Saturday, September 14, 2019

On Seun Onigbinde; Nigeria's Idealistic Idealism


You have argued for government transparency and judicious spending for years. You believe in these principles so much that you quit your job eight years ago to start a company dedicated to these ideals. You care strongly about your country and have criticized the government for its ineptitude. Then a development agency underwrites a position where you can apply your skills in service of your country. You will not change the entire system – of course, but you believe you might make a small difference.

Would you take the position?

Many Nigerians on Twitter seem to think you shouldn’t. Seun Onigbinde has been criticized strongly for accepting a position as Technical Adviser to the Minister of State for Budget and National Planning. Among other things, he is being criticized because he is critical of the current government and has previously said he would not accept an advisory position if he didn’t believe in the President.

I would make the same choice as Seun if I were in his shoes, so I wanted to spend some time thinking through it.

I believe he was right to accept this position, given he is well suited for it and believing he might make a difference. Having been involved in BudgIT’s work for eight years, I can’t think of many Nigerians better suited to work in the budget office. He is not going to fix electricity, build homes, address police brutality, and solve Lagos’s traffic problem. He is not setting out to change the system. He is attempting to make a small difference, and there is a crucial difference there.

I think you can criticize a government for its ineptitude and then work for the same government. We are always looking to balance our ideals with reality, and building the world as it should be often requires us to engage with the world as it is. Of course, we should not expect critical Twitter threads from Seun while he works for the government, but I also don’t expect him to make a 180 degree turn and begin defending everything the government does. He is not an adviser on new media or publicity. He has a specific remit he is well suited for.

Reading through some of tweets yesterday led me to think many Nigerians are very idealistic in their idealism. Criticizing the government is great as we must continue to hold them to high standards, but why should that extend to pulling down people who are trying to make a difference? Isn’t there a conflict here?

Deactivating his Twitter account temporarily was the only blight on the otherwise beautiful process Seun followed. Before the news broke yesterday, I read his Medium post announcing his operational break from BudgIT and the new position. BudgIT will continue to be led by Gabriel Okeowo (who did great during Seun’s previous break for the Obama Foundation) and will remain accountable to a solid advisory board. What else should he have done?

I first read Theodore Roosevelt’s Citizenship in a Republic in the Book of Virtues as a young child. I’ll now close with some of my favourite words from that speech:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Given a chance to make a difference in an area I am skilled at, I would take that chance every time.

Cheers to the weekend!
Koye.

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