Ten years ago, yours sincerely received an unforgettable call on a certain Sunday afternoon. It was the ebullient Jimoh Ibrahim that was on the line. The youthful billionaire, though already a friend, was in a combative mood over the day’s edition of this column published on the back page of Sunday Sun which I edited then.
His beef stemmed not necessarily from the substance of my thesis, but lumping him among those he considered a tribe of the “unlettered”.
In the piece, one took potshots at the fierce infighting among the emergent club of Obasanjo oligarchs. It would seem, one surmised, that whereas OBJ mentored them on the art of making cheap money by being the biggest beneficiaries of an opaque privatization programme, they had failed themselves by not imbibing the apostolic virtue of peaceful co-existence.
At the end of his friendly fire that lasted several minutes, Araba characteristically teased: “My yeye friend, I’m sure you took a strange coffee before writing that. Well, hold on for General.”
To my biggest shock, what echoed next in my ears was the clipped, unmistakable voice of General Muhammadu Buhari: “Louis, I just read your article now. Very, very interesting and humorous. In fact, I read and reread some portions that were most humourous. Like the part where you said some went to the university of buying and selling. Keep it up.”
I recall the memory of that phone encounter today to partly dispel certain myths about President Buhari and, more crucially, underline the urgency of remedial steps needed by a leader needlessly buffeted by rising dissent from sections of the country on account of what seems a self-derailment or gradual abandonment of habits that had served him so well.
Fleeting as our conversation was that day, I was left with the portrait of not the implacable ethno-religious bigot which his then political rival, OBJ, had splurged fortune to project over the years; but a genial grandee at home anywhere in the country. From my findings later, the phone call was made from the home of Ibrahim, a full-blooded Yoruba from rural Igbotako, a riverine community in Ondo State. Of course, Araba happened to be one of the young Turks of ANPP, Buhari’s party then.
After the 2003 presidential polls which OBJ notoriously won by a “moon slide”, not only did the negative profiling of Buhari become official policy, ostracization of any business tycoons suspected of ties with him also commenced pari pasu. Indeed, a good number of the northern business/political elite who seem in a hurry today to form an ethnic ring around him were the same characters Obasanjo had recruited to lead and sustain that dirty campaign.
It was therefore from such a narrow circle – pan-Nigerian nonetheless – who refused to be intimidated or blackmailed that Buhari had to draw for emotional balance and funding of his protracted legal battles against those who “cheated” him in the 2003, 2007 and 2011 polls. Among that fraternity was Tam West-David, a decorated professor of virology, who would cap his cult-like loyalty by writing and launching a book in his worship at personal cost when no one was yet sure Buhari could become a president.
In the South-east flank, you would find the likes of Dele Nnamdi Azikiwe, son of the great Zik, and Reverend Father Mbaka sticking out their necks for Buhari when it was most prohibitive and perilous. And the story is told that whenever Buhari visited Lagos those lonely days and had cause to pass the night, he often preferred to sleep at Ibrahim’s home on the island.
Backed over the years by this pan-Nigerian brotherhood forged in persecution and adversity, it is then something of a big paradox that, now as a president with unlimited access to all the bewitching lights executive power can conjure, Buhari seems increasingly isolated judging by a concatenation of gravely negative reports in the past one week. What with the grim gun-fight across the South-east against neo-Biafran separatists on Monday in which scored died. Elsewhere in South-south, there has been a complete lock-down of Delta/Bayelsa creeks as troops battle resurgent militants. Added to that is the loud murmurs from Ekiti and Ondo, PDP’s two surviving hideouts in the South-west.
Outside the north, it is doubtful if Buhari’s long-standing disciples like David-West would privately not feel ill at ease at this sorry turn of events today.
Indeed, the true ones among the General’s friends would tell him that at the root of the growing discontent outside the north today is not so much the hardship levied by the economic meltdown, but a feeling of alienation. The perceptive ones would recognize that the spectre of the misguided youths mouthing Biafra and the apparition of criminals masquerading as Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) alongside their craven sponsors are only a manifestation of deepening anger in those sections of the country.
After last year’s election, perhaps Buhari has really not done much to give those who voted against his party the confidence that he would be a president for all.
