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OSHIOMHOLE'S WOMAN

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A recent trip to Benin City found me attending the presentation of a mid-term report by Edo State Governor Adams Oshiomhole; it was also the second year anniversary of his administration. The report outlined the developmental activities of the Oshiomhole administration in all areas of governance: education, health, workers’ welfare, infrastructure development, and so on. The presentation provided various stakeholders an opportunity to ask the Governor questions or draw his attention to areas of need. In the latter case, one young man from a College of Education stood up and told the Governor that whereas he had done so much for other schools in the state, his own school had been practically neglected. He even pointed out that the school has no students’ bus, and that if the Oshiomhole administration is really serious, it should learn to be fair to all parties. The way the young man phrased his comment moved a lot of people to think that he was quite courageous. The Governor thought so too, and there and then, he promised that a bus will be provided to the school within 48 hours, and that the student should liaise with the school authorities to receive the bus. It turned out that the particular student was not alone. He and his colleagues immediately stood up and sang a solidarity song for the Governor. Apparently, they had attended the event to ambush the Governor and place their request before him. This I suppose is part of the beauty of democracy. This is something that our leaders should do regularly: they should occasionally report back to the people, and submit themselves and their administration to open review and assessment. And of course, that reporting process should not be stage-managed. It should be as in the Edo case, an opportunity for the people to take their leaders to task. And it should not be a political rally, dominated by all kinds of hungry sycophants. I was comfortable sitting throughout the Edo state event because there were no party thugs or stalwarts flexing muscles. If such an event were to take place in Ibadan, Oyo State, today, I would have given the venue a wide berth. The fear of violence at every political event, either at a Sallah party, or the distribution of rice by a First Lady, can only raise anxieties about governance and political culture. The Oshiomhole presentation was business-like: the audience was disciplined. There was an element of boastfulness in it though: the mid-term report was presented at the newly built assembly hall of Idia College. Well-finished, quite spacious, the Governor boasted that his administration built the hall and that other schools in the state have been given excellent facilities and that teachers salaries are paid as and when due. Oshiomhole will make a good trumpeter! But what caught my attention even more was a lady sitting in the adjacent row, and her antics. Leaders affect their audiences in many ways, ranging from hate to affection, to bemusement. Political events in Nigeria also wear special colours giving us an idea of political culture. I have seen state events where the hall is dominated by men and women in all kinds of uniform, what is popularly known as aso ebi. They punctuate every other interval in the programme with songs and special choruses. They dance provocatively: in the South West where this is standard practice, it is as if whoever recruits such women pays special attention to their endowments: they are often heavily endowed! Their head gears range from the modestly tied to the skyscrapers made famous by Madam Kofo. They are accompanied by drummers or praise-singers. I once concluded that the explanation for the desperation with which political office holders cling to power, seeking third term or a second term by all means is partly traceable to the antics of hired sycophants. In many states, MCs at public functions are most guilty in this respect. Once, the MC almost exhausted all the superlatives in the dictionary praising the Governor. When he started saying that the man is Awo incarnate, I blocked my ears. These politicians won’t allow Awo to rest. Rather than build their own political capital, they are all busy clinging to Awo. But back to my story about the woman in Benin: the closest example of her type that I had seen was at the launch of the autobiography of Chief Solomon Lar a few years ago in Abuja. Before the event started, the star of the moment was one woman who made a fortune welcoming all the dignitaries. She stood by the entrance and whenever any major political figure approached, she would start reciting his or her resume, including positions previously held, chieftaincy titles if any. Her knowledge of Nigerian history and of the personalities involved was impressive. She didn’t miss any detail. She knew virtually every important guest. I thought of how best she could have put that talent to use, if Nigeria had given her better opportunities. Her Benin twin sister seemed to have been luckier. She looked like she has had some level of education: she wore an off colour cream skirt and blouse, on her head was perched confidently a fluffy hat, with many strands hanging loose; she looked like she was set for the Ascot except that one look at her would have set the dogs barking at the Ascots! But she is not the type to be bothered. She had this confident air about her: a woman that is used to obeying her own mind. She was just an extra seat away on the adjacent row. Everything about her was calm, until Oshiomhole walked into the hall, and for about two hours she was no longer the same. Oshiomhole went straight to the podium and started reading his report. “Osho, Osho…” the woman shouted, not loud enough to disrupt proceedings but loud enough to engage those of us around her. It was as if we had come to listen to her. She was an expert in grunting and the manipulation of guttural sounds. She was a stand-alone actor in her own world, removing her hat and replacing it as her mood dictated. Oshiomhole spoke to his paper most of the time. Each time he said something that the woman found exciting, she would release a volley of grunts: Uhnm… Ji, ji…, Ha ha…, Oh ho, oh yes..., ehen hen…, uhmn, uhnm…, na so…, yes oh…This would go on for about five minutes, then all of a sudden, the grunting is broken up with a phrase: “Oshiomhole, my man” or “Correct Governor” or “Exactly”, “My man,” “Ride on Governor.” The moment Oshiomhole started talking about the school halls that his administration has built, including the venue of his presentation, the woman raised her voice: “Tell them, Osho. Dem no blind, dey fit see wetin you do. My guy!”

