By Sam Amadi
The obi-dient movement is not much about Mr. Peter Obi, an inspirational character in his own right. It is about a social truth that Nigerian elite politicians have missed for too long. It is about the symbolism of government of the people by the people that Peter obi has embraced. It is about the public ethics (not necessarily the personal morality) of public leadership in a society that is extremely poor, not just in terms of very low household income, but also in terms of miseries and incapacities.
Mr. Peter Obi does not have a towering political profile. His developmental footprint is not out of this world. As a matter of fact, out of the three main presidential candidates, Atiku Abubakar may have the best profile in terms of economic development as Vice President to President Obasanjo and the head of his economic team, whose administrative posted the most solid and enduring economic and social development (I disagree with the overly neoliberal bent of their economic policy; but it had better articulation and breadth than anything after). But, the youths are embracing him because of the importance of this representational truth.
I was appointed a Chief Executive of an important regulatory commission by a PDP government. Before I resumed, I developed a concept I described as ‘deconstructing government.’ It simply means reducing government to its functional basis, which is the leader being a servant and not a master. The concept has a sartorial as well as a logistic aspect. You have to dress as a professional, a civil servant or like any other Joe in the street. Away with the pedantic dressing of the Nigerian leisure and bourgeois class. Second, you have to travel and move about light and frugal. The first requires simple professional dresses, even if they are of high quality. The second requires driving yourself as much as possible and traveling in economy class on local routes, and in business class, on international routes.
The first executive order I gave as Chairman was an order prohibiting first class travel. I was to travel for a program and I saw that the ticket was first class. I asked why and was told that it was how the previous commissioners traveled. There and then I revoked it. The other commissioners agreed with me. NERC became the only government agency then whose Chief Executive and commissioners do not travel on first class tickets. I remember boarding at Heathrow with some of the MDs of the companies I regulated and seeing them entering the first class cabin. At a point I did a back of the envelope calculation of the financial difference between first class and business class for some long distant trips and it was over N1million. Think about how many Nigerian Chief Executives and Directors are traveling out of the country everyday and how much it costs government when they fly first class instead of business class.
The interesting point is that there is an extant public sector circular issued by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation banning first class travel for all public officers, including Ministers. No one obeyed it. I had to do a gratuitous memo to government reminding it of the need to enforce the ban. Nothing came out of it.
Living frugal as a public servant is not a matter of choice or public relation. It flows from a concept of government and has implications for accountability and responsiveness. It begins with a different notion of leadership. A leader is a servant of the people. He is not royalty. He is a citizen assigned an important responsibility. In the founding city of democracy, Athens, everyone took turns to be chief executive and head of parliament. No one chaired the assembly or the executive for more than a few hours so that all male adults will have opportunity to lead. This shows the egalitarian character of democracy. So living simple and frugal is not just a matter of choice but a clear understanding of the nature of public leadership in a democratic society.
Peter Obi is leveraging this essence of democracy; the representational truth about what it means to lead in a third world where most of the people are poor and miserable and need all the resources to be invested for their common good. I remembered some of my staff always telling me that as Chief Executive I needed to travel with more aides instead of moving about with one assistant. Some were scandalized that I never had a police officer or DSS operative with me as Chief Executive. I traveled a lot by road. And often moved across Nigeria with just the office driver and an assistant.
Of course, frugality and simple lifestyle do not necessarily build roads and bridges. But they induce the mentality and disposition to build roads and bridges. We saved money and bought a 9-story headquarters building that is being used by NERC and NBET today, without borrowing a Kobo. We also bought zonal offices without incurring debts. I never enjoyed those facilities. But they are serving the power sector.
Nigeria needs a functional and result-oriented leadership; more like the technocratic leadership of the East Asians. It needs extreme frugality, not necessarily for the money we saved, but for the transformation it brings to governance: governance should no longer be about economic transactions built on rents. We need to disconnect politics from administration of the Nigerian state. Once elections are over, leaders of government should be like public servants in Asia. Little appurtenances of power; low carriage and minimal official logistics that resemble those of middle class professionals in Nigeria.
As a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, I saw John Kerry as presidential aspirant come to give public lecture and come out of the train at Harvard Square and walk with his aides to the campus, with no fanfare. As Special adviser to Senate President, I accompanied him to visit legislators at the Capitol and saw the functional ordinariness of parliamentary business. I recall once traveling with Dora Akunyili and Peter Obi on the same flight to Port Harcourt. When we landed Peter went to the public convenience. Then it was in a makeshift place because the airport was being reconstructed. Dora Akunyili was scandalized that Peter went to urinate in such a makeshift place instead of going to the protocol lodge. He begged me to go in and bring Peter out. But Peter refused. He said the place was functionally okay. This may be extreme. But I take away the point about functionality.
So, why can’t we in 2023, have all legislators drive their own cars to work? Why should our Senate President and Speaker in 2023 have an entourage close in pomp to that of a President of the Republic? I recall as Special Adviser to Ken Nnamani as Senate President that some of his colleagues once mooted the idea of having their own ‘presidential fleet’ so that they don’t have to beg a President who is opposed to them for the right to fly presidential jet. Can you imagine? Of course, Nnamani rebuffed them.
The Obi movement is partly an expression of public hunger for a prudent and functional leadership. It is an expression of public frustration at conspicuous consumption and mindless transactions of public leadership in Nigeria. Peter Obi may not even understand it in this depth or even be the best exponent of this concept. But he has embraced it and is profiting politically from it.
Other presidential candidates can make a play for this paradigmatic shift. In the midst of excessive poverty and infrastructural aridity in Nigeria, the only commitment in 2023 that matters should be a commitment to spend every kobo in the public treasury to secure value for Nigerians and to act like Lew Kuan Yew and the other East Asian leaders, and roll up the sleeves and really work for the people. No more drinking and wining in government houses; no more sharing of contracts to cronies. In 2023, political parties should take a shot at this representational truth.
Nigeria direly needs its leaders to just go to work. Simple.
Dr. Sam Amadi is Coordinator, the Abuja School of Social and Political Thought