Public officers as ethnic champions

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Simon Kolawole

My decision to vote for Candidate Olusegun Obasanjo in the 1999 presidential election was influenced by many factors, one of which was his acceptability across regions and religions. Here was a southerner acceptable to northerners, a Yoruba acceptable to Hausa-Fulani and Igbo, a Christian acceptable to Muslims, and a civilian acceptable to the military. Although I voted for the candidates of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) in the house of assembly, governorship and national assembly elections, I did not think twice before casting my vote for Obasanjo, the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), in the presidential poll rather than Chief Olu Falae, the AD/APP candidate.

I was not a member of any party and I am still not a member of one. I somehow think party membership limits one’s ability to think straight. You always have to be sentimental, loyal and blind, no matter the nonsense served by your party. While I believed that Falae was better than Obasanjo in terms of paper qualifications, Obasanjo had a bigger personality and, as a former head of state, was far more experienced. Falae had a loaded CV — an economist with a graduate degree from Yale University and a former bank MD who served as secretary to the federal military government and as minister of finance under General Ibrahim Babangida. But I saw Falae more as a Yoruba candidate.

I was particularly fascinated by Obasanjo’s discomfort with ethnic nationalism. “How can you, after you have been president of Nigeria, become a member of an organisation promoting regional agenda?” he once asked. To be sure, I have nothing against people associating with their ethnic groups or asserting their ethnic identities. I am very proud of my ethnic identity and I would not trade it for another if I were to be born a million times. I am very comfortable with my tongue. My worry is when people entrusted with national responsibilities turn out to be nothing more than ethnic champions and irredentists as we discover after they leave public service. This is troubling.

In the past few days, I have been worried by statements attributed to some civil society organisations insinuating that some Nigerian judges have been co-opted into fanning the embers of ethnic nationalism and secession. A state high court in Oyo state recently awarded N20 billion against the federal government over the invasion of the home of Chief Sunday Igboho, the Yoruba secessionist leader, by the security agents in a failed attempt to arrest him. The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) has also instituted a N5 billion suit against the federal government at a state high court in Abia state over the arrest of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the separatist movement.

The CSOs described the judges as “friendly” to the secessionists. The insinuations were quite heavy: that the judges, who are expected to be impartial while also protecting the national interest, are acting contrary to their oath of allegiance to the Federal Republic of Nigeria and succumbing to external influences. I actually got into an argument with someone during the week over the issue. My position was that some judges are probably afraid of being attacked by the mob if they do not ply the same ethnic route with the secessionists. This, I said, could influence them. I further argued that it could also be that the lawyers of the security agencies are not defending these cases well.

His counter argument was that judges can still handle such cases with circumspection. “Imagine there is no right of appeal and the federal government has to hand over N20 billion to Igboho or N5 billion to IPOB. The government will end up empowering the secessionists to launch more attacks on the state and I can assure you that nobody will be safe,” he argued. We ended up agreeing that the agencies also have to adhere to due process and global best practices in carrying out their operations so that the human rights of separatists will be respected. That way, there will be little or no room for judges to be blackmailed into giving judgments that will lead to unholy insinuations.

For the sake of clarity, let me say I was not dismissing the suggestion that financial inducement, fear of attacks and sympathies for ethnic nationalism can serve as external influences on the judges. None of these should be acceptable in the temple of justice. Judges should be made of sterner stuff. Nonetheless, I started thinking after our argument: what if some judges are actually sympathetic to the separatists and are giving judgements to strengthen them and weaken the Nigerian state? What if they are indeed ethnic champions masquerading as public officers? If ethnic champions succeed in defiling the temple of justice, then our trouble has just begun. It is like pouring fuel on fire.

Truly, if there are ethnic or pecuniary motivations and justice is no longer being served in the court of law, then we need to be excessively worried. There are real dangers ahead. That was how politicians started penetrating the courts before the 2003 elections and today, nobody is really sure of the justice in the judgments being dished out in political cases. A lawyer told me last year that he stopped handling election petitions because he was no longer sure if he was winning the cases on the strength of his arguments or if his clients had gone through the backdoor to see the judges. Inducement is a big issue, but we are in for a rougher ride if judges become ethnic champions.

On the other hand, I have always wondered how some public officers openly become ethnic champions after leaving service. I am forced to wonder what sort of sectional agenda they must have been secretly pursuing while they were in office — to the detriment of people from other regions or of other religions. Most recently, the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) vowed that the north would continue to rule. “We will lead Nigeria the way we have led Nigeria before. Whether we are president or vice president or whatever, we will lead Nigeria,” NEF spokesman, Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, said on Sunday at a lecture in memory of the late Alhaji Maitama Sule in Zaria, Kaduna state.

