When I encountered the immediate past Governor of Anambra State, Mr Peter Obi, in Abuja about three weeks ago at his hotel room, he was discussing with an estate agent who was trying to secure for him accommodation to rent at his personal expense. Coming at a period in which many of his colleagues have bastardised section 124 (subsection 5) of the 1999 Constitution which deals with the remunerations (including gratuity) of governors and deputy governors, Obi has proved to be refreshingly different. And on a day such as this, he provides a ready example of the kind of moderation expected of our political office holders if this democracy is to endure.
In a nation where accountability is in short supply, there is perhaps no greater threat today than the impunity with which government officials and their spouses, at practically all levels, appropriate to themselves and cronies scarce public resources. They fly private jets (where they don’t buy one with government funds), stay in the most expensive hotels both within and outside the country, erect big mansions they hardly live in while moving around in convoys of the latest automobiles. To compound the situation, it is not enough that they enjoy such luxury at the expense of the people while in office, they also want to continue with it after office hence they now make laws to confer on themselves such criminal indulgences as private citizens.
However, as I said earlier, Peter Obi is different. He remains probably the most modest person to have been governor under the current dispensation while his lifestyle must have saved Anambra State billions of Naira, especially when compared with the cost of maintaining his colleagues. Even when he was already a wealthy man before assuming office, Obi exhibited uncommon decency and humility while in office. Within the country, he travelled light, just with one aide and always on commercial airlines as opposed to his colleagues who travelled by private jets. And whenever he travelled outside the country, you would only find Obi in the business class compartment.
As we therefore mark the 15th anniversary of our democratic journey under the current dispensation, Obi’s story is particularly instructive against the background that on Monday, the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly passed an executive bill which guarantees Governor Godswill Akpabio about N200 million annually for life. At a time he would have left Uyo (and probably while still earning several millions of Naira as a sitting senator in Abuja), Akpabio would be entitled to a pension at a rate equivalent to the salary of the sitting Akwa Ibom governor.
The law which only ‘upgrades’ the earlier version signed by his predecessor, Obong Victor Atta, also provides for a former governor and his spouse a sum not exceeding N5 million per month to employ domestic staff and free medical services at a sum not exceeding N100 million per annum. A befitting accommodation not below a 5-bedroom maisonette in either Abuja or Akwa Ibom is also waiting for a former governor. Of course, the bill does not forget to take care of the deputy governor who is also entitled to some form of luxury after office. Yet as scandalous as the foregoing may seem, Akwa Ibom is only following in the footsteps of several other states where former governors have literally put their people in perpetual servitude.
In several of these states, there is a law binding the government to provide mansions both in choice areas of Abuja and their state capital for a former governor who is also entitled to several vehicles and retinue of aides. Kano perhaps provides a prime illustration of this scandal and I enjoin readers to just google the name Shekarau or Kwankwaso over ‘pension residence’ for former governors to understand the abuse to which a simple constitutional provision could be subjected in pursuit of inordinate private interest.
However, as I said earlier, Obi is different because he managed Anambra State resources as he would his own. What is even more remarkable is that in a milieu when many governors have virtually bankrupted their states with loans that can hardly be accounted for by any meaningful projects, Obi left substantial amount of money for his successor without any debt. Yet we are talking of a state that is number 22 (among 36 states) in revenue sharing.
Due to the fact that I visited Anambra State only once throughout his extended tenure, I do not know much about Obi’s stewardship beyond what I read in newspapers. So this piece is not about his achievements in office for which I am not in a position to comment. It is nonetheless noteworthy that the 2013 West African Examination Council (WAEC) results released a fortnight ago put Anambra State students top on the chart. Yet a time was when young men from the state that has produced some of the brightest and the best of our country would rather go to Lagos to sell spare-parts than go to school. To the extent that the state now leads in WAEC, Peter Obi must have done something right with education even though that is not the real essence of this intervention.
On March 17 this year when he handed over to Mr. Willie Obiano, the former governor said he was leaving behind billions of Naira in the state treasury. At the time, I thought it was a remarkable development and I wanted to take it up on this page. Before I could write on it, however, there were advertorials in the newspapers which suggested that Obi might not have presented an accurate picture of things. That prompted me to investigate the veracity of his claim.
