34 and Not Too Young To Be A Minister (Part 1) – Dr Nuruddeen Muhammad

The next call was from the then Governor of Jigawa State Dr Sule Lamido (CON). His voice was a familiar one. We had been in touch all week. He apparently was busy to ensure that call from Abuja came through. "Nura, did they call you?", he enquired. "Yes Sir, they just did" I responded. I was and still am very formal with him. He wished me luck and we bade each other farewell.

The total exclusion of the youths in the latest round of Ministerial appointments, and the conversation that had generated, especially among young Nigerians, has elicited in me very deep personal reflections on my nomination eight years ago as a Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria at the young age of 34yrs. That nomination is now inarguably not only the appointment of the youngest person, but also that of the only youth into the Federal Executive Council since the return of democracy 20yrs ago.

In this two part series, I intend to recollect real life events in that very symbolic journey, and my personal analysis of their significance, in order to stimulate a collective national reflection around this stunted youth representation at the apex decision making body in the country. In the end, I hope it makes a compelling case for a more robust youth participation and mentorship at the highest level of governance in the land.

It was a Saturday morning, the 2nd of July, 2011 when my phone rang. I was expecting the call….

“Hello, my name is Mr T.M.” A polite and professional voice had said. “I am calling from the DSS headquarters in Abuja. The President and Commander- In-Chief of The Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has forwarded your name for security screening as a Ministerial nominee. You are expected at our head office in Abuja by Monday for the exercise. Accept my congratulations please.” He concluded.
A Minister? In Nigeria? I was only 34 and just a Senior Registrar with Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital in Kano for God’s sake!

The next call was from the then Governor of Jigawa State Dr Sule Lamido (CON). His voice was a familiar one. We had been in touch all week. He apparently was busy to ensure that call from Abuja came through. “Nura, did they call you?”, he enquired. “Yes Sir, they just did” I responded. I was and still am very formal with him. He wished me luck and we bade each other farewell.

Sule Lamido had met me about three years earlier. Like many who would be reading this, he had read my writing sometimes in August 2008 in one of the national dailies and had sent for me. We discussed the contents of my article, and he asked me where I was working and requested that I collect his personal mobile from one of his aides and keep in touch. In the course of those three 3yrs, we exchanged alot of text messages, spoke directly three times on phone, and met on about five occasions before he asked for my CV through an aide in April 2011.

Lamido has a very sophisticated mind. A month to that phone call from the DSS, he had requested to see me about twice. The first, I guess was to prepare my mind in a very general way. He told me that he had observed I was a good young man who made no pretences and that whatever was to happen in the future, I should maintain that quality and remain myself. Though very uplifting and inspiring as well, such a statement was quite vague, and at best very non specific too. But when dealing with Sule Lamido, especially at that level, one has to also learn to deal with the suspense or the ‘culture of surprise’ as he would prefer to call it himself.

He was however very direct when he sent for me the second time. “You are going to be appointed the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs” he had said calmly. “I thought I should tell you first before they call you from Abuja”, he added. I was DAZED. No lobby, No family ties, No big family name, No political debt to pay or any capital to make! And as I was to learn over the course of the last 8yrs, not even a single string attached either. To what end? I was to learn the answer later.

Our capacity and character as young people in leadership has of recent came under very serious national scrutiny. The scandals involving certain elected young officials in Abuja and one other state were used by not a few to weave a very convenient narrative that our young men and women could indeed be too exuberant to hold sensitive positions in government and lead responsibly. I must humbly beg to disagree with this generalisation however.

First, we can’t use the extreme behaviours of a few young people to label an already side lined demographic group. Yes, agreed the youths may be more prone to erratic behaviours and therefore would need guided and supervised entry into power, but our weakest links cannot be our reference points. For if indeed the irresponsibility of some key members of a demographic group justifies the group to earn such a label, then the ruling class, from 1999 to date, would have lost every legitimacy to leadership and power.

Secondly, my unusual experience as a young cabinet member has taught me that there are indeed huge untapped reserves of leadership potentials, sincerity, vigour and modernity within the youth demography of our nation that are waiting to be identified, assimilated, and mentored into leadership roles. But like with diamond and other mineral deposits, these strategic reserves will still remain untapped if there aren’t those selfless mentors who would deliberately identify, explore, exploit and process those latent capabilities. This perhaps would have been a more coherent argument and advocacy for more youths involvement in power and politics than the sterile ‘not too young to run’ national frenzy that was to ultimately die on arrival.

And as Lamido was to tell me later, my appointment was deliberate and strictly based on its merit. He added that when he first read an article I wrote three years earlier, it occurred to him that I had potentials that could be mentored for future leadership responsibilities. He concluded that as a former Foreign Minister himself, he found the Foreign Ministry an ideal ground for leadership training.

I am about four years younger than Lamido’s eldest child. That, in addition to his unconditional commitment to make a leader out of me, has created a strong ‘father-son’ like bond between the two of us that in some aspects of our relationship is to transcend that of natural birth. I have never praised him publicly for this and have hardly ever thanked him in words either. No words could anyway. I instead commit to never disappoint him by being that model of youth in leadership he had desired of me. No less.

But then, Abuja is a manifestly fake and pretencious city in not only it’s appearances but in dynamics and bureaucracy as well. The monetization policy, about half a decade earlier, had made things extremely difficult for civil servants, and even some top government appointees and elected officials who must inhabit the city to run the country. Government is no longer directly responsible for the accommodation and vehicle needs of even it’s ministers. That was, and still is the reality of the capital city that I had to settle into.

It has been eight years since, but I still marvel at the power of the contradictions and even the audacity of a system that would want to entrust as much responsibility on a group and yet leave them as materially desperate….

To be continued..

Happy 59th Independence Anniversary Nigeria

Dr Nuruddeen Muhammad is
Former Minister of State Foreign Affairs & Supervising Minister of Information
Founder Unik Impact Foundation


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