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OPINION: A reading list for Ministers By Reuben Abati



OPL 245: The most popular oil block by Reuben Abati

A day after the present set of Ministers took oath of office, Nigerians took to twitter to recommend books they think will be of use to them and provide necessary knowledge and guidance suitable for the discharge of their various assignments. Tolu Ogunlesi initiated the idea with the tag: #ReadingListNG, and a request that the name of Ministers should be indicated alongside book title and url link. The exercise turned out to be so popular with all manner of bibliophiles loading our time lines with book titles.

A Reading List For Ministers By Reuben Abati

Reuben Abati

In the end, Kathleen Ndongmo, the Cameroonian lady with a keen interest in all things Nigerian, storified the various suggestions. The assumption that informed the reading list is not difficult to explain: the received wisdom is that persons in such important positions should be knowledge seekers, knowledge workers as well, and that in the age of knowledge and information, it will be disastrous indeed to have any dandified ignoramus at the highest levels of government. After all, “Reading maketh the man” Francis Bacon said. #ReadingListNG is thus at once an admonition, a reminder and a statement about the importance of reading, and in every respect, a worthy proposition.

Writing about this subject, I recall that in the early days of the Jonathan administration, there was a similar focus on reading and knowledge as valuable tools for governance. Much earlier, during the campaigns, President Jonathan launched a Bring Back the Book campaign to promote literacy and a reading culture. He more or less continued with this at cabinet level by promoting and encouraging a culture of reading and debate among members of the Federal Executive Council.

He had made it clear to the then new Ministers that he wanted a cabinet of knowledgeable men and women whom he had deliberately put together to deliver the transformation agenda, through hardwork, dedication, efficiency and faithful execution. I indeed recall further that during one of the earliest Cabinet meetings, each Minister received a pack of reading materials including the Nigerian Constitution, the Transformation Agenda Blueprint, relevant statutes and Public Service Rules.

This idea of having a knowledgeable Cabinet, soon led to a situation once when the President recommended to all Cabinet members a reading of Lee Kuan Yew’s From Third World to First: The Singapore Story. This was followed by a reading of one of President Jonathan’s favourite books -Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, The interest that this particular book generated resulted in Richard Dowden being invited to deliver the keynote address to mark Nigeria’s 51st Independence Anniversary in 2011. As President, when Dr Jonathan was not quoting Lee Kuan Yew, he loved to quote Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, or Cyprian Ekwensi (An African’s Night’s Entertainment, Burning Grass, Passport of Mallam Ilia) and the late Tai Solarin, whose writings covered a broad range from public policy and governance to public morality.

Book reading and discussion by that Cabinet became even more formalized with the reading by all Cabinet members of a book titled If We Can Put A Man On The Moon: Getting Big Things Done In Government authored by William D. Eggers and John O’Leary. The reading of this particular book was co-ordinated by the then Minister of National Planning, Dr Shamsuddeen Usman, who distributed copies to every Minister, with the following attached note: “Hoping that the cases profiled in this book will give us the inspiration to make a great success of the several initiatives that are necessary to achieve the Transformation Agenda and Vision 20:2020”.

       I further recall that after copies had been distributed, President Jonathan personally appointed Omobola Johnson, Minister of Communications, who also doubled as the Council’s class monitor, as the reviewer of the book and lead discussant. The discussion of the book was scheduled for two Cabinet meetings from thence, and when it took place, it was quite an illuminating session. For the rest of the period that we were in government, book reading or the exchange of books as gifts was a regular feature around the Cabinet. Perhaps owing to his background as an academic, Dr Jonathan knew the importance of ideas, and hence in conducting cabinet meetings, he encouraged robust debates, which sometimes resulted in open and vehement disagreements.

The promotion of this culture is sustainable. Books are vehicles of ideas, albeit the application of those ideas and the quality and impact are just as crucial, and the main point of course, is to understand what the book teaches, and having the capacity to apply what is learnt. In a country where people usually stop reading after graduating from school, it is important to encourage those who take critical decisions to read and think. Those who hold this view will have no problems appreciating the #ReadingListNG initiative. The outcome is quite interesting.

