Forget what the objective facts are, former Governor Diepreye Solomon Peter (DSP) Alamieyeseigha, who died last week at 62 years, is a candidate for official veneration.
The fact is that, in September 2005, law enforcement officers in the United Kingdom arrested DSP after finding more than a million pounds sterling in cash in a home he owned in London. Early in December, 2005, the then second-term governor, somehow slipped through the hands of British law enforcement. The story of how he eluded British police remains a mystery to this day. The absence of solid facts gave birth to a legend: that the former governor had disguised himself as a woman—and was able to walk past British detectives detailed to keep watch over him. Till his death, DSP Alamieyeseigha dismissed the narrative of his disguise, but offered no account of his mystifying escape.
The irreducible fact is that DSP somehow eluded his would-be English prosecutors. He materialized in Nigeria, compelling then President Olusegun Obasanjo, a political foe, to arm-twist some Bayelsa legislators into impeaching DSP within days of his dramatic reappearance in Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital. His impeachment catapulted DSP’s then deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, into Government House, and prepared him for eventual elevation, by the selfsame Obasanjo, onto the national scene—first as Vice President, then acting President, and ultimately President.
Arrested by agents of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the high-living former governor was tried for corruption. On July 26, 2007, he admitted to six counts of corruption and money laundering. Each count earned him a two-year sentence, but the sentences were to run concurrently. The so-called punishment was a scandal and a travesty. In fact, it did not even rise to the level of a judicial slap on the wrist. The day after his sentencing, DSP regained his freedom. The trial judge had given him credit for time served since his initial arrest.
Mr. Alamieyeseigha’s fate both defined and defied a trend. It defined the trend whereby Nigeria’s most highly placed officials hardly ever pay for their crimes, including their venal preoccupation with theft of public funds entrusted in their custody. Yet, his trial and (ridiculously lenient) sentencing also represented one of the few occasions a person of his station was ever held to account, at all, for his crimes.
The fact is, Mr. Alamieyeseigha’s conviction meant that, in the eyes of the law, he was—pardon the indelicacy of language—a certified thief! The fact is, the man betrayed the trust of the people of Bayelsa State who elected him, twice, as their governor. The fact is, the former governor abandoned the noble business of leading and embraced the nefarious business of primitive accumulation.
Of course, in March 2013, former President Goodluck Jonathan made an expedient decision to pardon DSP, his former boss in Bayelsa. The invocation of clemency was symbolically designed to rub off from the public records Mr. Alamieyeseigha’s conviction. President Jonathan did not stop there. Taking cynicism to its limits, he later appointed the pardoned former governor to a body of delegates who met for several months to design a new vision for Nigeria.
Yet, no presidential machination could ever erase from public memory the fact that Mr. Alamieyeseigha was an egregious embezzler, a man caught by the British for fiddling with public funds.
Some years ago, a retired military politician, Abdulsalam Adisa, offered an interviewer a telling anecdote that captured the mindset of the species whose mis-governance has put Nigeria in such dire condition. He said that the same white man who invented the pencil also invented the eraser. His point was simple: that any unflattering account was liable to erasure, the better to implant a manipulated, heroic narrative.
In DSP’s case, we’re about to see that ritual writ large. If former President Jonathan took the first steps in the effort to rehabilitate DSP, that enterprise is set to enter a new, hyperbolic stage with the former governor’s death. This, the occasion of his death, will be turned into a season of gushing tributes.
All manner of men and women, many of them possessed of moral funds as paltry as Mr. Alamieyeseigha’s, will line up to rewrite the fallen counterpart’s story. They will tell us he was a patriot, an elder statesman, as a man who offered selfless service to humanity. They will describe him as a Solomon come to judgment, a man who so loved his people that he was willing to lay his life down for them. They will characterize him as a man of his words, a man of peerless honesty and boundless love, an icon of leadership. They will persuade us that the man was unassuming, that he was so humble that the Webster Dictionary adopted his portrait as the image illustrating the virtue of humility.
Yet, none of the words deployed in effusive praise of DSP would have the faintest chance of changing the facts as they stand. DSP and DSP alone had the duty to define himself as a man and leader. He was a woeful failure at the task. He yielded to the easy seduction of self-aggrandizement, mistaking the size of his material possession with the scale of his human worth.
Sadly, in death, the record of his life is a closed case. What remains is the verdict of history. All the expensive cars and palatial homes and designer clothes the man owned are absolutely useless to him now. They cannot testify to his nobility of mind, to his loftiness of heart. Let DSP’s fellow travelers in Nigerian politics proclaim him the greatest human who ever walked the earth, their attempts at verbal inflation will have no real effect, no traction with history. Hagiography does no man or woman any good.
In some ways, DSP’s story is akin to Mobutu Sese Seko’s, to Sani Abacha’s, to Imelda Marcos’, to Gnassingbe Eyadema. I’d propose that the central lesson of Mr. Alamieyeseigha’s exit is that it serves—ought to serve—as a rebuke to Nigerian officials who, this very moment, are singularly obsessed with the next naira they can steal, the next car they can buy, the next object they can feed to their insatiable, vainglorious appetite. The meaning of DSP’s fate is that, in the end, political chieftain or discounted peasant, stakeholder or staked to misery, rich or poor, we all die. After which, all we own—all we are ever permitted to own, really—is the name we made for ourselves, the unvarnished, un-garnished record of the life we led, the legacy we left. When a man squanders a rare opportunity to elevate the condition of his society, that man dies with little or nothing, even when—especially when—he had every manner of earthly possession.