Year 1920 was the first time women were allowed to vote in the United States of America, and to secure the votes of the women who were more in number than men, the Republican Party picked as its presidential candidate a self-made newspaper publisher and a former Lieutenant Governor (which in Nigeria we refer to as Deputy Governor) of Ohio, Warren Gamaliel Harding, because of his fine features and not necessarily for any intellectual powers. The ploy was to attract female votes as women would naturally gravitate towards handsome men.
Their calculation indeed worked; Warren Harding got massive female votes and won the election in a landslide of 60.36% to 34.19% to become the 29th President of the United States.
Till date, Warren Harding retained, even in death, the ranking of the least intelligent US President. Although the Siena study which ranks him thus does not specify how it reached its conclusions, Harding’s regime was riddled with corruption, nepotism and sexual scandal far serious than Watergate or the Lewinsky scandal. Many of his friends and political contributors, popularly known as the The Ohio Gang, who he appointed or rewarded with powerful financial positions were involved in bribery and embezzlement.
Virtually all the duties and responsibilities assigned them were ‘oteh-hembed’. Even though the White House was not subject to the kind of scrutiny of today, the episodic corruption was so brazen that it soon became public knowledge. Most of the appointees were eventually tried, convicted and sent to prison for bribery or defrauding the federal government.
The selection of Warren Harding was not because he was smart, brilliant or resourceful; it was solely because of his affable manner and handsomeness, a move to attract female votes. The Republican Party chose sentiment and a senseless strategy over competence. In the end, Harding almost succeeded in dragging the party and the country down the drain of disrepute.
Taking a retrospective look at events in our dear Nigeria, I cannot but conclude that more often than not sentiments had been and are still prominent in the choice of our leaders at all levels. Even the public service is not immune from this. We would play the card of ethnicity and religion. Sometimes the argument was(is) that someone or some people were (are) yet to benefit, so it should be their turn. At other times, foreign degrees and affiliations would be touted as the justification of our decision and party leaders would most times favour a candidate they could easily control, thus overlooking competence, knowledge of the grassroots and ‘proactive-ness’ in arriving at their decision. When eventually these people fail, we would be the first to criticise and crucify them. In truth, they are our friends and relations, our choice and a reflection of our greed, selfishness and short-sightedness.
For some time now, the hammer of public criticisms has come down hard on President Goodluck Jonathan, and I must quickly confess, I am one of those who have not spared him in this regard. Even though I did not vote for him, most of my friends and family members did, and for that, we should all share the blame for his failure or otherwise. After all, he was the choice of most of us. Why ditch him now? Why didn’t we reflect on his shortcomings and antecedents as a public officer before the PDP gave him the ticket, or before we voted him?
Didn’t we simply vote him because we believed the Ijaws (Niger-Deltans)whose oil we have always feasted on had been marginalised for long and should now take their bite of the presidency? Or maybe we voted him to checkmate the north which we believed had held on to power for too long? Certainly, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan was not the best candidate at the time. He even spurned a presidential debate and later went on to organise his own separate one-man ‘debate’.
Yet, we defended him and went on to vote for him. Why criticise him now? If he fails, he is our ‘failure’ and so are all our leaders. They are all our ‘failure’. When sentiments take pre-eminence over competence, the unexpected should be expected. Until we put aside relationship, religion and ethnicity in our consideration in choosing our leaders, we will always be ‘here’.
Another of our failings that put us ‘here’ is the lack of investment in our youths, who are unarguably the leaders of tomorrow. Time and time again, I have imagined a young Ebele growing up in the Niger-Delta without shoes, probably in a torn and tattered school uniform, and no one to help his parents give him a quality education.
Those who were rich in his family and the society probably felt he was the responsibility of his parents alone. Who knows, maybe several times, he would scamper home bare-footed after school to help his father with fishing so that the family could at least have supper, with little or no strength left in him to read his books.
