Nigeria’s sleeping beauties


Lekan Sote  

In the world of commerce, a “Sleeping Beauty,” is a company, usually a startup, that is attractive to hostile takeovers, because of its appealing features, like a stash of cash, undervalued real estate or shares, but has a management that is unable to take advantage of its potential.

In Nigeria, government-owned enterprises, like the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, and interventionist agencies, like the Niger Delta Development Commission, are sleeping beauties that some clever Nigerians have cornered for the exclusive advantage of themselves, families and ethnic groups.

But these are sleeping beauties in the sense of a metaphor or figure of speech. The real, or literal, sleeping beauties are the Nigerians, who were privileged to run these government agencies, but somehow keep falling down sick or fainting whenever they are required to explain their stewardship, either to a National Assembly panel of enquiry, or a court of law.

“Sleeping Beauty,” is the title of a Walt Disney fairy tale movie where a princess fell asleep for years after pricking her finger on a splinter of flax, following a curse placed by a witch. She was revived by the kiss of a handsome foreign king.

But the original version, written by Italian poet, Giambatiste Basile, actually concluded the story with a rape by the king. And, what are those who run Nigeria’s commonwealth aground doing, if not rape?

Back to the human sleeping beauties, who fall sick only before administrative enquiries or judicial interrogations? And there are a legion of them. What is strange about the whole thing is that their interrogations or prosecutions usually end after their feints.

It appears somebody thought up this strategy because of the penchant of the Nigerian anger or fury to abate, or pass over anyone who is shameless enough to present themselves as an underdog, whose sins must therefore be forgiven or forgotten.

And the tendency is trickling down to the plebeian level these days. A female, facing trial at an Osun State Magistrate Court in Osogbo, was reported to have slumped during a court session, shortly after a charge for failure to wear a nose mask (a statutory requirement to protect her and others from COVID-19 pandemic) was read against her.

Though her co-offenders or co-defenders were convicted and received sentences of hours of community service, and, or, fine, this female was only cautioned and discharged, probably because she was pregnant. Pentecostal Christians would say, mercy spoke for her.

Foreigners have also learnt the trick: Harvey Weinstein, American movie producer, was dismissed by the entertainment company he co-founded, after more than 100 women accused him of sexual harassment, assault or rape. He showed up in court with a walker.

But the judge and jury were not impressed: They handed him 23 years behind bars. The judge had declined a request by Weinstein’s lawyers to allow his surgeon to testify that he couldn’t walk properly because of a back surgery. The judge ruled that that had nothing to do with the case. Maybe if he had come in a stretcher, he would have made an impression.

Two prominent Nigerian politicians who recently made appearances in court, looking sick, are Olisa Metuh, former National Publicity Secretary of the People’s Democratic Party, and ebullient Senator Dino “The Entertainer” Melaye, formerly representing Kogi State West Senatorial District.

Metuh did not get away with his attempt to sway the emotions of the courts to win sympathy. He, and his company, Destra Investment Limited, were found guilty of money laundering and illegally receiving N400 million of public funds, purportedly meant to procure military hardware, from Sambo Dasuki, National Security Adviser to former President Goodluck Jonathan.

He got a one-year jail sentence for each of the seven count charges, though they were to run concurrently. He failed to impress Justice Okon Abang by, first appearing in court on a wheelchair, and later, in a stretcher, and brandishing a claim by his lawyers that he had spinal cord issues.

Melaye has had a more dramatic outing than most. He reportedly ran into unknown assailants on his way between Abuja and Lokoja. Of his escape, he narrated, “I jumped into the bush, and I started running… I was able to outmanouvre them, and climb (sic) a tree.” He claimed that he spent 11 hours on the tree, overnight, it seems.

The other day, when he was brought into a court, he made a grand entrance on a stretcher. At another time, he was assisted by aides into the courtroom. They claimed that he could not walk unaided. Before this, he was reported to have jumped out of a moving police vehicle and was injured.

A soundbite from a video recording, apparently shot immediately after the show-jumping incident, showed Melaye telling a group that looks like police officers, “I will kill myself and put you into trouble.”

Those who had expected him to sing a more elaborate version of his favourite tune, “Ajekun ìyá ni ó je,” usually performed for a victim that is likely to suffer persecution many times over, were rather disappointed.

Another video shows Prof Kemebradikumo Pondei, acting Managing Director of the NDDC, acting, removing his glasses, placing them on the table, before allowing his head to find, and rest on, his arms. Some wonder why his head didn’t suddenly drop, or how he found the strength to pull off a hand that was going into his mouth.

Pondei was facing an investigative panel of the House of Representatives on illegal spending and mismanagement of N81.5bn NDDC funds. After Pondei collapsed, the committee, wondering whether to suspend the hearing, has not recalled him.

Nigerians who thought they would see more of the sleeping beauties are going to be disappointed. Some mischievous people suggest that Justice Ayo Salami won’t allow Ibrahim Magu, erstwhile acting Chairman of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, to appear before him, to deny TV cameras of the possible spectacle of a Magu collapsing under interrogation.

Magu’s lawyers, who these mischievous people think are looking for an opportunity to win him public sympathy by getting him to slump during a session, have accused the Salami panel of acting like a judicial commission of enquiry, by holding in private, instead of a tribunal of Inquiry that affords an accused the opportunity to defend themselves, and possibly win some sympathy.

Also, those who thought they would see oil execs slump at a Board of Enquiry or trial of as staff of the NNPC answer corruption charges, won’t get that chance. Afe Babalola, the legal counsellor to the NNPC, has thrown a curve into the works.

His chambers wrote a letter cautioning Mexican oil company, SAMANO, a self-appointed whistle-blower, alleging that some NNPC staff illegally diverted 48 million barrels of crude oil, valued at N47.6 billion, to some Chinese concerns. The NNPC alleges that SAMANO wanted to extort a $125 million hush money.

When Minister for Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, was too willing to offer too much information to a House of Representatives public hearing on the NDDC, he was asked to “off his mic.” Somehow, he didn’t understand that, “Issokay,” meant he should say no more.

To serve equity, justice, and fair hearing, Magu, Pondei, and Akpabio, must each get a chance to talk even if someone is going to slump.


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