In a moment of colossal tactlessness, he had said on a foreign soil that those who did not vote for him in the 2015 elections should not expect to reap as much as his supporters. But after election, a truly great leader is expected to rise above partisanship and unite his country behind a common purpose. Only then could all the resources and talents that abound within the nation’s space be effectively mobilized to achieve greatness.
Of course, Buhari bears personal responsibility not to succumb to the pressures from sectional irredentists whose buccaneering activities will only end up diminishing his profile as a national statesman, alienating him from a pan-Nigerian formation critically needed to define and secure his legacy. In any case, it is doubtful if that generation of Nigerians who, out of patriotism and desirous of a nation that is home for all, had fought Jonathan to political prediction for reducing Aso Rock to a play-ground only for his clansmen like Edwin Clark and Asari Dokubo and some shady characters to birth a kindergarten presidency (apology Baba Bisi Akande), will be too willing in the times ahead to sit idly by and allow the space so vacated be retaken by Buhari’s own set of clansmen. It is very doubtful indeed.
Following Buhari’s faux pas of “only rewarding my supporters”, suspicion turned into fear which now seems to have metastasized to deep resentment. And by various acts of omission and commission since, a dangerous impression is created and sustained that Buhari has been hijacked by a sectional mafia which has continued to dictate lop-sidedness in federal appointments in brazen contempt of the sensibilities of other stakeholders.
That ugly monster is also seen when the full weight of federal might is ruthlessly brought to crush Biafran noise-makers on the streets of South-East whereas a princely N900m of public funds is set aside in these lean times to erect grazing reserves to placate AK-47-wielding Fulani herdsmen from further butchering defenseless farmers in the middle-belt and southern parts of the country. Meanwhile, the nation is already dangerously polarized along ethnic lines over official insistence on grazing reserves instead of ranch.
An already pathetic situation is not helped when troops, in breach of extant rule of engagement, are reportedly subjecting whole communities of peasants and swamp-dwellers in Delta to torture and indignity while ostensibly pursuing NDA miscreants and fugitive Tompolo. As one has always maintained here, these outlaws don’t represent the long-suffering people of Niger Delta. Troops ought to be so guided and treat the people as humanely as possible even as they hunt down the rats hiding inside the holes in the creeks.
Again, to have casually dismissed with a wave of hand recommendations of the 2014 political conference like Buhari did in syndicated interviews in national dailies last weekend was less prudent. Whatever reservations anyone may have, that document is an aggregation of the dreams and aspirations of a faction of the nation’s political elite. It will, therefore, be an exercise in political sagacity to take a second look at the white paper and see where there might be a convergence or where their views could be married to yours to forge a national consensus.
Overall, with the pool sufficiently muddied, Abubakar Atiku typically, is now seeking to fish for political profit. With his damning comment on Buhari’s style and “refusal to learn from the past” at a book launch in Abuja on Tuesday, it is clear the Turaki Adamawa, a perennial opportunist, is playing to the gallery at Buhari’s expense. All through, his words were carefully calibrated to resonate well with the separatist agitators in South-East, resurgent militants in the South-South and a section of Yoruba political elite in the South-West who converged on Akure and decided to raise the roof over Buhari’s advertised resolve to discard the 2014 confab report.
A content analysis clearly reveals each of Atiku’s words that day drips of concentrated bile. Well, in case the Army General has forgotten how the party ticket was delivered to him after that night of long knives in Lagos in December 2014, it is clear the Customs baron who emerged the biggest casualty of that epic cockfight has not fully recovered from the drubbing suffered.
But talking seriously, how convenient it is for Atiku today to pontificate on the need to sell off the nation’s refineries. As Vice President in 1999, he claims he canvassed NNPC’s privatization. For effect, he said if he had presidential powers he would have utilized $20b realized from selling 10 percent of the government’s equity there to rebuild the Niger Delta. Good talk. But Atiku forgot to respond to sordid tales of the underhand deals that circulated as public assets were sold off to those said to be cronies and fronts while he was the almighty chair of the national economic council between 1999 and 2003.
Today, the good news is that it is still not too late for the president to make amends. A day after the bloody clashes between IPOB/MASSOB and security agents, Buhari hosted a group of Igbo leaders in Abuja. But his engagement should not stop at only hosting political contractors at the Villa. The president should leave his cocoon and embark on a confidence-building tour of the disaffected sections to signal a new resolve to be more inclusive. He was earlier billed to visit the much-devastated Ogoniland yesterday to flag off the clean-up exercise. Typically, his decision not to personally attend was hoarded until the last minute. Well, that could be excused on adverse security reports in view of the ongoing campaign against the NDA rats.
