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President Buhari, You Own The Sheets Now

Mistakes will be made but it is important that they are not through lowering of standards or political and moral compromises

Muyiwa Adetiba

Three years ago in far-away America, a General like our General Buhari who found himself in politics at the highest level, wrote an interesting book on leadership. His name is Colin Powel, a four-star general of the US army, a former Secretary of State and a one-time aspirant to the world’s most coveted seat.

Titled ‘It Worked For Me’, this best seller is a compilation of the experiences and lessons learnt during his illustrious public life, especially ‘The thirteen Rules’ which had shaped his life and career.

In chapter 26, he gave a simple, two-page account of what used to happen in the days before computerization when a new commander took over a rifle company. ‘Before assuming command of the company’, he said ‘the new commander and the outgoing commander would conduct an inventory of all the property.

Every rifle, bunk, chair, desk, sheet and pillow had to be accounted for. If anything was missing, the outgoing commander had to search for it and find it, pay for it or seek relief through a process known as “Report of Survey”. The instructive part is that after this hand over, you had a short period of grace to discover any discrepancies. Once this window of grace was over, you became totally responsible and any shortage or discrepancy became your problem.

The US army in Colin Powel’s days had a phrase for it. ‘After 30 days, you own the sheets’. It is a clear, stark way of passing the baton and responsibility. A retired, former CEO of a multinational company once told me of the time he took over from a white boss.

The handover notes had been processed and studied. Then on the second day in his new office, an incident happened with the unions and he picked up the phone with the intention of calling his boss. That was when he realized there was nobody else to call. The final decision had to be taken by him. He ‘now owned the sheets’.

For our brand new President, the transition period is over. He had two months of it. The prefix ‘General’ has now been changed to ‘President’. And with that, the full responsibility, the full weight of the governance of the geographical entity called Nigeria.An illustration of where the buck now stops and the expectation of what comes with it, is the tongue in cheek whatsApp message that went out shortly after the inauguration. ‘President Buhari was sworn in two hours ago.

How come I still don’t have fuel?’ it said. There are many underlying messages to this simple text. One is the height of expectation. We all know that our fuel distribution flow was mismanaged; that our energy situation has been mismanaged. So have many areas of our national life. The message is; you who promised change should bring positive changes fast. We do not want excuses.

The second message is that the clock is ticking. The magical first 100 day tranche is now depleted. It was less than two hours when the text went out. It is less eight days now. Every day depletes the good will that came with the new government. And speaking of goodwill, Colin Powel had an answer in the same chapter for those who have just taken over the reins of authority.

It is called, ‘The Three Envelopes Construct’. In this scenario, the outgoing leader gives the new leader three envelopes labelled ‘Envelope 1’, ‘Envelope 2’ and ‘Envelope 3’, and tells him to open them in order when he runs into trouble. The new leader launches into a blaze of glory and rides huge waves of goodwill. After a while, the goodwill runs thin and he finds himself in trouble.

He opens the 1st envelope and the note says; ‘Blame me’. So he goes around complaining about the mess he inherited and possibly how incompetent and corrupt his predecessor was. After a while, he notices things are not moving as anticipated and he opens the 2nd envelope. The notes says; ‘Reorganize’. So he goes into frenzy and starts moving people and boxes around. He creates a new paradigm which looks exciting.

Everyone is distracted. The new paradigm looks exciting but nothing is solved and everyone is confused. Confused that things are not working so well and people’s patience is wearing thin, he opens the 3rd envelope. The note says: ‘Prepare three envelopes’. The import of this is that the period of goodwill is not forever and the blame game wears thin after a while.

You are also not going to be there forever so take the unpleasant decisions that need to be taken early enough but think them through so that they do not create a bigger mess. Mistakes will be made but it is important that they are not through lowering of standards or political and moral compromises. Whatever happens, have a standard below which you do not want to drop and a set of principles around which you operate.

With these, it will be easier to explain to godfathers and political jobbers if they do not meet your cut off line. An illustration comes from a CEO of a top three bank who found himself in a dilemma some years ago. His bank was not growing as fast as the managers they were producing and he knew they had to let some go to avoid de-motivation.

He went to meet a mentor who happened to be a guru in HR. He advised him to have a set of conditions and guidelines that must be strictly adhered to if he didn’t want to have a greater personnel problem. Fortunately, he heeded the advice and earned the respect of management and the rank and file when some of his favourite officers didn’t meet the cut off line and had to be released.

His saving grace was that he operated on rules of competence, fairness, justice and a level playing field. Back to our President. The part that resonated most with the people in his acceptance speech was when he said ‘I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody’. It allayed the fears of those who think he might be held captive by those who contributed to his emergence as President.

He might need to do a constant balancing act between what party big wigs want and what his instinct dictates. I have always found that it is better to have core principles and rules that are logical, rational, transparent and fair to all. Those who helped him get there deserve to be gratified. That’s the nature of politics. But it’s not their administration. For good or ill, it will always be remembered as ‘the Buhari government’. So take charge and be in charge. Remember, ‘You now own the sheets’.

•Adetiba, a veteran journalist, wrote in from Lagos.

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