Transforming Self, State and Society

Fola Adeola

I have the privilege to speak this morning on the Solo I knew. For those who did not have the opportunity of meeting the late Brigadier-General Solomon Giwa-Amu during the brief time he was with us on this side of the divide, you missed knowing a good man. And while he may have been a few years younger than me, he was my friend. But let me preface my brief remark this morning with a story that says so much about the man in whose memory we are all gathered here today as well as our society.

A traveller came upon three men working at a construction site. He asked the first man what he was doing and the man said he was laying bricks. He asked the second man the same question and he responded that he was putting up a wall. When the traveller got to the third man and asked him what he was doing he said he was building a cathedral. They were all doing the same thing yet had different perspectives. The first man had a job. The second man had a career. The third man had a calling.

The challenge of the present generation of Nigerians is that many are looking for jobs; and of those who already have, majority of them are dissatisfied. Fewer still are searching for career. Yet, as we reflect on the state of our nation and the role of individuals, the message here is simple: It is good to have a job or career but good societies are built by people with a calling. There was no doubt that Solo found his purpose and he made the most of the resources that life gave him at the time. That was because he treated every assignment as a calling and he left lasting legacies for which he would forever be remembered.

Solo was a very interesting person, with very clear character and values. As I think of the time when we related with each other, some attributes stood him out. Let us start with the easiest and most obvious. While I do not know whether the discipline pre-dated his military career, the man I met was extremely disciplined. That also reflected in his family life. I remember visiting his home once and his son didn’t greet me properly. I saw the father transform into a military man and quickly, the son realizing this was a serious matter, accorded me due respect.

It would be foolish to ignore the ADC to the President under normal circumstances, but with Solo, there was no way he could be taken for granted. He was not a man that could be ignored, even though he wasn’t the loudest voice in the room. He was a professional military man in every sense of the word and he proudly carried the nobility of that role. He was an officer’s officer. He was disciplined in the mind, an avid reader and well abreast of current affairs both domestically and internationally. He was also disciplined in body. I never saw him indulge excessively in food, alcohol, or any other vices. He played sports and kept fit despite the rigors of his job.

Since we are talking about the role of both the individuals and the state as we seek to transform our society, let me borrow from the “Broken Windows” theory in urban policy, made famous in the case of crime reduction in New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In the 1980s, New York was a very scary place. Crime was rampant almost everywhere. Two American social scientists: James Q Wilson and George Kelling came up with the theory. The title comes from the following example:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

The premise of the writers is very simple: When people get away with small crimes and misdemeanors, it is not a huge leap to the bigger ones. If I can get away with traffic violation by giving money to the traffic management officer, I can certainly get away with theft and kidnapping by bribing the police. What’s to stop me there? Why not buy my way into political offices or bribe to get big contract. But where did such individuals get the idea that they could commit such big crimes?

Even in Nigeria, they usually start small. Your children tell you their teachers are making monetary demands that you know to be wrong but consider insignificant and you oblige with no questions asked. The next time, you are asked to pay for ‘expo’ for those children and you rationalize it. You pay for the questions ahead of examinations and your children pass without efforts. The foundation for fraud is gradually being built as you destroy the future of those children and that of the larger society. But how many people see it that way?

In New York City, to turnaround rampant crime and make the city safe, the police officers went hard on the petty crimes. The logic being that if you stop the smaller crimes from happening, the perpetrators wouldn’t graduate to bigger criminal activities. Despite its downsides, it proved to be an effective strategy in bringing down crime. In banning chewing gum and setting a $700 fine for spitting gum on the streets in Singapore, it was the same principle and the result was the same.

The question most frequently asked is: How do we instill order and engender integrity in our society? The answer is simple: It starts with us as individuals and in our homes with our families. And it all boils down to discipline which is an act of imposing will over feelings, emotions, convenience. When you choose to do what is right, over what feels good, easy or convenient, you are helping to build a good society. It is not easy, but it is doable. Solo did it.

Another virtue for which Solo was well known is Integrity which is the quality of being honest (another value) and having strong moral principles. Integrity also means to be whole and undivided, for it shares the same root as the word “integer” or whole number. In addition to honesty, integrity is about the consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations and outcomes. We hear the word integrity so much in our society that it has lost its meaning. Almost every corporate organization’s core values use the word integrity. Yet that does not stop them from bending the rules to make a profit. With Solo, he was undivided in his principles. He was honest, he was fair and he was disciplined. He was truly a man of integrity.

