By Valentine Obienyem
Today, the 19th of July, 2018, Mr. Peter Obi, the former Governor of Anambra State turns fifty-seven. Besides Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, whom I did serials on his birthdays, he is the only other person I have rashly laid upon myself the task of writing on in commemoration of his birthdays. He is one of the few in Nigeria whose lives a keen observer can look at and proclaim how good they are.
From Ojukwu to Obi is justified because the two great Igbo sons are coins of the same mould and mint, however different in dates. This is especially evident in their understanding of service to the people as revolving around two foci: selflessness and integrity. Both are geniuses in their own rights and by Nigerian standards. It is notorious that geniuses accord with one another as harmoniously as dynamite with fire, even when some little tigers being fed with milk tried to put a wedge between them. Ojukwu in his wisdom recognized those little tigers and often advised Obi to watch them to know when they grow teeth.
The prisms of hard work, governance, integrity, astuteness…
If people like Obi are subpoenaed before the judgement-seat of reason for follies of life we shall sue for the return of our money. If, on the contrary, we consult them for the lessons of life, they shall offer us more than we shall bargain for. In the past, I tried to look at Obi from the prisms of hard work, governance, integrity, astuteness, single-mindedness and stubborn adherence to principles. Today, I include his odd quirks. We shall see some of those things he did while growing up. O yes, we can say of him having in mind the famous Terence paragraph in Self Tormentor: “Homo Sum, humani nihil a me aliennumputo” (I am human, and nothing human is alien to me). Obi is human and nothing human is alien to him.
He was born in the commercial city of Onitsha, where he obtained his primary and secondary education; except for an interlude at Father Joseph Secondary School, Aguleri, where his uncle served as Principal. His precocity manifested in the area of business. Looking at the trajectory of his life, one can submit that he was born naturally with the business vigour of the Obis running in his veins. He was first and foremost a businessman, before other features –diplomacy, parsimony, conciliation and governance – took turns dominating his busy life.
He often tells us how his teacher at Kellogg influenced his entry into politics. Anyone who has not heard the tale will most probably think that from his Uncle, Hon. Nwabo-Alor, he derived by a kind of avuncular heredity an inclination towards radical politics. Radical not in terms of hot volcano erupting now and then, but in being driven by an independent spirit that has seen him in trouble a lot of times by insisting that the right thing must be done in spite all odds.
Obi is a thoroughbred Igbo son. Early in his life, he showed signs of what the future has in stock for his life. Barely out of diapers as a pupil of Santa Maria Primary School, Onitsha, he engaged in varied trading. First, was wholesale purchase of kerosene and retailing same in bottles. His loving mother saw the unusual business inclination and early experience with money as likely to have undue negative influence on his growth and development. Like all fond parents, his mother – known during her time as a matron of dignity and wisdom who sedulously trained her children after the husband bowed early to the supreme arbitrament of death – was not comfortable with his early exposure to the science of making money. She tried to stop him, but gifted in native intelligence and all known principles of persuasion, Peter Obi convinced his mother to allow him. But one of the ironies of his life is that despite early exposure, money does not have any charm for him.
From marketing of kerosene in primary school, Peter Obi moved on to the sale of eggs from Olikeze and Onwuka Farms in Agbor and Awka respectively, while he was a student of Christ the King College (CKC), Onitsha. Thenceforth he ventured into fashion. Apart from academics, his past-time, as with successful entrepreneurs, was watching and gauging people’s reactions to trending fashion as copied from the attires of famous singers and sportsmen. This was how as a secondary school boy, he designed foreign shoes like the one his excitable friend, Mr. Benji Uba called “three layers”, and “flanner” and went to Enugu for the mass production. Students and young traders fell over one another buying the products. He did the same for “bongo” trousers that was in vague at that time. When you hear that he had taxis running for him as a secondary school boy, do not be surprised. His is a living story as opposed to fairy tales of those who claimed they started making money from their mothers’ wombs. As a student in CKC, he was already travelling to London with older friends and importing goods in containers.
As an undergraduate at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), Peter Obi was a big-time importer of five and more containers of various wares in one order. Among his several customers, the well-known Awusaku of Onitsha at the time marketed tiles from him. He also ventured into property. It was during that period that he built the houses rented by the then Savannah Bank in Omor and Nsukka. Indeed, the present Sultan of Sokoto was his tenant as a young military officer serving in Nsukka area.
Best club and party dancer
As a young man, Peter Obi was fully human and enjoyed his life to the fullest. Seeing him today, you would not even know that he was the best club and party dancer among his many friends and contemporaries. He also indulged in tangents to the curve of love. From what we hear from those close to him, we may presume that where there is still so much smoke there was once a flame. Take a sampler: Once he was driving his friends, including a girlfriend, in his newly-acquired Peugeot 505 car. They got to a place and met some people who passed from admiring the vehicle to pricing it. Because Peter Obi had a business he wanted to explore, but did not have enough money to do so, he offered to sell the vehicle to the people and there and then. His scandalized friends, including the young lady, had to continue their trip in public transport. Two days later, Peter Obi was off to London and as soon as he concluded the new venture, he bought a brand new BMW!
There are many interesting stories about him and each is parked with lessons of life. At the wedding of one of his cousins in Enugu, many people saw him waiting for public transport to the reception. Most of them stopped to give him a lift, which he declined. In fact, a girlfriend to one of his friends remarked that they should leave the man (Obi) who appeared to be enjoying his poverty. When they later talked about the event and it was revealed that the three most-graded vehicles used for the wedding were owned by Peter Obi, the young woman sought Obi’s hotel room ostensibly to apologize to him but actually to woo his friendship.
