech brings to mind a poem by a colleague entitled: The Magic of Words. In it, the author, in his usual mystifying style, typical of scholars with overloaded brains, moved words from the realm of vocal or written symbols to that of humans—with minds of their own. He personified words dressed in cloaks of despots and peacemakers.
What the poet, Iboro Otongaran, said in effect is that words build. Words also destroy. Words have the capacity to ignite war; and after much destruction, initiate peace. Words mark the beginning and the end of every discussion. Words are enigmatic in various ways. They defy description.
As captured by Iboro, words have magical powers, “and would go forth to heal; or ram through to harm; upon launch at enthralled; devotees or charmed zealots…. Words can clean, and can muddy up; organised killers are baptized bandits; in another group they are terrorists; labels admit them to different fates; bandits pass off as a benign nuisance; but terrorists rightly end up in hell.”
Professor Osibanjo’s words reminded me of this stanza: “Frankly the world isn’t short of men; who summon words to good deeds; in charters for peace and progress; one good use of words has been; in calls for equity, for coexistence; Luther’s ‘I have a dream’ speech; typifies this recourse to good sense.”
From my obscure corner, Vice President Osibanjo has impressed me in more than one way; especially when he speaks. Listening to him is always a delight. Most times he sounds so innocent that you are tempted to take him on face value.
But people at his level do not waste words. They talk with discretion. They sow seeds with words. That is, they invest words for greater dividends. Most times, their words activate actions or sustain inaction—visible and invisible.
Some people would do anything to speak like Osibanjo. Most times, even if they do not like what he says, they are captivated by the way he says them. He speaks with confidence and a touch of elegance. Of course, the man is a professor. But not all professors are so professorial in their speeches.
On Thursday, Osibanjo was at the International Conference Centre, Abuja, for the public presentation of Nnamani’s voluminous book. A detail political literature, every page draws you deeper inside.
As Osibanjo walked into the crowded hall, he was called to speak almost immediately. The first thing I noticed was that the entire protocol was bungled from the onset. Before the VP was called, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, who represented the President, had spoken.
Assuming the President was there in person; would he have spoken before his deputy? In the absence of the President, would it have been proper for the Vice President to speak before a minister—irrespective of who the minister represented? Confusion!
Under normal circumstances, in an event that had the Vice President in attendance, there would have been no need to send in a minister to represent the President. The VP would have handled the assignment. But we know that these days, nothing is normal in Nigeria. We just keep wobbling on.
Vice President Osibanjo spoke extempore. If he had a script to read from, I didn’t see it. His speech was short, crispy and simple. Let me explain that the simplicity was only in terms of grammar; because there were a few statements left hanging. He started by describing Nnamani as “a man who truly loves this nation.”
It is not clear how deeply the VP knows Nnamani. But he should know him better than the way other Nigerians do. Some of us know Nnamani as an American-trained businessman, who returned to Nigeria, contested election to the Senate in 2003, won and was, despite executive opposition, elected the Senate President, just after two years in the Senate.
But as VP of Nigeria, Osibanjo is better positioned, with all the intelligence at his disposal, to know something about a man of Nnamani’s status, than the rest of us. So, when he described the former Senate President as someone who “lacks desperation to occupy political offices,” he might be right after all.
In a brief speech, Osibanjo recalled how Nnamani presided over the death of the orchestrated tenure elongation project of President Olusegun Obasanjo. In his words, Nnamani “stood against the notorious third term agenda; and he stood strong.”
The Vice President, after endorsing Nnamani’s leadership of the National Assembly between 2005 and 2007, said, “We (referring to Nigeria) are today faced with challenges that call for the same type of strong leadership that you showed as President of the Senate.”
Wait a minute! What was the VP talking about? He simply dropped some well-coded words in one short sentence and expected us to walk away as though he said nothing. No, he said something. His description of Nnamani fitted President Dwight Eisenhower’s definition of a leader.
Yes, the former American President once said that the supreme quality for leadership comprises unquestionable integrity; the same way Osibanjo described Nnmanni. General Eisenhower noted that without such integrity, “no real success is possible, no matter whether it is in a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”
While I was still turning this over in my mind, Osibanjo wrapped up his statement. He told Nnamani, “Your role in national life has just begun.” There went another weighty statement from the Vice President; all in one day; at one event, within a few seconds.
After describing Nnamani as a man of character and strong will; who has continuously displayed “courageous leadership” Nigeria’s Vice President finally dropped the clincher, “that story will end well for you and the nation.” The question is; which story?
Let’s not forget that Nnamani is a member of All Progressives Congress. He is from Anambra—a state in that section of Nigeria that has been crying of political marginalisation since the Civil War ended in 1970. Presently, blood is flowing on the streets of South East. Are you thinking what I am thinking? Have we finally found a bride?
Let’s conclude this with a few words from Poet Iboro: “Words have been used to build; and to destroy what was built; to inspire lofty endeavours; to set ablaze lofty endeavours; but the balance is not holding; the world appears to be sliding; into hopeless dire straits from; baleful deployments of words.”
My thinking is that Osibanjo has given us something to think about. He spoke as an elder. It is our duty to decode him.