By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
In March 2014, while handing over to his successor in Awka, former Anambra State Governor, Mr. Peter Obi, announced that apart from ensuring that all salaries and allowances of public service workers and pensioners were paid up to date, he was also leaving behind N75 billion in “cash and investments” for the in-coming administration. In a normal country, where accountability and responsible governance are normal expectations, where public service has not been crudely reduced to mere organised banditry as is largely the case across Nigeria , this should not attract any applause.
But we live in an abnormal country where criminal accumulation and wasteful spending have long been accepted as normal features of public service, where public officers ensure that they empty government treasuries and erect pyramids of debts before they leave office. And so Mr. Obi’s rare example was widely applauded, and has been extensively held up by several commentators to underline what decent and conscientious public service ought to look like.
But last week, nearly two years after he was sworn in as the Governor of Anambra State, Mr. Willie Obiano, sought to insert a sharp pin in the balloon of public excitement about what many have come to accept as Obi’s exemplary tenure. At a press conference in Awka, the Secretary to the Anambra State Government (SSG), Prof Solomon Chukwulobelu, declared that “The N75 billion[which Obi claimed he left behind] was not there; it was not handed over to anybody. At best it can be half-truth…In the real sense, what the Obiano administration inherited from Obi was N9 billion cash and N26 billion near cash.”
He explained further: “…to provide a true and fair picture of the state’s net position on March 17, 2014, the investments handover notes ought to have captured current liabilities and contingent liabilities also borne by the previous administration as at the time of handover. To put this in context, the total portfolio of inherited projects valued at approximately N185 billion was however not captured in the breakdown of the handover notes.”
According to Prof Chukwulobelu, out of the N185.1bn owed contractors, Mr. Obi only paid the sum of N78.9bn as at March 2014 when he handed over to Obiano, leaving a debt of N106.2bn.
These are indeed very weighty disclosures, and if they turn out to be true, they can only destroy whatever value Obi’s N75 billion was expected to add to the Anambra purse.
But Obi’s media aide, Mr. Valentine Obinenyem, has called for a public, televised debate on this contentious issue. I think this call is important and very necessary so that Nigerians can know exactly who is saying the truth about this matter. The accusing party should, therefore, put together a forum where both sides can come together with their facts and figures before television cameras to prove the truth or otherwise of their different positions. If they demonstrate any reluctance to organise this, a national television or civil society organisation should (as part of its patriotic duty to Nigeria and Nigerians) take the initiative to organise this debate right away and invite them. Although Channels Television has done well to feature spokespersons of the two regimes separately in its breakfast show recently, there is need for a moderated forum where they will meet together to iron out the differences in their individual accounts. And should any of them develop cold feet and shun the debate, the organisers should announce the party that absconded to Nigerians and we will then know who among the two leaders has been doing willful damage to truth and a badge of shame would promptly be put on him. This is how matters of this nature are usually resolved in civilised societies.
In a statement published in the media last week, Obineyem stated that “on coming to office, Obi spent his first year to complete all the contracts awarded by his predecessors. In some cases, he had to start from scratch. Obi, for example, paid over 35 billion in arrears of pension and gratuity. Though they[Obiano’s spokespersons] inflated the figures, but the point to note is that the debt they are talking about in their press conference is contract sum on projects yet to be executed.”
According to him: “They said that Obi left 106.2 Billion (wrong figure) overhang on contractual debts alone. I challenge them to publish the schedule of the debts and the companies being owed. As at the time Obi left office, he paid for all the certificates generated on contracts awarded. Certificates are generated on the basis of work completed. Are they saying Obi ought to [have paid] for contracts yet to be done? The same man saying this awarded 35 fresh[contracts for the construction of] roads within his first year in office at the total cost of over 81 billion Naira out of which he has paid 10 Billion Naira. On the other hand, Obi awarded [contracts for] roads totalling 93 Billion [naira] in his last year in office and paid a total of over 51 Billion on those roads before leaving office. Most of those roads were used to campaign for him during electioneering on the premise of continuity.”
Obienyem gave the breakdown of the “cash and investment” Obi left for his successor as follows:
N27billion in local currency;
N26.5 billion in foreign currency investment (foreign bonds);
N28.1 billion in Certified State / MDS balances.
Then he said: “Even in the final handover document, Obi deducted N10 billion approved federal government refund as well as the salary, pension, gratuity, money on certificates raised on contracts for the month of March, which all amounted to N5 billion before arriving at the balance of over N75 billion he bequeathed his successor. As a financial expert, Obi went to his end-of-tenure event with Gov. Willie Obiano and said all this in the presence of all the Bank MDs in whose banks the monies were. In fact, as at March 17th when he handed over, he got all the certified statements of Anambra’s accounts from the banks these monies were and handed them over to his successor.”
