Tolu Ogunlesi: Government – to go in or to stay out? (YNaija Frontpage)

Tolu Ogunlesi

All too often we have seen ‘good’ men and women go into government and come out unrecognisable.

It’s becoming a regular debate these days: should Nigerians who are keen on being agents of (positive) transformation have anything to do with / in government?

There are generally two considered sides to that debate. First is the ‘Stay-outers’, who think that government, as is currently set up in Nigeria cannot bring any positive change; that public service in this country exists largely to serve as the graveyard of genius and hard-earned reputations.

The second camp is the ‘Engagers’, who argue that visionary people cannot afford to abandon governance to the visionless, power-for-the-sake-of-power-people, the mediocrity-suffused, and bandits, and that change-seekers should take the risk of engaging the system, with the ambition of making a change.

It is difficult to blame the stay-away camp; Nigerian history is littered with the carcasses of reputations, of persons who sauntered into government with their heads held high, and came out (or were thrown out) not only having achieved nothing, but in some cases having actively become part and parcel of vile, sycophantic, empty-headed systems.

Ibrahim Babangida was an expert at co-opting the finest of intellectuals and activists into his government. By the time he was done, names like Wole Soyinka and Tai Solarin had submitted to his toothy charms. (The jury remains out on how much these persons could do to influence Maradona’s ultimately tragic trajectory).

Photo credit: Leadership Newspaper

Governments since then have continued the tradition: Abacha arguably had an even longer list of reputable names in his government. They came, saw, but mostly conquered nothing, succeeding only in conferring a sheen of legitimacy on a government engine that ran on the blood and tears of the governed.

The ‘engagers’ insist that change cannot be accomplished by working exclusively from the outside. It is an argument that is difficult to fault. Government is a powerful tool for the (re)creation or destruction of a state or society.

This is especially true in this part of the world, where rudimentary systems of accountability confer on government almost limitless power, as well as almost limitless access to resources. [Think of the security votes that our political office holders control – and what that could do in the hands of a man or woman with vision. In developed countries politicians have to struggle to appropriate public funds – even for the public good – here in Nigeria the man in charge runs the treasury like a generous expense account].

All too often we have seen ‘good’ men and women go into government and come out unrecognisable. Intelligent persons climb over to the other side and start spouting such virulent strains of bulls**t that one is forced to wonder if a brain-and-heart transplant is one of the conditions for public service in Nigeria. All around us are sad examples.

So what’s the way forward? To join government or to stay out and find ways to work from the outside?

I’m on the side of those who think we need to reclaim government from the hands of pretenders and bandits, and that to do this, some of us must go in there. And I will now go back to something I said last week, to the effect that those of us who seek to play a role in government sometime in the future should start preparing ourselves now.

You may wonder: why the seeming obsession? Simple: someday (most likely not before 2015) I myself look forward to serving in government. I do not yet see myself campaigning for elective office, but I already have dreams of working in a strategy / policy / communications role in a campaign team or a government that is driven solely by one desire: to make a positive difference in the lives of the governed. (It will not be a perfect government, for there are no perfect governments).

Knowing this I have spent, and continue to spend a lot of time thinking about the pros and perils of public service in Nigeria. Therefore, next week I will share some thoughts on what steps I think we, as young people can take, to better prepare us for the minefield that is public service in Nigeria.

ToluOgunlesi | (On)going Concerns

Ogunlesi has worked in management consulting, corporate communications and journalism. He was awarded a 2009 CNN Multichoice African Journalism prize, and recently served as Features Editor and Editorial Board member for a national newspaper. He regularly contributes to local and foreign media on Nigerian affairs, and tweets at @toluogunlesi |

Comments (8)

  1. Just like Segun Adeniyi's and Reuben Abati's last articles before entering government space, it seems to that Tolu is warming his way into government.

    There's no harm in that but i only hope he'll always remember the actions and in-actions of his "go-befores".

  2. I patiently await this formula. Hopefully, I will join you in governance but only after the formula has worked for you.

  3. There's a third group that believes in engaging, but also believe that not everyone who believes in engagement should go in. We need writers, social entrepreneurs, business gurus, teachers/lecturers who will also work to build other sectors of our economy while the politicians work on policy and development.

    Needless to say, I belong to this third group. I know we must engage, but not everyone should 9or can) seek public office. We should identify and support folks who are on such missions and encourage them to consider politics as a higher calling – better built on a career that speaks for itself – that can define their entire existence.

  4. The nuance in this article is strange coming from Pile-On Tolu – the same one who has criticised or tacitly joined in creticisng everyone from amara to ohimai who join government – now u bring nuance? Shady agenda

  5. I want to run for public office, probably 2019, and how to stay clean while making a positive dent in Naijashpere has always been uppermost in my mind. I believe that we need to get a critical mass of upright, sufficiently moral, persons in power. By critical mass, I mean people with the same level of intolerance for corruption, same energy for change, in the same regime/dispensation at the same time. This would help guard against losing people to the dark side of corruption, nepotism and the inordinate lure of power because anyone falling outta line can be cautioned and adviced properly. This will definitely not be as simple as described here but this can be a usable framework.

  6. Great piece as usual.

    I always ask myself if I would work for government if asked to do so. My personal opinion is that it depends on the government in power. I wouldn't be caught dead working for a governor like Agagu (former governor of Ondo State), but I would work with a Mimiko any day and any time. I prefer to retain my sanity on the outside than be an idiot on the inside. The professionals like Okonjo-Iweala, Soludo, El-Rufai and Ribadu, who worked for Obasanjo found it easy because they had the full backing of the government. What is the point if I would not get full support to whatever reforms I want to introduce. It would be sheer waste of time and my integrity might be lost at the end of the day.

    It is still a personal thing anyway, and requires a great deal of thought. The present government under GEJ does not look like a serious government. So whoever works for them should weigh his/her options before agreeing to do so.

    Anyway, keep writing jare. Thank God for Ynaija, at least (On)going Concerns didn't die with 234next.

  7. Everyone cannot be in government, everyone cannot be out of government. Let those who genuinely see themselves in public service go in there without fear of being demonised, but they must not forget to engage those who are on the outside looking in.

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