‘On such a full sea are we now afloat…’ – A Letter to the President-Elect

Mr President,

I really don’t understand what it means to ‘stand on existing protocol’. Nevertheless, I will go ahead and stand on existing protocol.

1. On the day that Deng Xiaoping became leader of China in 1978, he was just under 75 years old. Between 1980 and 2010, China lifted 680 million people out of poverty. There can be no doubt about it — Deng Xiaoping’s reforms which opened up China’s economy played the biggest part in the stunning transformation of that country.

At a mere 72 years old; age cannot be an excuse for you. You’ve wanted this job for so long anyway. Now, it’s showtime

2. Between 1870 and 1910, over a million Swedes (around 20% of the country’s population at the time) abandoned Sweden for a new life in America. They left a country that was a pretty poor and dark place and suffering repeated crop failures, for the chance of a better life in America.

In 1870, Sweden had a GDP Per Capita of less than $1,500 — not far from where Nigeria was before our GDP rebasing. Today, their GDP per Capita is over $60,000. By the numbers, it has gone from a poor country to a very rich country in just over 100 years.

All of that transformation — from a country people were fleeing to a magnet for immigrants today — happened while Sweden has been a democracy. It is fashionable for people to yearn longingly for an authoritarian ruler in the fashion of Lee Kwan Yew who will drag his country to prosperity. But just as it is never reported on the news when aeroplanes land safely, no one really talks about countries that have gone from poverty to wealth while being democracies.

The excuse that being a democracy makes it hard or impossible for economic reform and development cannot be valid. It can be done. And you must stay within the powers granted you by the constitution – they are there for a reason, mainly to protect the people from the raw naked power of your office.

Nigeria has chosen the path of democracy. There is no longer room for any type other of government. This is what we have and it is what we will develop with, come hell or high water.

3. A few days after General Park Chung-hee took power in South Korea in 1961, he began to arrest a number of businessmen and crony capitalists under a law known as ‘Special Measure for the Control of Illicit Profiteering’. An old prison in Seodaemun which had been used by the Japanese during their occupation of South Korea, was converted to a special prison for crony capitalists and businessmen who had benefitted immensely from the previous government.

To all intents and purposes, it was an anti-corruption crackdown by General Park. But that was only half the story.

A few months after taking power, General Park published a book titled ‘Our Nation’s Path: Ideology of Social Reconstruction’. The book promised a ‘miracle on the Han River’ and building up South Korea into a ‘mammoth economic strength’.

Taken together, General Park did not launch an anti-corruption just for the sake of it. He did it to bully those who might otherwise have been enemies of progress, into supporting his vision of turning South Korea into a ‘mammoth economic power’. The threat of prison was enough to turn rent seekers into manufacturers and exporters in short order.

Yes, a big part of why you have been elected is to get a handle on the corruption which has decayed our country and now threatens to bring the whole structure down. But simply waging war against corruption without a vision of where the country should be going will become no more than a moral crusade. Being tough on corruption will give you a massive chance of pushing through the reforms needed to unleash the animal spirits of the Nigerian economy and put the country on the path to economic development.

General Park’s grand vision was to turn South Korea into an exporting economy. By the time he had finished dealing with the crony capitalists under the guise of anti-corruption, the results were good enough for him to declare, in 1964, every November 30th as ‘Korea National Export Day’. Today, there are few countries on earth you will visit where you won’t find Korean phones, electronics, cars or even ships. And General Park has been dead since 1979.

Chart a new course for this country so that the crooks you want to set straight (most of whom are much younger than you), simply don’t go and hide somewhere waiting for you to leave the scene so they can return the country to ‘business as usual’. If you punish a particular type of behaviour, you must promote an alternative that will be there long after you have left office.

4. The fact that an idea has been tried several times and failed woefully each time does not mean that someone will not attempt it again. Failure, after all, is relative – that something has failed millions of Nigerians does not mean that it has not been an unqualified success for the select few benefitting from that failure.

