Personal Notes of Obama Scholars’ Program

Oluseun Onigbinde
10 min readJul 15, 2019


Credit: Columbia University

The first time I saw Barack Obama on stage, I slept throughout the session. How bizarre that was! It was the 2017 Goalkeepers’ event in New York. I sat beside Bisola of the Big Brother Nigeria fame; she bathed in newly mined stardust but the pain of jetlags subdued by body, a constellation of stars could not even keep me awake. I learnt nothing (I found the recording on Facebook and watched again).

Honoured to be part of Obama’s Scholars Program, proved to me that meeting Barack again is essential, and this time, I would be actively listening. I made sure I got a seat close the front, pinned my face on him. Allow me to share ten thoughts that still resonate with me after listening to him, twice, and his wife, once. These are my personal modifications, continuous reflections after listening to them; not their verbatim statements.

1. Two Worlds in a Breath

“The road to idealism is to understand realism,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s advisor, captured it right during the last days of the program. As people who are in awe of an ideal world, it can be frustrating to see things not emerge the way we dream. So why is the world so slow? Why don’t things change? Why is the ideal not so obvious? It can even lead to frustration. We see our advocacy take ten steps forward and another twenty steps backwards.

As leaders, we must exude idealism but also carry within us the realism of our times. We can offer optimism for the glorious world that we seek but still understand the world does not “run on such straight courses”. We must know that social change takes time and we are to internalise it. While we exude impatience that the time is now, thinking that we are already late, we should also be patient that process can be painfully slow.

I know it might be frustrating with pace of reform but we are to carry the two burdens — a separate one beneath our heart (realism) and another in our face (idealism) — as a reminder to keep demanding more, in the face of adversity. I believe it that we need to reflect idealism as we demand a society that works for all, impatience on our faces and optimism in our expressions.

I mean we stretch the band in our demands, while we understand that we aren’t in an ideal world. Within, we also accept that this work might not be done in a lifetime, as JFK mentioned. We would have to be realistic as we move inch by inch towards idealism, sustaining the momentum. We see the challenges that we face and appreciate the solutions ahead.

This is my coping mechanism for Nigeria. I have been optimistic and also been a pessimist. However, I have learnt that the one way to keep pressing on is to combine both — optimism & pessimism.

2. Mild Compromise and Strange Allies

Living in two realms of idealism and realism, makes us understand the value of compromise, because that makes us sustain the argument for another progress. It’s like throwing away Obamacare which was an improvement on America’s healthcare. Now, there is a huge demand for “Medicare for All”. I wrote in September 2018 “ There are two circles. One circle is the ideal world in your head and another is the world as it exists. You will have to ensure that you bring the two worlds together to claim progress. The question is how large should the intersection be? The challenge is if the circles are to close, you lose your value and momentum.” You don’t expect me to be in government and make a compromise that limits access to state finance records after spending years demanding the same accountability from government. The constant check is to never make that compromise that destroys the core ideals that your frame rests on or that which crumbles your character. The choice of one’s moral spectrum is left with the individual and it is fibre of our personality.

When we make compromises, they should create springboards for further action. Compromise should not make us rest as we push the society towards our dreams. I believe that hoping we will change the political system when the conditions of the Nigerian electorate aren’t ideal will make us rethink our affiliations and compromises. The world might not come to us as we want it, as it never came to Mandela or as Barack would realise in Middle East or US midterm elections. We will have to navigate with wisdom even if we find ourselves with strange allies.

3. A Complex Context

This is why I am reluctant for binary situations except in places that cross the red line. For example, there is no binary position on rape or racism.

The context is always not that simplistic. But do we agree that we can ask men to be more disciplined with their privilege and also encourage girls to be expressive on sexual choices and seek to bring them to equity in terms of financial power? Yes! Weak societies make women (especially girls and ladies) vulnerable to the financial power and toxic dominant patriarchal system. How would you talk to a lady with her own job, pays her mortgage or with some sort of familial power, without a dose of decency? I have lived in the US and Nigeria and I see the relative impact of economic power to young girls. To widen the context, most of these issues are also amplified with tropes from culture and religion.

