By Suyi Ayodele
This is a true life story. There was once a Yoruba traditional ruler who talked down on his subjects. His tongue was so acerbic that even his council of chiefs avoided him. His hubris was his penchant to extend his bag of insults even to the parents and family members of whoever falls prey to his volcanic eruptions. But one day, his cup was full. A young man was charged to the king’s court over a minor matter. The young man took his time to explain his points but the king was already in his usual element.
He cut the boy short in the middle of his narration and the boy simply told him that he had not finished stating his own side of the matter that brought him to the palace. That was audacious! The crowd knew there would be repercussions. The response from the throne was thunderous. “May vulture pluck the eyes of your parents,” the king roared. The boy was bewildered. He looked straight into the king’s eyes and retorted, flatly: “Baba, don’t repeat that.” Pin drop silence pervaded the atmosphere. The king’s eyes dilated dangerously. The king’s executioner touched the hilt of his sword in the pouch. The king asked: “what will you do if I repeat that”?
Calmly, again, the boy responded: “Baba, don’t just repeat that.” Game! “Alright, now I say, may vulture pluck the eyes of your parents.” The boy wasted no time; looking straight in the eyes of the king, and with all the energy in his being, roared: “Baba, may vultures pluck the eyes of your parents and grandparents!”
“Oran re” (This is trouble), said someone. The palace guards rushed at the boy, but the king signaled to them to stop. The palace griot took over, chanting the praises of the king. Women were rolling on the floor in supplication. Men were on their bellies appeasing the king. The boy remained defiant. The king bowed his head and gave a long sigh. The crowd chorused, “Kabiyesi.” He looked up, motioned to the boy to come closer and then spoke: “Today, we shall not be executing this boy. This one’s head is not meant for Ogun (god of iron). We all should be happy that in this town, we have our own mad child. Every town must have a mad child who can withstand the mad child coming from outside. Besides, every bad child has his own day.” The boy was discharged and history has it that till the king joined his ancestors, he never, again, after that incident, talked down on his subjects. In subsequent years, that mad boy became useful for the community in silencing any rude neighbour.
In the last one week or so, each time I read or hear anything about Nyesom Wike, the governor of Rivers State, especially on the issue of the Value Added Tax, (VAT), the story of the king and the audacity of the boy readily comes to mind. Indeed, every family needs a mad child. I have never liked Wike’s ways in governance. His churlish, unpolished communication style has, to me, always left much to be desired. I have been to Rivers State a couple of times, before he became the governor and in his governorship too.
True, even the blind can see the differences he is making in terms of development though the costs of delivery of those infrastructures are debatable. As that is by no means the drift of this essay, I beg to submit that posterity is likely to record him on the positive side in that regard. However, his apparent lack of good manners and finesse is something I cannot agree with. I find Wike embarrassingly nauseating in many of the video clips where he talked down on people.
He could be correct in some cases like the recent one where he interrogated the sanity of another governor over the latter’s claim that Nigerians should pray for another Buhari in 2023. I equally enjoyed the one, where he took up a fellow expert in blathering. Comrade Adams Oshiomhole at a public function and made a mess of the hypocrisy of the former APC National Chairman’s mode of dressing. I watched another video, where Wike completely messed up a traditional ruler in the state, whom he called “this boy I knew when I was in school, he was running around us, going on errands. Now he’s dressing like Usman Dan Fodio”. In that same video, he told the assembly of crowns in the hall to always go about with their ‘staff of office and not to “go and keep it in your bedroom or put it in your shrine, for those of you who worship at various shrines”. I was sad that an African child would choose to treat our revered traditional institution in such a demeaning manner.
Not too long ago, someone sent a quotation, attributed to Wike, telling some traditional worshippers: “tell your juju to see me in government house”, in response to the claims for compensation over some shrines that were destroyed for some road constructions. Again, I find his “bull in a China shop” attitude in his PDP quite unbecoming. I have, however, been told that the ways of politicians are different. All these notwithstanding, in the last one week, I have started to have a rethink of my impression about Wike’s personality. His recent position on the issue of VAT is casting him, in my opinion, in the mould of the proverbial mad child that every family needs to counter the mad child coming from outside. This picture got clearer, when the Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, took exactly the same step. Wike, may after all, be the south’s “evil necessity” needed to neutralise the evil from other lands.
