Monday, 7 December 2015

A Reading List for Ministers – Reuben Abati Writes


A day after the present set of Minister 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.

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,

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