Obi @59: Before Nigeria misses its Lee Kuan Yu

By Sunny Igboanugo on 22/07/2020

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I was part of a team of journalists that visited Anambra State on a tour of government facilities during the second term tenure of Mr. Peter Gregory Obi, in his days as the governor of the state. 

After freshening up in the hotel, immediately we arrived the state from the Enugu airport, we had hit the ground running by first visiting some of the nearby projects in the three days exercise. Back to the hotel at night, we all settled to have ourselves a little ball as it's wont on occasions of such a trip outside base.

That was when I had the first shock. I had ordered my dinner be brought to my room alongside a bottle of beer. But the voice at the other end told me that there was not going to be beer. They were under strict instruction not to serve beer. It was food and soft drinks or water.

This was new to me. I was used to being invited by state governors either as a person or in groups for such an assignment. This was the first time this was happening. I recorded it against the governor as part of the failures of his government.

Incidentally, for the three days we were on that assignment, we were not able to cover all the projects sites in the state both completed and ongoing. Being an Anambra man, my judgement changed when I began to see some of the transformational achievements, but I was still not happy that I was restricted to a plate of food and no more. From my own state? Haba! It was that bad.

Before Obi, Anambra was squelched by what the late Fela, Anikulapo Kuti, would call Vagabonds in Power (VIP). Chris Ngige, his predecessor's tenure was marked by some giant steps equally in spite of the sweltering of nature of the state during his short-lived tenure. But by now Obi had really done a great work in the state. Regardless, because some my colleagues with whom I shared a completely different experience elsewhere were completely scandalised, I felt I needed more to redeem the situation as a homeboy. I didn't believe such an instruction was from him.

So, the first opportunity of meeting, I hit him with the complaint if not accusation. It was during breakfast on the morning of our departure.  How could he give such a directive when we were the guest of his government? But he was very patient with me. I could see the smile playing at his lips in understanding of my obvious predicament. But he had a ready answer. He was dealing with public money and there was a limit to which he could stretch the usage of same.

Though in the end, we all made jokes about it, the import of his action and the message therein, were however clearly passed. That was my first practical experience of Obi's ways with public money. Subsequen meetings and interractions, never changed this paradigm. Even at the risk of hurting the array of some of the biggest media names in the country at that time, he still stood firmly to his belief.

This was personal experience happened almost a decade ago. Since then, I have come to understand that the former governor rather than being fluke, has consistently proven that in his public life his conduct would always remain sober and prudent, especially with regards to money.

I'm therefore never at a loss whenever he talks of applying lean and prudent government spending model as the panacea to the debilitating malaise of Nigerian growth. I never doubted it because I had seen its application in Anambra during his tenure.  

Of course, there was a bit of an encore quite recently in that huge dramatic encounter between him and Reverend Father Camillus Ejike Mbaka, during the harvest ceremony of Adoration Ministry Enugu Nigeria (AMEN), in the run to the 2019 presidential election.

I heard a number of people wondering why he would subject himself to the obvious humiliation meted out to him by the AMEN Spiritual Director.

Remember by then, Obi was already the Vice Presidential Candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), along with Atiku Abubakar as the main candidate.

What, the bemused spectators ask, was the drama all about? Why not just announce, say, N100million for himself and perhaps N200million on behalf of Atiku, bringing the figure to N300million, get the accompanying loud applause from the congregation and return home only to default on the redeeming the pledge?

What’s so difficult with that? Even Mbaka, who was egging him on, was aware of such of such a modus operandi and would understand when he would now be running after him subsequently and would be lucky to get as much as N1million. Who would know what transpired thereafter? But that was not Obi.

Plausible as the suggestion could appear in the context of politics in Nigeria, Obi is different. It is clearly antithetical to his brand as a person and as a politician. Remember PDP was the only party favoured to win the election outside the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).

In the context of the Nigerian model, where everything possible is deployed to winning elections, including practically killing people, he still stood his ground that he would not make a public announcement of what he was going to donate. Extreme! But, that was vintage Peter Obi. 

Perhaps Hope Uzodinma todays Governor of Imo State, leading Abdullahi Ganduje and the other members of the APC delegation actually redeemed the pledge made by his team, running into hundreds of millions on behalf of themselves and President Muhammadu Buhari. He would surprise most Nigerians if he actually did and would serve as exception rather than the rule.  

