Last week, I began a series on power which was to be in two parts. The first part focused on the over 40 years of epileptic POWER supply our nation has endured mostly due to a lack of effective leadership. I opined that the fight against corruption could not be won in darkness because light everywhere will take people away from poverty and enable Nigeria become once again a member of the League of Nations.
This week, I will continue the engagement I started last week with ‘we’ the people of this country on the issue of power. Today’s column however will be about a different kind of power. Taking from my 4th book, “hunger for power” which was launched to commemorate my 80th birthday; I refer to power as a whole multitude of things, from influence to impact; ambition to change.
When people hear ‘power’ they think immediately of position or an office but power is a range of different things. Power is many things to many people. It is like fire. On one hand, it can give you light while on the other hand, it can burn you. It can cook you a meal to perfection or it can raze your house completely leaving only ashes behind. It can purify gold and can just as easily calcify a human being.
However, what fascinates me about power is what it does, its ability to change lives, influence outcomes, and sometimes destroy destinies. That fascination is what birthed my book and inspired the writing of this article; a deep desire to make sense of all this and gain a little insight into the origins and workings and impact of power on men and women, people and nations.
I remember an advert I saw many years ago for Pirelli Tyres. It was a simple Ad but it packed a punch. It said simply: ‘Power Is Nothing without Control.’ That Ad, which featured legendary Olympian, Carl Lewis, made it to the front pages of newspapers across the globe, won many awards, and was even included in a book – ‘The 100 Best Posters of the Century’. It was to put mildly, a powerful Advert.
In ancient Greece, fire was regarded as the most potent symbol of power and that was why when Prometheus approached Zeus and asked to be allowed to take fire to the people Zeus refused. Consumed by his belief that fire would make men happier and change the course of their lives, Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to men. Then he paid dearly for his action.
This has been the lot of many men for centuries, men who hankering after power have sought it with all the resources at their disposal only to destroy lives and careers along the way of their mad quest for power. Think about them; Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin Dada, Saddam Hussein, Muamar Ghadaffi and many others still living even in our country, Nigeria. They sought power, they obtained it and it destroyed them but not just them alone.
The most humbling contemporary tale of power sought, obtained and handled deftly must be that of Nelson Mandela. Mandela, not a saint by any stretch of the imagination, fought for his people’s freedom, spent 27 years in jail, was released and then elected the first president of newly independent South Africa.
But then after just one term in office, a man who spent 27 years in jail waiting for the very thing he had obtained, stepped down from power and handed over without rancor.
Mandela’s selflessness and exemplary leadership has been hailed the world over, but what continues to interest and intrigue me is his lack of avarice; that consuming hunger for power – to obtain it, to wield it and not to let go of it.
I will like to explain the similarities in the power I discussed last week and the one I refer to in this article. Both have the intensity to create change, to better lives and to solve problems if supplied in the right amount and through the appropriate channel; however, both seem to be lacking in my country. A clear example of how we see power can be culled from a story I told in my book, ‘Hunger for Power.’
Growing up as a child in Akwukwu-Igbo, I came to the quick realization that there was something powerful about uniforms, but I didn’t fully comprehend what it was exactly until much later in life. But I could see even then that men or women in uniform always got plenty of attention. They did not just exude formality and officialdom, they also seemed to wield some sort of power and it did not matter whether they were policemen or soldiers, court messengers or sanitary inspectors.
Their uniforms seemed to transform and imbue them with power beyond the ordinary. Till date, put a man in uniform and watch him transform into something different, no matter whether he is guarding a bank, an embassy, or a fast food outlet.
I had a unique experience with a uniform once and it will help underline my thesis about uniforms and power. My uncle, Lawrence Meme, a retired policeman, had just died and as we prepared for his burial, his family suggested that because he had retired as a Commissioner he should be given full honours by the police during his burial.
He had achieved national prominence once, when he was made acting governor of Plateau State in place of Gomwalk. He was also a national honours recipient.
So, I went to the police headquarters in Obalende to see the Inspector General of Police. I told him about my uncle and his family’s wish to see him buried with full honours. After confirming the detail, he handed me over to his deputy, AIG Ugbuaja, who was asked to liaise with me in making the arrangements.
I was given a full ceremonial uniform complete with a hat and epaulets and all. I took the uniform and set off for home.
Back then, I went home to Delta state quite a lot, and I usually went by road on those trips. Now, in those days, you would encounter almost 20 police checkpoints between Lagos and Akwukwu-Igbo. It used to be a nightmare and frequent cause of delays. Sadly, many years later, I am told that not much has changed.
On the day I was driving home for my uncle’s burial, I hung the ceremonial uniform at the back of the car and drove off. That trip turned out to be an eye opener and a primer on uniforms and power. With the uniform hung out at the back, I drove through all the checkpoints without anyone stopping me.
Once they sighted the uniform, the policemen at the checkpoints would snap to attention, salute and wave me on. Not one asked me who I was or what I was doing with a police uniform.
It was an amazing lesson in power, especially the power of the uniform; which was quite obvious on my way back; days after my uncle had been buried in his uniform with a 21-gun salute. This time, I was stopped at every checkpoint and my nightmare was back.
I had lost my talisman- the uniform, and my power was gone.
Nigeria is a country where those in power see it as a way to make their lives better and not a responsibility to work for those that bestow on them the power.