NVS WELCOMES OGAGA IFOWODO TO THE SQUARE
Andy Uba's Mercedes is bigger than yours
By Ogaga Ifowodo
I READ with utter bemusement Andy Uba's piece, "Leadership as a service to our people," in the op-ed pages of The Guardian of January 30, 2007. Given the recent controversies around "Dr" Emmanuel Nnamdi "Andy" Uba, it seemed to me a joke that he should presume to speak so soon on the subject of leadership from the platform of "service to our people." I could only read past the title by reminding myself that "Dr" Uba's notion of "our people" is not the same as mine; that his people can only mean the band of fortune-seekers in the PDP, a party that the president and Uba's own godfather, General Olusegun Obasanjo, most recently described as one in which "there is enough to share," from local government chairmanships to the presidency itself. It was soon apparent to me, however, that Uba meant the long-suffering people of Anambra State, Nigeria, and Africa at large!
Such that by the end of the piece, I couldn't help the thought that only an unrestrained feeling of political arrogance, arising from the impunity and immunity that favoured politicians enjoy under Obasanjo's government, could have enabled Uba to turn sermoniser. Would he, I wondered, be galloping to his would-be electors atop a moral high horse if at the time of composing his sermon he was busy proving his integrity viciously impeached by his very conveniently settled "money-smuggling" case in the US? And if Uba did in fact report his "true" experiences as he "traversed various villages and towns and cities of (his) beloved Anambra State," did his people ask him any of the questions that agitate the minds of many Nigerians? Uba presumes to speak for "We the people" against the shameless "political class" that he recognises as seeking power "not to do good or fight for the common good, but for self-aggrandisement." Can it be the case that, somehow, the people of Anambra really see Uba as belonging to a political class different from the one he now lambasts?
I cannot answer for the Anambra people, though I certainly give them the benefit of the doubt. If, however, we are to accept the inference that they took his good faith for granted and concerned themselves only with the problem of "how to turn around the fortunes of our homeland by modernising it in the context of the true challenges of 21st Century development," then the people of Anambra will have to be a strange breed. For in that case, they will have accepted the inference that Uba epitomises the personal qualities of moral integrity, political rectitude and social vision that he now ascribes to himself. That would make them different from the majority of Nigerians - including their most illustrious son, Chinua Achebe - who have watched with horror and outrage as the Uba brothers, under Obasanjo and the PDP's patronage, have turned the state into their personal fiefdom to do with as they please.
But this is merely playing the devil's advocate; the Anambra people cannot, without the risk of grievously slandering them, be said to be that na•ve or imbecilic. Uba's homily on leadership has to be the product of hubris, of unbridled arrogance. It has to symbolise a brand of the messianism personified by Uba's own godfather, the president. Lest we forget, it is Obasanjo himself who, as it were, announced Uba's gubernatorial ambition. In what was a clearly staged moment, Obasanjo told the messiah-seeking Anambrans to pray so he may "release" to them his ward, one of a kind of leaders that only came from God. Thus, with election day at hand, the self-righteousness that comes with the messiah-complex must have found an urgent image-laundering need in the light of Uba's recent troubles.
It is hard not to see as its immediate spur an image-launderer's diversion strategy. "You must create a different image from the one in the public's mind at the moment. You should start with a newspaper article in which you present yourself as a moral standard-bearer and visionary leader." Hence, such humbug as the time having come for our people to have "new values in politics and leadership," and for "those in leadership positions" to "always inspire people by the sheer power of personal example." As, no doubt, Uba personally inspired so many across the length and breadth of the continent as special adviser to the president of the self-vaunted "Giant of Africa!"
If Uba has any sense of irony, he did not show it in his piece, so it bears reminding him of what is still too fresh in the public memory to have been forgotten. Towards the end of last year, the news that Uba had been charged to court in the United States for the offence of "cash-smuggling" gave banner headlines to the media. Specifically, Uba was accused of smuggling into the U.S. the sum of $170,000 on September 20, 2003 while on Obasanjo's entourage to the United Nations General Assembly summit. He ran foul of the law when he failed to declare an amount more than $10,000 at entry. We remember the damning fact of the "hard currency" being smuggled into the U.S. aboard the presidential jet, and the telling details of what was done with the cash: purchase of a 2003 S-class Mercedes-Benz car reportedly worth $90,000, a brand so special it had to be imported from the U.S. of $45,487.28 worth of farm equipment for Obasanjo Farms (which the anti-corruption president has since explained away as an "unsolicited gift", case closed); and payment by his "girlfriend" and accomplice of credit card bills of $13,000. As the prosecutor, Leslie Westphal, revealed, the case was settled out of court at Uba's instance, but not before the sum of $26,000 had been forfeited to the US government, after which his impounded Mercedes Benz was released.
