TRIBUTE: At 59, Peter Obi unyielding in integrity and commitment, by Valentine Obienyem

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I shall take the liberty to begin this piece with the conclusion. Today, the 19th of July, 2020, Mr. Peter Obi, the Vice Presidential Candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in the 2019 elections and a Former Governor of Anambra State, is 59. I shall simply define him as a hard-working Nigerian, successful entrepreneur, and consummate politician. His acclaimed attainments in our shark-infested seas of politics could be linked to his integrity, prudence and uncommon wisdom. In him, these qualities form a close trilogy as the three acts of a well-crafted drama; each part foreshadowing and requiring the next with logical inevitability.

When he turned 58, I stated that apart from Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, whom I wrote on during his birthdays, I had rashly laid upon myself the task of doing the same for Peter Obi because he is a man who has offered something priceless to humanity and still has a lot in stock to offer. Thus, no intellectual or literary exercise can be more invigorating than to watch and analyse the workings of the mind of this man.

Consider what Anambra State used to be before him – a confusing flotsam of vices. Before him, virtue hid its head, and yielded the front page to vice, misfortune, rape and rapine. Created to be a pilot in the storm, he tackled the problems of the State simultaneously. Today, there is no more amazing or portentous phenomenon in Anambra State than the way in which the comatose and bastardised entity was roughly awakened by Obi who leaped forward, defeated the predators and, within eight years, elevated the State to become the toast of the country. These achievements have earned Obi the accolade as probably the greatest administrator and financial manager in Nigeria.

What is this gentle and soft-spoken philosopher like? He started making impacts early in life and the paths he walked are worthy of illumination because they are lights to souls desirous of proper growth and guidance. As a primary school pupil at Sancta Maria School, Onitsha, he considered going and returning to school and doing some household chores not enough for his calling. He started the business of buying kerosene in big gallons and retailing it in bottles in front of his mother’s shop. Thenceforth, he graduated to the sale of eggs in secondary school.

The Egg business is such a risky one that requires all the patience of Job. A broken egg would mean eating dip into one’s gains. Conscious of this, he would always stay at the back of the pick-up truck driven by his childhood friend, Mr. Benjamin Uba, conveying the eggs from Olikeze’s Agbor farm or Onwuka’s Awka farm to closely guard the eggs from breaking. We earlier propounded “The Peter Principle”, which notes that the profit of eggs’ merchants is directly proportional to the number of broken eggs on delivery. Obi took this principle to government by the way he shunned wastages and financial laxity that characterise governance in Nigeria.

Obi’s successes have remained part of his eventful life. He started travelling to London on business from 1978, when he was still in secondary school. He has always been sustained by his integrity, prudent and transparent handling of money because he has long learnt to leave luxury and ostentation to his inferiors. This is seen in many anecdotes that punctuate his life as in when one of his suppliers at Liverpool market, London, granted him unlimited credit because he informed him of a particular supply where they mistakenly sent goods two times more than what he paid for. There is also the story of how the owner of Pembury Hotel, Mr. Jones and his wife, observing how his colleagues entrusted their money to him while staying in their hotel, made him the arrow head of that group. In the university, his friends used him to save their pocket money. Till the present, the likes of Chief Emma Bishop, one of the most respected businessmen, in Nigeria and Chief Okey Ezibe would always tell the story of how they confidently gave Peter Obi large sums of money to pay their suppliers in London without the usual tale of intrigues and treachery that such trust often lead to.

Interestingly, he was not all charitable for doing everything for his friends, including shipping their goods to them from London. Always focused and utilising what others would ordinarily shun, he made little money by claiming tax re-payment on those goods at the airport. He did it as a State Governor and still does it till today. He would get his legitimate returns even when, in the next moment, he would spend the money on his numerous acts of inconspicuous philanthropy.

Years after he became Governor, Professor Chinyere Stella Okunna and myself had accompanied him to see the European Union Ambassador to Nigeria, His Excellency, Dr. David MacRea, who earlier requested he would like to see him to access the support to Anambra State. As we entered his office, Dr. MacRea greeted Mr. Peter Obi familiarly and dramatically as if he had known him many years back. Before the business of the day, MacRea smiled indulgently and narrated how his Jewish friend who sold boxes and bags in London, knowing he was going to Nigeria, requested him to work closely with his Nigerian friend, Peter who was a Governor in Nigeria. He said his friend told him that honour and integrity were the warp and woof of Obi’s life. Obi remembers Mr. Foxy of Harroway road from whom he had been purchasing boxes since 1978. Foxy would give distributors and retailers boxes on credit and when the credit built up, others would stop coming to him except Obi who was faithful to the relationship. When the man closed the shop a few years ago, saying he was old and that none of his children wanted to continue in that line of business, Obi was one of those he informed.

One of the secrets of Obi’s success as a State Governor is that he lived his normal life and remained faithful to himself and others. He did not, for one second, forget that the real purpose of governance is service to the people. When he restored discipline; changed the slogan of Anambra State from “The Home for All” to “The light of the Nation”; cut the cost of governance; shunned hiring of planes; stayed only one or two days on trips (including foreign ones); kept the trouble-makers at bay; used the smallest convoy among his colleagues; pretended he did not drink costly champagnes; displaced the epicurean habit of those in government with stoic simplicity; visited and spoke to all institutions that could assist the State with diplomatic courtesy; did not childishly turn himself into a model; took no kick-backs; did not indulge in the ostentation of maintaining a first lady’s office; avoided staying in the costliest hotels; resisted buying houses across the world; reduced the personnel in Government Lodge to only those that had things to offer; stopped the daily slaughtering of cows in the lodge (for the reason that the place is not a restaurant or bar); returned to less than 50, of the over 200 aides appointed during his illegal impeachment (which included his close relations); remitted funds directly to institutions to avoid bureaucratic and other tolls – it is because he saw those clean-cut measures as surgical necessities in his attempt to establish financial discipline, transparency and accountability in his realm.

