An Evening With General Ishola Williams

 Not too long ago, I promised never to share company with well-known Nigerians whenever they are in London, England. The rule applies particularly to current and former government officials: State Governors, Ministers and State Commissioners. I am of no relevance that they want to share my company. The decision is predicated on a bizarre experience of going to "say hello" to a current State Governor. I blame myself for the hopeless enterprise and absolve the governor for a lesson, which though was unintended but well delivered. Since that "visit", it is not out of irascibility that I refuse to meet a visiting governor. My reason is simply that I meet more civilised men and women of diverse and higher stations than many of our State Governors. In fact, shortly after my experience with that governor, I visited a noble Lord in the British House of Lords for Lunch and was shocked to see the noble Lord who is a friend of Nigeria and the Nigerian president awaiting my arrival at the entrance of the British House of Lords.

A date with General Ishola Williams can decently be compared to the experience with the British noble Lord. But Ishola Williams is not British; he is morally better than that governor; and has occupied the Nigerian space without suspicions of scandals. He is a Nigerian, who served the nation meritoriously. Retired and serving officers of the Nigeria Armed Forces advise he symbolises honesty, accountability and discipline - a rare virtue in present day Nigeria. Unlike the serving governor who kept me waiting needlessly, whilst he watched television in an adjacent room – General Williams is unassuming and does not fit the mode of a very important Nigerian personality.

When we arranged to meet – his offer was for an "afternoon - if it was convenient". I was stunned that a retired Nigerian General wanted to meet at our mutual convenience. No Orders or Platitude as to why the meeting had to be at his convenience. His humility was mostly convincing. I offered we met after my working hours – to my surprise – he agreed. Is this General Williams from another planet? Did his Spacecraft "miss" road and landed in Nigeria? When I telephoned and he was busy – he did not utter that usual and irritating Nigerian triteness - "I am busy, call me back later." He regretted that he could not attend me immediately and promised to return my call. And at no time at all, he did as promised. I was surprised because many people of relevance in Nigeria consider every caller save the ones they worship is after a favour. Even government officials take calls as if they are not employed for the convenience of the public. Oftentimes, impatiently and condescendingly callers are asked to call back when the official "is less busy". How is a caller to know when the official is less busy? This is an indecency that is peculiar to our public service. Even abroad – the same exist in many of our missions. Telephone a Nigerian official – the self-importance of many of them is not lost on you. As a rule – I never call back. I leave my details and request my calls are returned. Do they return the calls? As sure as death, whether relevant or not, they are devoid of mere common decorum and never do. It is true that not all calls can be returned. There must indeed be Information Officers trained to return calls.

Now, back to my encounter with General Ishola Williams. When I arrived at the Hotel, where he stayed – he was seated at the reception awaiting my arrival. As I approached him, I stayed at attention as if I was a "zombie". I was tempted to salute because in many ways, I had come to meet a man who is approachable, yet guards his privacy - so as not to be contaminated by corruption in the Nigerian system and incongruity of others. He is a very thoughtful man; and from his demeanour - he is a man wrestling with the burdens of his fellow denizens. His burden is not only for fellow Nigerians – he wants to tackle problems faced by Diasporans. Also, he is burdened with difficulties faced by fellow Black people. He is a firm believer in the spirit of his race.

As I sat with him - his opening words were complimentary and kind. Hence, there was no need for gasconades. He congratulated me and I told him that I had no success to be proud of. My accomplishment is the gratitude that I owe my mother for her prayers and patience. It is also a debt to all the strangers that have assisted me. I could not return his compliments because where was I to start? I was determined not to talk about his recent experience in public transport; and as a sign of respect, neither he nor me would concentrate on personalities in the Nigerian space. I was not interested in deliberating on persons, the time offered by this Nigerian icon of integrity cannot be wasted because meeting with a person like him is rare.

Why does Ishola Williams deserve encomiums from a writer as polemical as me? Am I singing his praises? Could I sing his praises? As for what he represents and has achieved – I am a minion to offer praises. His life speaks for itself. Could I be seeking favours from him or has "Ghana must go" changed hands for a tainted conscience?

Let me deal with that straightaway. If Ishola Williams is ever your host - it does not take long to realise that he has little money to waste on pleasantries. I shall tickle with this account. Before I arrived at his hotel, he had gone to the corner-shop to buy a bottle of water and a bag of peanuts to offer me as his guest. Note the contradiction. If he could splash money about, he would have ordered a good bottle of wine and not a small bottle of water from the corner shop to drink at the reception of a fairly good hotel. When I asked if he could let me treat him to a good bottle of wine from the Hotel – he smiled and said he does not and has never tasted alcohol and neither does he smoke. I was curious. So, I inquired, if it had to do with his religion. No, it has nothing to do with religion - he has never had a need for alcohol nor tobacco. By this time he had gained my confidence like an older brother or an uncle that I have never had. As rascally as I am – I asked if our conversation could continue at the Bar of the Hotel. He smiled and agreed. I wanted to see his reaction, if I drank alcohol in his presence. The man was more than gracious and accommodating – leadership traits absent in the current democratic dispensation. He did not even inquire what I enjoyed in the drink.

