Peter Odili: Fears For A Rainmaker!
Like most other stakeholders who attended the sham that was the 2nd Triennial National Delegates Conference of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Port Harcourt, Rivers state on February 27, the turn of events only confirmed a popular hypothesis that Governor Peter Odili is too nice a man to be trusted with public office. This is not an attempt to deconstruct a two-term Governor beloved and treasured by friends and associates but to highlight how a Santa Claus approach to governance represents everything adversative to our common dream of fostering a sustainable democratic culture in the country. True, the NUJ is not the first professional association to fall prey to officially induced electoral paralysis; the Nigerian Bar Association is only recently recovering from its 1996 Port Harcourt Conference debacle, which pitted Mrs Priscilla Kuye against Alhaji Bashir Dalhatu, candidate of the powers that were. At the national level, we recount with great trepidation how rigging was taken to the next level through the fantastic figures declared in the 2003 elections, with a certain governor winning one hundred percent votes in most polling centres, wards and local governments in a Riverine state.
The tragedy of the Smart Adeyemi-led transition was more than the misfortune of choosing a venue notorious for electoral pervasion (the defeated candidates, especially Mrs Funke Fadugba of Lagos Chapter, paid the supreme price for political naiveté by kow-towing to those who followed the scent of money to Port Harcourt) but how Odili’s millions influenced massive electoral fraud engineered by unscrupulous journalists invoking his name for their selfish ends. Is anyone listening? If this is what Odili stands for, then his amiable, handsome, trusting visage must be properly construed as a potential threat to institutional transparency, due process and democratic order. And this is without prejudice to his widely acclaimed virtues of humility, humaneness, faithfulness, accommodativeness, dedication to family, church, community, profession, associates and friends. Fact is his impulsive spirit of generosity, which made the decisive difference in the NUJ election, portends grave dangers should he roll his formidable political machine to the national centre.
This is not the right place to review the controversial NUJ election; it is up to Nigerian journalists to decide for themselves if the show put up on their behalf in Port Harcourt befits their professional honour and integrity or whether it makes no difference if their NUJ smells no better than PDP. Suffice to state here that falsehood was peddled to suit a pre-destined purpose; the out-going officials lied through their teeth that that was the first time the NUJ was hosting its national convention in the Garden City, a lie told to massage Odili’s ego and recruit him into intervening on the side of the chosen candidate, a son of the soil, with his decisive millions. It did not matter that the event was the third in the city in the chequered life of NUJ, that a handful of former National Presidents and Secretaries of the Union were present but were denied recognition, all designed to gain Odili’s favour. Speaker after speaker began and ended his ramble by acknowledging Odili’s benevolence. It was like the NUJ had no mind of its own, no independent source of revenue; its leaders spoke without decorum in their scramble to gain Odili’s favour (his money really).
We have since agreed that among his many attributes, Odili is a philanthropist per excellence, a Rainmaker who would make Chief MKO Abiola look like a miser. He is also a man who must have read Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power from which he majored in the Chapter on Strategic Philanthropy - loosely translated – knowing who to give what, when and how and for what end or better still, empowering the ‘right’ people whose services you may call upon someday in the future. Odili is believed to be investing heavily in all manners of people. We were made to understand that since it was an Odili show, all sorts of groups, invited or not, accredited or not, required there or not, scrambled to Port Harcourt for a piece of the NUJ action, including the leadership of the once-revered Nigerian Guild of Editors, now run by editors without newspapers or whose newspapers not many have read (or may want to read).
Odili ran the NUJ convention with the aplomb of a veteran godfather, displaying his vintage munificence for the benefit of journalists and delegates present. Cast your mind to the rancorous excitement when relief agencies throw badly needed sacks of flour and millet to starving populations in a refugee camp, with Odili reeling out the day’s menu, soaking the adulation with messianic contentment. Ironically, his stage populism exposed the dangerous side of his demagogy because his genuine attempt to impress did not quite match the reality on the ground. For instance, he apologised profusely when a power outage that lasted a few minutes caused familiar discomfort in the Cultural centre hall hosting the delegates, even suspended the Centre’s manager on the spot to dramatise his anger but Port Harcourt and adjourning towns are perpetually without power, day and night. If Odili were to apologise for every power outage in Rivers state, he would be doing so every second of his tenure.
At the spur of the moment, he donated N25million to the NUJ National Secretariat Appeal Fund, a land for NUJ House and announced insurance cover for working journalists in the state to the prolonged applause by the delegates. But it is also on record that the Odili administration in Rivers state is highly intolerant of critical journalism with the independent press in the state suffering more repression and official harassment than in any other state of the federation. Specifically, on May 28 2004, according to a report by Media Rights Agenda, a non-governmental media watchdog, four journalists, Mr Ogbonna Nwuke, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Port Harcourt Telegraph; Mr Minere Amakiri, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Beacon; Mr Nna Frank-Jack, editor-in-chief of the Independent Monitor; and chief Livinus Kiebel, editor of the Argus Newspapers were lured into SSS dungeons where they were subjected to torture, harassment and illegal detention without trial. Those organisations had given the Odili administration a torrid time and he responded in kind, trapping on them. The same organisation reported that “on 23 December 2005, two journalists with a privately-owned radio station, Rhythm 93.7 FM, in Port Harcourt, were arraigned before a Port Harcourt High Court on charges of broadcasting false information and ordered remanded in prison custody until 3 January 2006. The journalists, Klem Ofuokwu, a reporter, and Cleopatra Tawo, a news presenter, were reportedly arrested by agents of the State Security Service (SSS), Nigeria's intelligence service, on 19 December and detained since then over a report aired on the radio station on 17 December claiming that the Choba Bridge on the outskirts of the city had collapsed and trapped seven vehicles”. Their radio station was not spared either; it was shut down on Odili’s orders.
