Time to Bury Joseph Wayas

By Olusegun Adeniyi

I read a pathetic report last weekend of how the family of the late Second Republic Senate President, Joseph Wayas, was made to pay the sum of £6,710 (more than N13 million) before being allowed to sight his body in a London morgue. Wayas died on 30th November 2021, so I assumed he had been buried. Apparently, there are outstanding bills to pay for his body to be released and family issues to resolve before the burial could take place. Wayas’ daughter, Ms Donna Wayas who is based in Nottingham, United Kingdom, and Mrs Echiko Julie Odey, were reportedly granted access to sight, and ascertain the state of the body by the morgue authorities last week.

A statement by Justice Maurice Odey Eneji, who chairs the ‘Joe Wayas’ Burial Fact Finding Committee’ explains the issue. The morgue managers, according to the report, insist on collecting the cost of maintenance and general charges for over two years that the body has been kept there. “In line with burial committee’s agreement with Ms Donna Wayas, we need to raise and remit/transfer the sum of £60,478 (more than N120 million) to offset all outstanding indebtedness, inclusive of cost of repatriation of the corpse to Nigeria for burial,” Justice Eneji stated. “We also need to raise and refund the sum of £7,210 (about N14 million) paid on our behalf to the morgue managers in London.”

From the report, Cross River State government managed Wayas’ health until he died in the London hospital. Then Governor Ben Ayade had ordered the release of N200 million to repatriate the body home for burial. But a family crisis was said to have ensued, though there are no details as to what the contending issues are and whether the N200 million was released. “Both the state and federal governments may have committed funds for this purpose (Wayas’ burial) in the past, but he (late Wayas) has not yet been buried,” Justice Eneji said. “He (Wayas) is not in any way responsible for the circumstances leading to the delay of his burial, neither does the delay detract from what he was in, and for, Nigeria.”

Instructively, on 4th April last year, Wayas’ burial was the main issue for discussion at the senate plenary. “The Senate needs to, as a matter of urgency, intervene by taking over the burial plans of the deceased,” said Senator Gershom Bassey who moved the motion that was unanimously adopted by colleagues even though nothing happened afterwards. Then Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, even used the motion to introduce a self-serving idea. “Unfortunately, to stop this type of embarrassment, an attempt made last year for Presiding Officers of the National Assembly to be given medical support for life by Nigeria was rejected by us during voting on constitution amendments,” Lawan said. “The embarrassment at hand with the Joseph Wayas remains, calls for reflection and I hope the 10th Assembly will do the needful.”

While the 10th National Assembly led by Godswill Akpabio should perish such an idea, they have a responsibility to help resolve whatever may be the issues concerning delay in the burial of Wayas. There is no dignity in having the remains of a former senate president perpetually in a London morgue. And this is not about just throwing money at the problem. What is required is to engage the family and burial committee already in place to understand the contending issues and help resolve them.

However, that Wayas would require crowdfunding for his burial says a lot about our prominent people who pursue no rewarding vocation outside politics. That’s how they end up in penury and at the mercy of government at the twilight of their lives. While politics should never be a source of livelihood, it is for many in Nigeria. This is just one of several issues relating to separation of the public from the private in the conduct of government business that we must deal with in our country. Because it’s about accountability and due process which is too often whimsically abused in different ways. For instance, in Qatar last weekend, President Bola Tinubu’s adult sons were put at the head of the official protocol receiving line that they ordinarily shouldn’t even be on. Besides, as Reuben Abati asked on Monday, don’t these young men have more productive things to do beyond following their father all over the place? Well, these are issues for another day.

Meanwhile, the delay in Wayas’ burial is a result of his religion. Within 24 hours, Muslims bury their dead. But not so with Christians who have turned these ceremonies into something else. I have heard stories of neglected parents whose corpses were carried to burials in Rolls Royce ambulances even when they may have died of negligence. This is a social problem we must deal with. That explains why I was delighted last week to read an X (formerly Twitter) post by Governor Chukwuma Soludo, calling for full compliance with the 2019 Anambra State Burial/Funeral Communal Control Law.

Sponsored by Hon Charles Ezeani and assented by Governor Willie Obiano, the law provides that “in the event of death, no person shall deposit any corpse in the mortuary or any place beyond two months from the date of death, while burial ceremonies shall be for one day only.” The law also bans the firing of gunshots, praise singing and blocking of roads and streets during burial ceremonies in the state. “There will be no wake-keeping for deceased individuals in the state, and all vigil-mass/service of songs/religious activities preceding the burial must conclude by 9:00 p.m. No food, drink, life band, or cultural entertainers are allowed during or after these ceremonies.” In addition, “from the commencement of the law, no person shall subject any relation of the deceased person to a mourning period of more than one week from the date of the burial ceremony.” Any person who contravenes provisions of the law will be fined N100,000 or six months imprisonment or both.