For so many years, the North has been behaving like the king in our story above: the one that feels he cannot be challenged; the one who determines the destinies of others while wearing the toga of supremacy. The region has been reaping from where it did not sow and has been enjoying the sweat and labour of the South, unchallenged. Like the king whose eyes the chiefs dared not look into, those who contribute next to nothing are getting the biggest chunk of the gargantuan elephant while the real cash cow continues eating ordinary grass.
That is the bitter truth about the issue of VAT. The northern states and the percentage of VAT they get is akin to those who stumble on a dead elephant by the bank of the river and come after it with axes and cutlasses, as if the elephant died from drinking too much water. Like Wike put it: “Free money has promoted laziness”. The lopsidedness in the number of local governments up North as opposed to those in the South, has been predicated on the dizzying figures the region brandishes anytime the population of Nigeria is in contention. And this can only happen in a nation like ours. Nigeria is, no doubt, the only country in the world where you have more people in the desert region than in the rainforest. Kano State, at the 2019 presidential election, recorded 1,856,361 votes for both APC and PDP.
The figure in 2015 election was almost the same at 2,229,778 votes. In Wike’s Rivers State, in 2019, APC and PDP scored 624,681 and in 2015, the results for the two leading parties stood at 1,556,313. The figures from Kano are, no doubt, irritating. This is why Wike postulated that “You can’t contribute humongous numbers during elections that can’t translate to tax earnings for your state. If they can vote, they should be able to work and pay tax”. Wike’s Rivers State in June 2021 contributed N15 billion to the coffers while it got N4.7bn in return. In that same month, Kano generated N2.8bn and got the same N2.8bn back. He added that while Lagos generated N46.4bn that same month, it got only N9.3 billion.
“Sometimes, you don’t want to believe these things exist”, he lamented. Right from the time lizards were few, we had been calling for true federalism and proper restructuring. True federalism should translate to each state of the federation keeping whatever it generates in terms of revenue. It is pure absurdity that Lagos State will generate billions of Naira from VAT and get peanuts while Kano will retain its own VAT hundred percent. The absurdity is sustained by the humongous number of local governments in Kano. Kano and Lagos states both had 44 local government councils apiece before Jigawa State, with 27 councils, was carved out of Kano on August 27, 1991.
Till date, Lagos remains with the same 44 councils while Kano and Jigawa share between them 71 councils, which will come and share Lagos’ VAT. If that is not injustice, I don’t know which name to call it. No matter how one may detest Wike’s style of governance, his recent stance on the issue of VAT is perfectly in order. A bad child surely has his own day. The entire southern part of the country should be grateful to him for taking the bold step. With Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State’s stance on the ban on open grazing and Wike’s initiative on VAT, Nigeria is moving gradually to the El Dorado of restructuring and true federalism that well-meaning Nigerians have been canvassing for to no avail.
I love the argument that if the North should tax its agricultural products, life will become unbearable. I think the North should go ahead and collect VAT on farm produce coming down South from that region. It should be proud to do so. I won’t go into the argument of which section of the country sustains the other in terms of food sustainability. The recent episode during which the North embarked on food blockade to the South suffices. If the promoters of “the north feeds the south” are surefooted about their claims, they should encourage the North to tax their farm produce. The southern states should in that wise be allowed to retain all the VAT they collect. We can then exchange our money for foodstuff; that is simple commerce. But the North knows the true position.
The elites over there know that the lie of a bigger population does not hold water again. Over there, the average man or woman knows that foodstuff coming from the North to the South is just simple economics. Farm produce will always move to where there is a market for them in simple obedience to the push and pull of demand versus supply. I can’t wait to see a day in Nigeria, when the North will say: “we are not selling foodstuff to the South because what we produce is not even enough to feed our population, let alone sell to others”. Let that day come, and very quickly too. And let each state keep what it generates for the betterment of its people. This is equity and justice in real terms.