Seun Onigbinde’s review of El-Rufai’s book, ‘The Accidental Public Servant’

by Oluseun Onigbinde


This book offers insights and lessons on the challenges, pitfalls and common battles of a technocrat in public service.

Accidentally, I found myself at the launch of Nasir El-Rufai’s book now overtly referred to as controversial and full of insider details, mysterious to the common citizen. I wanted to say goodbye to Jackie Farris of Musa Yar’Adua’s center and unknowingly, I launched into a midst of fellow labourers who toil in the digital and offline minefield, trying to raise active citizens. Standing the gallery peering at Nasir who was about to cry at his own book launch, his little frame struggled to fit into the grand agbada and one might wonder if  that small stature counts for a man whose narratives are written in giant print.

Allow me by starting with that mild abuse but this is overly fair to Mallam  Nasir who in his book fought hard to neatly depict his characters.  He had words for Charles Soludo as “Charles would wear expensive bespoke suits, complete with bright red tie” and, for the early days of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, as a man “that never worked a day in his life; that had lived off and been kept by his brother Shehu; that he was a free thinker for a period, and believed more in marabouts than his professed religion”.

It was that clear level of description that he wound up around characters either on his good memory – Nuhu Ribadu, Tunde Bakare, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – or those he peered through the dark lenses such as Ahmed Yayale, Atiku Abubakar and Ibrahim Mantu.

A narrative that hauls canaries into the present by reciting his account of the past, ‘The Accidental Public Servant’ comes as brilliant read for folks not only interested in public service but finding a meaning to complex interplay at the top they possibly aspire to. Not the canticles of public service but reaching to the stand of a seminal publication, Nasir’s personal account unintentionally throws a reader into disbelief with lots of sigh, wondering aloud if this isn’t stranger than fiction. These stories around the power-play, serial tests of loyalty and forceful ambition of men throws recent happenings of the Fourth Republic to debate. To the unknowing future generation, this could be the single narrative of this era unless the ‘fallen’ such as Mantu and Zwingina step forward with their plausible side of the story.

A reader notices that the whole power space lies in the small junction of haphazard connected individuals. Nasir easily places a phone call to the familiar names that regurgitate in our country. He was that close to power. The 627-page book of which only 489 counts as the main narrative starts with the story of the ‘Third Term Agenda’ – the overt perpetuation of the old guard who still peered Africa through the lenses of the Big Man. The accounts of Obasanjo’s yes-men (Andy Uba, Ahmadu Ali, and Tony Anenih ) who tried all means to arm-twist a reluctant legislative leadership to do their bidding were well written.

In those banal moments, Nuhu Ribadu was hushed and cash was freely shared to power the gravy train. In the midst, even the ‘incorruptible’ Nasir was privy to the bounty given legislators overseeing his FCT Ministry.

The book went on to document his early losses in life, his choice of career, a rare early qualification as a Chartered Quantity Surveyor and how his early company faced crisis of ownership. Nasir kept a significant mention of Barewa College – a Northern institution that produced likes of him, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, Yakubu Gowon and Murtala Mohammed. TAPS does not project Nasir as a self-made man because consciously, he revealed how he was lifted on the wings of friends, seniors and peers. He would constantly remind readers on influence of his elder brother Bashir el-Rufai, Hamza Zayyad, Economic Management Team, BPE and FCT employees and Barewa College friends.

It seemed the death of former Head of State, Sani Abacha heralded him into public service as he documented his steps from being a transition committee think-tank member under Abdulsalami Abubakar, BPE Agency boss, where he had running battles with Atiku and schemed to give a lifeline to the EFCC, and also as a FCT minister. He would even ascribe to himself the unofficial title as Obasanjo’s vice president in the last days of that tortuous Presidency due to the enormous responsibilities hurled at him.

Interestingly, he gives a good account of the pains of change, especially making Abuja a working city that fights the ghosts of Lagos. His attempt at the land reforms, justification for his last minute Abuja land approvals and his account that his wife had a prior application for a land in Abuja before he came the FCT minister were all listed. There is a lot to instruct the reader which includes the story of flesh hankering after sleazy fortunes, the sale of government houses, running battles with Bashir Sambo, equity in demolition exercise, run-ins with Umaru Musa Yaradua which forced him into exile and also harrowing account with the courts. His moments with Goodluck Jonathan and how he ended up supporting General Buhari were carefully written. In the end, you will miss little in the timeline of Nigeria’s center during this 4th Republic.

Succinct lessons lie on interactions among the intellectuals who though see it as a lifelong battle to save the country, yet won’t rise above petty ego to forge a common front. He goes ahead to document the four mistakes of Obasanjo which includes fraudulently underpricing Transcorp shares to people in the government. This book offers insights and lessons on the challenges, pitfalls and common battles of a technocrat in public service. While Nasir may have told a story to prove that he stood incorruptible in the midst of brazen theft, it is left to the reader to subject the TAPS to independent reasoning and further research.

Well edited by men of towering calibre, in its giant font, TAPS is silky to read, but at the terminal pages, one feels sad as a father lost Yasmin, a promising daughter to massive seizure in the bathroom.



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

Comments (2)

  1. An educative piece! It’ll serve as a good read for civil servants, policy makers and technocrats. I found it very motivating, inspiring and enlightening

  2. I like el rufias courage and all written in his book is just the truth, wish we have many el rufias in our senate.

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