Part of our discussion centred on what I call the "Fish-Bowl Experience" - a theory that I developed at University and labelled after its library, which I fondly referred as a Fish Bowl. Once out of boredom, I noticed five students who represented various races of the University student body had come into the library at almost the same time. As each settled down, another set of five students replicating each race arrived at the same time shortly afterwards. To my utmost surprise, the Indians gravitated to each other, the Chinese, Anglo-Saxon, and Koreans each gravitated to their own. The Black boys avoided each other and both wanted to attach to the Anglo Saxon firstly and thereafter to the others but not themselves. I still see the drama repeated often times. Many Black people in opulent surroundings attempt attaching themselves to any other race but theirs.

Ishola Williams desires an attitude change amongst Black people and he believes he could start with professionals in Diaspora – regardless of what countries they come from. He wants Blacks to network each other as other races do. I told him that as laudable as his ambition is, I am sceptical of it. Nevertheless, I conceded that a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. What further impressed me of the man is that he wanted to talk about ideas and ideals – not personalities or frivolities.

He narrated an experience after his military service when he had a burning ambition to set up Africa's finest Institute of Advanced Mathematics, Physics and post-graduate course's in Electronic I.T and Engineering Management. Even though he had the support of an International Organisation - all he needed was 5 Million Naira to establish a Campus. Neither the country nor private individuals supported the project. Consider this: the man was not looking for funds for personal gain. He was not seeking funds for a political office. He identified an Institute teaching Physics in our nation is needed. The fund required was to set up a centre of excellence for young Nigerians because he believes no nation can be developed without producing excellent scientists and technologists who have mastered technology.

So, I asked if his dream was to replicate what India as a good example had done. That country conceptualised its technological advancement at the same time as Ishola Williams conceptualised ours. India invested in her future. We ignored Ishola Williams. Now, we are begging for debt forgiveness; India's revenue from technology alone outstrips the collective total annual national earnings of a few African Nations. How could anyone argue that the retired General did or does not know what he was or is talking about?

Aside for his dream for technological advancement for our nation – retired General Williams believes that African Countries must look at developing their own capital base. And for Nigeria in particular, he is of the view that Governors must be competitive with their human capital and resources in their states without the Federal Government take all and then share system that we now have. To make light of our meeting, I asked what planet he has been living, if he does not know that a few of our State Governors are already creative with revenue allocations for their States and Local Governments. As we had promised not to talk about personalities – quietly, I considered the threat of the current president against State Governors who have misused Local Government funds.

I could not discuss Mr. Obasanjo with Ishola Williams. I left pondering, if Nigerians could agree to expedite an amendment to our Constitution – so as allow arrests of State Governors, who have been "creative" with those funds. Mr. Obasanjo must act quickly to sponsor a referendum for constitution amendment in this regard. These State Governors must not go unpunished. Neither must past and current Local Government Chairmen be spared.

The change, according to him must start at the Municipal level in order to lay a good foundation for open, accountable system of Governance in Nigeria. He advocates reestablishing city and town councils with mayors and no direct funding of State and Municipalities. State and Municipal Governments generate their own revenue from all forms of resources (human and minerals). There will be a Federal Equilisation Fund to assist Governments who need subsidy for infrastructure, development and health only. He gave examples of other true Federal systems in the world. He believes that city and town councils (who generate their own revenues) provide a good foundation for political apprenticeship and a test ground for future governors and presidents.

At that point, I interjected and disagreed. I reminded him that revenue raised by Mayoralties, States or Federal Government from citizens is nothing but another form of taxation. Lagos State is a crude example of the pandemonium waiting to happen. Its taxes are not uniform with any other States in the nation. Admittedly, its revenue laws are autonomous. Apart from visible lack of impact of such revenue collected – the State may in the near future realise its revenue laws are regressive and punitive.

In closing, Ishola Williams may in fact have no answers to the problems of the Black race; and no doubt the myriad difficulties in Nigeria. Nevertheless, I celebrate leaders like him because their ambitions are not personal. They seek the common good. A verdict that I can hardly offer very many other important Nigerian personalities that I have met when on visits to this side of the Pond.

Mr Odutola is a solicitor of the Supreme Court, England and Wales and a Lawyer at a Firm of Solicitors in London, England.

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