Aso Rock Palace, Abuja. August 5, 2018.
Dr Philip Worku was nicknamed the Minister of Works. The pressmen loved it. He wasn’t really the minister of works but the other cabinet members were amused by the play on words. Some of them called him Philip Works, some of them: Mr. Minister. He wasn’t really a doctor either, but to hell with any hair splitter who thought he shouldn’t call himself Doctor after a very grateful University had given him an honorary doctorate. But he wasn’t just called the minister of works because his name sounded like works; he was a very hard worker for the administration, forming political strategy, tackling opponents, vetting new appointees, troubleshooting on a high level. He was the President’s Senior Special Adviser for Political Matters and perhaps the President’s most trusted aide. The latter status is more important than the former. Everybody in Abuja knew that to be the President’s trusted aide made one possibly more powerful than even the Vice President. As Dr Worku’s own political mentor (he called him his political father) had said: ‘You could be Queen of the Coast and it would mean nothing if you are not an insider.’
The insiders sat down in a waiting room not far from the president’s office, four ministers and two senior special assistants. Their job was relatively easy by technocratic standards: map out a socio-economic vision for the next four years suitable enough for campaign sloganeering. The President had come to power on a promise of continuity. He had pledged to see through the basic programs of his predecessor, which had been named Vision 2020:20. Nigeria was going to be among the world’s top twenty economies by the year twenty twenty. Now just two years from the year 2020, the ruling party, the DDP had suggested a new vision and slogan. The people still had hope but they needed a new vision to rekindle it.
‘Do we need to go through the economic figures as a starting point?’ The Minister of Economic Planning, Chief Bamiwo asked. The Petroleum Minister, Tukunami, rolled his eyes.
‘What do we need figures for? A simple plan, with a simple slogan will do.’
Dr Worku shook his head. ‘I strongly disagree. More than anything, what we need now is complexity and sophistication. Smoke and shadow.’
‘Sophistication? The average voter is a blunt illiterate. And those are the people we are trying to capture. It would be futile to pretend at intellectual … what-do-you-call-it.’
‘If we are trying to capture them we need to offer them something new, something they have never heard before.’
‘I find it hard to believe that they would even believe anything we say in the first place, by the way.’ Bamiwo said, rather sotto voce.
‘If the elite believe, the masses will believe.’
Tukunami smiled at Worku. ‘You already have something in mind, bah?’
To their surprise, the door opened and the President strode into the room. They all stood up. He went to his usual chair, which had been unoccupied even though they had not expected his personal contribution to the task. It was unheard of taboo to sit in the President’s chair. Even if one was about to faint, better to fall on floor and break your neck than fall into the President’s chair. One never knew who’d hear about it.
‘Well, do we have something yet?’
‘Your Excellency, I’m thinking: Vision 2030.’ Tukunami suggested.
‘Alhaji that is very bad of you.’ The President said. ‘Let’s have creative suggestions here gentlemen, not the usual rubbish.’
The room went quiet. The President’s mild rebuke was not meant to offend his minister, but Tukunami took it badly, and turned moody. Vision 2030 sounded plausible, he had been thinking about it all day and didn’t find anything wrong with it. A new ten year vision of development, a burst of industrialisation, jobs, power, water, food, health, blah, blah, what was wrong with that? But to be openly rebuked by the president, even mildly, and in the midst of enemies past, present and future, events like that could set the rumour mill agog with talk of a fall from grace, of imminent political death. Nonentities from the most secret of political meetings somehow found their way to the pages of newsmagazines.
‘As a young man in the old days, I remember hearing of Vision 2000, In fact I still remember the song they played on the radio,’ the President recited the jingle:
‘Join us, come with us,
‘We are on our wa-ay,
‘Education for all…’
His ministers joined him in song: ‘By the year, 2000.’
‘Oh, so you can remember it?’ They smiled nostalgically. ‘Then in the nineties we had Vision 2010. The goalposts simply moved by ten years. And all of them meant nothing. We can’t adopt the same lame strategy. Look at the vision that followed: Vision twenty twenty twenty. And though it didn’t succeed, did it not capture the imagination of the people?’
Of course, no one dared to disagree. Chief Bamiwo nodded dutifully.
‘Gentlemen, something fresh. Something different.’
‘Sir, must it start with “Vision”, can’t we have a development plan, like they did in the seventies? It could be …’
‘Listen to yourself. You want me to go to the Nigerian people with a strategy from the 1970s. Which of those development plans were ever achieved? I prefer Vision. Organisations have missions and visions, and so should governments. Just let it be something fresh.’
Worku leaned forward. ‘I agree totally, Mr President. A vision is vague, it proclaims a general idea, of what we want to aspire to. If we fail to achieve it, it will be difficult to apportion blame. We can blame a multitude of factors, even the weather. But if you have a plan, a development plan, you are going to have stages, and benchmarks, whereby the opposition parties will never let us rest if we never meet them.’