The spectre of another generous dictator scares me. Those who know him say the man just loves giving, to the needy and not so needy, and of course it is common knowledge that only a thin line separates the needy from the greedy. Unlike Chris Uba however, Odili, a Knighted Roman Catholic, would not drag you naked to a shrine to behold you against a favour. He donates the sort of money that dazzles the receiver beyond modest expectations, stories have been told of how some Pentecostal churches in Port Harcourt are still mired in intractable crises over how to equitably share Odili’s huge donations. In one particular moving instance, we were told, Rivers state Christian Pilgrims to Jerusalem returned to learn that the amount declared to them in the Holy land as estacode from Odili was only one-fifth of the actual amount approved by His Excellency, someone who didn’t mind stealing in the House of the Lord, had ‘edited’ their funds to the fury of the usually placid medical doctor.
Notwithstanding the spot relief free money brings to a lucky recipient, it is a perilous aberration. Is that what we want for this country right now, Is it the way forward, is Odili the model of leadership this country desperately needs now and in the near future. Money is the root of all evil but money not worked for is the foundation upon which all other evil rest. My argument is that such a man, generous with public funds (other peoples money, basically) is too dangerous for public morality.
I watched in horror a recent CNN new features ‘Inside Africa’ where the subject of corruption in Nigeria was highlighted. The first impression you get from that presentation is that someone may have commissioned the ‘hatchet job’ to rope in Vice President Atiku Abubakar as the arrowhead of corruption in Nigeria, with comments by officials about his business interests and his political associates being investigated. Having put the VP on the spotlight unfairly, Odili was brought in under more favourable light as a respite. Why would a reasonable Nigerian exchange Atiku for Odili, have we all turned scavengers? The CNN story looked more like another smooth Odili operation, it lacked fairness and underestimated the sympathy, love and respect Nigerians have developed for the astute Vice President especially since his power drunk boss set out to humiliate him for the fun of it. I am not speaking for Atiku but having watched what happened at the NUJ election CNN may have to do a follow up presentation and consider apologising to the Vice President unless they too have joined the band baying for his blood. Odili meantime deserves a more critical scrutiny than CNN had time to spare because of the immense wealth and influence he currently wields and the wrong uses he is wont to deploy them.
After considering the foregoing, my humble submission is that President Odili would be a throwback to the Babangida days and given the level of poverty in the land, the stampede to get access to him and have some showers of benevolent rain would be dauntingly nauseating; it is guaranteed to bring out the worst in Nigerians, given the immense powers and influence of the Nigerian Presidency. And because negative influences are easier to copy, lax enforcement of laws in our system means that elite/class mobility is unregulated, which is a recipe to national chaos.
The problem with an Odili Presidency is that it would activate the national greed module, proliferate beggar points for the elite, empower hangers-on and court jesters indiscriminately, and promote intrigues, falsehood and subterfuge. It would also turn on its head the emerging national value system based on hard work, hands-on production and value-added activities. And like absolute power, unearned money corrupts absolutely; just think of the NUJ election shenanigans. Nigerians would again relapse into believing that the easiest way to earn money is by knowing someone who knows the President or has access to him. For a country still reeling from the distortions caused by a value system dominated by rent seeking and unearned income, an Odili Presidency would wind the clock of progress back to the 80s and 90s when our elites would rather borrow money to buy influence or public office than open a factory. The gains of the Obasanjo reforms in attitudinal positivism may be replaced by a gradual national relapse into a Santa Claus economy where people struggle for handouts and would compromise their integrity for crumbs.
It would also roll back the gains of meritorious selection carefully put in place by President Obasanjo. Through privatisation and other institutional reforms, Obasanjo is levelling the playing field and redirecting the attention of our youths to the farms, small-scale manufacturing, the ICT and other productive sectors. Even admission into public institutions is being sanitised to eliminate privileged access.
An Odili Presidency would mean we learnt nothing and forgot nothing from the disastrous IBB misadventure. Analysts correctly said IBB did not introduce corruption but his historic contribution was to remove shame and guilt from stealing while he is ‘credited’ with spreading corruption to the grassroots. Those who could not catch the government ‘settlement’ groove invented the notorious Advance Fees Fraud, a.k.a. 419 and its later day mutation, ritual murder for money, all in an attempt to live like the Joneses. These are maladies from which this country has hardly recovered. My fears are that Odili could represent a throwback to those days of locust from which we just emerged and an antithesis to what Obasanjo has laboured to build.
Mr Segun Adebo, a journalist, contributed this piece from Ile-Ife