Governor Okorocha’s Christmas Tree And Other Tales Of Political Vanity.

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Governor Okorocha shaking hands excitedly with President Obama on huge billboards, a vain attempt to publicly memorialize a fairly routine diplomatic encounter.

Political vanity is a particularly Nigerian affliction and has been an ancillary scholarly interest of mine. I published an academic article in 2004 on the subject, citing several examples from Nigeria’s then fledgling experiment with civilian rule. The article dwelled extensively but not exclusively on the cases of late former governors Abubakar Audu of Kogi State and Mohammed Lawal of Kwara State. 

The former had an obnoxious penchant for naming every government project after himself and his family members. The latter was so consumed by a need to personalize his power that all mass transit buses belonging to the Kwara State government during his tenure were boldly marked with the moniker “UP LAWAL.”

Since the publication of that article, similar examples of personalized power and political vanities in high places have proliferated. I am reliably informed that in Kayode Fayemi’s Ekiti State, a remarkable record of infrastructural investments was marred by an inexplicable insistence on naming all projects after the former governor and his wife.

Public office holders in Nigeria adorn their offices with all manner of silly award plaques. One former minister, God rest her soul, had an entire wall of her office covered in awards from all manner of organizations — some of them concrete, others clearly made up by sycophants to curry her favor. She liked to take pictures against the background of this wall of vanity. The pictures made it to newspapers and then the to Internet, where they live to date. It was a vulgar form of political narcissism, a kind of self-deification.

The said former minister was so in love with her own image that she invested energy, time, and resources feting and garnishing herself in awards and other accouterments of self-validation. She built a shrine to herself, reveling in her own proclaimed greatness. Fortunately, she was a largely effective, achieving public servant, so her political vanities didn’t matter that much. She could be forgiven for her vain indulgences.

Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra state is another vain politician. Whether by design or happenstance, Obiano has emerged as one of Nigeria’s most conspicuously vain public servants. It is comical to see him surrounded at public events by aides and appointees wearing Obiano-emblazoned Ankara. Obiano, for good measure, literally wears himself, dressing in the same Obiano-branded Ankara fabric as his aides.

I can’t even imagine the embarrassing awkwardness of seeing your own face on your own clothes — on your own body. It is spectacle to behold in its vacuous vainglory. It looks like something out of Chinua Achebe’s novel, A Man of the People.

But, all things considered, Governor Obiano is a performing governor. He is building and commissioning things and, I am informed, does not owe Anambra civil servants a single month salary arrear. He even paid them a Christmas bonus! His vanity should therefore be excused and forgiven. He has earned the right to be vain and to celebrate himself in flamboyantly self-adulatory terms. I have no problem with a little vanity to go along with purposeful leadership.

Former Governor Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of Kano has a certain strain of political vanity in him. As Kano governor, he built a personality cult to himself — a movement labeled Kwankwasiyya, with its own esoteric chants and its own ubiquitous emblem of the red cap. During his tenure, it was always amusing to see the sea of reds whenever and wherever the former governor appeared. Kwankwaso was and still is a man of bombast and arrogant self-flattery. He is seduced by his own hype. But like Obiano, he largely backed up the boast and hype with his performance as governor.

Recent revelations that Kwankwaso left a crippling debt profile for his predecessor, commissioned heavily mortgaged white elephants, and owed contractors billions of Naira have dented but not diminished the essential reality of his successful governorship tenure. His vanities too should therefore be understood as tolerable footnotes in his larger political biography.

Then we have the clownish Governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha. Among other comically cringe-worthy acts of vanity, Okorocha has apparently erected a Christmas monument to himself in Owerri, a lavishly decorated Christmas tree that is at least thirty feet tall. Some accounts estimate the contract for this giant public Christmas tree to be 600 million naira. Some of his supporters may dispute this figure, but I don’t want to hear that the contract was awarded for 50 or 100 million naira, not 600 Million. It does not matter. It’s not the amount but the principle.

A governor who has not paid pensioners their entitlements for 21 months has no business spending any public funds, even if it’s “only” 10 Million Naira, on a Christmas tree that will be removed and trashed in two or three weeks.

A governor who owes most of his state workers at least six months salary arrears has no business investing state funds in an ephemeral religious symbol, especially since the said religious symbol stands for a religious festival that, because of the failure to pay salaries and pensions, many Imo citizens will not be able to celebrate.

This is the same governor who caused or allowed — take your pick — the infamous Obama handshake billboards to be erected in Owerri upon his return from Washington DC, where he had been part of President Buhari’s delegation on his official visit to the United States. Owerri residents woke up to a picture of a grinning Governor Okorocha shaking hands excitedly with President Obama on huge billboards, a vain attempt to publicly memorialize a fairly routine diplomatic encounter.

So, when we speak of political vanity, Governor Okorocha is for me its poster boy. His investments in the instruments of vanity and grandeur are not accompanied or mitigated by any appreciable performance indicators.

Okorocha takes the end of the year award for political vanity. At least in my book.

By Moses Ochonu for Sahara Reporters