I think that these are claims that are easily verifiable, so why the needless noise and generation of bad blood in Anambra? By the way, did Obiano make any attempt to get Obi to clarify anything that required some explanation in his handover note before asking his SSG to do a press conference? Also, people have asked why Gov Obiano had to wait for nearly two years into his tenure to make these damaging disclosures. While his principal secretary, Mr. Willie Nwokoye, said on Channels Television last week that Obiano was too busy with his work to start addressing such matters, the National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA), Chief Ifeatu Obiokoye, told reporters in Awka that the reason was that Obi was all the while still a member of their party and so it would not have been proper to embarrass him with a rebuttal.
This is how he put it: “I believe Governor Willie Obiano was being cautious by coming up with the truth now which, if he had done before now, would have embarrassed his predecessor.” In other words, this has more to do with politics than the need to ensure accountability. What one can deduce from this assertion, therefore, is that no one in Awka would have bothered himself making these astounding revelations were Obi still in APGA.
Well, I think that this ought to be very simple matter if Obi’s accusers would bother to answer these few questions. Was there any project completed before March 2014 that Obi did not pay for before leaving office? How exactly do Obiano and his advisers define debts? Was anyone expecting Obi to have paid for projects not yet completed as at the time he was leaving office? Wouldn’t that be termed an unwholesome act? Is government no longer a continuous process where a successor is expected to take over the responsibilities of the office from where his predecessor stopped and ensure they are fully and successfully discharged? Okay, can Mr. Obiano get the Managing Directors of the banks where these contentious funds were lodged to issue certified statements contradicting Obi’s claims? Why should they expect any reasonable person to believe their mere words of mouth refuting Obi’s claims without any credible documentary evidence?
One point one has noticed in this controversy is that whereas Obi had announced that he left N75 billion in “cash and investments,” the Obiano people are harping on the misinformation that he actually claimed to have left N75 billion cash only. And so, Obiano’s principal secretary could question whether it amounted to good governance to have left such an amount while there were some things to be done in the state. He also accused Obi of announcing that he left the billions of naira for the state without also disclosing the obligations he left behind?
I do not know if Obi did not give to his successor the list of the projects that were yet to be completed as at the time he was leaving office (because that would really be quite strange in a handover note) but my feeling is that these fellows were hoping to come into government to play around and do nothing? Because, what is governance if not the discharging of obligations? Haven’t the Anambra State government been getting monthly allocations from the Federation Account and Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) since Obiano took over? Or were they thinking that there was a tree from which Obi was plucking money and which he carefully cut down before leaving office? In fact, there is even only a marginal difference between the figure Obiano’s principal secretary acknowledged on Channels TV that Obi handed over to them and what Obi had announced which they are challenging. In fact, one could easily see that the people interviewing him were grossly unimpressed by his theatrics. I thought I saw relief on their faces when his session was over.
When Obi assumed office, he wasted no time in clearing the arrears of pensions and gratuity he inherited to the tune of N35 billion and he seemed happy and fulfilled doing so. He also hastened to complete all the projects left behind by his predecessor. But when Obiano took over, he met no arrears of salaries, pensions and allowances waiting for him to defray. He had no debts arising from completed but unpaid-for contracts to offset, so what is his problem? Was he expecting Obi to have paid the contractors upfront? What if Obi had gone ahead to do that and the contractors later defaulted, who would carry the can?
Obiano announced in Mkpor last week that he was seeking a second term in office. “I am going to stay eight years in office and nobody can stop me!” he said.
That is a legitimate ambition which is within his rights as a Nigerian. But he stands the chance of being the one to stop himself because of the kind of needless, if not, puerile war he is waging against his predecessor. If he thinks that the only way to stamp himself on the minds of the people is to rubbish Mr. Obi, he would wake up to realize that he has been trapped in a very long dream. Indeed, Obi may have left office but given his sterling performance and noble character which have been widely acknowledged, he still has his teeming admirers who remember his tenure with immense delight. Engaging in a pointless combat with their hero may compel them to cast their votes in a way that might effectively bury Mr. Obiano’s ambition. After all, Obiano could not have forgotten so soon that he rode on the record of this same Obi to power, because, by the time he became APGA’s governorship candidate, only few people could recall having ever heard his name anywhere, yet he was able to defeat a formidable candidate like Dr. Chris Ngige.
