“There’s another section over there, Your Excellency,” I said, pointing towards the Western philosophy enclave within the bookstore. He wasn’t in a hurry and had paused, flipping through the pages of assorted books spanning a symphony of genres. I assumed he probably didn’t know about the other parts of the bookstore. Sometimes he would sit in between reads and then rise to proceed to other sections. Senator Kashim Shettima appeared to have an interest in almost all kinds, except for, by his admission, motivational books, which of course are mostly superficial philosophical projections.
“You should read this book,” he said as I tagged along behind him, and he transferred the tome into my possession. It’s Mariana Mazzucato’s enlightening opus, ‘The Value of Everything’. “She offers a caricature of capitalism and a penetrating take on the subject.” With gratitude, I accepted the book and maintained stride behind him, observing his methodical traversal through the pages, volumes, and corridors of the Sandton, Johannesburg bookstore.
We are currently in South Africa for the 2023 BRICS summit, where the vice president is representing President Bola Ahmed Tinubu in a crucial global economic alliance. Earlier in the day, he participated in a trade fair held prior to the main event and expressed his principal’s strong commitment to innovation, investment and empowering MSMEs to stimulate Nigeria’s economy. He toured the exhibition stands, appreciating the participation of 180 exhibitors from various sectors at the trade fair.
What was poised to be an evening of rest in his hotel ahead of the forthcoming day’s commitments took an unexpected turn. It became an odyssey into literature and knowledge. I had the honour of accompanying him, witnessing his unquenchable thirst for books, profound intellectual curiosity, and insightful perspectives on writers and subjects. These topics spanned domains ranging from economics and philosophy to the intricate realm of politics. He even maintained a personal philosophy regarding acquiring books in the cities he journeyed through.
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“You know the most accurate portrayal of a people or culture is found in the books you buy in their communities. Such books are the most credible reflections of their realities and experiences,” and then this turned into a caveat about the misrepresentations of ideas, people, or culture by foreign or detached curators and authors. It was a convincing argument, sparked by the time spent exploring the South African history sub-section of the African history enclave. He spent a significant amount of time analysing the host country’s foremost thinkers, human rights activists, and politicians whom he knows so well.
At intervals, Senator Shettima would pause to pose for photographs with passersby and shoppers who spotted him and mustered the courage to approach him. Sporting a warm smile, he welcomed their requests and even engaged in light conversations. Some observers opted to capture his image from a distance. Then, two curious South African women arrived on the scene. They observed, exchanged smiles, and discussed something regarding the statesman, uncertain about how to approach him.
One of the vice president’s aides made it easy for them when he playfully teased them about what caught their attention. One of them pointed to him shyly. He joined their conversation, and soon it wasn’t just about whether they were talking to the vice president of Africa’s most populous nation, but rather about the phonetics of their ethnicity, Xhosa. He commended how the South Africans had taken enough interest in African politics to figure out Nigeria’s vice president.
But even as the collection of books grew, I had no doubt he was going to read them. I had personally observed Senator Shettima‘s remarkable ability to devour substantial volumes within a day and yet retain every intricate detail. One particularly memorable instance of this occurred in 2018, following the public presentation of former President Jonathan’s memoir, ‘My Transition Hours’, which distorted certain events of his tenure as governor of Borno State.
Astonishingly, merely a day after the book’s release, he had not only completed reading it but had also penned a comprehensive critique outlining the inaccuracies it contained. Such a feat would have been implausible even for me, someone whose life had been steeped in literature and who possessed more leisure time than a sitting governor.
The range of books acquired during his book hunts illuminated the reason he appeared to possess a quote for every conceivable occasion, effortlessly at his disposal. His peculiar memory enabled this skill. His reputation for having an exceptionally retentive memory stemmed from his practice of not allowing it to remain idle. He earned a reputation for his capacity to recall details and retain information due to his insatiable reading habit.
While tagging along, I studied his interactions with star-struck foreigners and Nigerians who approached him, just as much as I revelled in his enthusiasm for books. What further amused me was his sharp sense of humour. Despite being portrayed as stern and unsmiling by certain media outlets and the political opposition, he was one of the funniest people one can ever come across. He was easy to engage with, whether delving into intellectual discussions or addressing trivial matters. To me, the bookworm remains the most well-read politician I know.