But earlier, he had missed two opportunities to engage directly two publics in Lagos and Cross River. With excuses that look flimsy, the president had cancelled at the last minute visits to the two states. In the case of Lagos, his handlers explained he had “scheduling difficulties”. But the PR mileage to be harvested would by far have outweighed whatever personal pains he might suffer had he made it. With the rich harvest Governor Akin Ambode had on display, there can be no better way to shame PDP and other political traducers who often contend his party, APC, is not doing anything other than chasing after thieves of the Jonathan era.
Okutimo & the Ogoni curse
Nothing perhaps reinforces the argument for the reintroduction of history as a subject in Nigeria’s school curriculum than a little drama in Kogi State that finally reached a climax last weekend. The cast included the governor, the state branch of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and Paul Okutimo, a retired Army Brigadier General.
The plot began when the youthful governor, Yahaya Bello, appointed Okutimo Chairman of the Civil Service Screening Committee. With mounting wage bill in the face of declining revenue, the state government was hunting for ghosts and the dead woods.
No one could fault Bello’s logic. Albeit grudgingly, the organized labour had to key into the exercise. In fact, it had to suspend its long-running strike over wage issue to allow the process commence in the shared understanding that a closer scrutiny would help achieve a realistic wage bill that will also be sustainable.
But no sooner had the screening started than a new outcry shook the entire state. There were general complaints of high-handedness, intimidation and arrogance against Okutimo. In one fell swoop, thousands had their names summarily deleted from the new “book of life” prepared by Okutimo’s panel.
Based on members’ demand, the state NLC had to issue a fresh 7-day ultimatum to the governor to sack Okutimo or have the workers resume their strike.
Obviously overwhelmed, Bello had to bow to the the labour last weekend by booting out Okutimo. As if to hang the retired general out to dry, the governor went further to order the withdrawal of the lists of those cleared by the screening panel which had been forwarded to the local government councils.
With that, the casual observer is likely to be tempted to clap for Bello for being a listening governor. But the real joke of the drama is actually on the state chief executive who, since stealing into office a few months ago through an electoral abracadabra, has continued to exhibit infantilism all the way.
Part of the appeal of APC is a claim to a progressive ethic and social conscience. Therefore, it is a monumental scandal to have in the first place given a character like Okutimo such a task given that his hands are not yet dried of the blood of the innocent spilt in our recent history.
Told of the workers’ tumult against him before the sack, Okutimo was at his haughty best. His gloating words: “Since they were never consulted before my appointment, they don’t have the authority to call for my removal.”
It was as if he was on another military posting in which everyone was obliged to obey his stentorian command without question.
But anyone who was around some twenty-five years ago and was familiar with chilling reports from Ogoniland would not be too shocked at the tenor of Okutimo’s latest verbiage. At age 40 today, Bello could only be a teenager when the General was making his exploits in the Army. A case could therefore be made for him that he was probably too young then to understand national issues in their proper historical context. Such gap would only have been bridged had he benefited from an exposition to History as a subject later as a student.
Had that been the case, the Kogi governor would have remembered that as the leader of the infamous military special task force set up then to “pacify” the oil-rich Niger Delta following renewed agitation for better life for the inhabitants of that region, the general openly made an art of dehumanizing fellow human beings.
Okutimo’s reign at the task force coincided with the unveiling of the Ogoni’s “bill of rights” championed by playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa. Without shame, he once boasted that his military training afforded him an opportunity to learn one thousand torture recipes. As he put it brashly, the people of Ogoniland and their cousins elsewhere in the Niger Delta should consider themselves lucky that he had mercifully experimented with only three of those killer formulas.
To his credit, countless people were thus killed or maimed for life.
By the time Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists were brought before a kangaroo tribunal between 1994/95, the presiding Pilate depended on the drunken statements made by the likes of Okutimo to pass death verdict on the accused at the end of a trial that was universally adjudged a total sham. The ensuing global outrage hardly changed anything as the hangmen eventually applied the noose on November 10, 1995 at the Port Harcourt Prisons.
That is the sort of tainted man the fumbling governor of Kogi chose to rehabilitate with a job as sensitive as screening the state’s workforce.