Special Assistant of the Decade

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Guest Columnist: Okey Ikechukwu

Edifying Elucidations BY OKEY IKECHUKWU

The THISDAY awards have come and gone. The winners in the various categories of merit are probably not done with the celebrations. The particular award on the basis of which I decided to write about the Special Assistant of the Decade is that of Peter Obi, the former governor of Anambra State, who won the Governor of the Decade award. But, knowing that no governor governs by himself, and also knowing that there is always a deputy governor, commissioners, aides, etc., we must state, for the record, that the choice and effective deployment of supporting personnel are critical success factors in this matter. Such dependable people as Mrs. Obi, Prof Okunna, Chief Oseloka Obaze, Mr. Peter Afuba and many others who stood like unshakable pillars around Peter Obi through thick and thin are relevant, if not determining, variable here. But the person I presume to bring out for special, and elaborate, mention here, in retaliation for the unsolicited ambush he has repeatedly inflicted on me over the years, using several newspapers, is Valentine Obienyem. He was the Senior Special Assistant to the former governor on everything. And I describe him thus very deliberately.

Obienyem became an admirer of the former governor long before the latter became governor. He had no real motives of gaining anything from him, as he wrote about the man even when he was still my Personal Assistant in the Federal Ministry of Transport and, later, in the Federal Ministry of Information and National Orientation. While working with the Director General of the Voice of Nigeria, to whom I “loaned” him with pride, with the charge to leave Jijiwa in no doubt about media efficiency and effectiveness at very low cost, Obienyem still kept his eyes on Obi. He was to later work with him when the latter became governor. He was among the very few, like Afuba and Okunna, who kept faith when he was impeached. They all went through the drudgery of the legal processes, did not join those who asked him to give up his stolen mandate and have remained his friends, supporters and confidants.

It is true that Peter Obi travelled light as governor, carrying his own bag, unescorted by security personnel, etc. It is true that he did not waste state resources on large entourages, or send large delegations to the often-pointless annual World Igbo Congress held in the US. “Let one person who will pay real attention to what is going on there, and who will also tell them our mind on key issues, go and represent the rest of us,” was Obi’s position when he pruned down the bloated list he received after assuming office from over 35 names to two. But it is also true that he did not travel alone to major national and grand public events. While others of equivalent standing will arrive such events with at least a ten-man team, in addition to a press crew of not less than five persons, Obi will come with Valentine Obienyem alone.

The jobs of photographer, video camera man, television crew, news reporter, interview, newsroom supervisor, social media handler, media strategist, press Secretary, political adviser, protocol manager, image ambassador, journeyman and temporary Secretary to the State Government (SSG) were combined in Valentine. Obi also always got better media visibility and reportage from the same events to which he travelled light than all his peers combined. I proudly attest to Valentine’s diligence as aide and friend, his unobtrusive effectiveness, his focus on tasks and not privileges and also his not being easily distracted by the proclivities of young men of his biological age and social exposure. That is Val, as I fondly call him.

My story with Valentine Obieyem began in the 1990s, but let us fast track to year 2004. I recall an incident in the Federal Ministry of Information and National Orientation, when Arinze Orakwue came to see me in the office. He jokingly observed that he did not know his brother was working with me and I laughed and asked whom he was talking about. It turned out to be Val, my Personal Assistant, and he quickly went to open the door for the later, with whom he had apparently made an arrangement, to walk in uninvited. I had no idea they were related and was happy to hear that. But they were not blood relations. They were both indigenes of Agulu town in Anambra State. When I then laughed and said “Oh Val, so you are from Agulu” they both burst out in uncontrollable laughter, with Val saying “Doc, Doc” repeatedly. They both made fun of my inattention to anything other than the actual worth of people, as the story of how their conversation when they met within the building led to their planning the office ambush.

The first time I met Val was when he came to my office clutching a heavy manuscript of type-written pages. He had a resolute aspect, without any exaggerations. Then his story came out. The manuscript he brought with him was the draft of a book he had written on Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Ikemba Nnewi. The title of the book “Ojukwu: The Last Patriot” was informed by the idea that Ojukwu was the last Nigerian military officer who refused to violate the chain of command, refused to serve under his juniors and who refused to destroy esprit de corps by accepting unprofessional military paradigms. Val wanted me to take over the manuscript, put my name on it as the author and claim credit for it. He wanted it that way because, according to him, he had come to respect and admire me from reading my columns in The Guardian newspaper. He was therefore convinced that, in his own words, “only someone who is well known, intelligent and popular like you” would be the right author of a book on a great man like Ojukwu.” I knew at once that we were going to have a long-drawn conversation – and relationship.

To summarise that long conversation, I told him that I had profound respect for Ojukwu and also a personal relationship with the man; but that I do not write biographies as a general rule. I also told him that (1) I will introduce him to Ikemba via a letter, for closer personal interaction to strengthen the results of his independent research; (2) I will read through, edit and review the book and that (3) I will try to make whatever financial resources I could find available, to ensure that the book was published. But he protested, saying he was not well known in the society. Then I reminded him that there was a time the great Chinua Achebe was like him. I also reminded him that the world would not be talking about Achebe’s Things Fall Apart if someone older had been irresponsible enough to take over the young man’s sweat. I told him a bit of my story: of my Ph.D in philosophy, of how I had to take lessons in German in order to write a thesis on Heidegger whom my teachers confessed that no one understood, etc. etc. I summarised it with an Igbo Proverb saying: “An elder does not eat the seed yam of the next planting season, so my duty is to assist with your efforts, not take credit for the sweat of your labour.” He was thus overruled. It was also with this argument that I overruled a committee that wanted Uche Ugbaja’s sweat in writing a biography of my boss, Ojo Maduekwe, given to a well-known professor because Uche was not well known.

Under the title “Celebrating Okey Ikechukwu at 55,” Val wrote in the papers regarding our first meeting: “My first meeting with Dr. Okey Ikechukwu was not by accident. As a young man seeking knowledge and direction, I did not miss his columns in The Guardian newspaper because of their philosophical bent. I duly set out to look for him. Identifying me as a young man in need and search of mentorship, he rashly laid that task upon himself and carried it out unquestioningly. After a while he appointed me his research Research/Personal Assistant, though I was still an undergraduate. … I did not know where he got the money he paid me… the pay helped to see me through the university. When I went to the law school, he paid my fees single-handed, as he realised my salary from him would not be enough. During my Call to Bar, he was the only one present for me. He kept close tabs on me, took me along when he moved from Lagos to Abuja and generally mid-wifed and sustained the progress of my journalistic career.”

When I called Val after seeing the above piece in the papers, he assured me that he had no idea what I was talking about and that I should hold his pen responsible if I saw anything in the papers. The pen, he said, did not consult him, even though he was not averse to whatever views may have been expressed in the “offending” article. When I reminded him that I had not said anything about any article, he then said that he may have overheard some people talking about something like that. Well, in the same vein, I hold my pen responsible should Val be surprised to find himself ambushed by this article. He deserves to be written about and no one should call my name. Please, I can’t kill myself.

Going back to the matter of Governor of the Decade and Special Assistant of the Decade, Val is my number one choice for Special Assistant of the Decade. Peter Obi, on the other hand, is one of those I think of when we speak of the possibility of responsible and cost-effective leadership in Nigeria.