THE ALTERNATIVE By Reno Omokri
Much has been made about comments by former Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, about his very brief encounter with Nigeria’s first republic minister of finance, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh.
Mr Yew had said: “Raja and I were seated opposite a hefty Nigerian, Festus, their finance minister. The conversation is still fresh in my mind. He was going to retire soon, he said. He had done enough for his country and now had to look after his business, a shoe factory. As finance minister, he had imposed a tax on imported shoes so that Nigeria could make shoes. Raja and I were incredulous. Festus had a good appetite that showed in his rotund figure, elegantly camouflaged in colourful Nigerian robes with gold ornamentation and a splendid cap. I went to bed that night convinced that they were a different people playing to a different set of rules.”
It is pertinent to note that Mr Yew was not accusing Chief Okotie-Eboh of corruption. And in fact, if you take a second look at his physical description of Chief Okotie-Eboh in his book, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000, you will detect the latent racism that some have accused Lee Kuan Yew of.
Unknown to many Nigerians, Lee Kuan Yew is resented in his native Singapore for his racist ideas about the superiority of his Chinese ethnicity over other Singaporeans.
In 1985, Mr Lee had said: “I have said this on many a previous occasion: that had the mix in Singapore been different, had it been 75% Indians, 15% Malays and the rest Chinese, it would not have worked. Because they believe in the politics of contention, of opposition. But because the culture was such that the populace sought a practical way out of their difficulties, therefore it has worked.”
Wikileaks has since published anti-Islam comments made by Mr Yew, which are so provocative that I refuse to repeat them here. My viewers may choose to research these comments on their own.
So, Nigerians would be wise to put some perspective on the words of such a fellow. If he considered Indian and Malay citizens of Singapore to be less than his Chinese ethnicity, then you can imagine what he thought about Black Africans.
There is absolutely nothing wrong in what Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh proposed. In fact, it makes economic sense. So much sense, in fact, that the EU has such policies.
The African continent in 2014, earned $2.4 billion from the export of coffee to Europe. That sounds impressive. However, one country alone, Germany, made $3.8 billion from re-exporting Africa’s coffee in 2014. This trend continued into 2015, 2016 and has not changed to date.
The reason for this unjust trade is because of the tariffs the EU impose on finished agricultural products, which makes it almost impossible for Africa to export already processed and ready to drink coffee to Europe. Would it be a crime if Germany’s finance minister retired and elected to go into the coffee trade? Certainly not. So, why the vilification of Chief Okotie-Eboh? Put it to the inferiority complex that many Nigerians have for persons of lighter complexion than them.
Lee Kuan Yew came from a different paradigm. Singapore is a small island nation that has very little natural resources, and as such was one of the pioneers of universal free trade zones, for which they are now world famous. It works for them because Singapore’s economy has historically been reliant on foreign capital, foreign technologies, and expatriate workers. Nigeria is not like that. We have always had to export for our survival and conserve our foreign exchange by subsidising imports with locally produced goods.
This is the reasoning behind Nigeria’s current border closure. As far as I know, nobody is accusing Buhari of corruption because he closed our borders to agricultural imports, even as he owns a farm in his native Daura.
I was once told by Senator Mohammed Ndume, himself once a very vocal critic of then President Jonathan, something along the lines that, but for me, Nigerians would have believed the lies and propaganda the government and many others told about former President Goodluck Jonathan.
Now, take a moment to ponder about the above statement. The reason Nigerians, and even the very APC that was once the chief denigrator of Goodluck Jonathan, are now celebrating him, and even calling for his return to power (of which he is not interested), is because someone, somewhere, took it as a duty to answer every APC lie with the truth.
Now, situate that with Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh. The reason many Nigerians have run away with, and believed tales of his alleged grand corruption, is because there has not been anyone in the media extinguishing these lies with the truth. And, as Josef Goebbels proved, a lie told often enough, soon becomes the truth.
As at the time he was murdered by Major Chris Anuforo, on January 15, 1966, Chief Okotie-Eboh’s daughter who lived with him, who could have played that role, was just 13. His other children were in a state of trauma. There was very little or nothing they could do, and over the years, they have tried their best, but their best has not been the match of ruthless fabulists.
The truth is that the man Festus Okotie-Eboh is nothing like what he has been painted to be by modern revisionists. Truly, until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.
The fact is that the late Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh was a member of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, and rose to become the Treasurer of that party and later Minister of Finance in the NCNC/NPC coalition government of Alhaji Tafawa Balewa.
The Action Group was the party in opposition, and which controlled much of the media, which they used, to good effect, to de-market and savage the then government. And as Chief Okotie-Eboh was minister of finance, he became a natural target for their attacks, in much the same way as Dr Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became a target of the same Lagos-Ibadan axis of the Nigerian media between 2011 and 2015.
Young Nigerians may not understand the toxic political atmosphere that existed in Nigeria between October 1, 1960, when the British handed over power to Nigeria’s first elected central government, till the January 15, 1966 Nzeogwu/Ifeajuna coup.
