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A memo to young political office-holders

If you are reading this and feel that it is addressed to you, congratulations. You are here as a testament to your hard work, expertise,…

If you are reading this and feel that it is addressed to you, congratulations. You are here as a testament to your hard work, expertise, luck, surname, or perhaps all four. You are among the precious few Nigerians who have succeeded in witnessing the once-prophesied “leaders of tomorrow” journey, a chorus once sung from one school assembly to another by our political figures. I understand that “youth” is a vague word in a country where 60-something-year-olds run for the positions of youth leader in our political parties, but your biology tells no lies. You know who you are, and this piece of advice is for you. 

You have embarked on a difficult journey, a journey to resist becoming that which you have always criticised. This phase of your life is an opportunity to stare into the mirror you have created and prepare to be under the scrutiny of your new employers—the citizens. The mistake you must avoid is rushing to assume that those who hold you accountable or demand accountability are simply haters. While that may be the case for some, it comes with the territory you have chosen. The tradition of criticism has been so mislabeled, bastardised, and hostile in our country over the decades that it has become an exercise in mutually-dispensed name-calling. 

As you settle into your new office, you may also be tempted to wage a war with your principal’s critics, and sadly, this is how your peers who have taken this path have charmed their way into the hearts of their principals, or so they thought. If you intend to set yourself apart, you must first and foremost treat your principal as a servant of the people and recognise that those demanding the best from him are his employers. Like your principal, you are also funded by public funds, and this should inspire you to see this phase of your life as a service to the nation and an ultimate acknowledgement of all its diverse desires. 

Your next battle, after establishing that you are a servant of the people and that your critics are merely demonstrating their civic responsibility, is surviving the greatest dilemma—the choice between making money or making a name. The temptation to misuse your office to cut corners and pursue deals is an enterprise that has corrupted many brilliant minds. You enter the system with integrity but end up leaving as a carbon copy of what you once criticised and hated. Some have ended up spending their post-office lives standing trial for corruption, and it serves as a haunting cautionary tale.

You must cultivate your personal brand, young ones. While it may sound like the sobering wisdom of your grandfather, a billion Naira can never buy what a distinguished name in public service can. If you pick up a Nigerian national daily from, let’s say, 2003, and flip through it, you may come across the names of affluence-obsessed young and promising politicians and political appointees who have long disappeared, even in the museum of history, even among Mai shayi clientele. Yet they are still alive and wishing for even a fraction of the attention they once exploited in pursuit of documented greed. 

In those dog-eared and browning newspapers, you will also find the ultimate motivation. You will find your peers, who are now old enough to be your parents, starting out as prudent public officeholders. It is no miracle that this category has survived the iconoclastic onslaught of time and, without godfathers or godmothers, remained relevant both within and outside the luxuriant corridors of power.

They are still standing tall because when they found a field to demonstrate their expertise and character, they did so with class and sincerity, offering what their principals couldn’t find in career sycophants. 

Dear young ones, you must also beware of your family and friends. Not because they are not good people, but because if you end up as slaves to their desires, you will find yourself in a political or professional grave faster than a new husband’s apology.

Remember, you are not a representative of any criminal syndicate partaking in a quick heist. Your duty is sacred, as you have been entrusted with the management of public trust. If you shatter this glass of honour, the same family members pushing you to be a Robin Hood in well-starched Babbar riga will move on with their lives, explaining that you are not the ambassador of their surname. Similarly, your harvest-time friends will desert you when the music stops. 

There is nobody in your life who cannot function if you don’t steal to pamper them, not even your spouse and kids. No one will perish if you abstain from transgressions or rule violations to grant them favours.  You may be called names and labelled as worthless, but it is better to be despised by a crime-marketing social circle than to end up in the courtroom of time, a prisoner of an unforgiving conscience. None of them will help you carry the weight of being a pariah in a society that suspects even a fair-playing political office-holder of tampering with the national treasury’s locks. 

This phase of your life is not for making true friends. You have already made enough friends. You can accommodate more in your new chamber of privileges, but never lose sight of the reason most of them gravitate towards you suddenly. Some will attempt to blackmail you or send you nasty text messages for snubbing or denying their friendship, even though you both know that they are only interested in you because of your power, fame, wealth, or all of the above.

There are names for people like them—those who cut off or avoid others during their times of need but desperately seek their friendship or “demand” it when the so-called friends are out of the woods. Do not yield to their blackmail. 

You may be a young fish in a pond overflowing with worms, spinach, and algae, but your youth can also be a curse. Many who have walked this path before you have suffered from the “early bloomer” syndrome. They climbed the ladder too quickly, reaching either the peak or a position where their support system could no longer hold them in place. They found themselves booted out of the system in their 40s or early 50s, and there was nothing left to do but watch their peers rise, grey and wrinkle through the ranks while they watched from the sidelines amidst dwindling resources or turned into angry activists. 

I am not asking you to slow down in your pursuit, but I suggest that you have a backup or fallback plan in case this road ends abruptly. As you venture out to be the opposite of what you once criticized, or not, pay keen attention to the rhythm of time. Seize your years in government to hone your abilities, wherever you stand, and forge a winning profile that can shine when the trappings of power fizzle out.