Even Justice Mustapha Akanbi must be taken aback at what can easily be seen as an unseasonal commentary – and tribute. As I write, he is not in power and there is nothing in particular that can be seen as warranting any reference to him at his time. His birthday has passed and one could have joined the epidemic of truly deserved tributes on his 80th birthday. But not so, I dare say Justice Mustapha Akambi will always be relevant when people speak of state policy, especially in the area of entrenching sustainable socio-cultural and political values – as we did at a private forum recently. Men like him represent values that are disappearing at a rate that can best be described as incomprehensible.
The first and only encounter with him was sometime in 2001. It was on the occasion of a visit with the then Minister of Transport, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, to who I was Special Assistant. The circumstance was the minister’s formal request for the Independent Corrupt Practices (and other related offences) Commission (ICPC) to partner him in the war against corruption. The visit and meeting with Justice Akanbi was the semi-climax to a series of interesting developments around Maduekwe as Minister of Transport at the time.
The first of these developments was his inauguration of the boards of parastatals in his ministry. He said that the absence of the boards put him under pressure to attend to what should not be his duty as minister and that the interest of the public would be better served by the board. The second, which drew from the first, was his announcement during the inauguration that he would ‘break the legs’ of any board member who thought that the appointment was to enable him, or her, prance forward and greedily inflict mayhem on our national patrimony and “chop at the expense of our collective good”.
His tone was unapologetic and many of the board members were so outraged and scandalised that they immediately reported “Ojo’s effrontery and limited understanding of the role of patronage in politics” to President Olusegun Obasanjo. Ojo had also earlier fired several heads of parasatals, arguing that the only way to save the nation was for public office holders to ignore the usual pleas of kinship and other primordial loyalties and act objectively. While his Igbo brothers and sisters cried foul and sought his head for firing their own, some powerful people within his party, especially those who felt that he should be quickly cut down to size, just could not make out any basis for Maduekwe’s apparent commitment to the mischief. They pointed out that he had actually set up the boards without being told to do so - and without waiting for anyone. He also set up the first ever Transparency Monitoring Unit (TMU) in Nigeria, in the Federal Ministry of Transport. Rather than reprimand Ojo, the president directed other ministers to inaugurate their boards and to also set up TMUs.
Our meeting with Akanbi was, therefore, not just a courtesy call by any stretch of the imagination. The first thing that struck me as we were ushered in was his sober eyes. These were the eyes of a man who lived his beliefs. He had an uncontrived dignity about him, with no airs of office or false modesty. His strength came not from any external emphasis on his physicality, but from an unshakable inner fire that saw no need to assert itself. ‘Venerable’ occurred to me with reference to Justice Akanbi, because everything about him conveyed that ancient air of wisdom that is rarely distracted by the reckless onslaught of folly.
His smile was real, but it did not carry any intimations of uncouth mirth, or the forced refinement of many who mistake public office for an improvement in their essential worth as persons.
Akanbi listened attentively to Chief Maduekwe and did not move a muscle until he was done. Then he spoke from the depth of his being, but without that ridiculous and dramatic wringing of the hands and badly acted attempt at being well meaning you find in people who lack any real inner dignity. He spoke to Ojo as a man would speak to another he respects and who he must look in the eye and remind of the huddles on the road he had chosen.
Akanbi congratulated Ojo and told him what a thankless job he had resolved to undertake and shared several of his experiences. He touched on the challenges facing every honest man in an environment of unstable values, where a ‘wait and take’ morality is the norm. He related some very personal stories with the upbringing of his children, the curious antics of ‘government people’ in his watch as the Commission Chairman, etc. His religious faith and serious commitment to higher human values rang out in all he said and one could not help but note, over and over again, what a seasoned adult should look like.
Akanbi reminded you of a monk of the far Eastern tradition who sees so much with a glance, but who has no need to lift a finger most of the time because only the person who knows that he needs help and seeks it can truly benefit from it. Over and above this high recognition he also has the even higher recognition that one’s duty to the ignorant, is not to pander to him but to refuse to nourish what is wrong in his values.
We left the encounter and drove straight to the minister’s house, losing all appetite for the office. Curiously, Ojo’s first comment to break the silence in the car, was “monk (a designation he says suits me and which he remains unwilling to abandon) you must be very happy with this my friend”. I said that Akanbi belonged to the best traditions of statesmanship, responsible adulthood and parenting, but that his best point is his unconstrained trust in God. We noted that the best way to work with, and truly show respect to a man of deep knowledge who understands the role of sound values and knowledge in human affairs, was to provide a template for sustainable social interventions. From this conversation arose the idea of how to institutionalise the fight against corruption in a way that will make it part of everyone’s social consciousness, as Nigerians.
Thus arose the idea of setting up a Centre for Anti-Corruption Studies in the Lagos University (UNILAG). To prevent a fluke, I took the per-emptive initial step of working with the then Dean of the Faculty of Arts, the late Prof, C.S. Momoh, to ensure that the Minister of
UNILAG Faculty of Arts Lecture for the year, entitled “Re-inventing the Nigerian State”. It was during this lecture that Ojo announced the resolve of his ministry to provide funds for the university to set up a centre for Anti-Corruption Studies. The Dean of Arts diligently liaised with the parastatals and got all the funds.
Then began plans for an international conference/workshop on the true meaning and causes of corruption, as well as how to combat it in a lasting manner. We had concluded plans on how the proceedings of the workshop could be edited, to create the seed academic materials that would be put together as relevant literature in an endeavour that could then be taken back to Justice Akanbi and the National Universities Commission (NUC). This was to eventually lead to the introduction of anti-corruption studies as a General Studies (GST) programme, the way Philosophy and Logic were introduced.
But disaster struck. I flew down as the Minister’s representative, to mediate in a misunderstanding in the university. The vice-chancellor, the university Bursar, and Prof. Momoh were the other three participants at a peace meeting.
The authorities wanted the money provided by the Federal Ministry of Transport, which had been collected on behalf of the university and left intact by Prof Momoh, to be put in a bank that offered it (the university) about 14% interest rates, while Momoh objected on the grounds that it was an avoidable loss to the school. The big stick was to be wielded on the ever-selfless Momoh, who they wanted to embarrass by saying that he had no right to be involved in the management of what are rightly university funds. The latter didn’t care half a hoot and argued that the vice-chancellor and the bursar should think of maximising the mileage that the school could make from the ministerial intervention.
The money was eventually taken over by ‘the authorities’. The prospect of the International Conference, along with the idea of introducing the new course in the university dimmed. As for the Centre for Anti-corruption Studies, it died from “natural causes. So did our dream of both the new GST Course and what would probably have been the high point of the Ministry of Transport/Independent and Corrupt Practices (and other related offenses) Commission partnership die. But Akanbi remains the icon he is, with a thriving foundation for values impartation.