Three weeks ago, I visited Jos, Plateau State for the first time. It was a much longer trip than I’d expected from Abuja but my weariness was cushioned by the good company I was in. That made it more of an adventure and to that extent, I can say it was a good trip.
I have heard and read a ton about the wonders of Jos, I am not sure I was able to experience it fully to come to similar conclusions. I look forward to another chance to experience that part of the country. On this visit, so much had to happen in the two days, and I didn’t go out much.
In spite of my fixed schedule, one memorable highlight of the visit was my happy-chance meeting with the former Deputy Governor, Professor Sonni Tyoden. Thinking of Prof as a former deputy governor is a rather interesting reality of the transience of power and opportunities in public office in a democracy. Just two weeks ago, he was the deputy governor and now he is only out of the office, but not necessarily out of the obligation to serve in new capacities.
I’d described our meeting as a “happy-chance” meeting because it was not exactly planned to happen. I think the spontaneity of it makes it more special and unforgettable. Here’s the backstory: I’d mentioned to Prof. Akinjide Osuntokun, a father and mentor that I’d be visiting Jos for an official assignment.
He then suggested that I should visit the deputy governor who was his student during his time at the University of Ibadan. I didn’t honestly know how the meeting was supposed to happen seeing that there was no prior appointment, or anyone to arrange the meeting. I committed to trying, at the least, to visit the office and leave a note. And that made all the difference. I visited his office only to learn that he was still at his residence. I went there and made a note introducing myself as Professor Akinjide Osuntokun’s mentee.
By happy chance, the deputy governor’s orderly was at the gate some minutes later to pick up Oga’s papers. He read my note and was somehow sure that Oga would like to see me. That was it! It would be appropriate to say that Prof. Osuntokun’s name opened the doors. I was particularly proud that even Prof. Tyoden considers him a mentor.
The day was Friday, May 12, 2023, at about 12pm. Because of my planned engagement, our first meeting was brief. I kindly requested an appointment for later that day, which he graciously granted.
As I left to keep the 7pm appointment with Prof, I was not quite sure what the experience would be like. I didn’t exactly know the man, only an idea of the questions I would like to ask him. In my estimation, the meeting would not last for more than 30 minutes, but we went on for two hours. We talked about almost everything – personal, professional and political.
The conversation touched on his early life, his career as an academic, his aspiration to become a professor which he achieved at age 40 in 1990, his nature as a person and philosophy as a public servant, among other things. After the meeting, I could almost say that I knew the man or should I say, I could sort of appreciate his viewpoint about a number of issues.
We spent some good time talking about his experience: the expectations, surprises, disappointments and joys of service as the ‘Number 2’ in Plateau State for eight years. The conversations were both warm and reflective. There was a certain intensity to his comments which I perceived came from a man who believes he could have done more. But then, to my mind, he has had a decent run.
He came into elected public office on the back of his credentials as an accomplished academic and a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Jos. Along the line, he may have inspired a number of much younger Nigerians and perhaps, also disappointed a few of his colleagues or associates who feel he could have done more. I guess that’s the way of life. People would always assess our actions differently.
What made the strongest impression on me were his comments on democracy in Nigeria. His idealism does not blind him from appreciating that democracy is far from perfect, but his optimism makes him believe that it can be made to work in Nigeria. He recognises the progress the country has made since 1999, albeit very slow, but he believes that it is the way to go.
That kind of faith, in my view, is rare among a political class that is willing to subvert the democratic spirit, damning the far-reaching consequences, as long as it serves a political end. I think we need more people like Tyoden who maintain their belief in democracy even when things don’t go their way. Everyone knows that Nigeria is an interesting case.
As a political science scholar, interrogating the theory of democracy within the context of the prevailing socio-political realities can be met with some shock, or even disappointment. I remember him talking about his surprise that his knowledge as a professor of political science almost counted for naught in the field of practical politics. Some of the things he was now expected to do often didn’t make ‘scientific’ sense.
This may be true for many others. As a social science scholar, you are conditioned to interrogate social phenomena through certain lenses. Many intellectuals in politics often find out that those lenses hardly exist or are dulled by the raging demands for political correctness. And so, politicians have shown that when something is scientifically right but politically wrong, the decision to make is clear.
In Nigeria as in other developing countries, some other considerations take precedence. The reality of this needs to change if we are to build enduring institutions that can guarantee our peoples that fairness and merit would be defining principles. However, no matter how murky the waters can be, I still think more intellectuals in Nigeria are needed in the field of politics. Their approach to understanding social phenomena is an asset that can improve our governance architecture.
I wish Prof the very best in the next phase of his public service exertions. He came, saw and conquered. At the moment, he can be proud that he gave it his best shot under the unique circumstances.
We all look to the future with the great expectation that our lot will be bettered by the actions and inactions of the new administration. That expectation takes a lot of strength to sustain in a country where the people are often taken for granted and the very idea of public service is callously mistaken for the opportunity to give a little and take everything. Democracy can be made to work in Nigeria. We have to keep at it, making steady and significant progress each time. The truth is, that process has no end.
May God bless our republic.
Akinnuga, MNIIA, ARPA, is a consultant on communications and public affairs.