Let me share a funny anecdote that exemplifies this trait: I remember the first day I met him. I had a meeting with President Olusegun Obasanjo at the Villa, and the President was returning from a game of squash with his aides. Everyone looked gloomy and I asked what was going on. Apparently, Solo had dared to play a match against the Commander-in-Chief, which he (Solo) had won. I understand that in the military, it was not appropriate for a junior ranking officer to defeat his superior. But Solo said to me, ‘What’s the point of playing the game if not to give your best’. Fair point! But, I am not sure such an event repeated itself during the rest of his tenure as ADC. This is to show you the kind of man he was. What would Nigeria be if everyone lived and operated in accordance to their convictions!
What we can take from the foregoing is that there is a strong connection between the individuals and the society. We may not all have the same moral principles, but if Christians were really Christians, if Muslims were really Muslims, we would not have such moral decay in our society. Even without religion, if we simply followed and enforced the rule of law, life would be better for everyone. An orderly society is a progressive one. It is in a place of order where man can think, and dream. When a BBC reporter suggested that the Chewing Gum ban and other draconian laws (such as mandatory flushing of public toilets) would stifle the people’s creativity in Sinagpore, Lee Kuan Yew retorted: “If you can’t think because you can’t chew, try a banana.”

In Nigeria, we must have heard people say, ‘we travel abroad, we can stand in a queue, we can wait our turn, why do we behave like animals when we return home?’. People out there are not more patient than Nigerians; they have to behave because they are well aware that there are consequences for breaking the rule. Unfortunately, on our shores, the pact between the State and Society has been broken – there is mutual distrust. For this country to truly transition from developing to leading, we need our leaders to be like Solo or put in another way, we need more people like Solo in leadership positions.

However, even as we celebrate Solo, I do not mean to paint the picture of a saint. In his position as ADC, it is fair to assume that many people approached him to curry favour. The ADC is a man who has access to the president and in a milieu where there is a strong system of patronage; he must have exercised the authority of his rank. To my knowledge, Solo did not abuse the system, even when he did take advantage of it but for public good. Let me give one example here and it was something I observed: a senior officer was redeployed into a lower position and a junior officer promoted into a position that gave him seniority over the former, based on the Nigerian factor, as we call it. The moment Solo heard about it, he used his influence to redress the injustice.

Whether in military matters, issues pertaining to the office of the President, and even in matters of Federal policy, Solo pursued justice and fairness. While his loyalty to his boss, as a military man, was unquestionable, there were also moments of sharp disagreement such that with time, he earned the respect of the President and everyone else. I can recall several interactions with Solo while he was alive, that had to do with reflections on the alternative. We would ponder on the question, ‘What if we had gone this way instead of that’. Some may consider this as nothing but fruitless musings but the whole point of history is to learn from it, so we can do better in the future.

Solo didn’t just argue or disagree based on his personal opinions or ideas. Solo would keep himself informed of all matters on the President’s desk. I believe he went above and beyond what was required in his job, to be the most effective ADC to the sitting President that he could be. He read widely, broadened his mind and educated himself in matters that he was not originally trained in. A reflective thinker, Solo sought wisdom and knowledge that could be applied to the betterment of this country, through his own position.

We may say he was the ADC and given his proximity to the President, of course he could influence change. But what got him there? Values don’t materialize overnight, they are an expression of what you hold dear as a person. He didn’t become this person when he served as ADC. He was already the person I have described, and used the opportunity of being an ADC to make a difference.
As I round up my speech, I have saved my favourite attributes for last, his kindness and generosity. By Nigerian economic measures, and as a Brigadier-General in the Nigerian Army, he was above average, but he lived modestly and gave generously.

Solo adopted his primary school in his village: Sabongida-Ora in Edo State and donated hardware, software, subsidized teacher salaries, and did a lot of fundraising for the school. That school is a beneficiary of many of us that are in this room today. Solo used his position for the good of others.
These days, we read in the papers that many states owe teacher salaries for as many as 28 months! How many of us attended government schools? These are your teachers, these are your schools. How much does a teacher earn? You mean we cannot find it in us to sponsor a teacher? In your hometown or village, what would it take to adopt a school, and do one thing for that school annually? How many lives would be touched? Solo taught many of us to remember the schools from where we emerged and the teachers who taught us in our early days.

In a society that cares so much about public acclaim and confirmation, Solo did all he did quietly. He was who he was and he had nothing to prove to anyone. He left us too soon. But he left behind a legacy of enduring values, which I have shared with you today. It is my hope that Solo’s life would inspire us all to be better. When we die, as we all shall one day, we will have to give account for how we lived. I have given my recollection of Solo’s life, the little I knew of him. Only God knows how his life balanced out. May we all be remembered for our values and the impact we had on people and our society.
While I thank his wife, Judith for sustaining both his memory and legacy, it is comforting that his children are doing very well. May Solo’s legacy endure forever through his primary school, his family and the many people whose lives he touched.

An homage by Fola Adeola, OFR, mni, on the occasion of the 10th year memorial of Solomon Giwa-Amu, in Abuja on 17th February 2018.

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