Reuben Abati’s article: How much land does a man need?

Culled from the Nigerian Guardian Newspaper: Sunday 20th of April 2007.


The title of this piece is borrowed from a short story by Leo Tolstoy, Russian author of well-known classics, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. This particular story, published in a collection of the same title is one of the standard readings at the Aspen Institute Nigeria Leadership Seminar, a highly subscribed programme that is dedicated to reflections on leadership issues, and the training of young leaders in various professions.

I was one of the Fellows at the seminar held in Watford, England, in January 2007; our reading list covered the writings of some of the most influential thinkers of all times, including Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, Karl Popper, Ibn Khaldun, Milton Friedman, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Arthur Okun, Thomas Jefferson, E. F. Schumacher, Vaclav Havel, Lee Kuan Yew, Peter Drucker, Nicollo Machiavelli, Ehsan Naraghi, Chinua Achebe, George Orwell, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Ursula K. Guin, Mark Twain, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. But in the section on self and society, one story made a lasting impression on all the fellows: “How much land does a man need? by Leo Tolstoy.

It is the story that I remember today as I try to find a clue to the benumbing spectacle of greed that confronts us as the immediate past in Nigerian politics and society is subjected to a close analysis and review. At every turn we are confronted with real-life tales of government officials who stole so much money the figures can make the unwary go deaf or blind or both. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission once had cause to disclose that since independence in 1960, Nigerian public officials have stolen over six trillion from the coffers of the state. I guess it is a lot more than that. In a country where documentation is poor and the finance departments of government offices have been routinely set on fire, no one can effectively calculate the exact amount of stolen public funds. And this is money meant for development and the pursuit of the purpose of governance to wit: to guarantee the security and welfare of the people.

Probe panels and the media continue to reveal how public officials have gained access to stupendous personal wealth. This week alone we have heard about how one man and members of his family (probably acting as his proxies) acquired over 13 plots in the Federal Capital Territory. We have been told how within 24 hours before his exit from office in May 2007, the former President hurriedly awarded sundry licences and gave approvals for all sorts of matters, many of this in his own favour.

How about Governors who diverted public funds into private accounts? Or those who used government facilities to set up or to upgrade personal businesses? Two years ago, the story was told of a late Chief Accountant of a major public parastatal, in whose bank account billions of money were found. His list of properties drew gasps of breath from the public. He probably would not have been exposed if he had not died in a plane crash and if his wife and his mistress had not started quarrelling over the sharing of his vast and obscene estate.

In the Abacha days, one Minister was caught red-handed with over 50 cars in his garage, over 50 houses in Abuja alone, and money in all currencies in the world hidden inside underground water tanks, and over-head tanks, wardrobes and refrigerators in his house. Apart from the known cases, there are so many other unknowns, not just in government but also in the private sector and in the general society, men and women who are sold on the culture of primitive acquisition.

They are so greedy nothing is ever enough for them. They are not satisfied with one or two cars, they want to own 100 if possible. They are not satisfied with a roof over their heads, they want to own a whole community if they can. And yet no man can sleep on more than one bed at a time. No man can sleep in two houses at the same time. I have heard stories about wealth and the ingenuity of men, but I have not yet heard of anyone who rode two cars simultaneously. The greedy ones among us are the relations of Leo Tolstoy’s Pakhom, the protagonist in the story: “How much land does a man need?” Hear Tolstoy:

“An elder sister came from the town to visit her younger sister in the country. This elder sister was married to a merchant and the younger to a peasant in the village. The two sisters sat down for a talk over a cup of tea and the elder started boasting about the superiority of town life, with all its comforts, and the fine clothes her children wore, the exquisite food and drink, the skating, parties and visits to the theatre.

The younger sister resented this and in turn scoffed at the life of a merchant’s life and sang the praises of her own life as a peasant. � wouldn’t care to change my life for yours”, she said. � admit mine is dull, but at least we have no worries. You live in grander style, but you must do a great deal of business or you’ll be ruined. You know the proverb, “Loss is Gain’s elder brother”. One day you are rich and next you might find yourself out in the street. Here in the country we don’t have those ups and downs. A peasant’s life may be poor, but it’s long. Although we may never be rich, we’ll always have enough to eat”.

Then the elder sister said her piece.

“Enough to eat indeed with nothing but those filthy pigs and calves! What do you know about nice clothes and good manners! However hard your good husband slaves away you’ll spend your lives in the muck and that’s where you’ll die. And the same goes for your children”.

“Well, what of it?, the younger sister retorted. That’s how it is here. But at least we know where we are. We don’t have to crawl to anyone and we’re afraid of no one. But you in the town are surrounded by temptations. All may we be well one day, the next the Devil comes along and tempts your husband with cards, women and drink. And then you’re ruined. It does happen., doesn’t it?”

Pakhom, the younger sister’s husband, was lying over the stove listening to the women’s chatter.

“It’s true what you say”, he said. “take me. Ever since I was a youngster I’ve been busy tilling the soil to let that kind of nonsense enter my head. My only grievance is that I don’t have enough land. Give me enough of that and I’d fear no one – not even the Devil himself!”

The sisters finished their tea, talked a little longer about dresses, cleared away the tea things and went to bed.

But the Devil had been sitting behind the stove and had heard everything. He was delighted that a peasant’s wife had led her husband to boast that if he had enough land he would fear no one, not even the Devil. “Good!”, he thought. “�’ll have a little game with you. I shall see that you have plenty of land and that way I’ll get you in my clutches!.”

