by Uche Igwe
Sometime last month when the issues at the Nigerian Population Commission started gathering momentum, I hurried into Abuja and tried to meet with the now former Chairman Eze Festus Odimegwu. It was a tough one to get his telephone numbers but I was determined. After two days of fruitless search, a top executive in a government agency obliged me. It was easy to contact Eze Odimegwu who later gave me an appointment to meet him in his house. I had a very interesting conversation with him which lasted for one and half hours.
Let me say very clearly that I was not surprised that he was eased out – whether he was made to made to quit or sacked. Those are mere semantics. That fact is that the first class Chemistry graduate and best graduating student in 1979 from the University of Nigeria Nsukka, is no longer the Chairman of the Nigerian Population Commission.
The man I met is a very passionate and impressionable man. He came across as highly intelligent even though he has an air of know-it-all attitude around him. He is also a comfortable man. Looking around his apartment leaves any visitor in no doubt that you are before a man of means. Even his royal paraphernalia can be sighted in one consecrated corner of his living room. But those become less important issues considering the gargantuan assignment he had to validate or question – the population statistics upon which the political super structure called Nigeria is/was based.
Listening to HRH Odimegwu who spoke for the greater part of our discussion, you will admit that the man is a brutally frank person. He was ready to say and possibly do it as it is. He assumed his job (at least so he claimed) to be a contribution to national service and by so doing he made two mistakes. The first is that he oversimplified the nature of the assignment. The second is that he took the political support from President Jonathan for granted. The plans that he told me he had for the Commission were particularly forward-looking. He spoke of the diagnostic studies and the comprehensive strategic architecture, operating plans, and budget layouts that were developed. He spoke about the Presidential Committee set up to centralize the national databank and demographics chaired by the NPC and the far-reaching recommendations made by them. He claimed that the 2006 Census figures were cooked out of projections and poor area demarcation because of poor preparation, maximum corruption, manipulation and outright forgery. He regretted that the NPC could not provide a compendium of localities to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) because none was existing, but he expressed optimism that INEC and NPC could work together to produce one through a digital imagery of localities. The most disturbing part of the conversation was the allegation that the current Director General of the Commission flouted the laid down regulations of the agency and spent or stole 400 million Naira.
Now I am certain that the former Chairman of the Nigerian Population Commission was very sure that those who appointed him were committed to reform and so they had his back covered. In a different interview, he had admitted that he was nominated by the Secretary to Government of the Federation, Mr Anyim Pius Anyim. I am sure that he regularly consulted the SGF (or at least should have), who in turn might have briefed the President. From the bravado that he displayed during our meeting, it was easy to assume that he believed that his high level network would see him through that temporary turbulence. Many pundits have opined that the most powerful man in Nigeria is a reluctant and indecisive personality. Some people attribute this to a form of humility while others call it an awkward vacillation. While many see this trait as a weakness, I see it as a deliberate political tactic. It possible that the former Chairman of NPC got the usual assurances from above, and he naively banked on them. However, even as he exuded confidence during our meeting, I tried to suggest to him that he should temper his reforms with pragmatic politics. I am sure he knows better now. Anyone out there who is still deluded that the government in Abuja is implicitly or explicitly committed to (any) form of reforms should learn from Odimegwu’s ‘interesting’ experience.
I have no reason to doubt any of the claims that the former Chairman made even though he was yet to substantiate them fully. I felt that he should have realised that success in a blue chip private sector company is completely different from a similar feat in a government organisation. One thing is clear, as an experienced man he should have known that very few people in public service see it as an opportunity to add value. It is generally seen as a come-and-chop thing and nobody cares. He should have followed procedure and at least keep his plans under his chest and with sealed lips until he is able to pull off some or all of them. Did he not realise that issues in public service are marked ‘top secret’? In the whole board, I am sure that the former Chairman realized belatedly that he was on his own. That may be why he hit a brick wall. The big issue about reforms is not about the diagnostics or the grandiloquence. It is about the unseen politics – which must be navigated creatively for reform to metamorphose into change. That is where the respected traditional ruler missed the point. There are those who are beneficiaries of the status quo. Often times they are very entrenched in the system and they will do everything humanly possible to resist the change.
The issue of population census is a very contentious one. Rightly or wrongly many things in Nigeria have been shared based on those figures. Therefore they are seen as somewhat ‘sacrosanct’ regardless of whether they were manipulated or not. If it is an injustice, it is such a type that links to the foundation of the nation. Whosoever is seeking to dismantle such concoctions must know that it will come with repercussions. I find it ludicrous that any person or group of persons will oppose the conduct of a transparent census. Now, I do not know why the Kano State Governor Dr. Rabiu Kwankwaso requested the President to sack the former NPC boss from his job. If it is what many are thinking then it is an empirical indictment on the part of the Governor and the interests he represents. Were the past Census figures cooked as alleged by the former Chairman of NPC? If so who were the perpetrators and the beneficiaries? Did it happen only in a particular region or in all parts of the country leading to completely inflated figures? Is it not better and wiser that a more transparent Census is conducted to ensure that whatever planning and projections that are made about our country become realistic? Was it a case of one region out-rigging the other regions? Are we living a lie? How does the possible unreliability of such sensitive national statistics make us look before the international community? The fundamental basis of any union is truth, equity and progress. How much longer shall this contraption, this marriage of inconvenience, this amalgam of strange bedfellows, this mutually opportunistic association, this injustice called Nigeria last? Now that Odimegwu have been shown the door, does it mean that whatever reforms he proposed shall be emptied in the dustbin of history?
Uche Igwe wrote from the Department of Politics, University of Sussex. You can reach him on email@example.com