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Anambra: Between policy and perception

By Ifeanyi Afuba
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The world is in a tragic state when salesmen do not believe in their products and soldiers are not on fire with their cause. - FultonSheen

A man like Mr Peter Obi who has ardent admirers as well as dedicated critics is an interesting study any day. Reacting to the contrasting reviews of his controversial work, On A Darkling Plain: An Account of the Nigeria Civil War, the late writer-activist Ken Saro-Wiwa had commented that such a mixed reception can only have a humbling effect on a writer. Saro-Wiwa would add as the Achebes and Soyinkas would affirm that in the final analysis, a writer has no choice but to remain true to his vision.

With the exception of President Goodluck Jonathan, it is doubtful if any other contemporary public office holder has received as much media attention as Peter Obi. As already acknowledged, some of this appraisal is not complimentary. But drawing again from the standards of the literary world, we note that it is the great works of art that elicit greater critical analysis. Average works would not ignite the spark to draw and hold the attention of the critics.

Anambra's longest serving governor, Peter Obi, comes across as a quiet, humble, easygoing gentleman. In his character portraiture, James Hadley Chase would have described Obi as a guy who would not hurt a fly. But when it comes to a sense of purpose, to matters of a fundamental nature, our subject often turns out to be a man of steely resolve.

Not a few have been slow in realizing this. For many the road to awareness has been to first, underestimate Obi, test his will and be stunned by his unflinching spirit and gradually learn how to cope with him. When he first appeared on the political scene in 2001, he was written off by the political class as a wealthy joker out for some bit of political adventure. Some sections of civil society continued with this superficial interpretation of Obi's quiet manners while he sought to reclaim his 2003 governorship mandate. They would not lend support to his quest for justice because the task of containing the godfathers and poachers of the treasury was not one for a European style governor. Looking out for the dramatic, it escaped this school that Obi had even before the election already commenced the sanitization struggle by turning down the overtures of the political speculators to sponsor him to office. And no less heroic was his resistance of the pressures and threats to abandon the pursuit of his mandate.

Following the Supreme Court's watershed tenure verdict on June 14 2007 which voided the third attempt to subvert his mandate, a national newspaper wrote that this was a man destined to govern Anambra State. Perhaps so, given the elastic definition of Providence. But what can be established with far much certainty is that here was a man who came to the job with a clear sense of mission. Otherwise, why would a very successful entrepreneur, banker and international business man leave the security of the financial system for the murky world of politics – and in all places – volatile Anambra State? There had to be a driving passion, a pull so strong that it could neither be ignored nor suppressed.

Obi recognized the role good governance could play in uplifting the standard of living in modern society. He had lived and worked long enough in the industrialized world to appreciate the nexus between development and societal values. In between these factors stood management or leadership. He has occasionally told the story of how the interactions at various management courses prodded him to consider participating in his country's political process. Gradually, he found in his own business accomplishments a challenge to intervene in the dire conditions of his home state which at some point in 2001 owed public sector workers six months salary arrears; pensioners fared worse and with schools shut for nearly one academic session. With fractious power blocs competing to dominate the pubic space, Anambra fitted into a poet's description of a 'zone of occult instability.'

It was time to give vent to the vision of a mission. For Obi the philosopher, there seemed to be no middle ground; you were either part of the problem or part of the solution. You could not set out to restore a failed system using the same approaches and tools that led to its collapse in the first place. Nor could you hope to cure a troubled medical condition without the body experiencing some pains or inconvenience. A salvage operation was to be done but perhaps, even more importantly; it had to de done systematically. With a business background, Obi would set forth his objectives and goals with clear targets and time frame. Reasonable space was to be devoted to planning.

And there the bubble burst. The roadside expectation of loud politics and showy leadership was not forthcoming from Obi who did not see grandstanding as a substitute for the serious work of governance. Development had to rank above populism for every government worth its name and especially for a state like Anambra whose condition was desperate. The mistaken impression that road construction was the mark of an action government was deep seated and not surprisingly, the clamour for roads, roads and more roads rent the air. Would Obi accede to this emotional view of governance albeit with strong promise of political capital to be made out of it?

This was a tempting and easy way out for a politician thinking of the next election. At this point, the words of Mahatma Gandhi must have rung in Obi's mind. In his characteristic simple but powerful reflections, the social crusader had advocated: 'Be the change you want to see in the world.' It was elementary that the much desired transformation of Anambra could not be accomplished, could not even commence without setting the priorities right. Though more demanding, a coordinated stimulation of the various sub-sectors would eventually provide the impetus for Anambra's transformation.

What to do? Obi stuck to his vision. What was the sense of the entire struggle if it boiled down to just playing to the gallery? Seen from another perspective, a society's God – given resources were not only for the present generation. Future generations too had a stake and right to a meaningful heritage.

In adopting the longer but ultimately more rewarding development approach to governance, Obi was not oblivious of the political implications. It would foster opposition from the elite and grassroots alike. Sometimes, you can feel the pain in his heart in the face of allegations of depleting the fortunes of his party APGA through neglect and even acts of destabilization. In great spirits, he takes you through the history of his support for the party. Other times, he merely tells you that reformers never have it easy citing Margaret Thatcher as an outstanding casualty of reform resistance. But the man called Okwute by his admirers has also achieved considerable political success suggesting the acceptance of his mission by significant sections of society. In 2010, he became the first governor of Anambra State to win a second tenure mandate.

While dissenting voices continue to have their say, the long distance runner braces up for the last lap of the race. Recently he hinted of retirement from elective politics at the end of his tenure; somewhat reiterating that life is not all about politics. Perhaps, it was in the quest to find meaning in life that he chose to read philosophy in the university some thirty years ago. Taken together with his Christian faith, we find a man who tells us: 'I'm not in a popularity contest. I'm here to do what is right.'

What cannot be contested is that positive difference has come to Anambra. In a clime where the huge cost of running government tends to defeat demands for creation of new states, the Anambra State 2013 budget estimate significantly provides for N70.895 billion capital expenditure and N39.999 billion recurrent expenditure.

Afuba, author of a new book on Nigeria, This Country, My Brother, wrote from Nimo, Anambra State.