Mohammed Buba Marwa is an exceptional leader, writes Paul Nwabuikwu

I’ve never met the man but I have been fascinated by the NDLEA Chairman Mohammed Buba Marwa for a long time. Marwa was arguably the most popular Nigerian soldier in a public office during the darkest days of Abacha’s rule. He resumed duties as military governor of Lagos in 1996, the year after Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution, two years before the dictator’s sudden death at the height of his powers.

At the time of Marwa’s arrival, Abacha was in full control, having defeated all opposition through guile and ruthlessness and told the world, starting from Nelson Mandela, to go to hell. Wole Soyinka and other activists had fled abroad, most prominent activists were locked up, Sergeant Rogers and other state employed assassins were on the prowl, protests and other forms of agitation raged in the streets and in the headlines.

Lagos was the epicentre of local and international agitation against Abacha, the home of Chima Ubani, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Olisa Agbakoba, Beko Ransome-Kuti, the Civil Liberties Organization, Campaign for Democracy, NADECO and many other activists and activist organizations who made sure that the world did not forget the injustices and brutalities that accompanied the campaign for Moshood Abiola to assume the office he had earned on June 12, 1993.

Yet in the midst of all these events, even as Abacha tightened his vicious hold on power, Marwa, like a hardy flower in a desert, managed to bloom. The handsome, slightly chubby, bespectacled soldier, the local representative of the brutal suzerain, quickly built up the profile of a performing and responsive leader loved by Lagosians. Somehow, the positive perception of Marwa remained largely insulated from that of the government under whose authority he served. And he left Lagos with his positive image largely intact.

When he handed over to incoming civilian governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu on October 1, 1999, many Lagosians broke down in tears. It is of course likely that the tears of some of the civil servants and political appointees among them were inspired by the reality of the imminent loss of power and access to resources upon Marwa’s departure. But there is no doubt that many ordinary Lagosians were genuinely sad to see the man whose government pioneered the use of tricycles as commercial transport in Nigeria – “Keke Marwa” –  go. And when Governor Tinubu later tried to blame Marwa for his failure to deliver on some policies, the consensus of Lagosians was: leave the man alone and face your job! How Marwa, the Kanuri kinsman of Abacha and, according to those who should know, an astute, inner caucus player in the regime managed to earn and retain the affection of Lagosians in the midst of the political and geo-political turmoil of the day is worthy of further study.

What was his secret? I think like all effective leaders, he understood that identifying with the core concerns of the audience and projecting empathy is as important as delivering on policies. He had a talent for the practical but theatrical gesture that resonates with the public. Marwa disarmed Lagosians by staying ahead of the issues that kept them awake at night. I recall two dramatic examples.

The first was his handling of the “killer beans” issue. In September 1996, soon after he was moved from Borno to Lagos, the headlines were full of alarming stories of people dying after consuming beans contaminated by some dangerous substances, possibly unidentified chemicals. There were alarming reports of 14 victims in Lagos, and an akara seller in Ogun who expired after eating some of her own products in an effort to persuade skeptical customers that her food was safe for consumption. In the midst of widespread panic, Marwa, to demonstrate that the “killer beans” had been identified and taken out of the market, proceeded to eat some akara in public. Relieved Lagosians cheered their brave champion who dared death on their behalf. The panic over “killer beans” quickly died down after.

The second event that helped define the Marwa style was his habit of personally taking the calls of desperate Lagosians calling police phone lines during robbery operations. As the newspapers reported, Marwa took the calls, got the details and coordinated the security response to rescue the victims. Of course, this boosted his reputation as a performing, caring governor. What better time for a leader to show love than when the led are down?

And now, back to the to the present.  Some 23 years after leaving the military in his mid-forties, Mohammed Buba Marwa, on the cusp of 70, is back in the headlines in a prominent public position as Executive Chairman of the nation’s drugs fighting agency. It’s a very different role from combatting armed robbery or addressing food contamination, but he is definitely making high profile impact again.

The recent seizure of a massive crack cocaine haul, described by the agency’s spokesperson as “the biggest singular cocaine seizure in the history of Nigeria’s premier anti-narcotic agency” speaks volumes about the new life that Marwa has breathed into the agency. But this record-breaking haul is not NDLEA’s most notable case under Marwa, the record notwithstanding. It is not even the biggest in terms of impact.

The arrest, detention and ongoing prosecution of disgraced “super cop”, DCP Abba Kyari, a highly decorated policeman who apparently lived a secret life of serial criminality while allegedly fighting crime is the defining initiative of NDLEA under the former military governor’s watch. The revelation of Kyari as a top player in an international drug syndicate along with the release of the video of his attempt to bribe NDLEA officials, the seizure of his properties linked to drug dealing and the robust prosecution of the fallen hero underscore a level of determination and thoroughness that is not common in public agencies at this time. The speed with which the highly connected Kyari was neutralized also confirms that Marwa is a master of the fine art of blending effective leadership with public performance. No doubt NDLEA is stealing the thunder of EFCC and ICPC in the public rating of the agencies involved in combatting economic crimes.

Marwa’s NDLEA is making strong overall impact beyond high profile cases.  According to a THISDAY report: “In 17 months, he led the agency to arrest nearly 18,000 drug offenders including 10 notorious barons across the country. Within the same period, over 2,369 persons were convicted and jailed while more than 11,000 drug users were counselled and treated.”

A great record so far. Yet the point must be made that it will take much more than NDLEA’s recent exploits to win a multi-faceted conflict like the drug war. So many battles are going on simultaneously.  Driven by greed financed by local and international capital, fueled by youth unemployment and despair, and boosted by sophisticated business models and technology, drugs in many forms are permeating the society with incredible speed.

After many decades as a transit point, Nigeria is becoming both a transit and consumption hub. Gangs in places like Colombia and Brazil are seeing Nigeria as a key part of their growth plans. And they are taking full advantage of gaps in law enforcement and impunity that are so common Nigeria. For every consignment of drugs detected and seized, every kingpin or mule arrested, every lead successfully followed up on, many more are undetected. It is a jungle out there. And it would take much more than high profile effort by a charismatic leader to navigate and neutralize the human bugs festering in the undergrowth of the drug war. But a man can only do his part. And that is precisely what Marwa is doing – again.   

Nwabuikwu is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board

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