Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Road from Owerri

By Chidi Amuta, This Day

The burden of relevant politics and governance falls unequally on the shoulders of our state governors depending on what part of the country they hold sway in. This is precisely because Nigeria is a federation of unequal parts and unequal circumstances, unequal opportunities and disparate cultures and histories. We may all be partakers in the Nigerian festival of nation statehood. But we, as nationalities and geo-political aggregations, come to the festival dressed in assorted garbs, bearing the burdens of our separate histories and encounters with a past that many would swear is a bit unflattering.

The constitutional equality of states in no way relieves incumbents of the peculiar burden of geo-political history. On the surface, there is a certain identity of problems- unemployment, crime, urban filth, bad education, rotten infrastructure etc- that would tempt us to adopt a common measurement for evaluating governance across the states.

Consequently, crises of relevance, political desperation and electoral uncertainty have joined forces to produce a certain boring notion of governance especially among states. Every other state governor is clearing drains, bull dozing roads, erecting street lights, planting trees and grass, building bridges that sometimes lead nowhere in particular and mouthing the same worn clich├ęs about dividends of democracy.

This development, sometimes lazy and unsystematic as it may seem, is a quantum leap. At least, there is a psychology of accountability underlying all these: governors feel compelled by popular expectation, opposition pressure and peer group emulation to “do something” at least to justify their mandate and the huge demands they make on the public purse.

But beyond this commonality of approach, there is something higher and perhaps less tangible that ought to help in distinguishing among our governors. How are the specific actions of individual governors informed by the general history of their part of the country? I raise this question because unknown to us, some of our governors may find that they have to be measured by standards and benchmarks established by a past that many of them were perhaps too young to understand. Let us be specific.

I doubt for instance that any of the governors of the core Niger Delta states can expect to detach their present efforts from the overriding imperative of development and equity previously underlined by their illustrious forebears. I wager that every kilometre of road built, every classroom added or every health centre built by these governors finds relevance primarily in terms of the historical burden defined by the nation’s untidy relationship with the Niger Delta.

In the South-west, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, at the height of his illustrious governance of Lagos State, had to consciously brand himself by anchoring his achievements on the Awo heritage. His self branding effort had to reach back to Awo’s round metal rimmed glasses and a variant of the ubiquitous Awo cap with some distant hints of Ghandi. Even now, the commendable strides of Governor Babatunde Fashola and some of his more serious colleagues in the South-west are being measured, by their electorate, against the background of a social democratic tradition of governance established by the great Awo.

Throughout the 19 northern states, for instance, there is an abiding nostalgia for the legacy of the late Sardauna of Sokoto. As late as the last few days, this nostalgia found expression in the elaborate launch of well endowed foundation in memory of that fallen statesman. Actions and reactions of governors in what can be described as the greater North are more likely to be measured in terms of whether they re-affirm or betray the original vision and interests of that part of the country.

In the South-east, we come face to face with a contradiction of historic proportions. No other nationality in contemporary Nigeria has been as scarred and marked by Nigerian history as the Igbos. It is often said that something is wrong with any Nigerian community that is not host to some Igbo presence. Similarly, something is also said to be wrong with an Igbo adult who has not ventured out of his homeland. There is therefore a sense in which the health of the Nigerian federation at any time can be measured by the degree of tolerance or rejection of Igbos in any and all parts of the country. Yet, governance and politics in this part of the country thrives on collective amnesia, self ingratiation and the invasion of nauseating mercantilism.

Traumatised by war, driven to the margins of national affairs into menial undertakings and fruitless trade in inconsequential merchandise, the people of the South-east have had dealers rather than leaders in their political leadership. The result has been a disconnect between governance and history in the five states of the South-east.

Therefore, the general question that is invoked by the above concerns is simply this: Can a governor carry the historical burden of the people he defines as his own slice of the nation and still be effective as a chief executive officer of his state? In other words, can a given governor in our kind of federation be able at once to relate his actions, policies and programmes to the peculiar history of his part of the nation while being able to deliver the so called specific dividends of democracy?

In the context of the crisis of political leadership in the South Eastern zone of the country, I am attracted, by sheer curiosity, to the utterances and actions of the Governor of Imo State, Mr. Ikedi Ohakim. What is emerging is the defining character of Ohakim’s perception of his role in government is a self-assigned role of linking his specific governance tasks as chief executive of Imo State to the larger historical burdens of the Igbo nation.

In the two years that he has been governor, Ohakim has taken certain actions that suggest an unusual sense of history, specifically the history and particular circumstance of his Igbo roots. Anyone who has followed the utterances of the governor will have been struck by a certain recurrent theme that testifies to some consciousness of the history of his people. He has re-invigorated the annual Ahiajoku lecture series, an annual intellectual celebration of Igbo culture and heritage. He has brought back world famous novelist Chinua Achebe in what was greeted as a historic homecoming, a remarkable pilgrimage to ancestry and a tribute to the roots that bind. He has addressed the World Igbo Congress and the Black Congressional Caucus and used these occasions to link his present assignment to a larger historical role of finding relevance mostly in the context of his people’s tortured past.

Ohakim has indicated, in lecture after lecture, speech after speech, enough interest in the retrieval of the essence of Igbo culture from the jaws of a national history that has almost drowned the Igbo in collective amnesia and benign neglect by the federals. Of all the blights that confront and threaten the Igbo nation, perhaps there is none more lethal than the tyranny of bad political leaders.

Interestingly though, Ohakim’s thesis is a refreshing one from the anthem of marginalisation that has been the common currency of successive Igbo political opportunists. On the contrary, the governor posits a more pro-active and optimistic attitude. The Igbos must quit being sorry for themselves and for their past actions in the Nigerian federation. He defines a new need for the political leadership of the South-east to rise above the constraints of historically induced collective depression and amnesia to answer the call of modernity through rapid economic development. And this is where I guess the governor will run into trouble with his vision. His utterances demand that he must fast track the development of his state to serve as a viable model and galvanising centre for the South-east of his dream. But he presides over a resource poor state and therefore has to convert the entrepreneurial gift of his people into the resources he needs to develop his state.

By far the greater obstacle that I see in the kind of idealism that Ohakim has so far exuded is the tradition of rancorous politics that has bedevilled the South-east especially in the post civil war era. Ohakim presides over a state where petition writing is a recognised industry and in which the politics of acrimony overrides any form of consensus on development issues. I doubt that any other sitting governor has a higher number of law suits hovering over their incumbency than Ohakim. This environment defines a different challenge: that of reaching the relevant political accommodation both within his state and outwards in the context of the larger South-east.

Somehow, Owerri has something strategic and symbolic about it. Most roads to and from different parts of the country lead through it. In a place such as this, it is quite easy to get lost in the maze of possibilities and directions that make themselves available. For Ohakim, the possibilities here are both immense and frightening. If he can carry the burden of his emerging vision while running a credible administration, the road from Owerri can lead both Imo and the Igbos quite far. If he is crushed by the burden of his vision and loses his specific focus, the road from Owerri might lead right back to the political wilderness.

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