by Ayo Olukotun
“The reading habits of politicians matter because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do”
– Yarn Martell (Canadian novelist)
As the opening quote sourced from award-winning Canadian novelist Yarn Martell suggests, what politicians, presidents especially, read or fail to read are of profound importance to gauging the quality of their minds, worldview, imaginative depth and what decisions they are likely to take. In 2011, candidate Goodluck Jonathan appeared to grasp the importance of the reading culture of leaders when he launched “a bring back the book” campaign featuring a carnival and presentation of his book entitled “My friends and I.” The book was reviewed by the Special Adviser to the President on Media, Dr. Reuben Abati.
Ennobling as that campaign was, it left out the crucial question of the reading culture of Jonathan himself, an issue that has received fresh salience in the light of some of his enigmatic pronouncements on the fuel subsidy riots, on alleged media partisanship, on Boko Haram as well as the quality of his media appearances.
Let us embed this narrative in the global mainstream in order to avoid provincialism, to tease out edifying comparative lessons and throw the issues in bolder relief. Come quickly with me, therefore, to the desk of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who is described in a recently published magazine as a “voracious reader who speed reads his way through several tomes a week.” Cameron, by his own verified admission, went through a frenetic reading phase in which he devoured all the novels of the English novelist, playwright and critic, Graham Greene, who majored in thrillers that connote high-wire diplomatic intrigue.
We are assured by the manager of Cameron’s favourite bookstore in Westminster that the politician just before his annual holidays makes large purchases of books spanning the areas of political philosophy and contemporary fiction among others. Let us quickly cross the Atlantic and peruse the United States President Barack Obama as he wades through a diverse menu of books ranging from Shakespeare’s tragedies through books on Abraham Lincoln’s leadership to classic modern novels. Of course, it is well known that United States presidents maintain an official reading list of books, by which they not only improve their minds but rejuvenate a flagging national reading culture by force of personal example.
Zeroing back on Nigeria, it is pertinent to recall that an earlier generation of Nigerian politicians such as Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Anthony Enahoro, among others, read and wrote avidly. At the 2012 Annual Obafemi Awolowo memorial, Toyin Falola, distinguished history professor at the University of Texas, posited correctly that Awolowo read and wrote more books on Nigerian politics than most professors of political science. The reader may be surprised to learn also that Nigeria’s former head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo, used to be a lover of books, at least in his first term as military president of Nigeria.
The late Dr. Stanley Macebuh, one of the finest intellects to have passed through the Nigerian media scene, reported in his then weekly column at the Daily Times that he caught Obasanjo regaling himself with a book of some intellectual depth in the course of a trip to China, in which Macebuh travelled on the same plane with Obasanjo. No wonder, the retired general gave a better account of himself in the late 1970s than in his later incarnations as civilian president. Evidence? He avoided self-succession and set a democratic precedent at a time when sit-tight rulers mushroomed on the continent. Two, he was at the time an economic nationalist who stood up to the Western economic doctrines based on the so-called free market but which the western powers do not practise in their own countries. Who knows, had Obasanjo kept up the intellectual stamina of those years manifested in his love for books, he might have avoided the delusions of the third term project and the pitfalls of rightwing economic nostrums, which are especially hard on the poor.
That is a matter for another day, however. The focus of this enquiry is Jonathan and what he reads or fails to read. If Jonathan were to make public his reading list today, he would not need another “bring back the book” campaign to both convince a sceptical nation of his “mental magnitude,” to borrow a favourite expression of Awolowo and to rekindle the appetite for books in an increasingly Philistine generation. That kind of public testimonial on the part of Jonathan will also pull the rug from under the feet of some of his hardline critics like Prof. Ayittey, a world-acclaimed Ghanaian scholar who after watching one of Jonathan’s media chats dismissed him as “a joke.”
In the same connection, another group sought to initiate the process under the FOI Act whereby Jonathan will be compelled to reveal his IQ scores. The group of activists based their doubtful crusade on the premise that some of the utterances of Jonathan did not portray him as someone intellectually capable or intelligent. All of these criticisms it must be admitted sound somewhat ironic considering that Jonathan holds a doctorate and was expected to bring to governance a certain intellectual gravitas if not profundity of thought.
This writer does not think that Jonathan is the witless fool that caricatures of him have advertised. Nonetheless, a nation trapped in a siege of kidnappers and roving criminal gangs; caught in a protracted drift and inertia of massive proportions is surely waiting for the surefooted touch of a leader who will minister to its troubled soul. What Jonathan has going for him is a certain unpretentiousness and the easy going camaraderie of a politician who did not seek power but in a sense had it thrust upon him. But clearly more than pleasantness and a certain modesty deriving from an appreciation of one’s limitations are called for in a nation like ours stranded in a modern-day version of the forest of ghosts depicted in Yoruba fables. Jonathan has made many promises to the nation to turn things round but it will take incurable optimism to argue that things are not getting worse and in some respects like the soaring levels of squandermania and corruption getting out of hand.
To properly understand why the nation continues to travel downhill, we must put the searchlight on the president’s reading culture, his grasp of issues and understanding of what the times demand; in order to map out possible remedial steps in the area of improving or even modifying his appreciation of burning national issues. Though he belongs to a generation of politicians not famous for their love of books or the company of intellectuals, it is still possible in some respects to amend the situation. And what better way to begin than for him to make public his list of favourite books and other reading material?
– Olukotun is a professor of Political Science and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences and Entrepreneurial Studies at Lead City University, Ibadan.