Peter Obi: Cutting the cost of governance

A former governor of Anambra State, Mr Peter Obi, recently gave a memorable speech that went viral in the polity. Obi, who spoke on October 1,2016 at The Platform, a Covenant Christian Centre programme in Lagos that focuses on leadership, business, creativity and national empowerment, engaged the central theme of accountability and transparency in governance. In that epochal speech, Obi touched on holding leaders accountable, right from the local government level. He particularly deplored the extravagant lifestyle of public officials, saying that most of the property they acquired, especially vehicles, were unnecessary.

Speaking on the topic, “Cutting cost in governance,” Obi particularly shocked his listeners when he said: “Government House is not a restaurant. I told my cook to cook for only one person.” According to the former governor, he saved over N75 billion for Anambra State before leaving office. Obi said: “It costs an average of N2 billion to run the office of the First Lady in every state in Nigeria. Multiply that by 36. Nigeria can still function on its income if only we learn how to cut costs. No governor needs a house in Abuja; governors don’t live in Abuja.” It emerged that two bullet proof cars were allocate to him and he used the money to buy cars for many public office holders in the state.

Usually in Nigeria, politicians who pontificate on national issues in the manner that Obi did immediately arouse suspicion. This is because, over the years, the public space has been dotted by brilliant speeches by public office holders who committed infamous crimes, suggesting that their preachments were only part of a grant tactic to immobilize the state through ideological state apparatuses, especially progressive rhetoric. It was thus quite natural that Obi’s speech ignited some criticism in the media, some of it acerbic in the suggestion that the former governor was only toeing the path of his colleagues who assaulted the sensibilities of the populace with grand narratives of patriotism, only to turn around and embezzle public funds, deny democratic rights and dash communal hopes.

But there are reasons to believe that Obi is not the typical Nigerian politician. In the first instance, eye witness accounts abound of the former governor deploying the lightest of security details around himself in and out of office. As governor, Obi was one of the few members of the privileged class who actually entered Nigerian soil through the arrival lounge at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos. He was not, at any time, met by a large entourage at the airport, and there were many co-travellers who did not even realise that they rode in the same airplane with a state governor. Again, there is evidence of Obi carrying his own bags on international flights. In the same state, under former Governor Chinwoke Mbadinuju, teachers were on strike in the state for two years, protesting the non-payment of their salaries. Obi did not owe salaries. The symbolism of the Obi example can surely not be lost on a nation that yearns for development.

All of the foregoing however pales into insignificance when the central point of Obi’s argument, namely how does Nigeria structure governance to ensure that it delivers the dividends of democracy, is de-constructed. First, in advocating probity and accountability in governance, the former governor was only hinting at the possibility of a revolution in national official conduct, and not suggesting that he was a saint. Indeed, he is categorically nothing of the sort. Thus, the point is not whether Obi missed certain points in his speech or whether he did not have personal failings as a public official. The point is that he has suggested ideas which are workable and which the nation can ponder on, particularly in the light of extant challenges. If anything, the fact that the convoys of state governors, ministers and the president still continue to manifest the crass opulence that battered the image of the country’s leadership in the past and contributed significantly to the slide in the standard of living of the people is one poignant anathema that recommends sober thinking to Nigeria’s political leadership.

If, during a recession, the political leadership is still conducting itself in a manner that suggests that it has obscene and ill-gotten wealth within its control, then there is no reason to hope that the vastly misgoverned populace has a realistic chance of getting a better deal any time soon. That is why the message passed by the former governor, who has in any case been held aloft by Mr Ben Bruce, a senator from another state, should not be ignored by the current political leadership. It is, in the final analysis, a question of values, and even the most prudent of administrators has one or two things to learn about being a better administrator. We salute former Governor Peter Obi for drawing attention to a crucial national need.