By Dare Babarinsa
The economic downturn in Nigeria has forced us to focus more on the various governments, their ways and wastage. There is no doubt that oil wealth and the woes associated with it have transformed the character and substance of power in Nigeria. In the past, Nigerian leaders live simply. Today, the life of a Nigerian ruler is complex and expensive. If you are in doubt, compare the simplicity of the old Doddan Barracks residence of the Nigerian ruler to the beguiling complexity of the Aso Rock Presidential Villa in Abuja.
During the First Republic, the official residence of Prime-Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was the house facing the Lagos Island Club which is now being used as an office of the Economic Commission for West Africa, ECOWAS. The titular President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, was staying at the State House, Marina, once the residence of colonial Governor-General. When General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi became Nigerian first military ruler in January 1966, he moved to the State House, Marina. General Yakubu Gowon, who was a bachelor when he became Nigerian ruler after Ironsi was assassinated in July 1966, preferred the more modest residence of the former Minister of Defence in Doddan Barracks. That residence and offices were to be used by succeeding Nigerian rulers until General Ibrahim Babangida moved the seat of power to Aso Rock Villa, Abuja. The only exception was General Murtala Muhammed who lived in his old official residence in Ikoyi and commune to Doddan Barracks, which he used for his office.
I believe two events transformed the nature of power in Nigeria. One was the assassination of General Muhammed in the morning of February 13, 1976 as his car got stuck in the early morning Lagos traffic. He was alone in his car with his driver, his orderly and his aide-de-camp. There were no outriders, no siren, and no other security vehicle. From that moment on, no Nigerian ruler was even allowed to be so exposed. But power was still closeted in modesty even then. When American President Jimmy Carter paid a state visit to Nigeria when General Olusegun Obasanjo was Nigerian military ruler, he brought his car with him. America would not allow its President to ride in the prim Peugeot Cars used by the military regime as the official cars for Nigerian leaders.
Even when Babangida became the ruler of Nigeria in 1985, the Peugeot car was still in vogue. But the attack on modesty started far earlier than the Babangida regime. During the Second Republic, President Shehu Shagari rejected the Peugeot car that was used by Obasanjo. Instead he opted for the Mercedes-Benz 500 which Nigerians quickly dubbed the Shagari Benz. But the ministers were still using the Peugeot cars. At least one of the governors, Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande, the former Editor-in-Chief of the Nigerian Tribune who became governor of Lagos State in 1979, preferred his private Toyota Crown car.
One governor that was almost in league with Jakande, was the old teacher and former principal of Imade College, Owo, Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, who was governor of old Ondo State between 1979 and 1983. Ajasin and all his commissioners and other top government officials, were all using Peugeot cars. However, in 1981, the state government bought a Mercedes-Benz 500 for the governor for N25,000. This special car was treated like a prized state treasure and the governor would not travel with it on any of the state rough roads! When the new military governor, Commodore Bamidele Otiko came in January 1984, he met the car, almost new, covered with tarpaulin.
General Muhammadu Buhari, who seized power from Shagari December 31, 1983, also rode in the famed Shagari Benz, though his ministers and governors were using the modest Peugeot series. The mood of the time was unsuited for extravagance. When one of military governors in one of the Western states bought a private Peugeot car for almost ten thousand Naira, he was issued a query. He had to explain that he took a loan to afford such luxury.
Then we conjured up Aso Rock Presidential Villa and everything changed. Anyone who was familiar with the modest Doddan Barracks residence of the Nigerian President would not but be intimidated by the sheer audacity of the Villa. The Villa changed the meaning and character of the Nigerian President. No longer could he be confined into then narrow prescient of Dodan Barracks and its small cubicles where the rulers of Nigeria were managing in those days. The presidential complex in Abuja is a city on its own and only Nigerian, with our zest for life and extravagance, could have thought of it.
The Villa became a metaphor for our taste and our bigness. We are the giant of Africa and we have the right and the duty to have a large appetite. Everything now must be on a grander scale. We fell in love with size for its own sake. Our President was not just an ordinary President. He must move about in state like a modern day Napoleon. In the old days when Gowon visited the Western State at the end the Nigerian Civil War, he was lodged at the Premier Hotel Ibadan. Today, each of the 36 states has its own Presidential Lodge, maintain round the clock in case the President wants to visit his in-law, have a haircut or coming to town to commission a new poultry farm.
Every state now has its own Aso Rock. Gone was the modesty of old. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, as the Premier of the defunct Western Region until 1960, stayed in his own house. When President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana paid a state visit to the West, he was lodged at the Awolowo residence in Oke-Bola, Ibadan. Today, power and modesty have become strange bed fellows in our land. In one of the South-South states, the Government House is a world apart. The Governor’s Lodge is seated like a celestial castle on a separate island. A multi-billion fly-over is built connecting this island of power with the mainland.
While the powerful were accumulating more palaces and more toys, cars, aircrafts, outriders and other appurtenances, they were also accumulating troubles. Almost all the old symbols of Nigerian power and potential property: the iron and steel complex in Ajaokuta, the Iwopin Paper Mill in Ogun State, the paper mill in Oku-Iboku in Akwa-Ibom State, the Volkswagen Assembly plant in Lagos, the Peugeot Assembly plant in Kaduna, the ones for Leyland in Ibadan, Mercedes-Benz in Enugu and many others are gone or in severe state of anemia. Many of the old factories are silent and their vast auditoriums taken over by the regular uproars of benighted Nigerians looking for miracles by all means. In Ado-Ekiti, the Ekiti Textile Mill old premises is now being used as a common market for the sales of vegetables, fake wares from China and rags from Europe.
Who would then envy the lot of Kemi Adeosun, our Minister of Finance, at this moment? She is the Cash Madam summoned into office to manage a cashless economy. Trained as an accountant and investment banker in the United Kingdom, she was commissioner for finance in the sober terrain of Ogun State under another accountant, Governor Ibikunle Amosun. Now she is in the hot seat in Abuja taking inspiration and encouragement from the heroics of many of her distinguished predecessors including Awolowo, Shagari, Kalu Idika Kalu, Olu Falae, Abubakar Alhaji and Okonjo Iweala. She is not shy and unlike her immediate predecessor, she is an acada girl who loves to look good. She knows how to hold her own with the practised eloquence of a museum guide.
So what would she do at these times of The Troubles? Is she going to look for more money from China, Europe, the United States and Saudi Arabia and accumulate more debts for coming generations? Or is she going to tell the truth we don’t want to hear that our country is living beyond its income and that our leaders should adopt a more modest lifestyle?
We have had our good times. Now we have our testing time. Better days will come sooner only if we prepare and work for it. During the First Republic, T.A. Oni and Sons Ltd, an engineering firm based in Ibadan, was one of the biggest construction companies in Black Africa. Today, the situation is different and the Chinese, the Germans, the Italians and others are helping us to build Nigeria. That is what is called globalisation!
This year alone, despite the downturn in the economy, the Federal, states and local governments would construct thousands of kilometers of roads. To construct our roads, we import bitumen from Venezuela, Canada and other places. Yet Nigeria has one of the largest deposits of bitumen in the world in Ondo State. If you are the Cash Madam of the Republic, what would you do about that?
-This Best Outside Opinion was written by Dare Babarinsa/The Guardian.