The search for Peter Obi

Peter Obi

One of the problems confronting Nigerian first generation of leaders was where to find suitable persons to occupy posts hitherto occupied by British citizens. This was the situation in both the public and private sectors. In many companies, especially those that originated from England and other European countries, it took years before Nigerians gained entrance into the board rooms. One of those most famous success stories was that of Chief Christopher Abebe who became the first Nigerian managing director of the United African Company, the then biggest of the British conglomerates that dominated the Nigerian economy at independence in 1960.

Other successful pioneers included Chief Michael Omolayole, who became the first Nigerian M.D of Levers Brothers, (now Unilever). Anyone who has ever met Dr Christopher Kolade, former M.D. of Cadbury, Chief Olusegun Osunkeye, former M.D. of Nestle, Chief Ernest Shonekan, former M.D of UAC, would know that the rise of these men were not the result of happenstance. They were well prepared for their assignments.

Three things were required for high offices by the European owners of those enterprises: Competence, knowledge and integrity. In many companies dominated or owned by Europeans, they took time to train their protégés for high offices. At Nestle, earlier known as Food Specialties, the men who were to control the behemoth were sent on various courses to equip them with knowledge and make them to understand the enormity of their responsibilities. Chief Olusegun Osunkeye, who was to emerge as MD, was trained in many countries of the world, including India, Switzerland, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Among the banks, the search for suitable Africans to step into the shoes of departing Europeans was also thorough. Many of the first generation of top bankers like Samuel Asabia, Clement Isong and others passed through the grills of European tutoring. The media, despite the pioneering works of people like Ernest Ikoli, Samuel Akinsaya, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Abubakar Imam, also had the European corps of managers who controlled the advert industry. They influenced contents and determined the fortunes of publications. That was what gave the edge to the Daily Times, founded by Europeans and pro-British Africans led by the conservative Sir Adeyemo Alakija, which was regarded by the establishment as their own.

Other professions have their own stories: law, accounting, architecture, arts and drama, music, soldiering, engineering and others. Nigerians learnt and rose to the challenge. Our leaders sought out competent and talented men and women to fill posts vacated by Europeans or created as a result of new activities and directions. One of the beneficiaries of that gesture was the late Professor Samuel Aluko, the famous economist. In 1958, Chief Obafemi Awolowo had offered him the job of Divisional Officer, DO, for Ekiti, with headquarters in Ado. The division has a staff of almost 1,200 personnel including local policemen, teachers, health inspectors and staff of the Public Works Department, PWD. Aluko said he would take the job on only one condition, it must be part time. Awolowo obliged. That division that was ruled by a part-time D.O is now a state with 16 local governments, 16 chairmen and scores of councilors.

The pioneer political leaders tried to ensure that only those with the correct education and orientation have access to public offices. Chief Rotimi Williams, one of the pioneer leaders of the defunct Action Group, was one of the most brilliant legal minds of that era. Awolowo wanted him in Ibadan as part of the government but he could not win an election into the Western Region House of Assembly from a Lagos that was dominated by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe led National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC. Chief Awolowo therefore got him made a traditional chief and from that pedestal, he was nominated a member of the Western Region House of Chief. It was as a member of the House of Chiefs that he was made Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the defunct Western Region.

Because of many variables, leadership recruitment for political offices and assignments has been more difficult for Nigeria. Since the return of civilian and democratic governance in 1999, it is safe to say that most of those who have being holding elective positions have recruited themselves. In 1998, after the death of Chief Moshood Abiola and the lifting of the ban on politics by the regime of General Abdulsalami Abubakar, some leaders have sought to influence Afenifere, the mainstream Yoruba cultural and political movement to adopt a novel way of nominating candidates for elective positions. Afenifere leader, Senator Abraham Aderibigbe Adesanya, finally had to succumb to pressure because politicians wanted what they called “an open field.” This became Adesanya’s decision after an article appeared in the Sunday Vanguard critical of his style of leadership. The “open field” produced many surprising results. The consequences of that “open field” are still with us and may linger on for some years to come.

Of course, almost all parts of the country adopted the “open field” approach for all nominations contest with surprising results. I am fascinated especially by what happened in two states: Cross River and Anambra State. In Cross River State, the state elite have been able to recruit leaders of considerable commitment since 1999. Reckless excitability has been rare among its governors. There has been rare occurrence of turbulence or upheaval since Donald Duke was elected governor in 1999. The transition from Duke to his successor was apparently smooth and the currently governor, Professor Ben Ayade, also benefitted from the same tradition.

We cannot say the something of Anambra State. Anambra has the unenviable distinction of been the only state where the governor was kidnapped and nothing happened to the kidnappers till date. Yet it was in that state that Peter Obi, a suave businessman, was elected governor. He fought his way through the court system to retrieve his mandate from the gang that earlier kidnapped his victory. In the end, he won and ran successful a two-terms which ended in 2014.

My fascination with Obi as governor was his dedication to modesty and creative competence in a land enamored by compulsive flamboyance and reckless opulence. Here was a governor who understood the matrix of development, its dependence on creative leadership and parsimony. Not for Obi the Napoleonic entourage of most governors, the advance team, the army of hangers-on, the court jesters and the eager men and women in charge of protocol. I once met Obi at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport Abuja, clutching his suitcase like any other passenger. His piping voice reminds one so much of the legendary Alhaji Babatunde Jose, the empire-builder of the old Daily Times.

Now that we are moving closer to the next round of elections, we need more men and women with courage and competence like Obi, who would present themselves for the arduous jobs ahead. We need to search for these men and women if they would not thrust themselves forward like Peter Obi did for the people of Anambra State. Nigeria is in dire need of rebuilding and we need those who understand the architecture of power to help with the assignment. No one would help us with this task. We have to help ourselves.

We have seen, with the best of intentions, that piloting the ship of the Nigerian state is an arduous task. Who could have loved Nigeria more than Muhammadu Buhari? Who could have been more determined to fight corruption and put our country on the path of greatness and put an end to impunity in public offices? Yet, with the best of intention, the ship of state continues to rock with disturbing menace. We know that before Peter Obi, they kidnapped a governor in Anambra State. Nigerians need to be vigilant or else many governorship seats would be kidnapped in the next rounds of elections and there would be an army of lawyers to defend the heist.

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Peter Obi


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