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A house for the Sultan

By Obi Nwakanma

Nigeria is a real theatre of the absurd. As a matter of fact, daily life, and public conduct in Nigeria would have given far greater material to the work of Beckett and Pinter – those great modernists of English theater whose absurdist plays gave insight into both the futility and the meaningless horror of daily life in post war Europe whose moral core had all but collapsed. Nigeria is that sort of place where an elected government could announce without blinking an eye; without a sense of embarrassment or shame, that it had expended N700 million of the public’s money to acquire property for a Sultan, a private citizen, never mind the title.

To add to this absurdity, the sultan may probably already have a house of his own in this city. And that is exactly what has happened: the scandalous revelation just last week by the Sokoto state government under Tambuwal, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, who switched parties from the PDP to the APC (well Nigerian politicians switch parties like whores switch clients) on a huff, contested to be governor of Sokoto, and you’d think that he’d have acquired the sagacity necessary for public leadership under a democracy anchored on the rule of law. One might in fact expect of Tambuwal, given his experience as a legislator, and as the elected governor, to assert a different kind of moral fibre on behalf of the people, and refuse assent to any proposal aimed at appropriating public resources to fund an illegal mandate, even if the Sokoto legislature had proposed and passed that appropriation. The Sokoto state government under Tambuwal’s administration nevertheless mucked up the entire meaning of public leadership because it has, in being part of this scandalous transaction, betrayed the people who elected him, and betrayed his oath as a democratically elected governor to serve the people and not just some special interests.

Let me place all this in context for those who may not know what the bejesus I’m talking about: the “social media” lit up with public angst last week on learning that the Sokoto state government had authorized and expended N700 million to acquire property for the Sultan in Abuja. As the facts now indicate, sometime around November 2016, the Secretary to the government of Sokoto state, Professor Bashir Garba raised a memo to wit: “Your Excellency is aware of the expressed need received from the Sultanate council to have a guest house in Abuja to defray the government of accommodation and ensure convenience of his eminence and entourage while in Abuja for sundry official engagement”.  Bashir Garba sought the leave of the governor to approve the purchase of such a house “befitting” the Sultan and the “Sultanate council,” which in due course was approved, apparently with scant recourse or even regard either to legal opinion or to public opinion. In the upshot, a house – rambling, disproportionate to the necessity, and disregarding the reality of the Sokoto economy and situation was procured for the use of the Sultan and his “Sultanate council” on Ontario drive in Maitama, Abuja. The revelation of this transaction has raised enormous flack by its numerous critics. In quick response to these critics of the Sokoto government, the governor’s Director of Public Affairs, Mr. Imam, published a procedural memo, detailing the nature of the transaction, and in it made the following claims: the Sultan serves an important function for Sokoto, and operates at two levels, one as a traditional ruler, and the other as religious leader of the Muslims.

An old law in Sokoto provides for a dual funding between the local councils and the state government for the office of the Sultan. Because of the expanded role of the Sultan of Sokoto, not only as leader of the Muslims, but as some kind of go-to person for NGOs, foreign governments and other international agencies, the Sultan requires a befitting lodging in Abuja, where he normally stays in an hotel. And because the Sultan does not travel alone, his hotel lodging expenditure has become just that case of, well, shall we say, the wise penny and foolish pound. As a matter of fact, lending some support to Mr. Imam and the Sokoto government last week in an essay, the columnist Uche Ezechukwu in the very conservative Authority newspaper writes that the social media ruckus over the N700 million house for the Sultan was, “much ado about nothing” and a “celebration of inanities and habitual slander” against the governor, and the government of Sokoto, “for daring, in the view of our know-all social media patrons, to commit the abomination of hauling a whopping sum of N700 million of its scarce resources to buy and furnish a posh home at the federal capital in Abuja for the Sultan.

All through last week, some social media commentators exhibited their overflowing love for the long-suffering and deprived people of Sokoto State by excoriating the huge injustice which their governor, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal had meted out to them through his huge ‘misplacement of priority’ by daring to dole out the money, which, in the thinking of these unsolicited do-gooders, would have been better deployed towards other welfare and social activities, instead of a house for the Sultan at the nation’s capital….Such naysayers would never understand how the promotion and upholding the prestige of the Sultanate is the first and most important duty of every Sokoto person or government. Providing a befitting base at Abuja for the Sultanate is a dramatization of that important duty.” Ezechukwu’s view is certainly of a distinct minority, but it is also easy to see it for what it is: a “communiqua” – with the alleged insinuation of pay-per-view opinion journalism which lacks the subtlest sense in retailing its own “inanity.” The Sultan as a matter of fact has no business in Abuja, except as a private citizen, and he has the resources to build his own private residence in Abuja.

Secondly, since the Sultan is the leader of the Muslims both in Sokoto and nation-wide, perhaps the Ummah might raise the money to build an official residence. Sokoto is a multi-religious state, made up of Muslims, Christians, and animists, and the Nigerian constitution forbids the promotion of one faith over the other by any government.

Thirdly, if the Sokoto government was feeling that generous, perhaps it should make arrangements for the Sultan and his retinue to stay from time to time in the equally sprawling Sokoto House – the official residence of the Sokoto government in Abuja – gratis. Procuring a N700 million house for the use of the Sultan is a scandalous misuse of public fund – in a state which records one of the lowest school enrollments nationwide and whose public education infrastructure where it exists is primitive; a state which has no well-funded program for its population of impoverished people, particularly very illiterate youth; and poor street kids who roam the streets begging alms rather than receiving training that would free them, and make them sovereign over the decaying edifice of  “tradition”; where infant and maternal mortality is one of the highest in the world because of inadequate healthcare. This is the sum of the tragedy: Tambuwal’s government continues the pattern of robbing the poor of the North to pay the indolent and entitled rich of the North, which is why the North is so very backward: it reproduces poverty by creating social pyramids rather than horizontal citizenship. It is really absurd and it is inexcusable, this house bought for the Sultan in Abuja with the public’s money.


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