The President nodded. Philip Worku was clearly seeing things his way.
‘I have an idea, Mr President. It’s fresh, some might say … crazy even. But I think it is what we need.’
‘I’m listening,’ The President said.
He told them his vision. And at first no one said a thing, not even the president. But Worku went on talking and explaining and bamboozling, until finally, to the amazement of everyone in the room, the President said ‘I like it. Do it.’
The press room in the Nigerian state house was the wood-panelled venue of major government briefings like the weekly post-cabinet press briefing. State house correspondents were a lucky bunch. Unlike their colleagues who followed the news wherever it unfolded, chasing stories under an unforgiving sun, the pressmen attached to Aso Rock Villa spent the day lounging in air-conditioned rooms, making friends with jobbers and power brokers, attending sumptuous state banquets and flying abroad to cover the occasional state visit. It was many a reporter’s dream beat, and those who got it did what they could to keep it.
Dr Worku felt his strategy needed a low impact test run before facing the less forgiving and more cynical Nigerian public. The President correctly determined that Worku had the sophistry that was needed to get the new vision for the next term its needed acceptability. He knew that a section of the press, the section they called Lagos press, would scoff, kick and fuss, but he also knew that editorial kicking and fussing was worth nothing politically. Not in the Nigeria of today. Not in the Nigeria of Yesterday. Never.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, this administration came into power three years ago, with a solid promise of continuity. His Excellency Mr President, a real visionary, correctly identified the monster of abandoned projects as the bane of Nigeria’s economic development, and he promised to uphold the grand vision of his predecessors. Consequently, Vision Twenty Twenty Twenty, was adopted by this administration, and we continued to run the race, to make Nigeria, to put Nigeria, in the first twenty economies of the world by the year twenty twenty.
‘Now in recent times many unbelieving people have criticised our inability to actualise this dream, as if they are unaware that this is the most difficult country in the world to govern. In my opinion our critics have spoken too soon, and as I said earlier in the year, we will achieve our objectives as set out in Vision twenty twenty twenty. But that is not all. To further put shame to our enemies and job-seeking detractors, this administration today makes a new promise.’
The reporters were silent and spell bound. Rumours had been going round of the party’s plan to field a new vision in time for the elections, and the usual cynical editors were having a field day predicting a vision 2030, vision 2040, vision second millennium. They were cursing any regime that would move forward the goal posts when other former third world countries advanced with leaps and bounds. They reminded the insanely rich ruling class that Nigeria was the only country in the least twenty poverty index that hadn’t fought a civil war in more than thirty years. They prophesied civil strife, unrest, implosion, mass murder and certain disintegration. But like his President, Worku knew editors and activists had been predicting these things for years, but none of them really had a stomach for it. What the people had proved again and again to have a stomach for was a new vision.
‘We promise to stay with vision twenty twenty twenty, but beyond that, to consolidate that vision, and complete it; ladies and gentlemen, the government in its planning and policies, shall now henceforth be guided by the renewed vision, Vision Twenty Twenty Twenty Twenty, Forty over Forty.
‘Twenty twenty, because that is our target year. In that year, that is, come two years time, we will be in the world’s economic top twenty, and we will also achieve a basic criteria of twenty set objectives namely…’
He bent over a list and named them. International standard healthcare, uninterrupted electricity, free education, free rail transport…
‘So you have twenty twenty, for the year twenty twenty, twenty for the top twenty countries, and twenty for the top twenty criteria. Forty forty, because by the year twenty forty we shall have forty states and end agitation for new states. His Excellency Mr President has always said: why can’t the number of states be a round figure, like the United States, they have fifty states. And they are a model country. So we will increase the number of states from thirty-six to forty states. Also twenty plus twenty is forty, so four twenties will give you two forties, forty plus forty will give you eighty, and Nigeria will be eighty in the year twenty forty.’
At this point the State House press officers who were seated at either side of him applauded.
‘Yes. Nigeria will celebrate eighty years in the year 2040, many of you don’t know that. So, forty states by year twenty forty will give you two forties. So, you are thinking, why forty over forty? Because if you have forty over forty, forty will cancel out forty, which is equal to one. And you know that Nigeria is one, One Nigeria forever. So that should really put to shame the enemies of democracy and of this administration.’
The stunned pressmen were at first unable to comment. But it was not their job to comment. As state house pressmen it was not their job to ask questions when the session had been tagged a no-questions session. It was their job to witness and report the news to their editors.
Later that day, while they waited at the office of the assistant to the special assistant on media, some who had recovered from the initial shock of it found their voice and whispered that this was more like doomsday for democracy. But one shrivelled guru who operated the camera for a private TV station insightfully noted: visions don’t win elections, riggers do. They kept their voice down, because the assistant to the assistant was the one who handed out the brown envelopes along with the press releases. She was also rumoured to be the media office’s spy-watchdog. To be state house correspondent was not a thing to be toyed with.