By Pini Jason
ON 7 June 2011, I got a call, actually a query, from the editor of Vanguard. “Chief”, he fired, “why haven’t you reported for duty?” He carefully did not add “since you were sacked from Owerri!” That was polite of him.
The editor’s call came exactly a month after I became “a former” or “ex” Special Adviser to the former Governor of Imo State, His Excellency, Dr. Ikedi Ohakim. We chatted and joked, and I requested from him permission to go see my doctors to know how much life was left in me.
On 13 June, 2011, Double Chief, Duro Onabule, my senior at CMS Grammar School, my senior in the profession and my senior as a card carrying critic in government, called to felicitate with me. Chief Onabule is someone who kept contact with me and one I drew from his experience in government throughout my assignment in Owerri.
On 19 October, 2010, for example, he sent me this text message: “I am sure you are missing your writing at this political period”. “I am suffocating here”, I replied! In our conversation on 13 June, Chief Onabule said to me, it is a thankless job; take a rest and return to your writing.
On Saturday 18 June 2011, just as I ended discussions with my editors in London, my brother Ochereome Nnanna, called and put it rather directly that I should (I can’t recollect now whether he actually said “must”) show up at the editorial meeting on Monday. So, on Monday 20 June, I reunited with friends and colleagues at the Vanguard. It was hilarious!
When I sauntered into Uncle Sam’s office, he simply asked, “When are you resuming your column?” Then he asked me if I was up to it? If you know Uncle Sam, you will understand that he actually meant that I must be so spoilt and loaded with loot that I may not return to the grind of journalism again! Uncle Sam is the world’s greatest cynic! By the time we ended our lunch at the Canal, he had ensured that this column resumed today.
Am I really coming back from a thankless job? Yes and no! There are those, unfortunately among them are colleagues, who think that journalists going into government are motivated by greed for money. One senile columnist has become notorious for assailing journalists who answered the call to serve.
Perhaps, there are journalists who lobby for government appointments. But then, is anybody’s right to live his life any legitimate way he deems fit diminished because he or she is a journalist or even a Nollywood star?
There is another group who believe that journalists and columnists are so dumb that they cannot even run a bath! Let me remind all those who think so that colonial Nigeria became an independent nation largely through the drip of sweat and inks of nationalist/journalists! In 2007, I received diverse reactions to my appointment.
On 30 May 2007, I received this text from phone number 08054452484: “Pini Jason, it would be lovely if people like you who hide behind the pleasure of being columnists to criticise were given positions in government so that you will see the magnitude of how easy or difficult it is to perform.”
The author of the above text, like many Nigerians who lash out with accusations they cannot substantiate or who resort to abuse because they cannot withstand the rigour of a debate, was actually the one conveniently hiding under cowardly anonymity. In the first place, nobody has said governance is easy anywhere.
Look at Obama’s hair; look at the bags under Hilary Clinton’s eyelids! Nigeria’s case is that even the easy things are made difficult by an elite war we conveniently call politics! Do you think that President Goodluck Jonathan cannot closet himself and select his Ministers? But you can see that every newspaper has its own “authentic list” of ministers, including those who in their views must not be made ministers!
In four years I have learnt, as my brother Chuks Iloegbunam puts it, “enough lessons to last us a lifetime!” I have gained new insight about a few things I thought I understood, like the nature of poverty and its effect on politics and dignity. I have also come to better appreciate how shamelessly hypocritical many of us are, prescribing to others codes we ourselves cannot uphold. I have come to appreciate the rigor mortis on our national debate; that many of us are quick to jump into issues we hardly understand.
In four years I have also come to reaffirm my earlier belief that there is hardly anything going on in this country that can be dignified as politics. What we have is a war to capture the resources of the nation. In that war, the battle line is not drawn between political parties or regions, but between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, between the “insiders” and the “outsiders”, between those “chopping” and those simply salivating, between the “included” and the “excluded”. In this war, there is only one ethnic group of greedy elite who profess only one religion, money!
While in Owerri there were many things I refrained from discussing because people would say, ah, he is saying so because he is now in government. Now out of office, I have also realised that there are things I would not discuss now because they would say, ah, it is because he is now out of government! It is not yet time for memoirs. But there is enough to fill a library! Certain misconceptions will be explained and lies will be challenged when the need arise, otherwise, it is prudent to wait for the proper time to speak.
Some of the banters at Vanguard on Monday 20 June centred on whether after four years I left office a poor man? I appreciate the curiosity. First, let me make the point that a man is as wealthy or poor as he is contented. In the first place, I did not go into office exactly “poor”. Luckily for me, and luckily for Dr. Ohakim, I was invited to government when I could say yes. There was nothing I desired in life that journalism had not given me before I went to Owerri. Journalism like any other profession gives a decent life. But you have to pay your due first. I have paid my due.
I did not expand my expenditure profile because I was in government. That is the beginning of trouble for many public officers! They say he who drinks salt water thirsts for more! There is no new lifestyle acquired in Owerri that I have difficulty giving up. I do not have a family or a community waiting to mock me for not looting. Moreover, some people crave for wealth, some prefer popularity, others cherish eminence! Not even eight years, if we got that, would have been enough for me to destroy what has taken me a lifetime to build.
Corruption is an individual attitude not a community thing. In these days of FoI, we need not use the word “loot” loosely. We must not generalise or extrapolate!
I may not agree that public office is a thankless job. I did not expect gratitude. The calls from people who told me they were passing through Owerri; that Owerri had changed, were enough compensation. Obviously public office could prove a huge inconvenience. But once in your life you need to leave your comfort zone to stretch yourself a bit further. People leave the comfort of their employment to go back to school. For me, it was a four-year school for which I remain eternally grateful to my friend and boss, His Excellency Ikedi Ohakim, Imo people, my family and my community who provided me the ballast to remain who I am.