Indeed, some of the measures he took were disagreeable, but they had the painless grace of flowing from his very nature as when, for a person like me that travelled with him often, he reduced to three days, trips that other State Governors spent 10 days on and travel allowance to a day by his erroneous insistence that two days slept in the plane would not be counted. What of the presence of calculators around him? When he insisted a calculator should be at the chapel in case something comes up while he was mediating, his prayer warrior and elder Sister who is also an ordained Rev. Sister insistently said no to that.

Have the Permanent Secretaries forgiven him for always making calls to cross-check every expenditure brought to his table in the name of savings cost for the state? A Former Managing Director of Diamond Bank, Dr. Alex Otti summarised it thus: “Obi realised from day one that running a large government was undesirable. The first thing he did was to rationalise the size of government and therefore, expenditure. He also lived a frugal life. All the extravagance of leadership had no place in his government. Some people would argue that he overdid it, but it worked”.

Are people still wondering why he was able to leave 75 billion Naira for his successor in government? Are they still thinking about the concourse of factors that made the Federal Ministry of Works to declare Anambra State under him as the best in network of roads or Thisday Newspaper to name him the most Financially Prudent Governor and later the Governor of the Decade, 2011-2020? What of Bill and Melinda gates Award as the best Governor in health or being acclaimed by the UN as the best in the implementation of MDGs in Nigeria? Are people confused that in spite his giant achievements he left Anambra State in 2014 without any debt; not owing any contractor for jobs already done?

Do people still wonder how he cleared arrears of pensions and gratuities close to 40 billion Naira and paid fresh gratuities and pensions not more than two months after retirement? Echoing what Anambra people should have been saying, cheeks bursting with pride, Dr. Alex Otti representing the faction that believes in the sanctity of truth, wrote: “He had put on record the fact that he left a whopping N75 billion for the future generation of the State. Like yours truly had done in the past, one can attest to the fact that some $155million was invested in the tier two capital of three Nigerian banks with maturities of about 5 years at interest rates of up to 9% per annum to the credit of the State. As at the time the investments were made, the Naira equivalent of the funds was about N25b. If those funds were rolled over at maturity in 2019, they would be worth about N62b today. If interest is assumed to remain at 9% for the past 6 years, an additional N33.5b would have accrued to bring the present value of the investments to over N95b. This is one of the advantages of prudence and financial literacy”.

Financial literacy is one of Peter Obi’s fortes and he is in love with figures and statistics which he quotes liberally. Once, after one of his television programmes, my last child who always watched the programmes with me in this COVID-19 times asked if they broke Obi’s head, inserted a calculator inside it when he was small and stitched it again. My little girl of eight merely voiced out what many people ask in different ways just as an amazing response to the manner he plays with figures and statistics! To satisfy my daughter’s queasy question, few minutes when I spoke with Mr. Peter Obi on phone, I allowed my daughter to ask him directly. As usual, Obi told her that if she studied hard, remained focused and prayerful, did her home-work and learned all the good things her teachers instructed as follow the footsteps of daddy and mummy that by the Grace of God she would rise to do more than him.

We may finally appraise his attitude towards inordinate acquisition with a particular encounter with Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, one Nigerian that commanded respect across the country for his strength of character and commitment to what he believed in.

On one occasion, I accompanied Peter Obi to Ikemba’s home in Enugu to answer a query, so to speak. Some self-serving elements in APGA tried to use the old lion’s name to feather their nests through all manner of requests; indeed demands – citing Ojukwu as a principal beneficiary. In the matter at hand, Peter Obi had been ‘subpoenaed’ to explain why he refused to buy houses in Abuja for certain APGA members, including Ojukwu.

During the ‘hearing’ at which Ojukwu presided, the accusers exhausted all arguments on the desirability of their ‘project’. Nodding his head, Ojukwu, skilled in the art of discerning men’s covetousness by the air of their countenances and indeed body language, asked everybody to leave because he needed to have a rest. Some 20 minutes later, we were around 9th Mile on our way back to Awka when Peter Obi received a call from Ojukwu ‘summoning’ us back to Enugu supposedly to pick up what he had forgotten in the great man’s house.

We duly made a U-Turn; and they got into another round of meeting. Ojukwu pointedly told Peter Obi that he had heard a lot about the young man; that all he could decipher was that he, Obi, was not sharing public funds to people, which made some of them angry with the Governor. Ojukwu then urged Obi to keep it up; that what mattered in governance was service to the people and not pandering to the personal wishes of the party hierarchy.

On the original matter that brought Peter Obi to Enugu, Ojukwu disassociated himself from the demand; declaring that they only wanted to use his name to extort patronage from the Governor. He had actually called them “thieves”: “Look at those thieves that came here pretending they love me so much by requesting you to buy a house for me at Abuja. Do not listen to them. Always know I am with you. At over 75, tell me what I will do with a house in Abuja”.

Many years after life as a State Governor, his life-style remains the same, with his needs always kept at Buddhist minimum. He has been trying in his own little ways to give back to the society.

Any regrets? I have not asked him that. However, those of us that worked with him regret that he handed governance to a quintessence of shallow thinking. Thus, the tragedy of today’s Anambra State is that leaving the stage and by concourse of intrigues that would be told some day, Obi left for idiots and mediocres the burden that only geniuses after his admirable qualities, could bear.

Under them, Anambra State is presently lying fallow and it would take experience and determined focus to set her on her feet again.

•Barrister Obienyem is Media Adviser to His Excellency, Mr. Peter Obi.

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