In the hand-over note to Governor Obiano dated March 17 this year, Obi indeed gave a summary of the full financial statement of Anambra State as at the close of business on Friday, March 14 (effectively his last day in office) as follows: Local Investments (N27 billion); Foreign Currency Investment (US $156 Million the Naira equivalent of which was put at N26.5 billion); Certified State/MDAs Balances (N28,165,985,574); Federal Government Approved Refund (N10 billion) and estimated balances, including March salaries, pension and gratuity as well as approved certificates of already executed projects (N5 billion). That put the total net balance at about N86.67 billion.
The question therefore is: Is the claim true? I believe it is. A March 5, 2014 document originating from Fidelity Securities Limited and addressed to the Anambra State Accountant General on the investment mandate from the State Government reveals the details of the Eurobond securities purchased for the state as follows: Access Bank with 25 July, 2017 as maturity date amounts to $7,413,619; four federal government bonds which will mature in 2018, 2021 and 2023 total $20,382,500; two Gabonese government bonds which will mature on 12 December 2024 total $7,008,750; a Ghanaian government bond which matures on 4 October, 2017 amounts to $5,451,319; Guarantee Trust Bank bond which matures on May 19, 2015 gives $4,307,500 and a First Bank of Nigeria bond which matures on August 7, 2020 will yield $5,254,062. According to the document, the state has already received ‘total coupon amounting to $855,400 to date from investment in Access Bank and Nigerian Sovereigns’ while awaiting ‘instruction on account to credit with the Naira equivalent.’
Aside the $50 million invested on behalf of the State Government on 31 October, 2013 by Diamond Bank, an Access Bank document dated 31 January, 2014 also confirms the investment of the sum of US$49,966,504.08 on behalf of Anambra State in six Eurobonds for a period ranging between one and five years and an average yield of between 6.2 and 7.1 percent.
While there may be a debate as to the actual total sum of the investments left by the Obi administration since I do not have all the details, it is remarkable that we had a governor who was not only thinking of the immediate but also considered it imperative to invest for the future, especially at a time he would no longer be in office. This is important because he could have spent all the money since there is never a shortage of projects to undertake.
In a way, we can link Obi’s frugality to his background as a successful business man prior to going into politics. He merely transposed the virtues of private business practice onto the management of public affairs. This contrasts with the vast majority of governors who prior to coming to office had no track record in the management of any organization. Because Anambra State has the added advantage of having one of the most entrepreneurial people in our country, a population that uses self-help for development can only complement the work of a frugal and result-oriented governor.
The greatest challenge of our country today is poverty accentuated by the gulf between the haves and the have-not, which seems to be getting wider by the day. Yet many of our public officials flaunt their decadent lifestyles and revel in ostentation at public expense. Today in Nigeria, the cost of maintaining public officials is huge, and accounts for most of the resources that ordinarily should go to development. That is what endears Obi to me. In or out of office, he remains a simple man and a shining example of what a public servant should be.
Living fast lives at public expense is not only becoming an unbearable burden in Nigeria, it is such wasteful and patently criminal tendencies that now increase poverty, unemployment and insecurity. Because our people have practically endorsed impunity, majority of these governors and other political office holders in the country are crossing the ethical boundary by the manner in which they expend scarce public resources without any regard for the common good.
That I have singled out Peter Obi for commendation is because he has a sense of responsibility when it comes to public fund and has chosen the road less travelled. On such a day as this, Obi’s modesty and frugality are definitely worth recommending to the current and future generations of Nigerian political office holders. Even at that, I hope governors who are making laws for their own post-office comfort can see the danger of what they are doing and the dire implications for the future of our democracy. The lesson is all too clear: If and when they eventually push the people to the wall, there will be serious consequences, not only for them but also unfortunately for all of us.
This piece by Adeniyi originally appeared in his column ‘The Verdict’ in today’s edition of ThisDay under the headline ‘Peter Obi on Democracy Day’.