Baba-Ahmed happens to be someone I respect so much. He is one of the finest brains around. I will not begrudge him if he chooses to keep promoting ethnic and regional agenda. I would say the national fabric is so weak that we desperately need builders as leaders, but that does not take away the right of anybody to pursue a narrow vision. But the arrogance of “we have the numbers” is the least we need in Nigeria now. (And, for the record, nobody has ever been voted president of Nigeria based on northern votes alone. If not, President Muhammadu Buhari would have won in 2003 and 2011. He did not become president until he got a slice of the south in 2015. Just for the record).

Here is my real worry. Baba-Ahmed was a federal civil servant, rising to the position of permanent secretary, serving in the presidency and later as secretary of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), after which he became PS in the office of the SGF. These are not provincial positions. These are positions that require pan-Nigerian mindset. A lot rests on the shoulders of permanent secretaries who are effectively the chief executives of the ministries. They have substantial influence on government decisions. I hate to imagine what these public office holders who end up as ethnic champions must have quietly done against other regions while in service.

I will keep arguing that everybody has a right to decide the path to pursue in life. Nobody can legislate against that. For instance, I have no problems with Iba Gani Adams pursuing Yoruba nationalism — he has never pretended to be pan-Nigerian. Kanu has always regarded non-Igbo as lesser beings and described Nigeria as a zoo from which he wants to liberate his people. At no time has he pretended to be pan-Nigerian. I respect him for that. But I am gravely disturbed when people who have held public positions and are expected to have a pan-Nigerian mindset come out of the closet and turn out to be irredentists. It is like discovering that your guard is a kidnapper all along.

I was a fierce critic of Obasanjo while he was in office, but I always gave one thing to him: he thought as a Nigerian and acted as a Nigerian. His appointments, policies and projects were clearly pan-Nigerian, and the dominant forces in his cabinet cut across the divides — compared to what we have today. Can you imagine Obasanjo now becoming the leader of some Yoruba group and making assertions on behalf of the Yoruba ethnic nationality? Or Chief Gani Fawehinmi, who laid down his freedom and comfort for the masses of Nigeria and was jailed again and again, ending his mission on earth as a champion of one ethnic group, spewing obscenities at other ethnic groups?

I’ve been told that some people only became ethnic champions after having served Nigeria and become disillusioned by what they saw in the system. That could be true, but maybe they also had the ethnic seed in their hearts which was only waiting for the right time to germinate. I also reckon that the ethnic game is a way some people have chosen to negotiate for power. Otherwise, before 1999, wasn’t the north in power for 35 out of the 39 years of Nigeria’s independence? Shouldn’t northern leaders be boasting today about how they used the opportunity to turn the north into an industrial power? How has “we have the numbers” bettered the lot of millions of northerners?

And four other things…

Forex fuss

A lot of hell has been raised over the falling value of the naira. The impression I am getting is that it is because of the wickedness of some people in government. The PDP has called for the sack of Mr Godwin Emefiele as CBN governor. Sadly, that will not save the naira. We may quarrel with the monetary policies, but there is a bitter fact we cannot run away from: we just don’t have the dollars! That is why we are throwing even the kitchen sink to save a currency that is under attack from all angles: low FX inflow, heavy importation bills and massive petrol subsidy. The structure of our economy is fundamentally flawed. And where in the world does the central bank fund BDCs? Weird.

Fighting Fatai

I am definitely not a fan of Alhaji Abdulfatah Ahmed, who was governor of Kwara state form 2011 to 2019. However, I think the lawyer of the Asset Management Company of Nigeria (AMCON) went too far in his social media stunts to announce the seizure of Ahmed’s property in Ilorin, Kwara, over a debt dating back to 2009. I don’t know much about how AMCON operates, but I believe it is quite unprofessional for a lawyer to be gloating on social media that he had seized someone’s property. He was even running commentary like a teenager. I understand that social media has become a drug that is getting a lot of people high, but this is the legal profession we are discussing here. Infantile.

All on board

President Muhammadu Buhari seems to be making haste over the petroleum industry act, judging by the timeline of its implementation. Last week, he approved the incorporation of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Ltd which will succeed the corporation, as the unbundling process begins. Buhari also announced the appointment of the board and management teams for the various new entities. Before now, many Nigerians would have expressed shock at the calibre of some of the appointees. It looks like he is settling some political IOUs. I think Nigerians have already given up and are only waiting for “Mai Gaskiya” to just complete his tenure and go. Worrying.

Ode to Ude

I never knew Alhaji Abdulaziz Chivuzor Ude beyond the fact that he was an investor in the Nigerian media. It was also inescapable that he was a Muslim from a predominantly Christian region. However, I have been fascinated by the testimonies and tributes that have been pouring forth since he died a week ago, a few days to his 81st birthday. The culture enthusiast and serial entrepreneur was a philanthropist extraordinaire who impacted so many lives quietly, some of whom are now celebrating his indelible marks on their life journeys. He was also credited with playing a role in the creation of some states in the south-east. These are the real Nigerian role models. Authentic.

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