By Ochereome Nnanna
WHEN I was born”, former two-time Nigerian President, Matthew Olusegun Okikiola Obasanjo, told an audience when he recently clocked “80” years, “my mother and father decided to name me Matthew. I grew up being called and addressed Matthew. What is the meaning of Matthew in the Bible? He was a tax collector. So when I grew up I dropped Matthew from my name. If anyone does not want to see my red eyes, no one should call me Matthew again”.
Let me sincerely congratulate President Obasanjo at “80”. I put it in quotes because Obasanjo himself has owned up to the fact that he does not know his real age. That is quite nice of him. Most people of his era don’t, and they are not honest enough to admit it publicly. Sadly though, Obasanjo chose to admit it after he had served as president twice with no further prospect of returning to that exalted seat. Some people like to tell the truth when it is convenient or would cost them nothing. It is a matter of style. What about those who don’t tell at all; those who prefer to go to their graves with all secrets and lies with which they ruined millions of lives?
How I wish Obasanjo could disclose more truths to enable us know how he and his post-war colleagues took a promising nation such as Nigeria to the dogs whereby, at 57, we are still talking about freedom, restructuring, resource control, secession, quit notices, Islamisation agenda, armed herdsmen and such medieval topics. We are not talking about competing in science, technology, medicine and economic development with Brazil, Singapore, Malaysia, India, the United Arab Emirates and other countries we were once classified together with as mates.
Let’s leave that level of discussion and return to the two main reasons I am on this topic. I am picking on our former President (1) for needlessly maligning the integrity of the name: Matthew; and (2) for proposing a queer method of presidential succession that won’t do this country any good. Obasanjo said he dropped Matthew from his name because Apostle Matthew, one of the first four disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, was a “tax collector”. Unfortunately, Obasanjo did not answer the question he posed: “what is the meaning of Matthew in the Bible?” When I checked I found that Matthew means “the Gift of Yahweh (God)”. I am not sure that Obasanjo’s parents researched that name before conferring it on their son who would eventually become one of the greatest Nigerians in future.
Most of us bear names (especially foreign or religious ones) or confer them on our children without really finding out their meanings. That is wrong. In Africa, we believe that the name you give your child would play a role in controlling his or her destiny. That is why our names, especially the local ones, have meanings. Mine is Ochereome: “he who thinks before he acts (and accepts full responsibility for his actions)”. But I am quite sure that if Obasanjo’s parents had actually enquired the meaning of Matthew, they would be proud of conferring it on their boy-child. What is more precious than a gift from God? Does Obasanjo not consider himself a gift from God? So, why the haste in dropping such a sublime name?
Talking about tax collectors, certainly, Matthew does not mean “tax collector”, any less than Obasanjo means “soldier” or “politician” or “engineer” or “author” or “troublemaker” or “bully” or “avenger”, or other less printable things. I don’t know what Obasanjo means. All I know is that not many people seem to bear the name. Come to think of it, not many people seem to bear names like Azikiwe, Awolowo, Ajasin, or Gowon, apart from those whose star-struck fathers named their children after these illustrious leaders.
But Matthew being a tax collector was pure an accident of professional calling. Biblical Mathew the Apostle was a tax collector before he was chosen as a Disciple of Christ, whereby (obviously, I presume) he quit the job to be with his Master. Matthew did not become popular among Christians because he was a tax collector. The name is popular because St Matthew was a great propagator of the Good News, quite apart from being one of the Synoptic Gospel writers and close personal acolytes of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Besides, what is wrong in being a tax collector? It is a noble profession, though an unpopular one. All over the world (including the Biblical and ancient epochs) tax collectors were not loved. But pray, what can you do without them? There is no government without taxation. Look at all the advanced countries of the world: they were all built with taxpayers’ money! In most countries, refusal to pay your tax is next to capital offences such as murder and treason. A person who does not pay tax is an enemy of the state. Someone has to collect the taxes. That person is not an enemy of the people; he is a patriot because without his work there will be no water, electricity, good roads, good schools, well-equipped hospitals and all that make life more abundant!
It is because we neglect taxation in Nigeria (because of our laziness and total dependence on the oil wealth of Niger Delta) that our country is severely deficient in developmental indices. Lagos is the nation’s fastest-developing state because it has resumed collecting taxes (though sometimes with a measure of meanness). It is the meanness that makes taxmen look bad, especially if taxation does not result in better life for the ordinary people. Because of the success of Lagos in taxation, Buhari hired the Lagos Taxman, Babatunde Fowler.
Obasanjo dropped Matthew for the wrongs reasons, but it is his choice and his name. In the second part on Monday, I will look at his quaint presidential succession proposal.