“A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work”- Gen. Colin Powell (1937-2021)
“Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace”
- Nelson Mandela
It has been a fortnight of activities and events in Nigeria and around the world. One had started writing on the events preceding the Anambra elections of Saturday, November the 6th, but thought that there were already enough commentaries about that election, given the prominence that it has enjoyed in the recent past. Then the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, christened COP 26 ended with some cheering news that about 190 countries signed a pact to move away from coal while huge producers and users including the US, China, India and Australia withheld consent. Recall that in recent times, we had called attention to the perceived conspiracy of starving oil producing countries of funds to develop fossil fuel projects in a bid to achieve net zero emissions as quickly as 2030. As if the world was reading, attention seems to have been moved to the major issues of deforestation and coal which are bigger and more immediate threats to the climate than oil and particularly, gas. There is no doubt that we shall return to this issue in due course.
Again, back home in Nigeria, the issue of insecurity has assumed a more dangerous dimension as the kidnapping of lecturers in Abuja and elsewhere last week, dominated the news. And then, the month of November was ushered in with the very unfortunate collapse of a 21-story development in highbrow Ikoyi, Lagos, which killed scores of people including the developer himself, Mr. Femi Osibona. This column commiserates with the families of the deceased and the government and people of Lagos State.
Today, we intend to dedicate this column to the great black American statesman, soldier, politician and family man, General Colin Luther Powell. I consider Powell a great leader for so many reasons, one of which is his own definition of a leader. Hear him “Great Leaders are almost always simplifiers, who can cut through the argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.” He went further to opine that “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” Colin Powell was born of Jamaican immigrant parents in the suburb of Bronx area of New York, on April 5, 1937. He schooled in the City College of New York and graduated with a degree in Geology. By his own account, Colin Powell’s early performance in school was mediocre and he was at best an average level student in college. From college, he enlisted into the army as a second lieutenant. He served for 35 years in the military, rising through the ranks to a four-star General. Twice, he fought gallantly in Vietnam and was so successful in the military that his colleagues used to address him as a “water walker” mimicking the story of Jesus Christ, who walked on water. This was their way of painting a picture of a talented and skilled soldier. After a very successful career, he retired in 1993 with a garland of honours.
Soon after his retirement, he was wooed by both the Republican and Democratic parties to the point of offering him their platforms to contest for the highest office in the land. After much consideration, he decided that he was not going to contest any election. He reasoned that he was not cut out for campaigns. He was a soldier pure and simple! He was appointed National Security Adviser to President Ronald Reagan, helping to negotiate arms treaties at the end of the cold war between America and the Soviet Union. In 1989, he was appointed by President George H.W. Bush as Chairman Joint Chief of Staff, our equivalent of Chief of Defence Staff. This elevation saw him clinch this coveted position over 14 more senior four-star generals, a testament to his leadership qualities and his dexterity. The job of prosecuting the 1991 Gulf war rested squarely with him and his men. This war, code named “Operation Desert Storm” saw to the recovery of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It was also his position that Saddam Hussein did not need to be toppled as it would lead to instability in the Middle East and may produce a replacement that was worse than Saddam. In December 2000, President George W. Bush Jr appointed him Secretary of State. His record at this role was very outstanding, managing a delicate balance between his views and that of his boss and his Vice, Dick Cheney.
In one report, Colin Powell was described as having a doctrine of military operations thus: “identify clear political objectives, canvas public buy in and apply decisive and overwhelming force to subdue the enemy.” In his 1995 best seller Memoir titled My American Journey, Powell put together what is referred to as the 13 Rules. Some of the interesting rules include 1. It ain’t as bad as you think, it will look better in the morning. 2. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position fails, your ego goes with it. 3. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision. 4. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers and 5. You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours. This 656-paged book is a must read for those who can lay their hands on it.
