I can relate to what recently happened to both Eedris Abdulkareem, the musician, and Rev. Father Ejike Mbaka, the Catholic priest, regarding how they were “exposed and shamed” by their erstwhile friends in power.
I can relate because I was nearly sucked into this familiar territory. I could have fallen victim if I was not brought up as a peacemaker. Today, I can only tell the story because I outlived the tenure of the administration that carefully constructed a social ambush for me, like what has caught up with Eedris and Mbaka.
Here’s my story, which a lot of my friends are familiar with, because I tell and retell it with great gusto.
What happened to me was finally exposed about three years after I left the job as chief executive officer of a national newspaper, now defunct. The truth became known to me because a top official of government met me one fine day and said I was lucky that I did not “fight the governor” during my tenure as CEO of the newspaper company.
“You were just lucky,” he repeated in the course of our discussion.
This is how the story began.
The governor of my home state at the time took interest in yours truly, because I was an indigene who made good in the media, as he described it. I was in Enugu and he somehow got wind of it. He invited me over for lunch at the Lion Building, the seat of power. I accepted the invitation.
In the middle of our discussion over a sumptuous meal of pounded yam and assorted soups to choose at his residence, he suddenly asked an unusual question. He wanted to know where my house was in Enugu. Not knowing what to make of the question, I simply told His Excellency the truth, which was that I neither had a plot of land in the Coal City nor did I have a personal house.
I still do not have either of these, even after returning to Enugu many years later to serve as a commissioner myself.
The governor acted scandalized by the revelation. He told me how he had given plots of land and sometimes houses to my colleagues who were junior to me in the profession. He then “ordered” that I should immediately apply for land and he detailed a secretary to type out the application. I dutifully handwrote it, got it typed, signed the application, and handed it over.
His Excellency approved the request with a flourish and routed the paper to the commissioner of land.
“I will give you two plots (of land),” he said to me. “You can sell one and use the proceeds to build your house in the other.”
I left the place stunned. It was like a dream. Two weeks later, I received in my post office mailbox a copy of a memo from the Chief of Staff asking me to get in touch with the state commissioner for land to give effect to the governor’s approval of a piece of land for me in Enugu. I showed the memo to my wife who immediately began to dance and thank God and pray for His Excellency all at once. Our joy knew no bounds not only because of the approval but also because the commissioner for land himself happened to be a former classmate and a friend.
When we spoke about it on phone, my friend even kidded me that I went to the governor rather than come to him.
This encounter happened in the year 2001. Today, 20 years later, I am still waiting for the land.
You can imagine my surprise when, three years after I left the job, someone said I was a lucky man because I did not “cause trouble for the governor with your newspaper,” as he put it. He disclosed that government merely wanted something they could use to “hold on you.”
“Hold on me how?” I blurted out. “How does an application for land to the governor become something to hold on another person? In heaven’s name, what are you talking about?” I genuinely did not understand, and he read this immediately.
He then patiently explained that the two documents – the application to the governor and the memo to the commissioner – must have been carefully filed away to “deal with me” in future if I ever teamed up with His Excellency’s political opponents to fight him.
“How?” I still did not understand.
“Don’t you see it? If you ever made the mistake of fighting the governor, they would go to town to say that it was because the governor did not immediately give you land that you decided to get angry and start writing nonsense!”
My jaw dropped in surprise and shock.
“But I genuinely liked the governor! Didn’t you see how I went out of my way to help him, put him on the national stage? Was it not at my event that he met many of the people that helped him as he toured the country displaying his intellectual skills? How on earth could anybody have read me as a potential troublemaker?”
“In politics, everyone is a potential troublemaker,” he replied. “There is always a trigger that turns a political friend into an enemy. Every politician in power knows this. In Nigeria, because they know this, they actively identify those who can cause a serious image damage and look for ways to compromise them.
“If they know that something is afoot, they will visit you and show how they will respond. Most people in Lion Building resented your sense of independence. Those that came before His Excellency were expected to bow and tremble. But you, you were addressing him as if he was your mate and he didn’t like that!”
“Did it matter that I was older than him, that I didn’t work for him, and that I came to do him a favour, out of which he decided on his own to offer me what he was told I didn’t have and perhaps needed?”
“You’re speaking grammar,” he said and laughed.
“So, it didn’t also matter that I was not a politician?”
“Everybody is a politician,” he told me. “In your own case, it was worse because you had the facts to inflate many of the bogus claims of achievement that your people in government were making at the time.”
I left him but was not angry at the revelation. Today, I feel only pity for politicians who put themselves in cages of poor performance and lock themselves in there, smiling as a crowd of jubilant praise-singers dance and mesmerize him. The praise-singers help the governor to set traps for those who are angered by poor governance and feel impelled to speak out. Curiously, the traps are effective because when citizens get fed up with an administration, anyone who is seen to associate with them or offer them support becomes tarred with the same dark brush. All that the praise-singers need to do is to show that the angry citizen once came to the dirty house to ask for favours. This was why I felt pity for Eedris Abulkareem when his friend, the Honourable Minister, behaved true to type. And I chuckled when Malam Garba Shehu wasted no time in playing this political blackmail card with Rev. Father Mbaka.
In Nigeria, voters who support a candidate or party to win an election are not trusted; they are only as good as the next election. Most Nigerian politicians come with a mindset that their supporters must stay that way for life, no matter how badly they perform. It always comes as a surprise to me when they act surprised that their supporters turn against them. They don’t ever see this as a citizen’s right in a democracy.
The voter who supports a candidate to win an election is the master of the elected candidate, including those that the winner appoints after being sworn into office. Like every master, the voter and party supporter are free to switch allegiance away from a poorly performing public servant. It does not matter that, in the course of time, the supporter may have previously asked for a favour from the public servant. Most people who approach the elected public servant for favours do not ask for personal favours. The “favours” that voters and supporters ask for – whether for self or for community – are in fulfilment of the social contract that they signed with the candidate during electioneering. They are, therefore, not asking the politician to grant requests by dipping into their pockets; they ask because they know that the custodian of the commonwealth has something to equitably distribute for the wellbeing of society, things that they are either entitled to benefit as citizens or for which they have talents and skills that are needed to deliver.
In the final analysis, no one should be shamed by ignorant social media commentators because they went to ask their representatives or friends in government for contracts or assistance. We should rather express outrage whenever a public servant begins to puff up in carriage and demeanour, as if he or she was elected or appointed to become our master, rather than our servant. When they do, it is our responsibility to enter names of such people in the voters’ black book and use it to waylay them on the next election day, if they manage to scale through their party’s primaries and offer themselves to us for re-election.