Between 1958 and 1961, around 36 million people died of hunger and physical abuse in China as a result of the Great Famine brought about by Chairman Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’. Partly to cover up the failure of the policies that led to that famine, Mao doubled down and launched the Cultural Revolution which ran from 1966 to 1976 and persecuted millions of real and perceived enemies.

Yet, after Mao died and Deng Xiaoping took over, there were still many many people who wanted to continue his failed policies perhaps because changing course would mean an admission that they had failed. It fell upon Deng to find reformers and back them with all his political will. Some felt the economic reforms were too radical, others felt they were too timid. Chen Yun was a respected economist that Deng could not afford to alienate – he fell into the former camp of those who were skeptical about reforms. But there was also Zhao Ziyang who was very critical of Mao’s policies and was a proponent of bold agricultural reforms. He received the backing of Deng and his agricultural reforms were so successful that Chinese people came up with a saying ‘yao chi liang, zhao Ziyang‘ translated as ‘If you want to eat, look for Ziyang’. The people who had previously starved to death under Mao, knew exactly what they were talking about.

In the end, the anti-reform crew got to Ziyang but by then it was too late to reverse his reforms.

Mr President, you must never run out of political will with which to back the Ziyangs in your government. The change we need in Nigeria goes beyond simply changing the government or ruling party. We desperately need reforms of our laws and how our government sets about tackling the issues plaguing the country. Reform will never be easy (an outgoing minister even reckons some things are unreformable in Nigeria), but you must try. And you must never stop. You must find and protect your Ziyangs before the enemies of progress get to them.

We must acknowledge that we are backward, that many of our ways of doing things are inappropriate and that we need to change

Those were the words of Deng on the day he took office. The result is there for all to see.

5.  You have wanted to be President since 2003. The problem is that, depending on how one looks at it, the problems you wanted to solve in 2003 are now bigger and more complex. It is now when the problems – of insecurity and corruption and economic mismanagement – have gotten out of hand, that Nigerians have, perhaps in desperation, called you.

There are several things this tells us. One is that as long as the problems were ‘manageable’, Nigerians did not need your services. People who behave in this way are likely to get impatient very quickly. It has only been about 2 weeks since Fulani herdsmen attacked a community in Benue State, killing 80 people. It is this same state that you, a Fulani man, just won in the election. Our country is desperate to do better and it has called on you to do the job.

The job is going to be incredibly difficult bordering on the impossible and frankly, it would have been better for you to have been elected in 2003 when some of these issues hadn’t compounded to where they are now.

And yet, as of today, there is nothing stopping you from ending your time in office as Nigeria’s greatest ever leader. The slate is currently blank.

Draw inspiration from another man who, by the time he had finished his 8 years in office as his country’s President, was freely being referred to as ‘the best President ever’ by his countrymen. He increased the average number of years each child spent in school from 5 to 8 years. The number of homes with a functioning and proper connection to the sewage system increased from 37% to 51% under his watch and the number of homes with washing machines went from 24% to 44% of the country’s total. The percentage of the population living in poverty dropped from 32% to 15% in his 8 years in office. That percentage drop translated to 20 million people who were able to move up out of the indignity of poverty and participate in the country’s economy.

Like you, he only won the presidential election at the 4th attempt in 2002 after trying and failing in 1989, 1994 and 1998.

His name of course is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.


Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī has been called the greatest Muslim scholar in history by very serious people. One of his most celebrated works was his ‘Book of Counsel for Kings‘ in the classic Arabian tradition of ‘mirrors for Princes’. Here’s a quote:

nothing is more damaging to the subjects and prejudicial and sinister to the King than royal inaccessibility and seclusion; and nothing impresses the hearts of the subjects and functionaries more than ease of access to the King. For when the subjects know the King is easily approachable, it will be impossible for the officials to oppress the subjects and for the subjects to oppress one another

In the same tradition, another Muslim scholar, Nizam al-Mulk wrote to the Sultan of Shah in 1091 describing how Persian monarchs ensured they did not deviate from the work of serving their people:

According to the books of our ancestors, Kings would hold court out of doors, seated on horseback atop a tall platform so as to distinguish from among all the people gathered in the plain those who were suffering oppression and to give them justice. The reason for this custom was that once a King retires to a residence where doors abound, and barriers and vestibules and hallways and gates, men of ill-will and perversity can bar people’s entrance and keep them from lodging complaints with him.

