October 03, 2016

Revealing: Peter Obi’s Independence Day governance lessons

by Obo Effanga
It is the 56th Independence Anniversary of Nigeria. The exact date was last Saturday, October 1. But in our country’s tradition of not allowing the rest day for a public holiday falling on a weekend to “waste”, the holiday was shifted to today, Monday. 

Yet, for what now seems to be an age-long tradition, Nigerians are again witnessing the umpteenth “low-key” celebration of the country’s Independence Day with much of “sober reflections”. 

It is something our national psyche has got used to for many years but more particularly in the last five years or so.

The last major and really big state celebration on October 1 was in 2010 when the country marked its golden jubilee of Independence. Part of the celebration was an attempt to enter the Guinness World Records by baking the world’s largest cake weighing 65,000kg with a length of 100ft and height of 6ft. Although the organisers of the cake baking claimed it was a private arrangement, the cake baking was to have been undertaken by 2,000 persons between midnight and ready by noon of October 1 that year to be unveiled by then President Goodluck Jonathan and all of N75m was to be invested into the venture.

Unfortunately for everyone, the Independence Day event that year ended suddenly with a bang (no pun intended) following the bomb explosion at the venue at the Eagle Square, Abuja. That was how our international-classed “national cake” was abandoned. And nothing has since been heard of that misadventure. And that is how we entered into a new season of “security challenge” that limited our public fanfare in celebrating our Independence Day. Today, our economic situation has kept us in check against any elaborate celebration.

The good thing is that we can truly concentrate on that “sober reflection’ of our Independence Day. And that is what happened last Saturday across the country at various events. The single event that caught my attention was The Platform, a public discussion event organised by Covenant Christian Centre in Lagos. Over the past few years, The Platform brings different speakers to speak on issues of national development on occasions such as this. No doubt, the star speaker for many Nigerians last Saturday was the immediate past governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi.

For about one hour, Obi spoke without any visible notes on how to cut the cost of governance, using specific examples of his tenure as state governor for eight years. He spoke about some of the few ways state governors squander public funds on frivolities because the system is simply set up to be wasteful. But Obi also told us how he stopped some of them. Many of these are issues some of us have variously canvassed with little success. It made a world of difference though that someone who wore the shoes like Peter Obi had to speak about it and show how he managed to stand up against the wastage.

Obi talked about the cost of travels by governors to Abuja for several national-level official meetings wherein they travel with a huge crowd of up to 20 state officials and aides, including security operatives, sometimes up to three times a month. These travels burn much of public funds in air travels, even as some governors fly chartered flights. The costs also go into accommodation and meals in hotels even when it is just the governor alone who is attending the meeting. 

To cut those costs, Obi said he opted to travelling alone while making arrangement for the inspector-general of police to assign him three police personnel based in Abuja to be on standby for him anytime he was in Abuja.

While some of the claims by Obi may sound outrageous, some of those things he did could be verified and attested to. For instance, I recall Obi as governor turning up at an event by my office in Abuja with a large crowd of not more than five and that without any fanfare. When he left the venue, I did not see more than two vehicles. Last Saturday, Obi also talked about the large number of vehicles in a typical state governor’s convoy and how expensive it is to maintain such number. He questioned the necessity for outriders on power bikes in state governor’s convoys. 

Without missing this moment, the Cross River State Governor, Ben Ayade, would do well to watch Obi’s speech or seek the man out for tutorials on how to use public funds in this regard. Well, maybe not only Ayade needs such lessons, but the number of vehicles and humans in his convoy are notorious for public nuisance.

Obi also talked about the vexed issue of “First Lady” of states and even local government areas. Here are totally unconstitutional and illegal offices, including that of First Lady of the country or “Office of wife of the President” (by whatever designation) which we ought to have stopped operating long ago but even more so, under a collapsed economy as we have today. Yet, our president, all our state governors and to a large extent, local government heads have maintained these “offices” at huge and distractive costs to the country. Many of these wives of public officials spend huge public funds on frivolities and do not account to anybody. Why should we elect one person into office and end up picking the official and unofficial bills of more than that person?

Since we have waited too long for President Muhammadu Buhari and the rest of the chief executives to stop this practice without success, we need to urge the legislature to ensure this happens. But that would also mean that the heads of the legislature themselves do not also allow their wives to create and run the equally illegal “offices” such as “Office of the Wife of the Senate President”; “Office of the Wife of the Speaker” etc. I have always asked why wives of public officials cannot just continue with whatever life endeavours they were into before their husbands got into office.

Like someone said, Obi might not have been a saint in all areas of governance and not everything he said on Saturday might have been as stellar as he painted them, but his views are such that sitting governors should learn from. My respect for Obi did not start last Saturday. As far back as June 2007, I had in an article celebrated the man’s contributions to jurisprudence, politics and federalism with his several court cases challenging the brigandage brought against our constitution by anti-democratic forces in the Obasanjo era.

There is no doubt that Obi’s submissions resonated with many simple and common sense suggestions many citizens have made over the years about cutting down the cost of governance. Now that someone who wore the shoes of a governor is aligning with us on this and showing that it is doable, we must hinge on this to accelerate our demand for smaller and effective governance. Every one of us has a part to play. We can start by recognising and sharing stories of change as this. We can name and shame those public officers who have failed/refused/neglected to do things differently. It also behoves us as citizens, not to make demands and expect gifts and benefits from these ones where we know such are outside their legitimate earnings.

Obo Effanga