By Olusegun Adeniyi
I was among friends who hail from the southeast when the Anambra State gubernatorial election result was officially declared on November 7th last year. Not surprisingly, the outcome provoked considerable excitement in the room. One said, “I can bet that Segun’s next column will be on Soludo”, and turning to me, he added, “I know you like Soludo a lot.” After affirming that I really do like Soludo, I replied, “But my column will be on Anambra State. I want to write on Willie Obiano.” I could sense the surprise before one asked, “Obiano? You know him?” My response that I had never met Obiano and the last time I visited Anambra State was when Peter Obi was governor, elicited a sharp retort: “Then, please don’t write about Obiano”. And they all began to regale me with tales about the man, his government and family.
Most of what they held against Obiano were allegations of personal habits and the meddlesomeness of his wife. Only one person, who hails from Anambra, spoke of Obiano’s stewardship which he dismissed as dismal. Although my interest had nothing to do with how Obiano managed Anambra State and its resources, the resistance was strong enough to discourage me from writing the column. The subsequent drama of 17th March this year at Soludo’s inauguration, when Mrs Ebelechukwu Obiano nearly disrupted proceedings, finally killed the idea.
But a Twitter conversation I followed on Tuesday convinced me that the Obiano issue is important for our democracy. Olukayode Bakre (@kayodebakre8) had tweeted: “Governors get an easy pass. They are not held accountable for anything. Millions of kids are out of school. We blame the FG. A state has very high unemployment rate, we blame the FG alone. A governor does not pay salaries regularly and as such poverty grows in his state. We blame the FG. The governor decides to reside in Abuja and occasionally visits his state. He can decide to spend government monies on his political ambition or to install a stooge. He can decide to donate billions of Naira to other states when his own state is in dire need of money. They can’t even ensure out-of-school kids are taken back to school. They can’t invite companies to invest in their states. They can’t ensure payment of salaries. They can’t take care of wastes. They can’t make schools conducive for students. The FG is blocking all these?”
The import of Bakre’s tweet is that with so much focus on the federal government, states are not being held to account for the basic things they are supposed to provide. And as it so often happens in Nigeria, many left the ball to attack the leg, given comments that followed the post. It is not difficult to understand what Bakre was saying. If we are to develop as a country, the focus cannot only be on Abuja. We must also begin to interrogate what is happening in the 36 states which is why I believe the example of Obiano is important. With the current global realities vis-à-vis the price of oil and the unending subsidy regime, many of the states are already facing hard times. In some months, finance commissioners return from the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) meetings in Abuja empty handed. That then explains why outgoing governors must begin to think beyond themselves when endorsing candidates for succession.
But before I address that issue, let me quickly speak to the recent call by Chief Afe Babalola, SAN, for an interim government. “…The same (1999) Constitution has made politics become not only very attractive, but the only lucrative business in Nigeria today,” said Babalola who believes that a contraption of unelected people is what we need at this period. “What this means is that any election that holds under the present scenario will end up producing transactional and recycled leaders, with no ability to turn things around.’’
This is a recurring conversation at every election cycle in Nigeria, ever since General Ibrahim Babangida introduced the idea in 1993. In the prelude to the 2007 general election, former Anambra State Governor, Chief Chukwuemeka Ezeife advocated an interim national government based on his unfounded fears. The leaders of the proposed interim government, according to Ezeife, would be chosen from a college comprising pre-1999 political actors. On the eve of 2015 general election, then Senate President, David Mark, was so incensed by the call for interim national government that he described it as “imprecise, sordid and strange.” And shortly before the 2019 general election, Senior Pastor of the Household of God Church, Reverend Chris Okotie said there was a need to save the nation. “That is why I have reiterated my call for an interim government because that is the only paradigm that is realistic at this point.”
The 1999 constitution is not perfect. But it cannot be an argument to derail the 2023 general election, as Babalola is advocating. Making that clear now is important because once the primaries are over and many of the clowns pretending to contest for one office or another in the major parties lose out, there will be a great deal of noise and many weird propositions. That is usually when this call for interim national government becomes strident. We should not give anybody the space for such a self-serving campaign.
Now back to Obiano. When governors seek successors in Nigeria, their consideration is usually based on the ‘loyalty’ to them rather than the capacity of such aspirants to deliver public good. Yes, we have had a few instances when outgoing governors identified talents among their appointees and backed them: Bola Tinubu to Babatunde Raji Fashola in Lagos, Chimaroke Nnamani to Sullivan Chime in Enugu, Kashim Shettima to Babagana Zulum in Borno and a few others. But we have never had a situation like Anambra State where a sitting governor would endorse someone who could be considered superior to him in experience, exposure, and intellect.