Now is it not demoralizing that at a time when the stories emanating from most of the states of the federation are mainly about months of unpaid salaries, empty treasuries, mountains of debts and strivings to obtain bailouts from the Federal Government, we have in Awka a governor who could find the time to engage in a pointless battle with his predecessor who had handed over to him a healthy state with NO arrears of unpaid salaries and NO mountains of debts; a predecessor who instead of billions of debts handed over to him a purse full of billions in “cash and investments.” One of the foreign investments made by Obi, according to his aide (and which has not been refuted), has even yielded about N10 billion profit to Anambra State .
That’s probably why Obiano could find the whopping sum of N5 billion (as also alleged by Obi’s aide) to mark his hundred days in office and buy all those fleets of posh Prado SUVs and luxury pick-ups for each of these his officers going about now running their mouths on his behalf. If Peter Obi had wallowed in the kind of revolting profligacy allegedly flourishing in Awka today, would he have been able to leave Anambra in such a healthy state? In Oyo State today, for example, Gov Ajimobi is even saying that the bailout he got from the Federal Government is not enough to lift the crushing debt burden weighing the state down and that he needs more. In Katsina State, Gov Bello Masari had to lie to obtain an eleven billion naira bailout from the Federal Government. Other more disheartening stories are oozing from several states, but Anambra, because of Obi’s prudent management of resources, does not have such tales of woes.
If many Nigerians today hold Obi up as a model governor, he truly earned it. It was clear that he believed that governance should be a more serious business than most people viewed it; it should be about quality service delivery, instead of an opportunity for infantile and ostentatious display of power, influence and glamour as seem to have become the norm in this country. The “normal” Nigerian politician who was used to vulgar bacchanals, obscene squander-mania at Government Houses, long, reckless, siren-blaring convoys and fear-instilling bodyguards would probably find Peter Obi something of an odd fellow. Instead of investing all that energy, resources and time in needless and distracting advertisement of one’s obsession with indecent fanfare, infantile exuberance and depraved pleasure hunting, he would rather wake up daily and simply go to work.
One thing he was, however, regularly accused of during his tenure was his firm refusal to “carry long” the so-called elite in the state. Now, one might think this was one serious charge if one did not know what it meant. Indeed, what that meant was Obi’s blunt unwillingness to continue the unsightly tradition of throwing lavish parties for and sharing out Anambra money to an army of parasitic elite who also exist in several other states of the federation, and who depend on public funds to maintain the wasteful lifestyles they have become used to but lack personal resources to sustain. Obi’s philosophy that public funds were only meant for the execution of public projects and not to be squandered by a few privileged parasites won him some very bitter enemies, but it also won him the respect of decent Nigerians who mean well for the country.
At a time, Obi was almost the only governor one could meet queuing at the airport to board an aircraft like “ordinary” passengers like us (he also always flew economy class) while his colleagues, some of whom would not have qualified to serve as his P.A. before he and they became governors hopped about in private jets and wallowed in unspeakable profligacy. This is one thing that deeply pains and causes prolonged sorrow to decent and responsible Nigerians about public officers, and the likes Peter Obi is a kind of consolation that all is, perhaps, not entirely lost, that the whole place has not been totally overrun by ferocious locusts.
In his statement, Obi’s aide alleged that the bacchanals and lavish reveling abhorred by Obi during his tenure at the government house have returned in full force; the current governor charters private jets to take him around (and this costs a fortune) and engages in several wasteful spending that can make the hearts of Ndi Anambra who are used to Obi’s meticulous and scrupulous use of funds to bleed? Now if all these avoidable expenses succeed in gulping the billions left behind by Obi, is the sudden proclamation that the funds never existed the most responsible response?
Before long, Obiano would go to the polls to seek a second term as he has announced. The last time, it seemed almost a walkover for him because of the solid reputation of his predecessor with which he was marketed to the people. Today, he should realize that he is entirely on his own and facing a no mean challenge. Right now, some people are asking whether his party, APGA still exists; so, what is Obiano doing to refurbish and refocus the party or is he planning to run on a different platform? Also, given the nature of the elections already conducted under the ruling APC, he should know that he would be facing a very unusual opponent. Even if the APC finds it difficult to browbeat the Anambra people to give it their votes (due largely to President Buhari’s undisguised unfriendly disposition towards the South East), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) will not be any easy opponent to confront. I think that this should constitute more worry to Mr. Obiano than devoting precious time and resources hauling weak and often contradictory and self-damaging allegations at a man who is not running against him in an election (since he is longer constitutionally allowed to run for the office of governor) and whom he has not been able to accuse of any form of financial mismanagement.
*Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye, a journalist and writer, is a columnist with a Nigerian national newspaper (firstname.lastname@example.org;www.ugowrite.blogspot.com; twitter:@ugowrite)