By Reuben Abati
One of the finest persons I have been privileged to know is Odia Ofeimun: the man has a clean heart, he is completely incapable of malice, and in the face of all odds, he has a sunny view of life, add to that his incandescent mind, his absolute brilliance from which has poured forth a prodigious volume of poetry collections, books, essays, years of journalism practice and a reputation as a public intellectual of the very first rank. Odia as I call him, although he is more popularly known as Baba among the younger generation of writers, is also an incurable idealist, very stubborn to a fault with his idealism and this is where we oftentimes differ.
He has been insisting to my hearing for more than a decade that one of his ambitions is to become the Governor of Edo State and knowing Odia’s frame of mind and constitution, I always laughed this off as a big joke, urging him to face reality and not behave like the Hornbill which incidentally is the name of the publishing house that he runs. When Odia is hooked on an idea, it is difficult to separate him from that idea, more so as he has the mental capacity to develop any subject at all into a grand, compelling narrative. And that is what he seems to have done with his obsession with being the Governor of his home state.
He took the bull by the horns last week, when he fired off a blistering essay titled “To be Governor of Edo State” (Premium Times, Nov. 22). The essay was well circulated in the media and particularly online but I don’t think anybody in Edo State is aware that one of their best gifts to Nigeria in the cultural sector is also eyeing Government House. I’ll be surprised if Governor Oshiomhole is aware of Odia’s declaration; well perhaps he needs not be informed, but now that he knows, he is likely to show interest in this special aspirant. The next Gubernatorial election in Edo State holds in 2016, and already the jostle and the hustle is on, with close to ten persons already seeking the APC nomination and the PDP also strategizing. Out of all the aspirants that may emerge, Odia Ofeimun is likely to be the most enlightened, honest and cultured, and the most articulate but it is also for these same reasons that he may not be Governor of Edo State.
Odia lives in Lagos, and goes home occasionally, when his busy schedule permits. I doubt if he knows the Senatorial Districts in Edo State or the number of wards and polling units. He has never had any cause to visit any traditional ruler, except may be the Odionwele of his Iruekpen village, and he has certainly not bothered to distribute bags of rice across the clans in the state as a way of knocking on the voters’ doors. Odia’s qualifications: he is a poet, political scientist and author; he was Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Private Secretary, he has been Secretary General and President of the Association of Nigerian Authors and he is intellectually, a genius.
But his Gubernatorial ambition reminds me of those guys who sit in far away America, or the United Kingdom, claiming to know how democracy works, and what is best for the entire world, who suddenly return home, paste posters all over the town and hope to become a Governor just because they have faith that the electorate will appreciate their quality and look for the best man for the job. Knowing Odia Ofeimun, he may not even be planning to print any posters. He doesn’t even belong to any political party; I will be surprised if he has a Permanent Voter’s Card (PVC); he has no Godfather, he does not belong to any grassroots political association. But he wants to be Governor in 2016, less than one year away, by writing beautiful essays on the internet!
Sorry, Odia, that is not how this thing is done. The Odia I know may argue brilliantly that he actually intends to demonstrate that his approach can win the people to his side and take him straight to the Edo State Government House in 2016. Let him start then, by translating his statement of interest from English into Edo languages and have it distributed across the state. Be warned: The piece is so high-minded, so stratospheric that even the people will be confused, whether they read it in English or his own native Ishan. He says: “I am determined to prove that within the particularity of one nationality, Edo, and the fold of a multinational state, Nigeria, it is possible to achieve high feats of modernity, cultural civility, and technological proficiency comparable to that of any other country in the world. And this, within forty months, Not two terms of office.” How does this guarantee the mass following and support that will offer the said forty months to start with? Odia’s programme is made up of “seven platforms.” He is promising free education, and that is understandable, he being a disciple of the great Awo. He is also promising to “re-plan and rebuild every village, town and city”; build a super dome underground railway station, value-added agriculture, free health care, eliminate waste, and “turn Edo State into a proper House of Culture”. I am actually doing an English to English translation, breaking down Odia’s manifesto for the benefit of his would-be voters who may not understand his poetically elevated English.
