By Valentine Obienyem
I shall take the liberty to begin this piece with the conclusion. Today, the 19th of July, 2020, Mr. Peter Obi, the Vice Presidential Candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in the 2019 elections and a Former Governor of Anambra State, is 59. I shall simply define him as a hard-working Nigerian, successful entrepreneur, and consummate politician. His acclaimed attainments in our shark-infested seas of politics could be linked to his integrity, prudence and uncommon wisdom. In him, these qualities form a close trilogy as the three acts of a well-crafted drama; each part foreshadowing and requiring the next with logical inevitability.
When he turned 58, I stated that apart from Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, whom I wrote on during his birthdays, I had rashly laid upon myself the task of doing the same for Peter Obi because he is a man who has offered something priceless to humanity and still has a lot in stock to offer. Thus, no intellectual or literary exercise can be more invigorating than to watch and analyse the workings of the mind of this man.
Consider what Anambra State used to be before him – a confusing flotsam of vices. Before him, virtue hid its head, and yielded the front page to vice, misfortune, rape and rapine. Created to be a pilot in the storm, he tackled the problems of the State simultaneously. Today, there is no more amazing or portentous phenomenon in Anambra State than the way in which the comatose and bastardised entity was roughly awakened by Obi who leaped forward, defeated the predators and, within eight years, elevated the State to become the toast of the country. These achievements have earned Obi the accolade as probably the greatest administrator and financial manager in Nigeria.
What is this gentle and soft-spoken philosopher like? He started making impacts early in life and the paths he walked are worthy of illumination because they are lights to souls desirous of proper growth and guidance. As a primary school pupil at Sancta Maria School, Onitsha, he considered going and returning to school and doing some household chores not enough for his calling. He started the business of buying kerosene in big gallons and retailing it in bottles in front of his mother’s shop. Thenceforth, he graduated to the sale of eggs in secondary school.
The Egg business is such a risky one that requires all the patience of Job. A broken egg would mean eating dip into one’s gains. Conscious of this, he would always stay at the back of the pick-up truck driven by his childhood friend, Mr. Benjamin Uba, conveying the eggs from Olikeze’s Agbor farm or Onwuka’s Awka farm to closely guard the eggs from breaking. We earlier propounded “The Peter Principle”, which notes that the profit of eggs’ merchants is directly proportional to the number of broken eggs on delivery. Obi took this principle to government by the way he shunned wastages and financial laxity that characterise governance in Nigeria.
Obi’s successes have remained part of his eventful life. He started travelling to London on business from 1978, when he was still in secondary school. He has always been sustained by his integrity, prudent and transparent handling of money because he has long learnt to leave luxury and ostentation to his inferiors. This is seen in many anecdotes that punctuate his life as in when one of his suppliers at Liverpool market, London, granted him unlimited credit because he informed him of a particular supply where they mistakenly sent goods two times more than what he paid for. There is also the story of how the owner of Pembury Hotel, Mr. Jones and his wife, observing how his colleagues entrusted their money to him while staying in their hotel, made him the arrow head of that group. In the university, his friends used him to save their pocket money. Till the present, the likes of Chief Emma Bishop, one of the most respected businessmen, in Nigeria and Chief Okey Ezibe would always tell the story of how they confidently gave Peter Obi large sums of money to pay their suppliers in London without the usual tale of intrigues and treachery that such trust often lead to.
Interestingly, he was not all charitable for doing everything for his friends, including shipping their goods to them from London. Always focused and utilising what others would ordinarily shun, he made little money by claiming tax re-payment on those goods at the airport. He did it as a State Governor and still does it till today. He would get his legitimate returns even when, in the next moment, he would spend the money on his numerous acts of inconspicuous philanthropy.
Years after he became Governor, Professor Chinyere Stella Okunna and myself had accompanied him to see the European Union Ambassador to Nigeria, His Excellency, Dr. David MacRea, who earlier requested he would like to see him to access the support to Anambra State. As we entered his office, Dr. MacRea greeted Mr. Peter Obi familiarly and dramatically as if he had known him many years back. Before the business of the day, MacRea smiled indulgently and narrated how his Jewish friend who sold boxes and bags in London, knowing he was going to Nigeria, requested him to work closely with his Nigerian friend, Peter who was a Governor in Nigeria. He said his friend told him that honour and integrity were the warp and woof of Obi’s life. Obi remembers Mr. Foxy of Harroway road from whom he had been purchasing boxes since 1978. Foxy would give distributors and retailers boxes on credit and when the credit built up, others would stop coming to him except Obi who was faithful to the relationship. When the man closed the shop a few years ago, saying he was old and that none of his children wanted to continue in that line of business, Obi was one of those he informed.
One of the secrets of Obi’s success as a State Governor is that he lived his normal life and remained faithful to himself and others. He did not, for one second, forget that the real purpose of governance is service to the people. When he restored discipline; changed the slogan of Anambra State from “The Home for All” to “The light of the Nation”; cut the cost of governance; shunned hiring of planes; stayed only one or two days on trips (including foreign ones); kept the trouble-makers at bay; used the smallest convoy among his colleagues; pretended he did not drink costly champagnes; displaced the epicurean habit of those in government with stoic simplicity; visited and spoke to all institutions that could assist the State with diplomatic courtesy; did not childishly turn himself into a model; took no kick-backs; did not indulge in the ostentation of maintaining a first lady’s office; avoided staying in the costliest hotels; resisted buying houses across the world; reduced the personnel in Government Lodge to only those that had things to offer; stopped the daily slaughtering of cows in the lodge (for the reason that the place is not a restaurant or bar); returned to less than 50, of the over 200 aides appointed during his illegal impeachment (which included his close relations); remitted funds directly to institutions to avoid bureaucratic and other tolls – it is because he saw those clean-cut measures as surgical necessities in his attempt to establish financial discipline, transparency and accountability in his realm.
Indeed, some of the measures he took were disagreeable, but they had the painless grace of flowing from his very nature as when, for a person like me that travelled with him often, he reduced to three days, trips that other State Governors spent 10 days on and travel allowance to a day by his erroneous insistence that two days slept in the plane would not be counted. What of the presence of calculators around him? When he insisted a calculator should be at the chapel in case something comes up while he was mediating, his prayer warrior and elder Sister who is also an ordained Rev. Sister insistently said no to that.
Have the Permanent Secretaries forgiven him for always making calls to cross-check every expenditure brought to his table in the name of savings cost for the state? A Former Managing Director of Diamond Bank, Dr. Alex Otti summarised it thus: “Obi realised from day one that running a large government was undesirable. The first thing he did was to rationalise the size of government and therefore, expenditure. He also lived a frugal life. All the extravagance of leadership had no place in his government. Some people would argue that he overdid it, but it worked”.
...Valentine Obienyem, a renowned media practitioner, is the Media Spokesman to Ex-Anambra State Governor, Mr Peter Obi.