And probably the cycle would continue the next day. If only we had known that this young boy would someday become our president, maybe we would have given him a better education, maybe we would have bought him shoes and made the environment more conducive for him, maybe we would have empowered his father or mother so that they could properly cater for his needs. But we let him suffer the injustice of societal neglect, and today we are paying for that injustice we did him and several others like him who are today making policies and laws that have direct impact on our lives and the lives of our kids. We just must start doing better!
Better still, imagine a younger Obasanjo growing up and schooling in an unconducive environment in Abeokuta. Imagine the poor quiet young boy in the Baptist Church choir, not because he was really quiet, but mainly because the surrounding conditions would not give vent to his conviviality and confidence.
It is not only Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan who felt poverty and were not well taken care of by their society and government while growing up. They abound in large numbers. They are in our National Assembly as Senators and House of Representatives members. They are in our States’ Government Houses as Governors, First Ladies, Commissioners and Special Advisers.
They are in our State Houses of Assembly as lawmakers. They are in Aso Rock as advisers, ministers and security men. They are in our armed forces, our police, State Security Service, Civil Defence Corps, etc. These are people who were neglected by their society and government while growing up and had to struggle, alone, through life. How much did we invest in them? Virtually nothing!
Why then do we blame them? Those investments we refused to make back then are what we are unwillingly making now? It was the neglect we meted out to them that they are now meting out to us. When a nation refuses to invest in its youths and instil in them best practices, that nation should not blame whatever it gets from such dereliction of duty on the youths when they later take the reins of power, but it should blame itself for its failure to do the needful, against all odds. For instance, a US president will never use swear words openly. Even if he mistakenly does, probably out of anger or excitement, his aides will quickly nudge him back to the ethics of leadership. In our clime, a president conveniently says “I don’t give a damn” on national and continental TV and his aides hail him for sounding ‘American’.
The situation continues today. Most of our youths are left to founder and flounder on their own. Many of them are on the streets hawking pure water, puff-puff and what have you. We pass by them everyday, sometimes buying their wares, but that’s how far it gets. How many times have we bothered to ask them why they are not in school? Rather, we treat them as the responsibility of their parents alone. Even the schools are bad and ill-equipped. The teachers are not motivated and are a product of the poor educational system too; they cannot give what they do not have.
Medicare, also, is too expensive for the poor, so, more often than not, they resort to herbs, which most times, have done more harm than good. Kudos must be given to the Ondo State Government for its Mother and Child Hospital which makes medicare free for pregnant women and children under age five (Under-5). The administration of Goodluck Jonathan also deserves commendation for the almajiri school scheme and the distribution of free textbooks. We must not, however, stop at this. Books, well-built schools and competent teachers will do nothing in the face of hunger and squalor.
A 2008 report puts the percentage of Nigerian children (between the ages of 6 and 14) that were out of school due to economic and socio-cultural factors at 40. Out of the 35.6 million children between the ages of 6 and 14, 10.1 million were said to be out of school. The said report pin-pointed politicisation of government policies as one of the problems responsible for this. Irrespective of the importance of a project to the society, if it is left in the hands of politicians, they will treat as a pot of soup that must be licked dry.
Among the other recommendations suggested by the report were the alleviation of poverty in families, the revival of the school feeding programme, tax relief for low income earners, the strengthening of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) and the community-based health insurance scheme.
And it is not just the government alone. As a rich man, do you just enjoy alone and leave those poor kids in your neighbourhood to the care of their poor parents? All those kids, whether ugly or beautiful, brilliant or dull, are the responsibility of all of us.
Though time is far gone, we can still achieve a lot and re-write our history by starting now. We must shun sentiments laced with ethnicity and religion when choosing our leaders. We must let competence and vision be the determinant. Also, we cannot leave our youths to continue to grapple with an incompetently run educational system and expect them to become competent leaders in future. When they fail, it would not be their failure alone, but our failure and the failure of our dear country, Nigeria.
•Daniels writes from Ado in Ekiti State