How you choose to govern such that you are not captured behind doors and vesitbules and hallways and gates, will require plenty of wisdom. But it must be done. Some say this is one of the main reasons you have just kicked Goodluck Jonathan out of office. It will be utterly depressing if you fall victim to the same disease.


I am not aware that it is possible to campaign in back to back elections on the theme of change. That is, though you have won the elections by campaigning for change, in 4 years time, you will be on the receiving end of the change message while you convince Nigerians of the need for continuity. ‘Twas ever thus, Mr President.

My friend Osita Nwoye – a believer long before I was one – and one of the most committed people to your cause I have ever met put it best a few days ago:

I got some ‘congratulatory’ messages too and all I did was tweet and make a few phone calls on your behalf.

Now that we have seen that it is possible to unseat a President from office for non-performance, I am afraid that this has put a limit on the amount of intellectual dishonesty that is possible in your defence even by your die-hard fans.

I wish you all the very best. ‘Life is to be entered upon with courage’ as Alexis de Tocqueville once said.


25 thoughts on “‘On such a full sea are we now afloat…’ – A Letter to the President-Elect

  1. The General has too leave his mark, but first we must have his vision and that vision must be propagated across the nation. And pls no vision 2020 type of stuffs. Vision and how we would get there. God bless nigeria

  2. Love the post. Thanks for the Ghazali link ( nice to read something other Macchiaveli’s The Prince and particularly something from Arabic/Middle Eastern literature).

  3. Well written as always, but I wished you listed specific legislative priorities that he should prosecute once he’s in office.

    I’d like him to ensure the PIB is passed as a starter in addition to deregulation of the gas sector. The government mandated price of $2.5 per mcf simply makes production and distribution to turbines not viable. So we continue to flare instead of using it to run electricity generating plants.

    Education reform is also needed. I would like to see a version of the Teach for America program at the elementary and secondary level in Nigeria in addition to rebuilding our schools’ infrastructure. At the tertiary level, I frankly don’t even know where to begin. The rot is deep. Many of our graduates are simply unemployable. For sure though, the NYSC needs to go the way of the Dodo. I’d rather a Graduate Entrepreneurial Loan Scheme instead where low interest loans are given to graduates to establish SMEs. Lower rates would be given to those from urban regions whopropose to establish SMEs in rural regions as an incentive.

    I’d like to see what I call a “Nigeria Back to Work” bill which would be similar to FDR’s New Deal. This would encompass the Agricultural, Infrastructural (roads, bridges, housing) and tourism sectors using a public-private partnership.

    Land reform should also be a domestic legislative priority for reasons you’ve gone into detail about previously.

    Tackling BH and general insecurity is of course obvious. But the solution to that is as much economic as it is military.

    In a nutshell, I want a government that just does enough to allow the Nigerian people unleash their potential rather than standing in their way.

    The guy get work man. When you look at the issues we have to solve, only someone who’s a little bit nuts can implement the kind of creative entropy that the likes of Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kwan Yew did. I really wish him luck.

  4. Mr Feyi, this is thought-provoking, educative and a bit emotional. General Buhari needs some very harsh measures to take out vested interests entirely. Two popular oil-subsidy profiteers rushed to congratulate him on the days the results were declared. I’m waiting to see how he would deal with this rent seekers.
    Very great article as always.. I need an article on the effect of cashless policy on naira devaluation please. Thanks and God bless!

  5. I quite enjoyed your article especially the bit about Luiz da Silva. The article draws ones attention to the many issues that have beleaguered our country and how much work is needed to get things sorted. Really, really wish our president-elect can read this!

