Learning from Obi, the Pretender

By Jude Atupulazi

Peter Obi is one man who can neither be predicted nor fully understood. Indeed, when you think you have seen or heard it all about him, he pops up with another banger. He simply keeps surprising Nigerians with his brand of politics, social and personal life and these have stood him out as an enigmatic figure.

But in all, Obi will be remembered mostly by his positive actions which portray him as an alien in his own environment. This is all about being the odd man out in an odder society.

For example, while as governor of Anambra State, he had the least number of vehicles on his convoy. He moved about without sirens blaring. He carried his own bags at the airports while he travelled and in most cases he travelled with only his closest aides, especially those who had good reasons for coming along with him.

Throughout his eight-year tenure as Anambra Governor, he never stayed outside the state for more than two days, even if he went to the end of the world. And mark you, all of those travels was official. He actually never went on leave for one day during those eight years.

He also cut the cost of governance to the extent that those working with him often grumbled at the absence of some perks of office which were a given in other states.

As governor, he visited secondary schools and gave out his numbers to senior prefects and encouraged them to call and tell him any problems in their schools that needed attention. He will, indeed, readily tell you the story of a school he visited and enquired if they had any problems.

As the teachers tried to conceal the problems out of ‘respect’, a student raised her hand. The teachers hurriedly asked her to keep quiet, but Obi, having seeing her raised hand, insisted that she be allowed to talk. It was through her that he got to know the real problem of that school and quickly ordered solution to it.

Obi always attended public events of people he did not even know. As long as you invited him, he would likely attend. There was this day I was in Awka and I got a call from one of his aides who asked me if I knew the direction to the house of a family in my town that invited him to the funeral of their breadwinner. As I was about to explain, the aide asked me if I could rush to where they parked in a nearby town to lead them to the place since it was my town. I did and led them to the family’s compound. This proved that he did not know the family at all.

He equally attended events by my colleagues, the journalists; be it weddings or funerals as long as he had the chance.

He was not the ostentatious type and would readily tell how he owned only two pairs of shoes and a standard wristwatch. To him, the function of shoes is to protect the feet and nothing more, while the essence of a wristwatch is to tell the time. He therefore wonders why anyone would go out of their way to buy expensive shoes or wristwatches.

As governor, Obi did not frolic or attend parties. He used to tell the story of how one of his contemporaries asked him to stay behind after a function for a party where young girls would be supplied. He refused and asked them how they would feel if their own daughters were given to other men. Thus, for him, such frivolities were a no-no. He believed that one answering ‘His Excellency’ must be excellent in behavior.

When the then President Olusegun Obasanjo was to visit Anambra State, Obi was advised to build a presidential villa where Obasanjo would stay but he baulked at the suggestion and vacated his own lodge for Obasanjo while he, Obi, stayed in a hotel for a few days.

He said he saved the state a lot of money from that decision and said it was better than building a presidential lodge with millions of state money while the lodge would lie empty most of the time and be maintained with state money. That was pragmatism at its best, the Peter Obi way.

Obi made governance lose some of its allure in a country where to be in government immediately means erecting a massive wall between the leader and the led. But one thought that once he left office Obi would jettison all these virtues and retire to Europe or America as was typical of his contemporaries. But that was not to be.

And so it happened that out of office Obi upped the ante several notches higher. He continued visiting schools and giving them money and sometimes buses, just as he did as governor. He did not restrict such visits to his state or his geographical zone. I recall the day he visited one dilapidated school in the heart of Benue State to the surprise of the principal and teachers. He gave the school one million Naira. They neither invited nor expected him. I also recall him visiting one school outside Nigeria too.

As Obi did all the above, he became the most relevant former political office holder in the country and even dwarfed some serving ones. These were the things about him that endeared him to the masses of the country, both young and old, before, during and after the last general elections. The organic support he mustered was not therefore out of nothing. He earned every bit of the masses’ goodwill.

But even after the elections, just as he did after he left office as Anambra State Governor, Obi has continued to mix freely with the high and mighty. We all saw videos of his visits to some people attacked by political thugs during the last elections.

The first was the woman who was beaten black and blue in Lagos when she wanted to vote. Even though she had a black eye and sustained injuries to her head which she tied with a bandage, she still returned to vote. The second was the visit to the home of a man who had an accident whom he traced to his home to see. Earlier he had visited a young woman who cried because she could not raise money to buy an oven to start her business. She was visited by Obi who gave her money to buy the oven.

Just this past week, we read about an incident on a plane where a woman who had waited endlessly for her flight from 11am, ended up boarding by 6pm. While on board the plane, she was asked to disembark for lack of a vacant seat to accommodate her.

The woman could not take the disappointment and started crying. But Peter Obi was on the plane. After hearing the woman crying, he stood up and walked to her to offer her his seat.

When the flight crew, according to the story, realized that Obi was prepared to forfeit his seat for the woman, they had to make an alternative arrangement for Obi to get a seat. That was how the woman finally got a seat on the plane.

And here is what one social media user said about that incident: ‘When we tell you that we are willing to give our lives for Peter Obi, just know that it is beyond politics, tribe or religion. We have seen a leader whose entire life is about his people.’

This is why I laugh at his opponents who either envy him his popularity or try to make light of his character traits as borne out of pretence. Yes, many will tell you that Obi is like the regular politician who makes a public show of their philanthropy. Some will say that he should have been doing them silently but then I ask them: between pretending to do good to society and advertising such, and publicly displaying acts of irresponsibility as a public figure, which one will ennoble society more?

Was it not the other day we saw a picture of Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, guzzling a very expensive drink with a friend with tax payers’ money? A bottle of that drink, I learnt, costs over four hundred thousand Dollars. Now, which of the two attitudes will make society better? Which of the attitudes would a father or mother advise their child to emulate? Doing good to people around them or using public funds to guzzle expensive wines? The answer is very clear.

I tell you verily that if everyone in Nigeria begins to ‘pretend’ like Obi and helps those in need, identifies with the poor, uses public money for public good, and does the right things, Nigeria will not be in her present sorry state. We will not also be weeping about stolen mandates. Indeed, we would have been the leading lights in Africa.

Won’t it therefore be better for us if we all decide to pretend like Obi and live in a better society? I’m only asking a question.