Paperback and kindle editions available on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing
Publication Date: February 2013
“…to put on record my version of events…” is one of the reasons Nasir El-Rufai puts forward for writing his provocative autobiography, The Accidental Public Servant. It’s a book which could easily tie with Chinua Achebe’s memoirs, as the most debated in Nigeria’s recent history. Flipping through the pages, it was apparent that readers could choose to either verify or refute El-Rufai’s version of events in government, or appreciate its rare insight into the intricacies of Nigeria’s fourth democratic experience. I opted for the latter.
As the title suggests, the overall theme of the book revolves around the intriguing journey of an individual from very humble beginnings in an idyllic post-independence era, in a rural part of Katsina, northern Nigeria, to occupying one of the highest public offices in 21st century Nigeria. The reader glimpses into how El-Rufai’s fiercely independent, resolute, feisty and cerebral personality evolves from the tragedy of his father’s passing, the calculated attrition against Sunday, the primary school bully, the role-model influence of his brother in his early years and becoming a self-made private sector millionaire by his mid-twenties (p.36).
The “accidental” part of El-Rufai’s journey begins, from the age of 38 with his reluctant entry in government in 1998 as an adviser for the military government of Abdulsalam Abubakar. It continues through to his appointment as the Director-General of the main privatisation agency, the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) and then as the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, and his membership of the elite corps of economic reformers between 2003 and 2007.
Along the way, lifelong friendships are built and broken, alliances are forged and betrayed and the gruelling challenge of public service and reform in the midst of entrenched practices and powerful vested interests takes its toll. He strives to balance public and personal interests with loyalties as he gets caught in the middle of altercations between a strong-willed President Olusegun Obasanjo and his equally powerful Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. At the height of these disagreements, El-Rufai inadvertently rises to a defacto Vice-President, a position which would ironically lead to his persecution and exile less than a year after leaving public office.
A refreshing aspect of the book is the revelation and demystification of the inner-workings of the highest levels of governance in Africa’s most populous country. For instance, El-Rufai stresses how appointments for the highest public offices, are mostly fortuitous, having little to do with meritocratic or rigorous processes. His narration of events during his first few days as FCT minister (p.199), what to expect after a ministerial nomination, the obstructive tactics of entrenched civil servants opposed to reform are insightful and invaluable details that offer a useful departure from textbook political theory or international ‘best practice.’
In particular, the author’s revelation that without a coherent plan, a new and mostly unprepared government minister could easily drown in administrative routine attending to “more than 100 visitors and 200 phone calls” daily for the duration of their tenure, is instructive (p.201). He discusses the immense influence such appointees wield and how they become devastated when they leave office, once the lucrative perks of office are withdrawn and the “hundreds of phone calls a day… drop to near zero” the very next day (p.393)! These are valuable disclosures for the younger generation planning to go into public service.
El-Rufai also underscores the absolute importance of political will by a president in effecting key reforms. With Obasanjo’s backing, the residence of the powerful chairman of the ruling party was demolished as part of the restoration of the FCT master plan (p.296) and a number of seemingly impossible tasks are implemented seamlessly. The reader thus gets a glimpse into Obasanjo’s ambivalent approach to governance: a wilful, ex-military leader, with an eye for good people, an ear for good advice and a vision for Nigeria despite his links with vested interests and rentier elite, but who was unfortunately consumed by his vindictiveness and narrow ambitions to run for a third term in office. The reader is likely to come off with a better informed and more respectable view of The Obasanjo personality.
El-Rufai also rightly reflects on a fundamental yet overlooked implication of the decline of Nigerian public education and constituent alumni networks which are critical to leadership and elite incubation (p.42-43). He stresses how friendship and alumni networks in Barewa College and Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria proved useful in several instances in his life and in public service. He laments that the decline of hitherto elitist public institutions mean that their local and important alumni networks such as the Barewa Old Boys Association are now unavailable to foreign-educated Nigerians, his own children inclusive.
However, the scant mention of the highly controversial NITEL-Pentascope privatisation controversy is quite conspicuous. This is especially since El-Rufai studiously accounts for the key hallmarks and controversies of his stewardship of the BPE and the FCT Ministry. While the author does state that a full account of the NITEL saga would come in a BPE monograph (p.128), most readers would have appreciated at least a few paragraphs devoted to this contentious issue.
The author’s approach of divulging the inner workings of governance at the highest levels, and naming and shaming the key players irrespective of ethnic or religious affiliation is truly refreshing. Yet in a few instances, there’s a nagging feeling that he probably divulged too much. This ranges from revealing verbatim, some conversations which held in strict confidence to the extremely personal details about meeting and marrying his subsequent wives.
Notwithstanding, the rare insight El-Rufai provides into the highest echelons of power, politics and decision-making in Nigeria is unprecedented. The heated debate sparked by the book should prompt other key actors to document their own version of events, ultimately to the betterment of Nigerians outside the tight power circle. For Nasir El-Rufai the successful entrepreneur, technocrat, exiled student and now leading opposition politician, one can only wonder what the future holds.
“Some mosques in particular consistently condemned me and prayed for my downfall. One or two declared me an apostate for daring to demolish a mosque, conveniently forgetting that Prophet Muhammad ordered the demolition of an illegal mosque in Madina Al-Munawwarah, some 1,400 years earlier. Many of the affected ‘churches’ prayed that “by God’s grace, El-Rufai will go down, El-Rufai will lose his job, El-Rufai will die in Jesus’ name.” I was there for nearly four years and we removed all of them.” (p.212)