All the explanations proffered by Uba in the wake of the revelations did not offer a convincing source of the smuggled money. Moreover, as the court noted, Uba "failed to tender evidence to prove his claim that the smuggled amount came from "his savings" and "some of his family's money" exchanged for dollars at a bureau de change in Nigeria. The court had also opined on the reason why Uba resorted to smuggling the money rather than wiring it through a bank: because "such a transaction would draw attention to the origination, source and destination of the funds."
This scandal had hardly died down when another report once again cast doubts on Uba's integrity. This time, it concerned Uba's long-assumed title of "Doctor," presumably on the strength of having earned a doctorate but which the report suggests he falsely ascribes to himself. Yet, without a conclusive effort at defending his reputation, Uba deigns to champion us "the people" against the very class whose worst depredations he can be said to symbolise under the evidence as it now stands. Rebuttable evidence, no doubt, still evidence yet to be rebutted.
Let me return to my title and be quick to note that only a few Nigerians own a Mercedes, not even if the model is a decades-old rust-box salvaged from the scrap-yards of Europe. But the lucky few who do, and who might glory in their membership of an exclusive club, must envy Uba's new acquisition. Perhaps they, and no doubt many Nigerians, will remember the late Nkem Nwankwo's novel of the rather quaint but unforgettable title, My Mercedes is Bigger than Yours. It is not a good novel, and in my view one of those that made it to print solely on the crest of the phenomenal success that Achebe's Things Fall Apart brought to Heinemann Educational Books' African Writers Series, not to mention the European thirst for exotic and sociological handbooks once they "discovered" that the "savage" African could write.
Its many faults notwithstanding, the novel's plot delineates a story that serves perfectly for analogical purposes. For even as told by Nwankwo (the ancestors continue to rest his soul), a perceptive reader will find interesting parallels between the novel's bathetic principal character, Onuma, and the Anambra gubernatorial candidate. Like Uba, Onuma loves fancy cars, taking a huge loan visibly above his means to buy a gleaming Jaguar. Onuma, too, has a blot on his education, having dropped out of University to pursue a career in public relations. As in the novel, this is an election year, and if not exactly cars, money which buys expensive imported cars, will prove to be the measure of candidates' political vision. With his gleaming imported Mercedes as concrete proof of his vision, Uba, as Onuma, may be so self-absorbed as to believe that any honest person in Nigeria, let alone in a state still bleeding from the grievous wounds inflicted on it by the Uba brothers, would fail to see the self-indictment contained in his article. Uba as the visionary who will help "turn around the fortunes of our homeland by modernising it in the context of the true challenges of 21st Century development?" He might get away with that puff if only he had ordered his 2003 S-class Mercedes-Benz from the Anambra Motor Manufacturing Company (ANAMMCO). Surely, there must be a limit to hypocrisy!
Ogaga Ifowodo, a lawyer, holds an MFA from Cornell University, New York . He has published three collections of poems, Homeland & Other Poems, Madiba, and The Oil Lamp, all winners of the Association of Nigerian Authors poetry prizes.
Ifowodo was a frontline student leader in his days at the University of Benin . He worked for eight years with the Civil Liberties Organisation, Nigeria's premier human rights group, and between 1997 and 1998 was held under preventive detention by the Abacha military regime; a memoir of his prison experience, excerpts from which have been featured in Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing (ed. Jack Mapanje), the British Council and Granta's New Writing 14, and in Nigeria's Vanguard newspaper, is in progress. His poems have been translated into German, Dutch and Romanian and have also been widely published in anthologies and magazines, including Voices from all Over: Poems with Notes and Activities released last year by Oxford University Press, Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature, The Times Literary Supplement, Poetry International, English in Africa, among others.
In 1998, he was named recipient of the pen USA Barbara Goldsmith Freedom-to-Write Award and of the Poets of All Nations ( Netherlands) "Free Word" Award. He is an honorary member of the pen centres of the USA, Canada and Germany and a fellow of the Iowa Writing Program. He is currently concluding a doctorate in post-colonial literature at Cornell. Ifowodo has been a regular contributor to the Op-Ed pages of Nigerian newspapers since his student days.