The Lost Privilege And The Rivers Of Oil

In keeping with my uncanny ability always to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, I ventured to Rivers’ political cycle just as various ethnic cysts were ramming polluted “Rivers Of Oil” packed with explosives into then habitable oil city and parading about in the shape of human fireballs.

As late as September 1998, it was almost impossible to imagine that within a year the Odili administration would be no more than a bad memory. By November 2003, however, Mr. Abiye Sekibo — Odili’s pugnacious and seemingly unassailable bulldog—had resigned in the face of incontrovertible evidence that he had ambition to work within the presidency after his tenure as Rivers State Secretary. A chink had appeared in the administration’s armour for the first time, which paved the way for the State Assembly’s Anti-Cult bill hearings in May 2004. Three months after those began; Odili too was gunning for the President’s Seat.

By any measure—secrecy, arrogance, venality, contempt for the Constitutional process—the administration of Olusegun Obasanjo was far worse than that of Sani Abacha despite that authority being militarized . It is natural that its opponents should wish to seek remedy by probing the ex-president, especially now that he no longer enjoys the cover offered by a pliable Constitution. Should not, many Citizen ask, we take this opportunity, at last, to show future chief executives that there are limits to the power any president can co-opt?

Yet 2007 was different from 2004 because the political arena has become so much more ideologically divided. Dr. Peter Otunuya Odili was absconding simply because an Aso Rock wanted to test its newfound power. That event was a travesty on its face; worse, it also ensured that the next Nigeria president could never be absconded, since it would be easy to convince a distracted public that any attempt to do so was nothing more than cheap political payback. The Odili’s upheaval effectively inoculated Obasanjo against the consequences of any misconduct he wished to engage in. How should societies moving away from dictatorship deal with the supporters of the previous regime who engaged in criminal behavior? Should accountability be emphasized, with the guilty punished and the new system purged of supporters of the old? Or is it more expedient to forgive, bury the past and move on?

Dr. Odili, however, does not have the political gravitas of chief executives. They serve at the pleasure of the ex-president, not of the people, and are consequently more vulnerable in the court of public opinion. This is especially true in the case of Peter Odili, who is unarguably the least admired ex-governor in the nation’s history. It is probably true that his approval ratings are so low even among supporters of the administration because he represents the sort of political being who is most distrusted by Nigerians: the shifty, cunning power behind the throne. Peter is not the sort of person—straight-talking, no-nonsense, but nonetheless engaging and friendly—who embodies the ideal Nigerian politician.

There is, of course, no lack of charges to be brought against Dr. Peter Odili, as a former governor of Rivers State, from outing a covert Economic and Financial Crime Commission, EFCC for political purposes to manipulating intelligence about development programs in Rivers State. On the other hand, Odili has consciously arrogated to himself as then Governor all of the protections inherent in governors as well as presidential privilege. It is immaterial whether, constitutionally speaking, he can make this claim. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, TRC shows, the mere assertion of privilege by anyone in the Niger Delta can effectively stymie an investigation, or at least drag it out for so long that its political effects are minimized. And all matters of privilege aside, Odili and his associates have woven such a tangled skein around their activities (the Independent Power Project, IPP, for instance) that any investigation into them will be so laboriously involved as to eventually confuse and bore the Nigerian electorate.

As the investigation of TRC showed, however, Nigerian politicians, even cunning ones, are most vulnerable to charges of low crimes and misdemeanors. This is Odili’s Achilles heel: His close association with the Arumemi’s empire and the great financial gains he has made from it during his two terms in office can easily be shown to be criminal. Even a short congressional investigation can uncover damning documentary evidence proving that the ex-governor’s office was instrumental in awarding vast no-bid contracts to the Arumemi’s empire in both Port Harcourt and the other sides of Nigeria. Why Odili benefits are equally easy to prove (and equally damning): The Company’s stock has tripled in value since he took office. Odili and his lawyers will attempt to cloud the issue, but charges of straightforward graft proffered on the floor of either the State Assembly House or an Ad’hoc Commission are likely to stick, at least politically, to a figure who is so widely reviled. (And charges can be brought in the House against Odili in his capacity as a de facto member of that body—a simple majority is all that is required to do so.)

Probing and convicting Odili on charges of graft would at the least force him out of the nation’s political arena. All other eventualities—a presidential pardon chief among them—are secondary. Absent the protection of his office, Odili cannot assert privilege in future civil suits brought against him; nor can he afford to ever leave the country, since any number of foreign powers would be likely to seize him and bring him to trial for war crimes or violations of human rights. And the Yar’Adua administration would be fatally contaminated—and so politically neutered for the next two years—by mere association.

Whatever else he might be is unimportant; the ex-governor is demonstrably a crook. With luck, his pardon or probe might lead to graver consequences for him, but at the very least it will ensure that future Governors choose their second thought in commitment more judiciously. A sure outcome is that no plutocracy in 2011 will be able to accuse us of playing partisan football with Peter Odili, because no one cares enough about the ex-governor to make that charge plausibly stick.

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