But what is he proposing in real terms? He says: “My fortune is that I have spent the last forty years of my life interacting with the best minds in this country.” You see, my fear is that when eventually Odia begins his campaigns he is likely to mount the rostrum to tell Edo people about Obafemi Awolowo and Wole Soyinka, one Friedrich Nietzsche and such other figures as Ogun, the god of iron. Tell me, how does that bring hope to the man in Agenebode or Ikpoba Hill? Aspirant Odia also tells the people of Edo State: “Living always as an ordinary Nigerian, going by public transportation as a matter of choice and as a matter of never dodging the pains faced by my fellow countrymen and women, I have more than forty books to show where I stand in the confrontation with the poverty, corruption, insecurity and other hazards of our time.” If Odia had shown me this piece, I would have deleted this part of it. Going by public transportation! How would this endear him to the average voter? And forty books: seriously? Odia is so committed to a life of the intellect; he is likely to end up reading poems and stories to voters! And does he plan to campaign with public transportation to show that he can confront poverty?
He goes further to declare that his election will not be a “cash and carry affair”. He expects the people of Edo State, three million and more, to contribute “one thousand, two thousand, and five thousand Naira, and even more, to my campaign funds”. Ehn hen? Is Odia planning a religious crusade where he will make the lame walk, and the blind to see, because if that is what he has in mind, he can be sure he’d get a lot of donations. But if his ambition is to be Governor, he shouldn’t expect the electorate to pick up his bills. He says he is counting on “their faith and trust”. This is what our dear brother intends to tell the members of the Edo State National Union of Road Transport Workers, traditional rulers and chiefs, spiritual leaders, polling agents, the large army of thugs, the scarlet ladies, the pooling booth enforcers, for whom every election is boom time, and who have been looking forward to the “stomach infrastructure” of Edo 2016. Faith and Trust! Sorry, Nigerians have lost faith in politicians and they do not trust anyone looking for votes.
The problem with Odia’s Gubernatorial ambition is not one of qualification- he is eminently qualified- but his honesty. He has no money to spend and he is telling the voters that he expects them to fund his campaign. He is not the type of politician who wants to “carry people along”. Speak as much grammar as you wish, in Nigeria, people expect to be “carried along”, whether you are an aspirant or a political office holder – they expect to be bribed. Odia is a straight, open book; the mind of a typical Nigerian politician is full of alleys and multiple by-pass.
I have been in meetings with politicians where it would be so obvious that everyone is lying, and that they are all aware that they are lying to each other, and this lying session can continue for hours on end, with everyone pretending to be doing something productive. If you are a tyro and you make the mistake of cutting through the bubble, you won’t be invited to the next meeting for sure! Nigerian politicians have their own way of arriving at convenient truths without ever saying the truth. I guess they rely on body language. Odia cannot survive such meetings: he will always defend his viewpoint and is capable of making a fool look like one. And if he becomes Governor, he will be worse than those ones referred to in political circles as “Araldite or Super Glue” , because he will refuse to divert state resources into people’s pockets. His Accountant General should of course, be prepared to receive regular lectures on Public Finance, delivered with the same felicity with which Odia pronounces on every subject, including polygamy.
Odia has not set up any campaign office. He has no campaign organization either. You and I are probably among the few who have heard of his ambition because we have read his beautiful literary composition on the subject. In some other societies, he would have been a perfect candidate – afterall, there have been reports of disc jockeys and writers becoming Presidents elsewhere. One professional comedian just won the Presidential election in another country. Odia’s approach may be so far ahead of our society, but still, let us not discourage him; let the people judge –which is the essence of democracy and let those who appreciate his quality and commitment take note and help turn his dream into something achievable. He offers a fresh and desirable possibility that is not seen today in Nigerian politics, and as is increasingly the trend in many parts of the world, we probably need non-establishment figures, with a good heart, like him, to help stop the extending frontiers of disillusionment in our land.