Respondents recommended books dealing with governance, policy, biographical narratives, power politics, and history. These include Daniel Yergin, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World; Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria; Joe Studwell, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region; Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power; Nasir El-Rufai, The Accidental Public Servant; Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; Olusegun Obasanjo, My Watch (Vol 2); Olusegun Adeniyi, Power, Politics and Death; Hernando do Soto, The Mystery of Capital; Franklin Zimring, The City that Became Safe; William Rosen, The Most Powerful Idea in the World; Archie Brown, The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age; Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; Karlson Hargroves and Michael Smith, The Natural Advantage of Nations; Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York; Zoltan J. Acs, Innovation and Growth of Cities, C.K. Prahalad, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid; Nicos Komninos, The Age of Intelligent Cities, John C. Maxwell, 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

Other recommendations include Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations; Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath, T D Jakes, Instinct, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, Thanks for the Feedback; Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Start up Nation; Richard Branson, Losing my Virginity; Muhammad Yunus, Building Social Business; Rashid Al Maktoum, My Vision; Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the Poor, Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story; John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Maccchiavelli, The Prince, Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull, Creativity Inc., Gregg Braden, The God Code, Moises Naim, The End of Power; Brian Tracy, Eat That Frog, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, Reinventing Government; Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese?; Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb, I am Malala; Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less; The World Watch Institute, Governing for Sustainability, Claudia Altucher, Become an Idea Machine; Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid; Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, The Second Machine Age; William Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts, Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace; Jim Huling, Sean Covey and Chris McChesney, The Four Disciplines of Execution, Daniel Goleman, Leadership, Jay Elliot with William Simon, The Steve Jobs Way; Charles Colson, The Good Life; Goke Adegoroye, Restoring Good Governance in Nigeria; David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations; and William Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth.

The foregoing list shows an eclectic range in terms of the subjects covered, and a fixation with foreign authors and publications. Except in about five instances, almost all the authors are foreign. But without any doubt, these are books of great value and penetrating insights. If I must add one more, I’ll recommend Break Out Nations by Ruchir Sharma. My concern however is the relative absence of Nigerian books, authors and narratives on the list.

The big problem with governance in Nigeria is not the lack of understanding of the catch-phrases of power, modern politics and policy, in fact it is fashionable to be seen to have read some of these books, the problem lies in a gross and pervasive lack of understanding of Nigeria itself. In addition to everything else, anyone who wants to govern Nigeria at any level, must begin with reading books on and about Nigeria: its history, people, geography, social culture. A starting point should be The History of Nigeria.

Those who occupy high positions should also read Nigerian newspapers, watch local television, and listen to Nigerian stories, and not restrict themselves to foreign media. Every Minister must start by keeping abreast of the news: not summaries by media aides, but a genuine effort to know what the people want, feel or think at all times. Some of the people who suddenly become Federal Ministers do not know any other part of Nigeria apart from their ethnic enclaves. They have no friends outside their states of origin. They may never have travelled round the country! Nobody can govern Nigeria or make a difference who does not know the country. This disconnect is often the bane of performance.

It is also regrettable that when people get to high office in Nigeria, they soon get consumed with the minutiae and the ceremony of being powerful and as time passes, they devote little or no time to reflection and contemplation. Nasir el-Rufai revealed the nature of this dilemma the other day at the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta when he told his audience that whereas he used to read a lot, now as Governor of Kaduna State, he can hardly find time to read: “In the last two years, I have been busy with opposition, new political party and elections. I used to read a book a week when I was less busy. But now, I just read files and documents and so on. My advice to anyone that thinks being Governor is nice, don’t try it. You don’t get to read; you don’t have a life.”

    Precisely the point: In a society where talk is so cheap and rumour-mongering is rife, perhaps our leaders need to genuinely find the leisure window to develop their mental capacity and personal horizons, so they can act and lead better.

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