Being patient to diagnose the challenge and also understanding that we aren’t just fixing this with one puzzle move, will help change tact. Being prisoner to ideology creates chaos in the end. However, combining our hearts to understand contexts that the world thrives on is our starting point to understand how to change our spaces. We must be deliberate in how we strengthen allies, punish enemies and convert the sceptics, all in empathy and active listening.

4. Stories and Telling

If there is a part that was well expressed by Barack and Michelle, it is the power of storytelling. It is not a coincidence that even Tyrion Lannister in “Game of Thrones” gave that revealing point that the throne belongs to the one with the powerful stories. Barack Obama told his story in his books, in his words and captivated the world. If you peer into the lives of leaders and how they weave a commanding followership, it is in their stories. It could be like FDR’s fireside chat, a well of inspiration like Obama’s, full of explanations like Bill Clinton’s or provoking like General Patton’s. As advocates, I believe we don’t share our stories. I am not saying the textbook-straight story of cause and effect, or throwback scenes that bring up random coincidences. I mean telling about the fright, the despair, the unexpected triumph, our hopes, fears, failures, successes, lessons and sharing across the world. Our stories need more telling.

5. Connecting with Others

We had a session where we had to choose a “date”, to talk to and share an intense personal story. I was fortunate to speak to Trisha Shetty, one of the few scholars in a class of 12, that I was sure I shared the shortest conversations. It was amazing to hear her stories of triumph and also the vulnerability that our societies throw at us. And she put on herself, asking how do you find resilience when doors are being shut at your ideas? How do you stay safe in times when advocacy faces its perilous times and spaces are closing? The way forward is to connect with others. As we do good, we must seek allies to spread our challenges and de-risk our vulnerabilities. I mean our work is more sustained when we throw down the competitive element that might be our natural instinct and find connections of mutual value. It is like exploring the partnership between BudgIT and EiE Nigeria. At times, if an issue gets too complex and dangerous, I ask my team that we should not speak alone. Let us find our allies to spread the word, spread our risks. Our unity is our defence; though it helps in breeding more opportunities, it might be the way we sustain our work. Michelle made a simple point that stuck in my head: “You guys should connect more.”

6. Humans not Tools

The problem is mostly human. When we are trying to diagnose a dysfunction in a society, we might be tempted to assume that a technology tool, app or legislation is the silver bullet. We are seeking the answers from the wrong angle. The best place to start is to ask: who are the humans in the entire dynamics — the allies, the neutrals, the silent enablers and enemies?

We can try to build hotlines against rape or give young girls pepperspray but the whole diagnosis still points to the fact that some men are badly behaved and must be worked on or punished to see the human in a woman with full right to agency. This is the same point that Obiageli Ezekwesili reminded me of when I was zealous on the passage of Nigeria’s Petroleum Industry Bill. She acknowledged it will improve things but a legislation is not the core of the problem, it is principally the human element as well as incentives. This how we can really solve problems, starting with the human element as we finally see technology or legislation for what it is, a tool.

Humans are the problem…and the key to the solution.

7. Settling in Quiet Moments

While on the Obama Scholars Program, my team ran into a serious social media crisis due to an infographic that was poorly represented, making the narrative entirely untrue. While I could have accepted criticism in a more humane way, it came to the brand as a form of judgement, from familiar faces. I was really disturbed. Birthing an organization puts one’s emotions all over the place. We reinforced the error with an inadequate press release. Unfortunately, our communications lead had just resigned for a Masters Program. It was a political season, a period of exceeding emotions and you can spot silliness in the air, my organization was thrown in the muck. I spoke to a fellow Obama scholar, Rumbidzai, who pointed out that I must slow the emotions and one harmless gaffee is not the end of BudgIT. It became clear that reacting in all that cloud of emotions has reinforced our error.