The entire essence of the law, which also prohibits certain cultural practices targeted at widows of deceased persons, is to restore a measure of sanity in the name of Christian funerals. Indeed, the law was championed by then Catholic Bishop of Awka Diocese, Most Rev. Paulinus Ezeokafor. “I always seize any available opportunity to speak on the dangers of wasteful burials and funerals among our people,” said the Bishop who was appointed a resource person for the bill by the lawmakers during the public hearings. “I have insisted that what we should be talking about is how to give our people decent and befitting living and not befitting funerals by which we mean mindless display of extravagance. The money used for extravagant burials could be better applied to helping the living.”

Like the Bishop, I have often wondered why Christians, whose faith preaches moderation, have turned funerals to an expensive (and vainglorious) jamboree, sometimes involving huge public resources. In 2013, when a leading Christian cleric in the Southwest died, his first son disclosed publicly that the funeral of his father would gulp a whooping N96 million. Against the background that the Naira exchange rates to the Dollar was 157 as of December that year, I enjoin readers to do the arithmetic of the cost of that burial which involved donations from state governments because of the respect accorded the deceased cleric. “The coffin to be used for the burial of our father is the type used for the burial of the late Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston”, his eldest son boasted at the time.

I am aware that an (Owambe) industry has been created around burials, especially in Yorubaland. And, let me also admit, I enjoy the entertainment by undertakers when they play with the coffin. But those ceremonies have little to do with the dead so there is no reason why bodies should be kept in the morgue for months (sometimes years) while loans are processed by some families simply to bury a dead person. Of course, people with means can ‘turn’ the corpse as many times as they want. I have no problem with that. But these ceremonies also require a measure of public sensitivity and moderation.

The critical issue comes when such burials involve elements of public funding. I have in recent days done rudimentary research on state involvement in other democracies regarding burials of serving and former high public officials, including presidents. They do not compare to how we do it in Nigeria where all costs (including buying gifts, procuring rain doctors etc.) are borne by government. Though it is fair to say these ceremonies are only done by Christians. Afterall, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ghali Umar Na’Abba died recently and was buried without fanfare.

Whatever may be the issue, there is a need for closure on Wayas. The urgent task is for the National Assembly to help pay all outstanding bills in London and speedily bring back his body for instant and decent burial devoid of frills. But we must also do away with some of the needless expenses associated with Christian burials in Nigeria, especially when public money is involved.

The Gifted Wheat from Ukraine

I have always wondered why a Yoruba adage would say that there are things far more shameful than being accused of stealing. With Ukraine gifting Nigeria 25 metric tons of wheat last week, I now understand better the meaning of shame. Announcing the donation, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said the 25,000 tons of wheat from the Government of Ukraine will help provide emergency food assistance to 1.3 million crisis-affected Nigerians in the Northeast. “We extend our heartfelt thanks to the Government of Ukraine, partners, and donors for their unwavering support,” said David Stevenson, WFP Representative and Country Director in Nigeria. “This collaborative effort plays a crucial role in alleviating suffering and maintaining human dignity in areas facing conflict and food price increase”.

I join in extending gratitude to the government of Ukraine for remembering our country even in their most difficult period. But the gift should also compel a reflection on the part of Nigerian authorities. With 42 million people, Ukraine has just about 20 percent of the population of Nigeria. Ukraine’s landmass is 603,628 square kilometres to Nigeria’s 923,768 square kilometres. While Ukraine has 32 million hectares of arable land, Nigeria has 35 million hectares of arable land. Yet, estimated wheat production in Ukraine for the marketing year (MY 2023/24) is 22.5 million metric tons (mmt), according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). And we are talking about a country that has been under bombardments from Russia for more than two years!

By all metrics, Nigeria should not be accepting food freebies from any country least of all from one at war. But that is our sad reality today. Beyond lamentation, what can we do to change the narrative? I have been speaking with critical stakeholders in the agricultural sector and I intend to share my perspective on this page. But the federal government and authorities in the 36 states must find immediate solution to the problem of hunger in Nigeria.

Congrats, Dan Akpovwa

From his high-flying job as THISDAY Diplomatic Editor, Dan Akpovwa ventured out by starting ABUJA INQUIRER newspaper on 4th March 2004. That the publication could mark its 20th anniversary on Monday, despite industry challenges, is a testament to the resilience of Dan and his commitment to journalism. Congratulations, my brother.

• You can follow me on my X (formerly Twitter) handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com 

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