The word statesman is one of those words Nigerians use without any strict attachment to its meaning or to its historic importance. Nigerian media use it to describe ex-politicians and rulers without correctly assessing the qualities of a statesman. I am not writing to take aim at the media; I am writing to support our senate president’s view that elder statesmen should not make careless statements, especially when those statements concern the security of the society that ascribes such honor to them.
But I want to go beyond supporting him, to point out that Nigerians use the word loosely even though it has historically been used only to describe men who have contributed or have made immense personal sacrifice for the good of the society.
Historian Charles Beard wrote in the American Mercury that “The statesman is one who divines the long future, foresees the place of his class and nation in it, labors intelligently to prepare his countrymen for their fate, combines courage with discretion, takes risks, exercises caution when it is necessary, and goes off the stage with a reasonable degree of respectability.”
If we go by this definition, it is obvious that Nigerians have yet to identify who our statesmen are. A political leader can be a statesman, but in today’s world to refer a political leader as a statesman is rather a narrow and superficial application of the concept. Even in societies where politicians seem to have a broader perspective on issues without the usual partisan inclinations, it is still too narrow to refer to them as statesmen. When one talks about political leadership in Nigeria, immediately our antennas bend to ethnics, partisanship associations that have characterized our Nigerian society. A statesman is more than one of these phony characters that have been seen in our polity over the years.
My argument does not preclude statesmen from having political inclinations; it does not also preclude them from serving their people in whatever capacity they fit in. However, a statesman is more than that; according to Beard, a statesman should be one who can tell the future of his people and labors intelligently to prepare his countrymen for their fate. When circumstances call for a statesman to redirect the undesirable fate of his people, he should be courageous and sincere enough to undertake such ventures. But most importantly, a statesman should be one who would be willing to get off the stage with a reasonable amount of respect and dignity. Put it this way: He is one who would be willing to quit the stage when the ovation is loudest.
Without taking any direct aim at Ikemba of Nnewi, it is observable that the people we refer to as statesmen fall short of these qualities. Our “statesmen” stay in office until they are forced to leave by nature’s providence. If Abacha were alive today, he would have been one of Nigeria’s elder statesmen. Obasanjo is at the top of the list when Nigeria’s statesmen are mentioned, not withstanding his avowed intention to subvert the constitution of Nigeria by seeking a third term as president.
Now it is obvious; Ikemba has shown his intention to drag Nigeria into war on such a flimsy excuse. Even if we disregard the fact that his utterances amounts to intimidation of a law court do not such utterances call into question the reason(s) for Biafra’s civil war? Should we not go back and revisit the real cause of the war just to be aware when somebody tries to lead us down that path again. I do not care a hoot who becomes the governor of Enugu State, but the utterances of Chief Ojukwu have revealed the portrait of a man who has no regard for law and human life. I thought that Ojukwu’s role in a war that claimed more than 3 million lives would have made him an avid advocate of peace.
What we have in Nigeria are not statesmen. From all indications, they are men who continually dress themselves in borrowed robes and prey on our collective ignorance. While we’re on the subject, it is important to borrow a leaf and mention one of history’s known statesmen.
In my search for a historical example of a statesman, I stopped in my tracks when I read the biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC). Cicero was a statesman. He came from very humble beginnings to become one of the greatest minds of ancient Rome. He is credited with introducing Romans to Greek philosophy. As an eloquent speaker he won the hearts of his people; and as a lawyer he continually advocated for values and respect for law and order. Cicero’s humanism in his political and philosophical writings makes him one of history’s most respected statesmen.
Those we call statesmen have no such achievements. They bend and twist the law to serve their personal purpose. Just before we started calling them statesmen, they were the same men under whose watch corruption permeated the fabric of Nigeria. It was under their guidance that the country sank into terminal decline. Yet, they manage to persuade us that they are statesmen because statesmanship echoes respectable attributes like nobleness, benevolence, and patriotism.
When you consider our long list of statesmen and where we are today as a society, you can only but ask: Are there really statesmen in Nigeria?