To understand the tension, it is necessary to point out that the leader of the Action Group, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and some of his most trusted aides, had been accused, charged and convicted (rightly or wrongly) of treason in 1963.
The media was still controlled by the intellectual wing of the Action Group, and they responded to these events with vitriolic reportage, which often naturally targeted Chief Okotie-Eboh, due to the sensitivity of the office he held.
This was going on in the height of Operation Wetie, which had turned Western Nigeria into an almost ungovernable zone, with massive destruction of lives and properties.
At this point in history, the Action Group and their media wing, rightly or wrongly, very much held Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh responsible for the reduction in their power and influence, which occurred when the Midwest region was carved out of the Western region.
It was in the midst of this tensed atmosphere that Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh was being regularly excoriated in the media by the Action Group and its media arm.
In fact, the reportage became so bad that Chief Okotie-Eboh, rather than continue in the government of Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, in the influential position as Finance Minister, had perfected plans to resign and go into private business, as evidenced by Lee Kuan Yew.
If, indeed, the man was corrupt as has been written about in the Lagos-Ibadan media, would he have contemplated resigning? Nigeria does not have a culture of high-profile politicians resigning. No minister has resigned from Buhari’s cabinet, except one who resigned to fill a slot at the United Nations.
Chief Okotie-Eboh, either in his lifetime, or posthumously, has never been charged, or convicted of any acts of corruption, or of any crime whatsoever. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, on the other hand, came close to being charged, when it was discovered that he and his son (who was Deputy Prime Minister in the same government in which his father served) had received suspicious heavy ‘discounts’ for several luxury properties sold by a firm in which Mr Yew’s brother was a shareholder, which prompted an investigation of the company and a rebuke by the Singaporean Stock Exchange.
Abacha has been dead for 22 years, yet even from the grave, he and his sons have been charged and convicted of corruption and money laundering. Nothing like that has happened with Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh. Not in Nigeria, or elsewhere.
Okotie-Eboh is the only looter without loot that I know. And there is no loot because he was not a looter.
Before he went into government, he was acknowledged as a private businessman who, along with Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, was one of the wealthiest men in Nigeria at that point in time.
While he was in government, he was the driving force behind the formation of the African Development Bank, which was founded during his tenure as Nigeria’s finance minister, in 1964, with Nigeria being the highest shareholder of the bank.
In fact, the inaugural meeting of the Board of Governors of the African Development Bank was held from November 4-7 1964 in Lagos, with Chief Okotie-Eboh as the chief host.
This was a man whose skilled handling of the Nigerian economy saw Nigeria as a lender nation. Nigeria actually lent money to other nations, even before we had begun exporting oil in large commercial quantities. Today, we are a heavily indebted impoverished nation, even with massive oil and gas exports. That says a lot about Chief Okotie-Eboh’s handling of our economy.
The Central Bank of Nigeria was also midwifed by Chief Okotie-Eboh in 1958, a year after he became finance minister in 1957, and he helped secure Nigeria’s sovereignty by transiting the nation from the British West African Pound, printed by the West African Currency Board, to Nigeria’s very own currency, the Nigerian Pound, which was at parity with the British pound, but not tied to the Bank of England, as the CFA West African Franc, which was tied to the French treasury.
I am not talking about something I have not researched. My regular readers know I am a meticulous record keeper. I actually have handwritten and typed notes by Chief Okotie-Eboh himself when he was coming up with these ideas and I am willing to share these with the media at large.
The same sentiments he expressed to Mr Yew, were also openly expressed to the World Bank in a speech he gave to a visiting World Bank delegation, saying inter alia as follows:
“So long as the Bank (World Bank) insists on financing only foreign exchange elements of projects, it imposes an undue burden on developing countries.”
From the above, it is quite clear that this was a patriot speaking. He did not want his country to be at the mercy of foreign creditors and foreign goods. He wanted local businesses to thrive, and to get financing. That is why he did not want the World Bank to finance foreigners to build projects in Nigeria. He wanted local Nigerian firms to be financed to build them.
His thinking was also shared by Mahathor Mohammed of Malaysia, who, like Okotie-Eboh, rejected foreign financing if it meant it would only finance foreigners to come to Malaysia to do what Malaysians themselves could do, but for the finances.
Today, we see that the current administration has thrown this caution to the wind, to the extent that the Buhari administration signed a loan contract with China, whose terms and conditions were written in Chinese. This was what the shrewd Okotie-Eboh foresaw.
That is why he placed heavy tariffs on imported goods, and that is why he may have been targeted by those who knew the bigger picture behind the January 15, 1966 coup.
The man was a visionary. His only crime was not investing in the media so that his own side of the tale would be told.
Such a figure should be celebrated, not denigrated. I urge my countrymen to prove wrong those racists who say that if you want to hide anything from a Black man, all you need to do is put it in writing. Let us write and read our own stories and not depend on Westerners, or even a Chinese Singaporean to do it for us.