Posted by News Express | 31 December 2018 | 1,607 times
Among the coincidences, intersections and crossroads of life, I had just commenced my career when Audu Ogbeh, now Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, first entered the federal cabinet as Minister of Communications.
The year was 1982, and he was a sprightly 35-year-old who spoke plainly, demonstrated prodigious energies, and got things done.
I address the Idoma chief as “Excellency,” and with genuine respect. In a country with a love of titles and where the most dishonourable people fight to be called “honourable,” Ogbeh is one of the few who deserve genuine acclaim.
In December 1983, Ogbeh’s service in the cabinet ended following the military coup which brought to power one Major-General Muhammadu Buhari.
Thirty-two years later, Chief Ogbeh was back to the hallowed precincts upon being appointed by you-know-whom: Buhari.
In between those two experiences, for those who were either too young or were not paying attention, Ogbeh in 2001 emerged National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, a post he would resign four years later after criticising the then President, Olusegun Obasanjo for his handling of the political mess in Anambra State. He was also, for a time, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Advanced Congress of Democrats.
In the circumstances, the appointment of Ogbe as a minister is an important achievement for Buhari, although an appointment, just like accepting one, is ordinarily not an accomplishment. But in this, Buhari made an excellent choice, picking the right peg for the right hole.
Ogbeh, who attended the elitist Kings College, is a farming enthusiast, a field into which he ploughed his full attention following the 1983 coup. To have such a man developing, monitoring and protecting federal policy in agriculture is several gifts in one to that country, any country, but particularly to a troubled entity such as Nigeria.
This explains why there is something to cheer in the strides being made at FMARD, including “The Green Alternative,” the Agriculture Promotion Policy 2016-2020 document, particularly in view of the distress which has befallen the oil market, and Nigeria. Ogbeh illustrates the importance of appropriate appointments to appropriate offices rather than shortsighted appointments of relatives, friends and their children, and their relatives, friends and children.
To be clear: Nigerians still lack food, just as they do jobs and opportunities, despite the boasting and posturing of key government officials. I have continued to point out how Buhari and his government have betrayed the hopes of the electorate in many of these respects.
But I celebrate Ogbeh not only because in the position he holds Nigeria as the right person, but also because he is a man of character.
In his hands, the Agriculture Promotion Policy was developed through extensive and intensive consultations in less than six months after his appointment in November 2015. Those activities involved a variety of stakeholders, as the minister targeted an agribusiness economy that would not only meet domestic food security goals but economic diversification, jobs, import substitution and exports.
Chief Ogbeh is well on the way to accomplishing those objectives, a hope that is thwarted in other areas of our national life by Buhari’s stilted appointments, poor policies and bad judgement.
In an article, “Buhari does not need more than four years,” (February 6, 2016), and in an unrelated metaphor, I called for the emergence of a new agriculture of “a new and more vigorous variety of crops.”
I warned that Nigeria would not change overnight and that Buhari must avoid the impression that only he was good enough or that with two terms he will conquer the world.
“All Buhari can really achieve is to set the table: moving the pieces, knocking down political glass ceilings, and shifting the assumptions so that even when he is gone, Nigeria will continue forward,” I said in that twilight before it became clear the new leader was extremely limited in vision.
Towards greater results, I encouraged him to focus on attracting into public office a more patriotic and responsible kind of Nigerian…to rework the political terrain to strengthen our institutions and empower the inflow of men and women of nationalism and character.
I appealed to him to recognise that “one term aimed at creating a level playing field is eminently superior to eight years of one strong man during which credible successors cannot bloom.”
Evidently, and like other pseudo-democratic military and former military chiefs, he neither understood nor accepted such a strategy, and is now battling to win the faith he had been freely-given.
In a few appointments such as Ogbeh’s, however, he has a glimpse of what might have been.
Ogbeh left the PDP chairmanship in December 2004 citing the arrogance and insensitivity in the party. In his famous letter to Obasanjo, he said, among others: “I was part of the Second Republic and we fell. Memories of that fall are a miserable litany of woes we suffered, escaping death only by God’s supreme mercy…I am afraid we are drifting in the same direction again. In life, perception is reality and today, we are perceived in the worst light by an angry, scornful Nigerian public for reasons which are absolutely unnecessary…”
Obasanjo, who now falsely advertises himself as a champion of democracy and accountability, and a knower and doer of all things right and proper – as if his eight years in charge are not still being regretted by Nigerians – erupted in a 3000-word response in which he implicated himself. That PDP of Obasanjo’s model drifted on until it paid the price at the polls in 2015.
It is also remarkable that even in one of Obasanjo’s achievements, Nigeria’s $18bn debt settlement with the Paris Club, both Obasanjo and Ogbeh played important parts. Soon after the event, the highly-credible Ogbeh publicly and courageously alleged that a “top member” of the government had pocketed the sum of N60bn as a personal fee during the process.
Affirming his readiness to substantiate the allegation and at his own risk, Ogbeh lodged that explosive complaint with the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, but that agency quietly buried it. No official of Obasanjo’s “corruption-fighting” government, including Obasanjo himself, denied the allegation or ever addressed it.
Ten years later, Buhari, the “anti-corruption champion” who must have been observing all of that in anger, won the presidency. And he then included in his cabinet not only a man of immense credibility and character in Ogbeh, but the man who made that complaint: a man who – were Buhari truly interested in looking into the barrel – he could ask that question right across the table.
In other words, while Ogbeh is helping Nigeria to plant in the ground, he could also gladly help dig up some of what has been planted, if true character and political will existed at the top.
That is a harvest that – through a genuine and extensive whistleblower system – would have yielded hundreds of billions in local and foreign currencies that are buried in homes and backyards and farms and mysterious bank accounts all over Nigeria.
Nonetheless, Chief Audu Ogbeh, I pay tribute to you. You are evidence that we are not completely lost.
•This piece by veteran journalist Sonala Olumhense originally appeared under the title “His Excellency, Audu Ogbeh” in his Sonala Olumhense Syndicated column in some Nigerian newspapers.
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