When my authority inspires sycophancy, I have no followers, only resentful manipulators of my power for their own selfish gain. — George Kunz

When in June 2015, I started gathering materials for my book, ‘Against The Run of Play’, I also decided I would go through the newspaper reports from the first day President Goodluck Jonathan assumed power on 6th May 2010 to his last day in office on 28th May 2015. Even though I knew it would be a big task, and I wasn’t even sure I could pull it off at the time, I believe it would make selecting the salient issues that dominated the period easier to do. And since THISDAY library is in Lagos, my options on how to achieve the goal were limited.

With my friend, Mannir Dan Ali, the Chief Executive Officer/Editor-in-Chief of Daily Trust, assigning their chief librarian to help me with whatever I needed from their archives, my plan was to spend two hours every day at the library for as long as it would take me to complete the task. But on my second day at Daily Trust, the chief librarian, a rather pleasant fellow, asked: “Sir, what exactly are you looking for?”

After explaining to him what I was doing, he then told me Daily Trust has all their publications in microfilms and that if I could pay, he would burn everything printed within the period into a collection of CDs for me. I paid the agreed sum to their accounts department and within two weeks, I collected 61 CDs, each containing monthly Daily Trust publications from May 2010 to April 2015. And while it may have taken me about five months to go through all the publications, the efforts helped me in the process of selecting the issues that I believed affected the outcome of the election.

Interestingly, those CDs have become useful in recent days as I pore through the December publications in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 to see how the birthday of President Muhammadu Buhari was celebrated in those years. And I learnt a lot going through those editions of Daily Trust. Even when we may forgive the fact that Buhari’s new friends forgot him in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014, of particular interest to me was December 2012 when he marked a landmark birthday: The 70th!

With the international Conference Centre, Abuja already booked for the birthday anniversary to be chaired by Lt General T.Y. Danjuma and Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah slated as Guest Speaker, all was set for the occasion until the last minute cancellation in deference to the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of the then Kaduna State Governor, Mr Patrick Yakowa and former National Security Adviser, General Andrew Azazi.

However, despite the publicity that preceded the day, these were the only people who placed congratulatory advertisements for Buhari: The defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) signed by Senator Lawal Shuiabu and Alhaji Lai Mohamnmed; CPC Senator representing Niger North, Ibrahim Musa; former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar; former Vice President Atiku Abubakar; Senator Hadi Sirika; then CPC National Chairman, Prince Tony Momoh; CPC members representing Katsina State in the House of Representatives and the then Speaker, Aminu Tambuwal.

I have gone through the foregoing lengthy background so that readers can compare what happened at that period when Buhari clocked age 70 and now that he is 75. Quite naturally, this year’s birthday has attracted hundreds of pages of congratulatory advertisements, including a scandalous and very expensive glossy four-page wrap-around by a state governor and no fewer than four special cakes. Yet, what makes all the difference between Buhari at 70 and Buhari at 75 is the favour and privileges he can now dispense or withhold as president of Nigeria.

Unfortunately, while flatterers and those who genuflect before power are antithetical to good governance and are of no help to serious leaders, in both the public and private sectors in our country today, it is the sycophants who get along very well. Even within the religious institutions, they are the ones who secure rapid promotions simply by worshipping the Papas and Mamas, sometimes more than the God from whom those individuals claim to have secured their spiritual mandates.

That then explains why the birthday ceremonies of political office holders and that of their spouses as well as the burial ceremonies of their parents have become state functions. Yet, when you create an environment in which leaders are hero-worshipped, as it is the case in Nigeria today, there is no way you can instil transparency and accountability in such a system and the people are the loser.

Meanwhile, I must point out quickly that this piece is really not about President Buhari, or his birthday. I am just using him to illustrate the point about the level of sycophancy in the society. However, it is nonetheless sad that a man who came to power as an austere leader could not foresee the deluge of sycophancy that attended his birthday and advised in advance that all gifts and congratulatory adverts be converted to social welfare contributions. A birthday observance that has become an open contest for the familiar Nigerian sycophants is hardly a tribute to a president who insists on an anti-corruption identity.

All said, since there are people in the presidency who enjoy illustrating every point with Biblical stories, let me also conclude this piece with one in the spirit of the season.

In the days when King Ahab reigned over Israel, he asked Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, to join forces with him to reclaim Ramoth Gilead from Aram. While Jehoshaphat agreed to the request, he advised King Ahab to first seek the counsel of the Lord. That was no problem for the king of Israel who quickly assembled his close advisers comprising 400 prophets and sought their opinion. “Go, for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand”, the prophets roared. But being more circumspect, King Jehoshaphat asked: “Is there not a prophet of the Lord here whom we can inquire of?”

That statement was a serious indictment on the 400 prophets, the leading advisers of King Ahab. Jehoshaphat must have seen through them and must have concluded that there was no point relying on the prophecy of sycophants. What the King of Judah demonstrated is that it is only the intellectually curious leader that consciously seeks the wisdom of alternative viewpoints.

His question provoked a disturbing response that is common with leaders who enjoy the adulation of sycophants, as recorded in second Chronicles Chapter 18, Verse 7: “The King of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, ‘There is still one man through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah the son of Imlah.”

It is evident from that confession that the King of Israel was not seeking the truth, he wanted validation for a decision he had already taken, even if it was wrong; and those 400 prophets were ‘his men’, those who would tell him what he wanted to hear. We have several of such well-placed individuals at practically all levels of governance in Nigeria today, the ‘400 prophets’ who celebrate and buy giant cakes only for those in power. They are not loyal to anybody or sacred principles. They are, as George Kunz described them, resentful manipulators of power for their own selfish gain. And while President Buhari may enjoy cutting different birthday cakes with them, he should also be wary of them.

In his exposition on that Biblical story, using his country as an illustration, this is what Kenyan writer, David Oginde, has to say and it is my parting shot: “Sad to say, but this is what seems to play out over and over again in our national life. Our kings whether at home, in church, mosques, corporates, governments, or political parties—would so much rather gather around them 400 false prophets than listen to the one lone voice of reason. Of course Micaiahs can often be a thorn in the flesh, but they do help us see our blind spots and in the long run sharpen our vision and warn us of potential dangers.”

I wish President Buhari happy 75th birthday!

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