Most of society’s problems are caused by the evil of comparison; there is a woman out there or a man out there misleading his or her partner by engaging in a class competition with neighbours and relations. This evil of comparison results in a rat race without an end, and envy that pushes men to overreach themselves.. In Tolstoy’s story, Pakhom may blame the Devil for the tragic ending of his story, and this is a common thing here in Nigeria also (it was the Devil’s work, it was the Devil that pushed me to do it: they all say so – all the armed robbers in our midst from the common felon to the big men in high places). But the Devil is not a physical entity, not a metaphysical abstraction, the Devil is within us, the Devil is the man himself, that part of his sub-conscious which pushes him to engage in anti-social activities or which robs him of reason in his pursuit of material gains. Tolstoy’s Pakhom’s prayer was soon answered.

An old lady in a nearby village wanted to sell part of her land of about 300 acres. Pakhom ended up buying about 30 acres out of this, partly on credit and with loan from his brother-in-law. Pakhom had become a landowner and the land yielded great harvest. And “he was happy”. But he soon became dissatisfied with the peasants around him. Then he heard that there was land somewhere in the South,. “The land is so fertile that rye grows as high as a horse…” Pakhom sold off his things and went off to the new settlement where after bribing the elders of the community, he got ten times more land than he ever had. He built houses; he became truly rich. But soon after, he began to feel “cramped even here”. So Pakhom went in search of more land, this time, freehold land, until he got to the land of the Bashkirs, where was told he could take as much land as he needed. All the land he could walk around in a day will be his at the rate of a thousand roubles a day, but he must be back at his starting point everyday, by sunset.

But Pakhom got greedy. He set out at dawn, grabbing long stretches of land, by the time he decided he had had enough land, and he embarked on the journey back, he had travelled so far and he was so exhausted. He couldn’t make it. He slumped and “blood flowed from his mouth. Pakhom was dead.” Now, hear Tolstoy again:

“The Bashkirs clicked their tongues sympathetically. Pakhom’s workman picked up the spade, dug a grave for his master – six feet from head to heel, which was exactly the right length – and buried him.”

Tolstoy’s allegory is an impressive commentary on the vanity of human strivings, on the emptiness of materialism. In seeking to acquire more and more land, Pakhom ended up losing everything. In Nigeria, so many are losing, may be not their lives, but their names, their integrity, their greed has exposed them to so much public embarrassment, they can no longer stand up with pride in the community. Pakhom lost his original sense of values when he gained access to capital and opportunities, and he became a different man. This is the reality also in our society.

Many of the men and women who go into public office are usually persons who used to be defenders of public morality, humble members of the community. But as soon as they are given the opportunity to control financial budgets and told like Pakhom to do as they wish until the sun sets (that is, for as long as they are in office), they simply go to town and astray, and they grow a fertile ego. Those who served under President Olusegun Obasanjo are now being summoned to explain how they acquired so much wealth or how they managed public funds in their care. Nothing can be more humiliating for a man or woman who had been promoted as a role model and as an achiever to be put in the dock and asked to explain how he stole or mismanaged public resources. Why would anyone seek to grab all the land in any corner of Nigeria? Why should any Governor own everything and anything? Why would the name of Obasanjo, a man who had already acquired so much land, before becoming President in 1999, be associated with the insatiable scramble for more land?

Greed is the main obstacle to the leadership process in Nigeria. It works out in form of an obsession with the self and an abiding contempt for society and its needs. The primitive acquisitiveness of the Nigerian leadership elite has been without regard for the objective conditions of the people: people who wallow in abject poverty. The poverty in the land is so bad, it is evident in the rising cost of food items, the failure of public infrastructure, the disconnection between the country’s enormous wealth in terms of resources and the filth on our streets, and the rebellious streak of armed robbers and assassins.

With everyone in a leadership position in the public sphere behaving like Tolstoy’s Pakhom, the community’s resources have ended up in the hands of a few oligarchs. Our society is adrift. And they are still grabbing and stealing and bending the rules to protect their personal interests. Nigerians need not look at them sympathetically, we should be amused and aspire to learn from their folly.

The Pakhom parable is not merely about man’s wants being insatiable; it is about the abuse of power, privilege and access, and it raises questions about the role of the individual in society. What is life’s purpose? What constitutes real value for the individual in society? What is the true meaning of happiness? Obituaries hardly refer to how much money a man has in the bank, Or how many houses he built. People are more likely to be remembered by their deeds as members of the community, and whichever way a man goes, he is destined for no more than six feet of land or worse, the crematorium. It is a pity that men, knowing this to be true, have refused to learn from the examples around them.

3 thoughts on “Reuben Abati’s article: How much land does a man need?

  1. Reuben Abati has always been a writer of great delight.

    Surely, GOD will restore the sanity of our leaders and other people that hold public trust.

    I love Nigeria….we will definitely get to the greenfield sooner than later.


  2. Well laid out! nature, they say, has a way of balancing itself- attesting to the fact that no man can play god.
    Where are the psychologists,sociologists,societal analysts and the likes who should point out the trends,patterns and probable solution to social deviations and “AB-norms” as they creep into our social life?
    This culture of primitive acquisition will inevitably trigger-off the primal instinct of the people ,and what do you get at the end of the day ? rebellion,strife,insecurity,aggression,demostration,remostration,hatred,unhealthy rivalry,bitter-competition,etc which make things fall apart eventually.
    What goes around comes around-when people tinker and tamper with people’s life,right,joy,hope,future,and destiny,sooner or later they get to taste same directly or indirectly,whether alive or dead.
    You can never sit on the wealth of a nation-the common wealth-knowing fully well that it never started with you and it will never end with you; your ill-gotten wealth will still be gotten by another generation(whether responsible or not), your lands/houses will still be gotten by what those “Things” of today will become tomorrow-courtesy of your action or inaction,your daughters will be gotten by what “Anybody” becomes tomorrow-courtesy of your deeds and misdeeds, and it goes on and on and on…


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