Now, picture this! The same man who refused to announce that public donation at Mbaka’s church, is the one going around spreading the same money in schools and other institutions, just to develop human capacity.  

Time and again, you hear he is either donating cash or learning equipment in those institutions or rebuilding damaged structures. In fact, the feat Anambr State is making today across the world is attributed largely to him by many watchers.

In may last year, at the burial of his elder sister the late Lady Bibiana Adani at Ukana, in Enugu State, he had disappointed a lot of his in-laws who had come with mountains of expectations that apart from other goodies, he was going to be throwing money in the air as his contemporaries would have done in the same situation to advertise their wealth.

Instead of that, he promised to build them a hospital where the sick could be treated in honour and memory of the late sister. Surely, many of his audience would have been more comfortable with the satisfaction of the immediate than the future, a clear departure from his predilection of life.

You would have heard, quite recently, how he was credited with donating N1billion towards the efforts to battle the COVID-19 outbreak, among some other big names in Nigeria and how he quickly disclaimed the report as false.

Why did he do that when he could have latched on to the positive publicity it would have earned him? The vintage Obi, apart from maintaining the proclivity of not engaging in open donations, would also want whatever money he gives to be put strictly for the purpose.

Now, to underscore this, you would have also heard how several hospitals and health facilities in all the states in the South East took delivery of medical equipment and essentials from a team the same Obi put together to fight the COVID-19.

In that effort, he would have probably spent more than N1billion he was initially credited in the phantom report. But the catch is that instead of doing so for just publicity stunt through officials whose hotel bills alone could gulp half of the money, he would elect to make sure it is done through an integrity-controlled channel. That is the vintage Obi.

You also heard how he coordinated the PDP bigwigs in the state to travel the same route. There is no telling the fact that his efforts in that direction is because as the leader of the party in the state, he would have a bird’s eye view of how the money is spent to ensure that it achieved its purpose.

This is a man who could afford to own exquisite palaces in every city in Nigeria, but tells you that he has just one in Onitsha and dares you to prove otherwise. This is a man who could buy the latest Rolls Royce anytime he one is minted choosing to drive only functional cars, this is a man who even though could afford to charter aircrafts on local and international flights being found mostly on economy class seats on the same route.

You heard how the owners of Volkswagen preferred the Beetle (Tortoise) brand to the more exotic brands, how Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder of Toyota cars, went back to his mechanic workshops after building the billions of dollars worth brand, you see the British Prime Minister, the country that produces RR, the most expensive and prestigious automobile ride on bicycles, you hear how Senators in the US share apartments and cars, and you’re fascinated.

So what really do Nigerians want when you see a practical example in Nigeria, and decide to pander to some primitive sentiments and allow it take over? What is more demonstrable example of cutting your nose to spite your face.

Recently, the same Obi who became an instant celebrity, whose videos of starling performance at The Platform in 2016 were shared and re-shared by the low and mighty, as the man of the moment, suddenly became an object of ridicule, butt of jokes by the same people, while the statistics he had exited them with, derisively dismissed as “China made” just because he dared contest election to replicate what is even evident he has done elsewhere. So who do you?

What is sure, the ghoulish worms crawling out of those cans assaulting us as the drumbeats sound at the National Assembly with Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) probe and before it at Aso Rock Villa with that of the Ayo Salami-led variant and countless others before them either now or in the past and the ones to come, would remain our albatross until we become colour blind to mundane sentiments of ethnicity. Obi won't waste money and will not allow others under him do so. Simplicita! That's the difference. 

Our portion would remain weeping, wailing and gnashing of the teeth, for as long as we refuse to do the right thing. Like Lee Kuan Yew, the likes of Peter Obi, come in a generation. It is for the people to recognise their arrival. 

Nigeria cannot breathe today, because there is a powerful knee on its neck – the knee of ethnicity and tribal sentiments. Remove that you’ll begin to discover the Lee Kuan Yu of Nigeria. One of them is Peter Gregory Obi, who has just turned 59.

May be Nigeria might be lucky to mark the 2023 edition of Democracy Day with the 62nd birthday of this great man as President, assuming the suffocating knee on its neck is ever removed. Just may be.

Till then, Happy Birthday, Okwute Nigeria!


Igboanugo, a journalist, wrote from Abuja



Posted on July, 22 2020

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