Nigeria Matters

“Syntax of Reality”: Questions For My State Government…And Yours!

Eminent poet and professor of English, Niyi Osundare, formerly of the English department, University of Ibadan, and now of the University of New Orleans, first coined the phrase “Syntax of Reality.” As my Syntax teacher at the University of Ibadan in the early to mid-80s, Osundare started his Syntax class, a one-hour class, with a 15-minute dose of the reality of the world outside the university campus. At the time, Osundare also wrote a column for the Newswatch magazine, back when that magazine had some backbone and some investigative and analytical pizzazz. For me, Osundare’s “Syntax of Reality” had the twin effects of relieving whatever tension I brought to the lecture hall from other classes and sensitizing me to the day-to-day realities of life that those of us ensconced on campus seemed to have forgotten…until school broke and we went home on holidays to face the harsh realities of bad roads, erratic electricity, armed robbery, poor medical facilities and hunger.

During “Syntax of Reality,” I was reminded that Shehu Shagari won a landslide re-election in spite of the pathetic, lame government that he headed (trust me, Yar’Adua, too, will win re-election by a landslide); I was reminded that a loaf of bread had just jumped from 15 kobo to 25 kobo, and the loaf had actually gotten smaller in size; I was reminded that Idiagbon was now in charge (people said Buhari was actually the President, but no matter), and Nigeria would soon execute, by firing squad, two or three men for drugs trafficking; I was cautioned to not trust the toothy and wily Babangida with whom the rest of the country had just fallen in love for coming to “save” them from the draconian decrees of Buhari…sorry, Idiagbon; I was reminded that Mamman Vatsa had been executed for planning a coup against the government of Babangida, after conviction by a military tribunal – records of proceedings which were not disclosed to the public; I was taught to prepare for the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), a euphemism for “Austerity Measures,” itself another “cut-your-coat-according-to-your-size program instituted by a previously ostentatious government, for a people already living in austere times.

Above all though, Niyi Osundare taught me to ask questions of my leaders, if I was going to be a productive member of the society. And he led by example. He used his writings in the media to ask salient questions of our leaders, incurring, in the process, the wrath of the Babangida administration which invested valuable SSS manpower, material and financial resources, in shadowing his movements throughout the Ibadan and Lagos axis. In the end, Osundare left the University of Ibadan, with his vast talents, and relocated to the United States. But he left me with an ingrained knack for asking questions. Why, for instance, has President Yar’Adua been behaving as if he does not know what is going on with the EFCC and Nuhu Ribadu? Why, has Yar’Adua not sent an enabling bill to the Assembly if he truly believes that the immunity clause that protects some public officials from prosecution should be removed, forcing the legislators to vote one way or the other? Why pay lip service to the issue? Why has Angola overtaken Nigeria as Africa’s largest exporter of oil? Why is our educational system in such a mess? What about our medical system? Agriculture? Roads? Armed robberies? Who is asking these questions? Who is forcing answers to these questions? Do our legislators hold the executive arm of government responsible for anything? Do we, as ordinary citizens, hold our legislators responsible for anything? Why, for instance, have the people of my state (Oyo State) accepted a mediocre government led by mediocre people? This time, I am not just writing about the governor of the state, Alao-Akala, or his deputy, Taofeek Arapaja. I am writing about the entire elective apparatuses of government in the state.

When Osundare used to ask questions, the likes of Ray Ekpu, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Stanley Macebuh, Yakubu Muhammed, Dele Giwa, Edwin Madinagu, Ordia Ofeimun, Sonala Olumhense, Ebino Topsy, Lam Adesina, Soji Akinrinade, Dare Babarinsa, Olatunji Dare, and a few others also asked cogent questions of government. You could pick up any Nigerian newspaper or magazine, any day of the week, across all political spectra, and find one of the aforementioned journalism icons asking probing questions. Weekly magazines and Sunday newspapers dealt with serious investigations, devoting weeks, if not months, to digging up questions for people in government to answer. And this was largely in a military dispensation!