  6. Nigeria will one day be the standing Giant of Africa. With people who have your kind of thought process… oh, I am too hopeful for the future.
    As you said…..Buhari must not fail us ooo.

  7. Pingback: ‘On such a full sea are we now afloat…’ – A Letter to the President-Elect | oladapokolawole

  8. Pingback: ‘On such a full sea are we now afloat’ – A Letter to the President-Elect [MUST READ] - The Sheet

  9. Very good write up….GMB must by now be aware of the overall expectations of the people from him and it will be the basis for engaging him and his party in d next 4 years. I wish him well and pray God to give him d vision and the strength to fulfil the dream of great many Nigerians who trooped out to vote him in

  10. Thanks a lot this is right On point! we sure hope he reads this and many others so as to prepare him for the work ahead,it is not “jollof ” at all.

  11. Great vision and very in depth. Going through the entire length, I ended up not envying the President-elect. However, I remember the saying of our elders: ogbon ologbon ni a ki fi pe agba ni were. If the general take to this principle, it would help him.
    Thank you for this beautiful message to our President-elect. It could not have come at a better time.

  12. The problem of Nigeria before the emergence of democracy was bad leadership on the side of military heads of state. The decadence of the military regime in decades deepened as Nigeria aged.

    The problem of Nigeria at present is not the leading leader but the following leaders and citizens of direct influence on government policies and programmes.

    Changing the leading leader is just a catalytic bit out of the massive lump if only the leader realises that. Because this is democracy, the president-elect needs to understand this simple but vital principle.

    Enemies of his administration are not foreigners nor are they in the opposition party but his own people who foresaw their end and took a swift measure to rally round him during campaign so that they can appaear as his ever-present loyalists.

    First, he should be constructive in his anti-corruption crusade such that it will outlive his administration and become part of the system. Second, he should come up with goals to achieve about what to do to build Nigeria else the 4years will only end with a round of beating the air – when people are told not to steal, they will end up stealing if there is no alternative.

  13. The danger of drawing cursory lessons from other countries is missing the intricacies of political and historical context. A common theme that played a role in quite a lot of the success stories of the East Asian countries (South Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan) was the experience and humility of military defeat or occupation. Indeed, several of the leaders of these countries personally experienced or had memories of the brutality of Japanese occupation and post 1950 exploited increased American anti-communist military activity and interest in the region to attract significant export-based American investment to grow their economies to deter against future security threats. For the Chinese which imagined itself as the beginning and end of the world a few centuries ago, the 20th century was about recovering what was lost and resetting itself back to the heights of where it believed it belonged. However, Deng Xiaoping realized far earlier than many of his Communist Party colleagues that while China had military power it was only sustainable with economic power and he drew on the successes of Singapore and Taiwan to lay the basis for economic resurgence.

    For Nigeria, creating the requisite system of institutions and leadership for economic success requires far more than just copying models from elsewhere. It requires a foundation grounded in local context and that postitions itself to smartly take advantage of the unique opportunities of globalization. As a start, while Nigeria aspires to be America, it is not and cannot be. Nigeria is not an immigrant nation but is first and foremost a cobbling of ethnic powers. So the ethnic political identity and interest which has consistently displayed itself in every election since 1960 must be built on and not denied. The idea of of six geopolitical zones for stronger leadership and institutional building makes sense. But it requires commitment not by allocating offices at the federal level to zones but by devolving more significant functions and resources to those zones. The share of the oil revenue should be reversed with the federal government holding onto 35%. In exchange, the FGN should shift some of its budgetary responsibilities to the zones. For example the police should be reconstituted on federal and state lines. Federal universities, schools and hospitals should be owned and operated at the zonal level with the states in those zones responsible for their funding. The FGN should then be the coordinating unit with a far leaner structure (one house rather than two in the legislature) and devoted to international representation, economic management, national security and defense and infrastructure. Finally, they should scrap the zonal requirement of composition of members of the executive to ensure merit and competency.

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