By Louis Odion
“Sir, the next person on the list”, continued the Senior Special Assistant on Protocols in Edo Government House testily “is the widow you met some time ago while on project inspection and you said we should include her name among those to be paid monthly from the money you gave us to maintain the house in Iyahmo”.
The circumstances of others on the rather long domestic “payroll” unfurled that fateful day in 2013 were only a shade different. There was an orphan. A terminally ill patient. A retrenched worker. An old neighbour who had fallen on hard times…
After an hour of a “forensic audit”, it turned out that Comrade Adams Oshiomhole could no longer proceed with an earlier resolve to drastically cut down the “humongous cost” of maintaining his country-home lamented to have become “unsustainable” for his personal pocket.
The aide in question had specifically been summoned to the Governor Office to account for the “allocation” received the previous month. Then, item by item, the fellow meticulously detailed how the fund went into paying domestic workers, providing “free food” daily for people the Comrade Governor knew as well as “welfare money” for a number of others as a standing order.
So ended the “inquiry”. In another moment, the SSA got the “allocation” for the new month.
There are countless such moving anecdotes those close enough to Comrade Adams Oshiomhole for the eight years he was the “people’s governor” of Edo State, will easily recall today. Taken together, such stories undoubtedly speak to a heart full of uncommon compassion for others, acutely unable to resist the pressure to give and give.
To be sure, I write with the ringside insight of Edo Commissioner for Information for four years cutting through Oshiomhole’s two terms of office. And as one whose serial open disagreements with him over the years were triggered by what could, for want of better expression, be classified as critical solidarity.
The Oshiomhole most Nigerians know is the “Adamant Adam”, “Oshio Thunder”, “Oshio Quake”, un-afraid to take tough decisions. But as the great clinical psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, acutely diagnosed, there is often a contradictory veneer behind a man’s outlook. The other Oshiomhole most folks don’t know is actually a softie at heart, incapable of keeping malice for long, unashamed to be the first to offer the olive branch to the “enemy”, sometimes avoiding folks when he is broke only out of shame of being unable to offer “parting gifts”.
Despite his relentless “persecution” by “Mr Fix It” (now late Chief Tony Anenih) back then, for instance, Comrade once directed his ADC to invite me to join his entourage to felicitate with the PDP strongman during the latter’s 80th birthday. Barely concealing my outrage, I snapped back at the ADC, telling him to inform the governor I won’t be part of the team. Almost immediately, Comrade himself was on the line, seeking to know my reason. I defended that having earlier issued a personal statement and granted newspaper interviews expressing a strong view that the PDP strongman be quizzed over an assassination attempt on me in Benin on April 29, 2012 after being openly threatened at the Oba’s palace on February 17, it would amount to mixed message if I was seen cavorting at his birthday shindig.
Comrade respected my sensibilities. But I also appreciated that he was Governor for all Edo people. Regardless of political differences and as someone who rarely keeps malice, he simply could not see himself missing on Chief Anenih’s big day. That is Comrade for you.
After all his trademark thunderous orations in the public square back then, there are few folks I know who, beyond public earshot or behind closed door, could later blast him or figuratively-speaking pull him by ears if they felt he had crossed the line. That select circle includes the likes of Kayode Komolafe, Issa Aremu, Oseni Elamah and Mike Itemuagbor.
Indeed, as the great comrade now joins the septuagenarian club, the temptation is to be drawn into only appraising his politics in recent history. That, of course, will be a potentially explosive excursion, depending on our individual ideological bias or moral compass. We are, therefore, not bound to agree on many of his controversial choices which his defenders might explain as compelled more by expediency and “pragmatism” in Nigeria’s peculiar political jungle. I choose to save that proposition for another day.
But not to acknowledge his tongue for sometimes self-deprecating humour, ears for tranquilizing music of Yanni, eyes for beauty and heart for vigorous dance is to miss the sum of what makes the whole of Comrade Adams Oshiomhole.
Doubtless, Comrade had his own fair share of mistakes as Edo Governor. (He would plead that such were errors of the head, not the heart.) But what is undeniable is that, as governor, he led with uncommon compassion for the ordinary folks, those without a name. When a pile of petitions were tabled before him, Oshiomhole would, for instance, instinctively prioritise those with thumbprints as signature because “It’s obvious theirs is the cry of poor illiterates who don’t have any big man to fight for them.”
For him, being in Government House was unapologetically “on behalf of the masses”. So much that earlier in his administration, the great O once jovially asked him during a courtesy visit to the Benin palace, “Comrade Governor, I hope you don’t see your new job as as opportunity to pack all Edo money to your colleagues in labour union only. Remember, you’re governor for all.”
The same temperament was often exhibited whenever we went on inspection of ongoing projects. Whenever the motorcade stopped in depressed neighbourhoods, Oshiomhole was never able to resist the outcry by residents to grant requests instantly, with marching order issued there and then to the Works Commissioner (Ogie Osarodion/Frank Evbuomwan) or Environment Commissioner (Clement Agba) to deliver. Either to build new roads or sink boreholes or rehabilitate community schools.
Of course, such impromptu contract awards had huge financial implications so much that the Finance Commissioner (John Inegbedion) would later be grumbling that he had to bear the burden of shopping for funds to pay “mobilization fee” to the emergency contractors.
As a result, most commissioners under Oshiomhole often complained that only their Works and Environment counterparts were being “favoured” while they had to loiter endlessly around the Governor’s Office awaiting approval for their memos. As Information Commissioner, I once complained openly that lots of invoices for newspaper adverts and television coverages were piling up, thus putting me under choking pressure from my “primary constituency”.
Stunned by my outburst (since I was often viewed around Government House as the “gentle Lagos boy”), Comrade discreetly invited me into his office and made a confession in a low conspiratorial tone that left me totally disarmed. “Louis, I can only tell someone like you this secret,” he said plaintively, looking me straight in the eyes. “The Finance Commissioner just left now and the total balance in the state account as I speak to you now is less than N500m. All of you commissioners come with files needing approval which have financial implications. You know we’re in opposition in Edo. (PDP was still controlling Abuja then.) The only weapon we have is to keep working hard for the people. That’s why the little we have we try to ensure that contractors get something to keep them at various sites. It’s the only way we can retain the people’s confidence and secure their support against the PDP godfathers working day and night to sabotage us or rig us out of elections.”
Happy birthday, Comrade.
Odion was Information Commissioner under Governor Oshiomhole. A Fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, he is Senior Technical Assistant on Media to the President.