Colin Powell subsequently joined the Republican Party and being a man of conviction, he broke with his party in 2008 to endorse the opposition candidate Barack Obama for President. He had the following to say about Obama: “I think he is a transformational figure. He is a new generation coming into the world on to the world stage, onto the American stage, and for that reason, I’ll be voting for Senator Barack Obama”. Powell neither decamped nor was he suspended or expelled for anti-party activities. This endorsement meant so much for the Obama ticket as there were propaganda-fuelled doubts about Obama’s experience and capacity at that time. He endorsed Obama again in 2012 for a second term. In 2016, Powell supported Hillary Clinton for President as against the Republican candidate Donald Trump. In his own words, Trump was a national disgrace and an international pariah. Again, in the 2020 election, Colin Powell threw his weight behind Joseph Biden, the current President of the United States and actually delivered an endorsement speech at the Democratic National Convention before the election. He was so enraged after the US Capitol attack ostensibly to upturn Biden’s victory that he reportedly said that he doesn’t consider himself a republican any longer.
Perhaps, if there is anything he regretted most, it was his speech at the United Nations which was based on false intelligence about the existence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. In March 2003, American troops invaded Iraq based on the intelligence only to discover that there were indeed, no weapons of mass destruction anywhere. Powell was pained by the misleading intelligence and regretted that it would forever be a “blot” on his records. Accepting responsibility, he stated “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world and it will always be part of my record.”
On October 18, 2021, the great General and leader succumbed to the cold hands of death. He was reported to have died from Covid 19 complications arising from a compromised immune system sequel to Kahler’s disease or Multiple Myeloma. He was also receiving treatment for early stages of Parkinson’s disease. This death happened even though Powell was fully vaccinated and was waiting for his booster dose. At his funeral on Friday November 5, 2021, at the Washington National Cathedral, Presidents Biden, Obama and Bush were personally present with their wives to pay him a deserved tribute. So, with many other present and former US government officials. His only son Michael read an emotional eulogy to his dad whom he described as a man of character who made a monumental difference and lived well.
There is a lot to learn from the life and times of Gen. Colin Powell. One, he was black, brought up like any other black in his time and was just an average student in school. He, however, broke all the barriers and excelled in his career. His life is an inspiration to all black Americans because he demonstrated that there is still reward for grit and earnest endeavour. The circumstances of our upbringing should not detract us from fulfilling purpose. Again, how someone started has nothing to do with what he would become or how he would end. Second, from very lowly beginnings he became an expert in leadership and became a reference point for successful leadership lessons. His 13 rules and other materials including the dozens of books to his credit can only be attributed to hard work and persistence. He broke glass ceilings, rising to positions that could only be imagined for black people, thus he became the 1st black Joint Chief of Staff Chair, the first black National Security Adviser and the first black Secretary of State. Third, a major part of his success could be attributed to his positive disposition. In an interview Powell described himself as a problem solver. With that kind of attitude, he was always eager to find solutions to challenges. He never avoided challenges even when he had issues with his bosses, he would always articulate the pros and cons of different causes of action and make his views known. Again, he was very methodical and deliberate. Like one of the 13 rules said, “Have a vision. Be demanding”. He lived it by articulating a sense of purpose for his team everywhere he found himself. According to him, people will only let you lead them if they trust you. And they can only trust you when your vision is clear and consistent.
The fifth and one of the most important lessons is that he was a man of conviction. That he was a republican did not stop him from supporting whom he was convinced was the best candidate during an election. He did that several times and he did it publicly. That is one of the major problems we face in Africa and that’s why we seem not to make any progress with national leadership. In the private sector where most appointments are made based on merit, the results are there to be seen as against the public sector. It was quite refreshing to remember Powell as a man who followed his convictions.
The sixth lesson is taking responsibility. In his presentation about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq which turned out to be false, he took responsibility. The easiest thing was for him to blame those who gave the false intelligence and exonerate himself. But that wasn’t Colin Powell. He took the fall and moved on. That is vintage leadership. I believe there are other lessons in courage, family life and relationships that one can learn from Powell. We must also use this opportunity to point out that in spite of the flaws in the American system, those who work hard have the opportunity to make it in that vast land.
The final lesson that we must point out is that Covid is still here. It is not only with us, it is still snuffing life out of people. And to think that someone who was fully vaccinated could die of the disease is quite unsettling. The truth is that the vaccination does not give full proof protection. The most efficacious of all the vaccines is said to be about 95%. That remaining 5% is still able to kill, particularly victims who have immunity challenges. It is therefore important to observe the protocols and wear our masks, even if fully vaccinated
We join the Powell family to celebrate this enigma and trail blazer. We celebrate his leadership and his contributions to the black race and the world in general. As we bid “the great lion with a big heart” Good Night, we pray for the sweet repose of his noble soul.