By Ikechukwu Amaechi
For some Nigerian politicians, the recently leaked Pandora Papers which chronicled offshore services firms that set up shell companies for clients – many of them influential politicians and businesspersons allegedly seeking to conceal their financial dealings – was an aha moment. The eureka effect on them was most palpable.
Why? Because the files had the name of Mr. Peter Obi.
Obi, former Governor of Anambra State and Vice Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 2019, is an enigma fellow politicians fail to decode.
In the last eight years since his tenure ended, everything has been thrown at him. He is probably one of the most investigated Nigerian politicians. Each time, the investigators drew blank.
Apart from the fact that he gave Anambrarians good governance, a scarce commodity in Nigeria’s public space, the major reason why PDP power brokers went for him in 2019 was because he has no baggage.
The anti-graft agencies, including the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), found him squeaky clean, completely free from moral taint.
What’s more, Obi’s insistence that nothing will change for the better in the country unless the leadership recruitment process is overhauled to stop incompetent people ascending the ladder of power has not gone down well with most of his colleagues, who seem to be in perpetual conspiracy to cut him down to size.
The leaked Pandora Papers seem to have given them a leeway, with their joyful exhalation most poignantly captured in the Premium Times report, “Pandora Papers: Inside Peter Obi’s secret businesses – and how he broke the law.”
“Peter Obi, the ex-governor of Anambra State in Southeastern Nigeria, is widely regarded in Nigeria as an advocate of good governance, openness, and transparency,” Premium Times wrote in the very first paragraph of the story, as if to say, ‘finally….’
“In addition to speeches on his governance records and statistics-laden prescriptions for Nigeria’s development, he likes to talk about how hugely successful he became in business before diving into politics.”
The online newspaper listed what it irreverently said Obi claimed as his achievements in the business world prior to his governorship – including being the youngest board chairperson ever appointed by Fidelity Bank.
Then, it fatally dropped the ball of conscientious journalism when it wrote: “But beyond the facade of priggish speeches and appearances, an investigation by Premium Times has now shown that Mr. Obi is not entirely transparent in his affairs as he likes Nigerians to believe.”
It is difficult for any columnist to weigh in on this matter on the side of Obi. It is even more so if you are Igbo.
The bogey of corruption has been used since the time of former President Olusegun Obasanjo to destroy political opponents. All you need to end someone’s political career is to get anti-graft institutions to label the person corrupt.
And Nigerians who, rightly, see corruption as their bane will complete the job. So, any attempt to weigh in without supporting the official position makes you a corruption sympathizer.
Being Igbo makes it a double jeopardy because the immediate conclusion is that you have jumped to the defence of your kinsman.
But let us understand the issues we are dealing with here. The “Pandora Papers” is an exposé of the alleged financial secrets and offshore dealings of dozens of heads of state, public officials and politicians from 91 countries and territories and Obi was alleged to have been mentioned in the report.
No other Nigerian has been mentioned. Is it possible that no one else other than Obi was mentioned in the report for which, according to the U.S. news octopus, CNN, more than 600 journalists from 150 outlets spent two years investigating nearly 12 million confidential files? Or is it a case of having got Obi, nothing else mattered?
Some of the world leaders mentioned in the report, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, former British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, and King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussien of Jordan, have all denied any wrongdoing.
And what is the whole brouhaha all about that will warrant impugning the character of someone and pronouncing him guilty beforehand?
Granted, the Pandora Papers reveal how unusual offshore finances and secretive wealth have infiltrated global politics and some of the people named in the papers are major political leaders in developing or impoverished countries, but having businesses tucked away in tax havens, away from public glare, is not an act of corruption in itself.
In the case of Obi, what is important is the source of the wealth that is alleged to have been invested offshore.
Peter Obi was a billionaire before he became governor, with thriving businesses both at home and abroad. In the three years he battled in court to retrieve his stolen mandate, he singlehanded footed the bill. That is why he did not come into office with the baggage of a godfather. He was his own godfather.
And he was a huge success as a governor. As at the day he left office on March 17, 2014, as he reemphasized in a recent interview with TheNiche, Anambra State government under his watch was not owing salaries and gratuities of any civil servant that was entitled to be paid, both at the state and local government levels. He was neither owing any contractor for any contract executed and documented, nor any supplier.
Anambra State government was not in debt of any kind because he did not borrow a dime to run the affairs of the state. Instead, balking the tradition in public service in Nigeria, he left behind money to pay three months’ salaries, run schools for a year and start more projects. Not only that, he left in savings, N75 billion ($156 million, and the rest in naira) with documents to prove same.
Unlike some politicians, who may well have orchestrated these negative reports because of their 2023 ambitions and who see in him the most potent obstacle on their way, Obi never converted any Anambra State property – land or building – to personal use. He did not set up any private company to collect tax for Anambra State at a premium commission. He did not mortgage the future of the state for any personal aggrandizement.
That record is unprecedented and should matter.
To achieve this incredible feat, he took the highly unusual step of reordering his priorities and cutting down the cost of governance. Rather than share the money to political jobbers and hangers-on at the expense of the masses, he plucked all loopholes and there were no leakages.
Of course, the elite who have perfected the inglorious art of making a kill on patronage and rent didn’t like him for that.
But rather than hallucinating, those who are beside themselves with joy ululating that with the Pandora Papers exposé, Peter Obi has been nailed to the cross of public probity should tick the boxes of some pertinent questions: Was any of his businesses financed with illicit funds? Is there any of his businesses that can be traced to funds filched from Anambra State coffers? Did Anambra lose money under his watch that has been traced to him and his cronies?
In the interview with TheNiche which I referenced earlier, Obi challenged the gloaters thus: “If you see any account or business belonging to Peter Obi, please investigate the source of the wealth.”
In this fintech era, that shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to undertake.
It takes a man who is sure of himself and his financial dealings in and out of office to proclaim, as Obi did, that, “I can explain every wealth that I have.” That should be the issue and not whether he has businesses offshore.
What Peter Obi has proved in and out of office is the need for Nigerian leaders to have a “second address.”
He was a successful businessman before he went into public office. After public office, he went back to his personal businesses.
If the only “crime” which Nigerian leaders are committing is to set up offshore businesses with their hard-earned money, not money stolen from public purse, Nigeria will be a lot better than the mess it is today.
The fact that Obi has offshore companies does not detract from his gospel of transparency and good governance as Premium Times insinuated.
And until there is evidence that those businesses are proceeds of filthy lucre, politicians who think that their ascendancy depends on the destruction of his hard-won reputation should let Peter Obi be.
- Ikechukwu Amaechi is celebrated Nigerian journalist and publisher of The Niche