Peter Obi and one wristwatch
During his appearance on April 29, 2017, at The Platform – a forum organised by the Covenant Christian Centre, Lagos – where he spoke on the topic “The Nigerian Economy,” Mr. Peter Obi, a former governor of Anambra State, made a claim that, expectedly, became a focus of unusual public interest.
The claim, voiced while tapping at his wristwatch during a question and answer session that followed his speech proper, is: “This is the only watch I have; I have owned it for seventeen years.”
It was the second edition of The Platform and Obi’s second invitation to speak at the forum, apparently an indication that the organisers were quite impressed with his first outing. The compere actually reinforced this impression by making reference to “his widely shared presentation at the last platform” while introducing him to the audience, hinting that the road of The Platform had been so good for the speaker, his audience and the organisers as to warrant their travelling it twice. And as Obi’s Igbo people would say, “Uzo di nma a gaa ya nga n’abuo”: “If a road is good, we travel it twice.”
Obi, who confessed to not being “a professor of economics” and said he would prefer to speak as “a trader” – suggesting a hands-on participation in activities related to the topic – spoke on the need to “invest in education” and the benefits of “patronising Nigerian businesses” and “made-in-Nigeria” products. He also spoke on the importance of developing a Nigerian version of “a knowledge economy”, noting that “that’s where the future in going,” and cited Apple, Facebook, Amazon, etc., as examples of privately owned businesses or corporate ventures thriving in the knowledge economy of their home country whose new worth rivals Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy. With this comparison he hinted at how much the Nigerian economy can be improved by cultivating its knowledge sector.
Obi had promised to concentrate his speech on the issues of “borrowing, savings, education and employment.” Elaborating on this, he noted – with a hint of condemnation – the Nigerian tendency to ignore “the achievable we have around us” while hankering for the exotic. He noted that when you don’t have savings you have no option but to borrow, apparently justifying some borrowing by the current government to tide the country over a recession. But he also wondered if we are borrowing out of necessity or somewhat gratuitously to spend on things we can do without. With this he served food for thought to his audience which included the Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun.
Citing various examples in a speech anchored largely on pragmatics, he emphasised that the country should judiciously spend its borrowed funds to provide such basic facilities as good roads and functional airports rather than pursue such relatively costlier and less realisable ventures as the construction of multiple airport terminals (even in poorly functioning airports) and super highways.
He summed up the part of his speech that focussed on saving with the remark: “No nation can survive without saving,” throwing into relief the current economic hardship in the country following the fall in the price of oil, which has been blamed on the country’s profligate past and its inability to save in a time of prosperity.
In all, Obi’s speech and responses during the question and answer session drew enough plaudits from the audience to justify drawing the conclusion that they were well received.
But at the heels of his appearance came, quite understandably, insinuations that he lied in his claim about the wristwatch, which seemed like a fly in the ointment of his remarkable outing. And soon images of him seemingly wearing other wristwatches, and apparently originating within the past 17 years, were being circulated on social media.
I think such insinuations are understandable because Nigerians have had such a rough deal with unreliable leaders that they should scrutinise the claims of anyone whom they perceive as aspiring to a leadership position – as may be the case with Obi – as a means determining their permissibility to occupy leadership positions. And being found to have lied could serve as a warning sign of such potential leader’s lack of credibility.
However, even with such seemingly contradictory images, it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that Obi’s wristwatch claim was not true unless it could be proven that he owned any other wristwatch at the moment he made that claim or had not owned that particularly one for 17 years.
While not ruling other possible interpretations of the claim, as a student of semantics I can say that it can be rightly interpreted to mean that he might have owned other wristwatches together with that one in the past 17 years, but that was the only one left. And so digging up images where he seemed to wear other wristwatches or actually did in the past 17 years would not translate into his having lied. And the remarkable thing would be the rare fidelity of his having kept faith with one wristwatch for so long, maintaining it in a working condition for 17 years in a country with virtually no maintenance culture, and its reflection on his character as a frugal and dependable leader.
In fact, the insinuation that he lied may be a reflection of the need for those behind it to interpret statements with greater rigour, reading between the lines, and not rush to conclusion.
This hasty and defective reaction is similar to the one that trailed President Muhammadu Buhari’s remark about two years ago. The President had remarked that now that he was 72 there was a limit to what he could do. Then a section of the Nigerian public and the media interpreted this confession that he was too old to govern. But they ignored or did not see the possibility of interpreting it, I think more appropriately, as the President revealing that there were perhaps wrong things he might have been inclined to do as a younger person which he could no longer do at 72.
Indeed, with such statement, it behoves us as intelligent and fair-minded citizens to explore the path to their understanding and interpretation to the limits before taking a critical or supportive stance in relation to them.
• Oke, a poet and public affairs analyst, lives in Abuja.