As I have seen in Ben Rhodes’ book and also listened from Barack’s allies, leadership is not about knowing the answers but more about asking the right questions from varied perspectives in the room. Lincoln did this with his team of rivals and FDR also had a very conservative budget director in the heart of the New Deal. A leader must learn to withdraw within and ponder in a space detached from excessive emotions to make decisions, after listening to varied angles. As I would also learn from “Game of Thrones”, the place of emotions is not the right time to rush a decision, as a leader. Find some quiet time to internalise the decision and set the path.

When Kwara State Government wrote a press statement, and kept on insulting BudgIT’s motives. Our communications officer wanted to respond. I told him, “Wait for one week”. We must learn silence when emotions are raging.

8. How does one become a President?

It was amazing to listen to folks who did not know Barack Obama when he arrived in White House or rode on the dais of the Nobel Prize but those whom he knocked on their doors, asking just to help in community service. One of my best sessions was listening to the Senate Majority Leader while Barack was still in Chicago Senate and nursed ambition of running for US Congress. It was packed with powerful lessons of those who choose to step back just to see the green ones shoot. However, I believe the question that struck me was when someone asked: “How do you become a President?” One starts by asking: how do I serve my community? It is in the service to the community that if a consensus and inner will exist to go the extra length that we proceed. Our lives cannot be lived on vain outputs, we must see the big picture in the outcomes that transform the society. And if after serving your community, you don’t even win a seat in the lowliest parliament, you keep serving the people. This is what politics should be about. Proximity to the people, a sense of empathy with the struggle and if a chance exists to correct such inequities in public service, we take it.

9. Power is just Power

I believe that Barack was trying to make a point that being in a position of leadership either as an NGO lead, a council chair, a governor or leader of the free world, leadership carries equal principles. There will be a time of despair, conflicting interests, action and restraint, boldness and caution, conviction and doubt, but the character in leadership and sense of purpose is what trumps (I could not find a better word) all. We might see the US leader as all-knowing with some degree of incredible intellect but in US 45 Presidents, there have been various degrees of disasters — Fillmore, Buchanann or Nixon. Leadership is not about the position as MLK would have a holiday in his name in the US, it is about “bloom where you are planted” and constantly strive to learn and better.

10. Take care of yourself, xoxoxo

Finally, it might sound trite but I believe Barack meant it when he spoke about taking care of oneself. He did not mean it in worldly possessions but caring for one’s body — the food the eat, exercising our body, presence of mind to family and loved ones. As leaders, it is dangerous to put the mission ahead and forget to fully live. It would have mattered with a complex schedule of being a President but he still cared for his daughters or found time for vacations and rest as he could find. I learnt that in Ben Rhodes’ book. Listening to Michelle at her book tour in Brooklyn also pushed the idea to me. We need fathers in the lives of their daughters. I am trying my best as I have been lucky twice, with two daughters.

This is a long piece and broke my 1000-word rule. But this is a summation of rumination for nine months and I did not even fit family experiences, the NY metro system or valuable visits and speakers. Thank you Lisa, Zachary, Emily, Nimi, Peter, Avril, Ira and everyone who did their all to make the experience worthwhile. I also thank the 36 other Obama Scholars, most especially the other 11 disciples (no wonder I had a Judas moment) — Trisha, Alice Barbie, Omezzine, Elvis, Peter (the Freaking Rock), Pavel (my man), Ana Maria of Cartagena, Rumbi (Rumbi What? Rumbizai!!!), Gabby Gabby, Hong (It’s like Hong Kong without the Kong) & Vanessa Vanessa. I want to thank my wife and daughters and friends and the BudgIT crew. I also thank Bolt bus, Greyhound and Amtrak, my vessels as I transversed between New York and Maryland.



Oluseun Onigbinde

God's Unfinished Sketch. Policy & Data Wonk. BudgIT Lead. Ashoka, Aspen Voices & Knight Innovation Fellow