Today, most of these people hardly write anymore, let alone ask any questions. I can confidently report that only Reuben Abati (of The Guardian) has the cajones to ask government officials for explanations. It is as if he is the only one not beholden to the allure and lucre of brown envelopes. You would think that Nigeria is suddenly afflicted by a catastrophic dearth (or even death!) of investigative journalists. These days, most of the routine news reporting is bereft of depth; the writing is poor, the editing is even poorer, and the political slant is obvious! Where the stories appear perfect, you can tell it was lifted from wire reports like the Associated Press and Reuters. Reporters go out daily to their respective beats and return to their newsrooms with government-written press releases. They re-write these press releases and shamelessly slap their bylines on them as if the stories were their original work. The equally lazy and compromised editors have stopped asking the question: “where is the story?” whenever their reporters bring back to the office such brown envelope stories. The result is a spineless national press that has self-censored itself into near-irrelevance. Practically no one has the gumption to ask questions anymore…not even in a democratic dispensation!

The original intent of this piece was to nudge my readers into looking back at their lives and the development (or lack thereof) of their respective states, and begin to ask questions of their elected officials. But one paragraph ago, after venting my spleen on the lack-luster performances of my brothers and sisters in the media, I decided to use Oyo State, my home state (since charity, they say, begins at home), as a microcosm of Nigerian states, and leave the reader to extrapolate.

Pretty soon, the curtains will be drawn on the current administration and my governor, along with all the local government council chairpersons will begin electioneering campaigns to return to another term of office. They will target “grassroots” leaders (actually, those are the select few that have the wherewithal, (be it “thuggery” or bribery) to help rig them back into office, “settle” them handsomely and win re-election, after which we would be back to where we started. When the election campaigns start, I expect the people of my state, led by the formally indomitable Nigerian Tribune (now reduced to a mere Alao-Akala megaphone), to fold their hands and not ask the elected officials – all of them, regardless of party affiliations – how they have discharged their duties. Without deluding myself, I know that it is impossible to expect Mama Ope, the restaurateur at Mokola in Ibadan, to walk up to governor Alao-Akala and ask how he spent the revenues that accrued to the state since he came into power. I know that Baba Suraju, the meat-seller at Bodija Oju-irin, also in Ibadan, can not ask his local government chairperson for the balance sheet of his local government for the year 2008. Yet, these are the same people over whom these politicians would lord it and ride roughshod for the next four years should they win re-election.

Since we have already ruled out the Ibadan-based Nigerian Tribune as a reputable media outfit that is morally capable of asking tough questions, the job now falls on hungry opposition party members eager to dislodge current occupiers of these juicy posts. But opposition party members themselves are going into oblivion! The AD, ANPP and AC are too embroiled in internal squabbles to ask questions of the marauding ruling PDP. What we now have is a situation where everybody has accepted his/her lot and put everything in the hands of God.

As for me, I have observed that governor Alao-Akala’ Special Adviser on communications, Dotun Oyelade, wastes no time in defending his boss. So, I have decided to ask him one or two questions. Below are two spreadsheets – one of each representing the revenues that accrued to Oyo State government and the 33 local governments respectively during much of the year 2008. These are strictly Federal allocations only!

My questions to Oyelade are as follow: Can he confirm whether it is true or not that Oyo State government actually received that much money as claimed by the Federal Ministry of Finance; and if true, how much of it has actually been spent, when and on what projects? What percentage of the revenue was spent on capital projects and how were those projects prioritized? Which companies were awarded contracts for those projects and what were the processes through which they were selected? Who owns those companies? How much did the State government generate internally – on its own, aside from these Federal subventions? How did the State government disburse the internally generated funds to the local governments? What derivative formula (if any) was used in sharing the revenues? In spite of this relatively huge income, has the State government sought and received any foreign or local loans? If so, why? What was/were the loan(s) used for?

These are very simple questions that a competent spokesperson like Oyelade can answer. These are not questions probing into anybody’s personal finances. These are questions whose answers ought to be part of public records. These are the questions that my representatives in the Oyo State House of Assembly should be asking. These are the questions that you, as a reader, should be able to ask of your state and local government officials. Better yet, these are the questions that the media in your state ought to be asking on your behalf. Where is all the money going? Just about half of all the figures quoted above are derived from the so-called excess crude oil bonanza. Are our governments building their castles on the thin air of a temporary revenue surge? What happens, as is now the case, when the price of crude oil falls?

I know that Mr. Oyelade can ignore my questions because I am not the Speaker of the House of Assembly inviting him, under oath, to answer my questions. But Mr. Oyelade can rest, assured that I will, from time to time, repeat these questions until someone provides some answers. The legacy of Professor Niyi Osundare’s “Syntax of Reality” is not lost on me. The realities of life in the cities, towns and villages of Oyo State are such that beg for questions and answers. These are the questions we must ask before the next elections.

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