As a political scientist intent on impacting governance positively in Nigeria, conscious of the enormous powers acumulated for the President of Nigeria, courtesy of successive military administrations, I have not only been involved in the politics of electing a new President, I make it a point of duty to interact with serving and former Presidents of Nigeria to hear from the horse’s mouth. This way, my knowledge of Nigeria has been tremendously enriched and I consider myself an authority on the country.
I have been privileged to interact one-on-one with Generals Abubakar, Obasanjo, and Buhari as serving presidents. My closest acquaintance is with President Buhari, before 2015 and after. It would sound unbelievable if I say, with the exception of President Obasanjo, he’s the most jovial of the lot. The day he swore in his ministers in 2015, I sent him a text that he looked handsome in his white babanriga at the event. He text back and said it was because he was lucky to have enjoyed the rare luxury of a six-hour sleep the previous night!
I have run errands for Presidents Yar’Adua abroad, in the United Kingdom particularly, on a disinformation campaign. I had assisted President Goodluck Jonathan in preparing his “Power Sector Road Map” as his liaison with the United Nations Center for Small Hydropower in China, his now late Chief Security Officer, Gordon Obuah, having opened to me the gates to his residence and office at the Aso Rock Villa. Earlier, at the same villa, in 2005, I was able to meet President Obasanjo and requested him to peruse a manuscript on him, which he took and returned with a no-objection note the same week. The ensuing book was titled “From Hot Sun To Hot Seat,” published by Bounty Press, Ibadan. It captured my observations of him in 1980, few months after handing over power to President Shehu Shagari, while he was on a private course on modern agriculture at the Institute of Agricultural Research and Training in Ibadan, where my father was working, dovetailing into my observations of him during my visits to Aso Rock from 1999 when he became civilian President up to 2005 when I wrote the book.
Post-service, I had met Gen. Yakubu Gowon thrice. The last time we met was 2018 at the Abuja airport lounge. I remember him telling me that serving God was a good thing with heavenly rewards, except that one would have to be contented with the little he had, if he wanted to stay holy. I had also met Gen. Ibrahim Babangida at his Hilltop residence in Minna to discuss Nigeria. A very lively character, I recall telling him I once researched a thesis on his Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), whereupon he looked quizically at me chuckling as he quipped, “Hope you gave it a human face?” Apparently, he was alluding to Obasanjo’s famous criticism of the programme as lacking a “human face.”
Post-service, I had met President Obasanjo too. An instance was in 2017. The focus of discussion was restructuring, during which he said to me: “Restructuring or no restructuring, most of our governors are yet to deliver the dividends of democracy on the powers within their purview in both the concurrent and residual lists of the 1999 Constitution. Why haven’t they transformed infrastructure in their states? Is it because they are waiting for restructuring? Who stops them from developing agriculture or making education qualitative and functional? So, what are you restructuring, Femi?” Well, lately, he has tilted towards the argument for restructuring.
Post-service, one of my visits to Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar in Minna was in 2007, as a consultant, in the company of officials of China National Electric Equipment Company (CNEEC), on a courtesy call, while they showed interest in building a power plant at Zungeru, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s place of birth. General Abubakar, like Obasanjo, on that day, tried to impress it on me that agriculture could be a profitable venture, if I approached it intelligently. He led us in a bus to a section of his over 30-year-old Maizube Farm, a dairy facility devoted to Maizube Yoghurt. Out there on the outskirts of Minna, some sturdy Holstein Friesen cows lined up for milking mechanically. He told us each of the cows produced minimum of 25 litres of milk daily. Then, he showed us a field where grass was being grown and said that by the time the cows began grazing on the grass, their daily yield of milk would rise to as much as 45 litres.
It was in the foregoing vein I was a guest of former President Jonathan on June 12, 2018, for five hours, 8.00 pm to 1.00 am, at his residence in Yenagoa. Making a trio with us was our mutual friend, a professor of petroleum engineering, millionaire Nestor Abowei. President Jonathan was at his bonhomie best, getting up to personally get us drinks based on our expressed preferences. We had dinner together and discussed his stint as President.
Because the day was June 12 and the 25th anniversary of the annulled 1993 presidential election, he began with his attempt to immortalise Chief MKO Abiola, the winner of that election, by naming the University of Lagos after him and the opposition that arose over the move, forcing him to drop it. He said he, personally, felt one of the most ennobling ways to immortalise a man of Abiola’s stature was to name a university after him.
Then, he shifted the point of discussion to Governor Nyesom Wike, as a news item on the TV caught his attention. He gave us the background. Earlier in the day, he was in Port Harcourt on the invitation of the Rivers State governor to inaugurate some projects and the outing was the news item. He had gone to inaugurate a road, among other things. He said he was impressed with the performance of Governor Wike, that here was one governor that put emphasis on infrastructure and no wonder they called him “Mr. Projects.”
He paused and added that, if he were to be President again, one of the things he would quickly do, with the benefit of hindsight, would be the liquidation of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), and let the money being mismanaged at the agency go straight to the Niger Delta states. He said, at least, governors with the sense of responsibility of a Wike would be empowered to do more for their people. He felt, even with the most prudent hands, a lot of money that should go into developing the Niger Delta would still be tied down on administration of the bloated bureaucracy of the NDDC.
What brought all these recollections back to me this evening of Saturday, May 9, 2020 years after the death of our Lord, were videos circulating on the social media of Governor Wike’s personal patrol of Port Harcourt to monitor compliance with the laid down rules regarding the management of the COVID-19 pandemic in Rivers State. Wike has impressed me, too. If all our 36 governors had taken the issue of the killer pandemic with the seriousness of the Rivers State governor, I believe by latest June 2020 we would be able to return to our normal lives in Nigeria, like New Zealand and Madagascar.
Some people were busy criticising the governor for his “high-handedness” when he arrested pilots of Caverton Helicopters and staff of Mobil oil company for violating the lockdown in the state. I believe they didn’t understand the precarious situation in Rivers State. If they did, they would have nothing but praise for Wike. Mind you, we are talking of a killer disease that is stretching the capacity of advanced nations beyond endurable limits.
Perhaps, Rivers is more prone than even Lagos to COVID-19 infestation on account of the large community of oil sector expatriates from the US, the UK, France, Italy and many other places trooping in and out of the state. Had Wike not been proactive by making an example of the Caverton pilots and the oil expatriates, and had he not been personally monitoring the situation through random, physical patrols to thwart unrelenting sabotage, and had he not stored up food for distribution before anyone else thought of it to ease the pains of the lockdown on the vulnerable, Rivers could have become another New York State in Nigeria. Even much worse!
A sage said the true test of good leadership is in how a leader comports himself in the time of crises or opportunities. Wike has proved he is a leader indeed in the time of COVID-19 crisis. History will etch his name in gold when the trajectory of this terrible time is being chronicled.
•Olufunmilade, Ph.D, is director, Buratai Centre for Contemporary Security Affairs, Igbinedion University Okada, Edo State, Nigeria