Later, Oshiomhole reported that the only reason he has been able to do so much in two years is because he has no Godfathers and that those who claim to be Godfathers have been chased out of the state and restricted to Abuja. The woman, hearing this became excited: “Who born them? You are the Governor. Governor. Governor.” The Governor continued with his speech. “Osho, Osho, show them, ” the woman said. “Ride on, Governor.” “uhm uhm” “Yes. Correct Governor.” “You dey talk am, I dey hear” “That’s right. You are the man!” “Oh ho. Una hear dat one?” “Exactly” “Yes. Exactly.” “I talk am. Exactly, Osho!” Her energy level kept rising and so was her excitement. By now, those of us sitting round her were stealing glances at her and controlling the temptation to laugh. Eugenia Abu who sat next to her soon confessed that she could no longer resist the temptation to laugh, but she didn’t want to embarrass the woman. Before long, a few of us joined the woman in shouting “exactly” to every statement. While responding to a question, the Governor had said some people in the state including his friends had warned him not to end up like Fred Chiluba, the former Zambian President, a former union leader who failed woefully in political office. But he has always pointed out to such people the example of Brazil’s Lula. When the woman heard Brazil, she screamed: “Yes, let go there. Oshiomhole, I go follow. Let’s go.” We were all in stitches. I looked at the woman, probably in her early sixties, certainly not someone Oshiomhole would like to take on a fun trip to Brazil. But she was unrelenting. She soon got a chance to make a comment, and she told everyone that she and other women in the state are praying for Oshiomhole. Then someone took the microphone and remarked that yes, the Governor has built some schools but many of the schools have no chairs and tables. Oshiomhole explained that he is aware of this, and would work on it. The woman interjected: “make una wait. Una never see anything, you suppose dey patient.” When it was time to leave, she rose to her feet and shouted “Osho!”. We responded: “Exactly!” But more fun awaited us. There was to be a cocktail at the King’s Square, around Ring Road, to mark the anniversary and to launch a newly constructed fountain. The moment I arrived at the King’s Square, I noticed that this was an unusual kind of cocktail. There were too many ordinary, shabbily dressed people flocking into the venue, there was no security control. It was as if just about anybody in Benin could walk in and join the cocktail. I was apprehensive. I became uncomfortable when a group of funny looking boys came along, and I overhead one of them, telling someone on phone: “Make una come oh. Oshiomhole dey give free food for Oba square.” Another one said: “Make we go chop food and greet Oshiomhole.” Another group soon walked past: young girls, also going to eat free food! It no longer looked like the kind of place I wanted to be. But I was curious. We selected a table and sat. Then, it looked like there was a serving point. I went closer, but Oshiomhole’s friends had taken all the small chops. They had devoured the drinks including Champagne. The caterers went to bring another tray of small chops: long hands reached out from everywhere and emptied the tray before it could be set down. Then, someone told them to relax, there would be more to eat and drink the moment Oshiomhole arrived. I didn’t feel comfortable surrounded by that type of crowd. I kept clutching my phones and checking my pockets, and soon I left.Oshiomhole obviously has taken “Labour” into government. But whatever it is that he has done to sustain the ordinary people’s excitement about his administration two years after is perhaps his most striking achievement so far. It is a store of goodwill that he must continue to service and preserve. “Exactly!”

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