Peter Obi lived a normal life that characterizes all stages of human development. One of the interesting things about him is that he did not remain becalmed in any of the stages. That is not say his life is devoid of follies; after all, as Cicero said: “There is nothing so absurd, but that it may be found in the book of philosophies”. He once angrily retrieved what he bought for his girlfriend on discovering her liaisons with other men.
Obi’s transition to one of Nigeria’s most successful politicians in terms of performance was not by accident. He is a perfectionist who puts in 100% efforts in whatever he chooses to do, even if it does not yield the maximum result. His friend, Benji Uba tells a story of sometime in the 1980s, when he and Obi stayed in the house of Ike Nwabunike: “Each time we travelled to London, Ike would always give us money to run errands for him and ask us to keep the change. In 1987, Peter bought his own house. When Ike heard it, he was so amazed that he dropped the plate of food from his hands. Ike was rightly perplexed that the young man he accommodated was able to buy a house in London without a mortgage! Ike was very happy and thereafter used Peter as an example for others. In the same year, Peter started investing in London and Nigerian stock markets unaffected by the bedlam of politics”.
Obi’s venture into politics was with the same spirit of perseverance. How many Nigerians would undergo what he experienced in politics and remain visible with his work largely speaking for him? He has stayed tranquil, friendly, sociable, self-critical and occasionally favouring his “enemies”. He is a man of his words and never offends a rival, never disappoints a patron, except those that are inordinate in their expectations.
As the Governor he found Anambra State buffeted by forces of under-development and self-inflicted curse. The State’s finances were in chaos; most of its revenue was lost in transit; and lawlessness was the order of the day. Rape and rapine of public and private assets reigned. Obi fought the battle of his life and eventually became the Governor of the State in 2006. His every act and every word were designed to carry out his single-minded purpose – to restore Anambra to greatness. He, therefore, started auspiciously by making himself a terror to all incompetence and malfeasance and guarded the treasury ferociously from all political raids. He reduced his own staff strength, lowered taxes, introduced agricultural reforms, and encouraged industrial enterprise. Soon his probity, economics, and efficiency brought a surplus to the treasury to the tune of over N75 billion – which he handed over to his successor in office – the first of its kind in the history of Nigeria. What was most perplexing is that he achieved this after being acclaimed the Best Governor in terms of infrastructural development and no indebtedness to workers, pensioners, contractors or creditors. Well-meaning Nigerians love him today for so bold a violation of precedence – bequests of debt.
Basic principles in life
Obi’s basic principles in life have not changed. The other day, 6th of July, 2018, he requested that I buy some bananas for him in Awka. I called to inform him that I did not see good bananas in Awka and could not go to Agulu because of time constraint. He spent the next 30 minutes lecturing me on why I should not have thought about going to Agulu because of bananas: “What is the cost implication? How can somebody think of going to Agulu to buy bananas for somebody in Awka? That’s sheer wastefulness. Was the banana recommended by a doctor, for it is only on medical condition should such course be approved, otherwise it would be sheer madness”, Obi argued.
Today, after many years of leaving public office, sedulous researchers have continued to rate him high as a careful administrator and a far-sighted diplomat. Under him, Anambra politics leaped to heights, but suddenly resumed limping after he left office, characterized by generous delusion and a brand of propaganda falling over us like the lava of Vesuvius. In the midst of increasing taxes, their pockets are bulging with riches from the poor. Rather than the aides helping him out, they continue showering the leadership with the flattery they know he loves to sip, some say gulp.
As for mistakes in office, Obi made ample varieties of them in underestimating the wicked capacity of men. Because he meant well for the State, he spent a lot of time working on a transition that would be of benefit to the people. Only God knows why he ended up supporting the one that is painfully antipodal to him in temper and ideas. Rather than look up to his ideas and build on them, his and his successor and his group are serenading him in mockery. He was accused of demanding money which he never did. They denied the money he saved and paid all manner of characters to pour obloquy on him. Those he raised from dust to become something in life now talk and act to him disrespectfully. All this has compelled him to turn around and examine himself and have a better understanding of man by understanding himself first and foremost. “Gnothiseauton” (Know thyself), said Socrates. It is one of the wonders in the political history of Nigeria that Obi did not become morose by the intensity of indignities he has suffered, but has boldly moved on; only considering the betrayals of friends and those he has helped as little wavelet in a ceaseless surf.
Obi’s pre-occupation is support for schools
Today, Obi’s pre-occupation is support for schools. He has turned himself into a wandering sophist giving lectures here and there to queasy audiences. During his lectures, he reduces to common understanding terms like Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Per Capita, among others, such that his speeches now serve as the very sauce and flavour by which heavy dishes of economic terms are made digestible for even the unlettered. But, the irony of it is that those simple, analytic speeches he always delivers have contributed much to the intellectual stimulation of the times.
Today, as he turns 58, we look at his life comprehensively and dare to say that in its systolic and diastolic movements over time, history will be kind to him. His politics reminds us that to get the best from governance, Nigeria must devise a method of barring incompetence and knavery from public office – this is the key-stone of the arch of Obi’s political thoughts. He also believes in some aspect of Chinese politics, of not allowing people to hold high offices till they have filled lower offices well.
He shall remain a lesson in perseverance. Many, including the little tiger and his patron may derive joy in castigating him, but time shall come when history would probably retort as in what, in the fables of Antisthenes, the lions said to the hares when, in the council of beasts, the latter began haranguing and claiming equality for all: “Where are your claws?”
History shall one day judge Nigerian politicians according to their deeds and people like Obi will occupy the temple of honour for persevering in doing good in spite all odds.
*Obienyem wrote from Lagos