Failure of kindness, failure to rescue

Muhammadu Buhari

Muhammadu Buhari

It is a tough time to be upbeat about Nigeria, no doubt. When the senses are assailed by the mind-boggling figures allegedly stolen through all kinds of schemes, the first reaction is disbelief and hope that another country, not yours, is the subject of discussion. When your incredulity is confronted with the evidence of graft at all levels on an unimaginable scale and you see poverty, exacerbated by the current economic recession, walking on all fours in all the four corners of Nigeria, any upwardly journey of the spirit must of necessity take a downward turn.

When all the specifics in “The trouble with Nigeria,” a correct diagnosis of our country by the late Chinua Achebe, have seemingly failed to prepare you for the metastasizing tumours in the body and soul of the country today, you may even be tempted to begin to ponder a life outside or without Nigeria.

But Muhammadu Buhari once said and is still preaching: we have no other country but Nigeria (ChangeBeginsWithMe). So let us stay here and salvage it together from the jaws of savagery.

In my thoughts about salvaging Nigeria and given the selfishness or wickedness that appears to rule in high places, George Saunders, the writer, readily comes to mind with his exhortation that the least any man or woman can do is to ‘err in the direction of kindness.’ “What I regret most in life are the failures of kindness,” he once wrote in a university graduation speech. “Those moments when human beings are suffering and I respond … mildly…”

Apparently, Saunders never imagined any human being in the cast of the Nigerian thieving elite when he penned this, oblivious of the existence of a caliber of mindless kleptocrats for whom enough can never be enough, in whom such a thing as a thought for the people cannot be found.

Kindness? When people are put in positions of authority and power, employed or elected to make people’s lives better, how do they execute the office? When they are called to duty, how do they respond? As witnesses to the people’s suffering, what do they feel? This specie of the looting elite certainly defies description!

No doubt, greed, absence of honour, lack of scruples and a deficit of principles are worn by Nigerian politicians like embroideries on their flowing gowns. Yet a modicum of decency and even a little understanding of the sickness known as primitive accumulation should inoculate them against such avarice as is coming to light these days. Such decency being too much to ask of the locusts in power, a little thought for the people at whose pleasure offices are held and power wielded should at least mitigate this mindlessness, this total failure of kindness.

Well, here we are. Kindness has failed. The country is hemorrhaging. Now in intensive care unit, what would a surgeon do to save Nigeria?
Atul Gawande, an American medical doctor and writer, once reflected on it and found no special difference between the job of a seamstress and his own sophisticated calling as a surgeon. A mender of clothes and a mender of lives are in the same calling: mending! Some modesty, I must say.

The most important skills the best surgeon needs, according to him, include the ability to handle complexities and uncertainties. A good surgeon develops a sound judgment, mastery of teamwork, and willingness to accept responsibility for the consequences of his choices. Therefore, surgery, said Gawande, is not in any way different from a career in tailoring, teaching, public service, business or leadership to the extent that everybody faces complexities and uncertainties, no matter his or her calling! This means each person faces the risk of failure in his or her duty. And, consequently, what everyone needs is the same: development of a capacity for judgment, teamwork and acceptance of responsibility.

Surgery, of course, is a risky business, much more complicated than anything imaginable, for life can be lost with the flimsiest of errors. But in the search for reduction to the risk of things going wrong in surgery, specialisation, better planning and technology have produced remarkable changes in the field to make surgery almost routine and much safer. Yet Gawande asked all to ponder this: why are there still huge differences between hospitals in the outcomes of their operations with some places having far higher death rates than others?

According to him, some researchers discovered the answer not too long ago, an answer which debunked the notion that the best places simply did a better job at controlling and minimizing risks, that they did a better job of preventing things from going wrong. On the contrary, the complication rates after surgery were found to be almost the same as others. Instead, what the more successful hospitals proved to be adept at was rescuing people when they had complications and preventing failures from becoming catastrophic. Which is why scientists have given a new name to the deaths that occur in surgery: A “Failure to Rescue.”

So, in summary, a great surgeon is distinguished from the mediocre not because he failed less. Only that he rescued more.
On which score, it is hard to improve on Gawande’s assertion that this is, indeed, the essence of human and societal improvement. Risk, is a vital part of life. Things can and will sometimes go wrong. But when the preparation for negative possibilities is there, when the capacity is strong to limit the damage and to even rescue success from the claws of failure, life from the clutches of imminent death, a super-star surgeon emerges.

As an almost empty treasury occasioned by profligacy of the past on one hand and current poor oil prices on the other threaten the nation with failure, the surgeon’s story should indeed be the story of Nigeria today. The challenge before the current leadership is to avoid a failure to rescue.

Stretching the Gawande surgery parallel further into governance, in such a situation as Nigeria is in now when there is little money, high expectation, only a few good men and no time; when everything that can go wrong is going wrong, there are three main mistakes to avoid or three ways in which a leader may record a “Failure to Rescue:” a wrong plan, an inadequate plan or no plan at all.

When this government assumed office, it certainly gave the impression of having no plan, appeared surprised at its own luck in winning the office and in belated, even retrospective, preparation for the job now at hand, it set up committees and a cabinet which, hopefully, would redound into a good plan.

Any plan, whether in surgery or in governance, can fail but the certainty of failure when there is no plan is all too assured. With the realities of the office making a mess of all projections, however, what a good leader does is not to whine but re-calibrate, to acknowledge the wrong turn of events so that the failure of his plan has no chance of becoming catastrophic.

So, it is very important to lay out a grand vision and draw up clear policy plans, if Buhari’s committees and kitchen or lounge cabinet have done any such thing. It is equally important to stay alert to the twists and turns which may require adjustments to the plans without compromising the ultimate goal.

That is the only way to succeed at the rescue operation at hand.
Certainly, these times call for unusual courage and boldness. Nigeria is like a patient in the theatre for a life-saving surgery. Risky business. And as Gawande testified, to take a risk, especially in surgery, the surgeon must have confidence, faith in abundance. “You are imperfect. Your knowledge is never complete. The science is never certain. Your skills are never infallible. Yet you must act. You cannot let yourself become paralyzed by fear.”

This must be the mind-set of the Muhammadu Buhari administration if anything would be rescued from the economic wreckage or financial mess of Nigeria.

There has been a terrible wave of consciencelessness over the years, leading to an unprecedented impoverishment of Nigerians, their helplessness in the hands of insurgents who abduct, maim, rape, kill as well as occupy their territory. An epidemic of corruption enveloped the nation, afflicted its leadership recruitment processes, stunted its economic growth, crippled its fighting power and rendered the people hopeless.

A failure of kindness brought Nigeria to this sorry pass. A failure to rescue should not even be contemplated.

These thoughts, an edited version of earlier ones, are appearing again for their relevance to the times.

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