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Peter Obi’s speech: Much ado about what?



Thursday with Abimbola Adelakun, aadelakun@punchng.com

A former Governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, got social media aroused after he gave a speech at The Platform 2016, a programme organised by Covenant Christian Centre on Nigeria’s 56th Independence Anniversary. Obi demonstrated that corruption is intractable because it subsists on the machinery of daily governance. He also shared examples of how he managed to overcome the culture of waste through his personal prudence. He mentioned how states needlessly maintain lodges in Lagos and Abuja with high staff costs and logistics; the demands our feudalist federalism imposes on governors such as the visit of President Olusegun Obasanjo to Anambra State when he, Obi, was governor. Obi’s solution was to accommodate Obasanjo in his personal house. Obi made other tough cost-saving measures such as negotiating discounts on hotels and flights.

Obi displayed a convincing grasp of the complexity of corruption than agents of the state tasked with resolving this national degeneracy. When President Muhammadu Buhari talks about corruption, he gives the impression that we are fighting a Mephistophelean group that gets together to have Nigeria for lunch. In reality, corruption is overlapped with daily governance, most of the money that is either stolen or frittered leaves through rather “legitimate” means. Nigeria is presently constituted to leak resources, and the country would probably not function without the skeleton of corruption that sustains its daily operation.

It is ironical that the very habit of corruption that is destroying us is about the primary means of capital distribution. For instance, Obi’s revelation that in the Government House, they slaughtered a cow every single day for their meals is one instance of excessive spending that pushes money into the economy in the absence of initiatives of enterprise and industry. Also, think of the number of people who have a semblance of employment by merely hanging around the governor with an empty title of “Special Assistant on this-and-that.” Obi said he cut down the number of aides who accompanied him to Abuja only to wander around like they were afflicted with the curse of Cain. Well, we know his colleague governors retain such services because they have to perform “big man.”

The reality of Nigeria is that such wasteful and self-destructive habits are ingrained within our cultural DNA, and that is why we are unable to shake it off. We confuse big houses, big cars, big “agbada”, big tummies, and an excess of just about everything, with meaningfulness and relevance. This attitude is not immured within government circles alone. In our religious and educational institutions, the pipelines through which leaders are produced, there is the same problem of servicing our emptiness. My professor told me about his colleagues in the university who are uneasy with him for insisting on being simple when he ought to be -literally- beating down everyone on the head with his “professorship.” That mentality afflicts us as a nation, from top to bottom.

To change, Nigeria would require us to reprogramme our social genes, and that is the point where Obi’s speech fell short. To be sure, Obi deserves commendation for beating a different path from our current crop of leaders. Let me also admit that I had reservations about the veracity of the figures he kept pulling out because they seemed outrageous and in fact, incredulous. I was curious if indeed the office of the First Lady gulps an average of N2bn a month; when he asked us to multiply the amount by 36 states, I wondered if the amount was universal or it was just peculiar to his state. How could he tell how much Zamfara State spends on the First Lady’s office or how much a state tottering on the verge of bankruptcy like Osun spends on the governor’s travels? I do not doubt that extravagance exists; I am interested in confirming how applicable his assertions are if they are extended beyond Anambra State.

This is what I meant when I said he fell short: One, I waited for the conclusion of his speech because I wanted to hear what practical and strategic solutions he has worked out with the insight of having being in government that can help us curb the magnitude of waste he described. I was disappointed when he started throwing zingers. He told the crowd of over-excited youths to take their country back. If Nigerian youths have not done that, it is certainly not for lack of trying. Some 18 months ago, that was what Nigerian youths thought they were doing when they pushed to achieve the staggering feat of pushing out a degenerate government. Today, as Nigeria sinks into an abyss, we have realised that we pushed out a debased government only to replace it with their clone. I agree with Obi on civic participation and vigilance, and the necessity of holding our leaders accountable. However, I wanted tangible measures, not platitudes.

Two, Obi’s speech was all about him and what he did; his refrain of “I did this and that” in that speech made him come across as self-possessed. Look, all the actions he took might have worked for him at a state level but heavens help us if we have a President that tells the chef in the State House what quantity of food to prepare to save money. When Buhari first became President, we were told that he “ordered” the special allowance of Aso Rock security operatives cut. More than a year later, how has that nitpicking efforts worked out for Nigeria? By now, Nigerians should have realised that governance is more complicated than one person’s individual integrity.

Buhari’s candidature got a boost because Nigerians bought the idea that we needed a “strong man” or a Messiah figure with testudinal resolve who could brave the odds to curb corruption, slam thieves in jail, and set us on the path of 21st century growth.

Buhari, thought to be personally incorruptible, presented himself as the candidate but the best he has done is to bore us with a constant whine of what his predecessors failed to do and a relentless piling of promises by a propaganda team whose words have failed to fill hungry bellies. If Obi tries to implement the kind of changes he spoke about at a federal level, he would end up like Buhari – first micromanage the country, then, become exhausted himself with the realisation of the overwhelming scale of change required, and finally get suckered into the rot. We were told that if Buhari won the election, all the corrupt people in Nigeria would have to run away. Today, nobody has run away despite all the razzle dazzle of anti-corruption fight. It is already October, yet, Nigeria is still tackling “budget padding.” Who remembers that the country has to survive 2017 too?

This is not to say that we can do without “good” people in government but there is also a reason that they join the establishment and come back recreated in the image of the corrupt administration that appointed them. The rot that typifies Nigeria is stronger than what an individual well-meaning efforts can confront. Nigeria needs a philosophy, a plan, a strategy that can be designed to work in spite of the joke of leaders we get stuck with many times. Warren Buffet says that he invests in companies that can run independently of their leaders, a business so stable that it can be run by an idiot because sooner or later, an idiot will eventually run the business. That in itself sums up the strength and stability of American democracy: strong institutions that can withstand buffoons. No individual effort can ever hold up in the face of the relentlessness of Nigeria’s confederation of queer leaders. If Obi has such a plan, by all means let him bring it out because right now we are lost and we know it.Punch