In a milieu where governors look for pliant people that they imagine they could control, regents who would be answerable to them and their families, Obiano has done something worthy of emulation. By supporting Soludo, he has sent a message that in planning succession, governors should think about their states. Let’s face it, Obiano was an obscure executive director of a little-known bank when Soludo was already Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor. So, it must be obvious to Obiano that he can never play the role of godfather after office with a man like Soludo as governor. Instructively, at campaign rostrums before the election, Obiano reportedly continued telling the people that Soludo was better than him in several respects. It takes character to say such things in today’s Nigeria.
What Obiano did in Anambra State is even more significant going by Soludo’s public testimony. As part of the salutations during his inaugural speech, Soludo said: “Let me particularly thank my friend and outgoing governor of Anambra, Willie Maduaburochukwu Obiano, for being an honourable gentleman and leader. On Sunday, 20th November 2016, I accepted your proposal for gentlemen’s understanding and partnership. I kept my part in 2017 and even after five years, you still kept yours in 2021. I always emphasize this point because it is rare these days to find people who keep their word in politics, and we will never take your support for granted.”
The backstory is that in the last Anambra State gubernatorial election, Obiano asked for Soludo’s support with a pledge that he (Obiano) would work for the latter to succeed him. I have heard many such tales before in Nigeria. It never works. With the way we play politics morality has little to do with it. Promises and agreements can be cynically broken where there is no sanctity in fixed commitments. I believe there is a lot we can learn from Obiano if we are to rebuild trust in our politics.
Today, we live in a nation where politicians and people in public offices have no qualms about making all kinds of promises because they know they will not fulfil them, and they cannot be held accountable. Yet, when we talk about integrity in leadership or business, we mean people who can stand by their words or promises regardless of consequences to their person or position. Men whose yes will remain yes and whose no will be no, regardless of a change in fortunes. Not people who sign agreements today and renege on them tomorrow. It is safe to conclude that those who break agreements with friends and associates would not consider campaign promises to be worth fulfilling. This is a problem that transcends politics.
One Nigerian for whom I have tremendous admiration and respect is Mr Tajudeen Fola Adeola. On the day he retired as the pioneer Managing Director/CEO of GTBank (which he co-founded) in 2002, he decided to walk from his office in Victoria Island to his Ikoyi residence. Having been detailed to stay with him that day, we did the walk together after which I interviewed him. One thing he spoke about which I will never forget is the concept of ‘to have and to yield’. That unfortunately is one area where many Nigerians, either in politics or the corporate world, fail miserably because it is an attribute that speaks to integrity and selflessness. But we will come back to this another day.
I am aware that as we inch towards the 2023 general election all eyes are on the presidency. For sure, that is a huge political prize in an environment like ours. But even if we end up with the best president in the world, and are left with nonentities in the 36 states, not much will change. So, while we seek to replace President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, there are also open-seat gubernatorial elections in 17 states in March next year. These states where the incumbent governors will be completing their second term are: Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Benue, Cross River, Delta, Ebonyi, Enugu, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Niger, Plateau, Rivers, Sokoto, and Taraba. Gubernatorial elections in Anambra, Bayelsa, Edo, Ekiti, Imo, Kogi, Ondo and Osun are off-season. In Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Kwara, Lagos, Nasarawa, Ogun, Oyo, Yobe and Zamfara states, the governors would be seeking re-election this being their first term. With off-season elections in eight states and incumbents seeking re-election in 11 states, we have a situation where 17 governors are plotting succession. It would help if they looked beyond ‘loyalty’ and began to cultivate aspirants with capacity to do the job. That precisely is the value of what Obiano has done in Anambra State.
Meanwhile, the problem of succession is likely to persist for as long as we conceive of the states as private estates and medieval fiefdoms rather than commonwealths. An over monetized electoral system guarantees that the incumbent governor is often the only one with a deep enough pocket to fund succession election and of course ensure victory for his candidate. More often than not, independent voices fall outside the incumbent governor’s circle of preferred aspirants. The exception of Anambra is perhaps because a friend of the outgoing governor happens to also be an outstanding intellectual and competent technocrat. That Obiano had the courage and confidence to cultivate such an impeccable combination is why he offers a worthy example to emulate.
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