By Louis Odion, FNGE
A serpent will ordinarily evoke anxiety. Fear is added if that nocturnal creature were found slithering up from the depth of a communal well. To the superstitious in these parts, such spectacle can only be indicative that the surrounding community had either come under a plague or arrived at its threshold. So, when reports came last week that the “hallowed chamber” of Ondo State House of Assembly had suddenly come under the occupation of a python just before the commencement of a plenary, public responce was understandably hysteria.
A photograph of the invader purportedly taken live and splashed in the chilling account on the social media, is the stuff only found in a magic-realist fable, with a section of the giant snake shown suspended from the broken ceiling.
Not even CNN, the global media giant, could resist the temptation to report the phantasmagorical development on its online platform.
After reading such report, anyone could, therefore, be pardoned if they succumbed to sheer imagination by visualizing a sprawling gallery strewn with discarded gavel, forgotten shoes and scattered sheets after the about two dozens frightened lawmakers had managed to scramble through the emergency exits to safety on that dark day.
Of course, it would be pointless to ask if, faced with possible death from snake-bite, anyone had even remembered to whisk the much prized mace along this time.
More, let it be noted that, with the assembly forced to adjoin indefinitely in such distress and utter disorientation just days after a top state functionary admitted that some Fulani herdsmen were officially engaged at some point as bush navigators, we were inadvertently denied perhaps a golden chance to ascertain if overwhelming public opinion across Ondo’s eighteen councils would not be enough to persuade the college of twenty-six lawmakers to pass a motion on that fateful day compelling Governor Rotimi Akeredolu (a.k.a. Aketi) to, as a matter of urgent public emergency, explain whether cells of Miyetti vigilante sighted on some highways of the Sunshine state, brandishing dane guns and blunt daggers, were now to be taken as the pilot scheme of the state police of which advocacy he would appear to have become so implacably fastidious lately.
But 48 hours later, we would hear a starkly different story from Aketi, whose other observable passion is Indian hemp farming, in what sounded like a calculated attempt to disown his own share of the blame.
During a “fact-finding” visit to the assembly complex, it was a self-righteous Akeredolu we saw seeking to weave a conspiracy theory by arguing that 1) the snake story was entirely fabricated; 2) the cited dilapidation should be blamed on the leadership of the legislature for poor housekeeping, and 3) his tenancy in power for less than three years should not be held accountable for the cumulative pillage the termites had inflicted on the chamber’s roof for donkey years.
Without any attempt at concealment, Aketi’s tone reeked of a strange magisterial finality of the prosecutor-juror; far from the open-mindedness expected of a fact-finder, let alone the objective detachment of a senior lawyer under the circumstance.
But, at best, whatever view the governor expressed could only be entertained as an opinion; it cannot be entered as the truth.
By taking liberty to also insinuate blackmail, Aketi only left one with the impression that someone wanted to stampede him into awarding a sweetheart contract.
Curiously, before the phalanx of Government House television cameras that day, Speaker Bamidele Oloyelogun, who had adopted the language of anger, desperation and destitution on the day of the incident, began to em, em, em modify his words to a worship of Aketi within earshot.
Obviously intimidated by the governor’s presence, Mr. Speaker quickly conscripted the media as the fall guy. As if a short gun was put to his temple, he was now accusing the media of “blowing things up”. To be sure, the Chairman of the house committee on information was quite unambiguous in his recall of what transpired: “When we were about to enter into plenary, a big snake just ran out of the chamber which disrupted our sitting and we had to hurriedly leave the chamber.”
Taken together, maybe the issue is whether the species sighted was actually as gargantuan as that depicted in the social media; but certainly not that the story was entirely made up.
Indeed, in the age of social media with little or no fidelity to truth, there is no doubt that lies are made to appear more seductive these days while the few facts often get mangled beyond recognition. While it should be admitted that a controversy of this nature invariably underscores the absence of rigour of true journalism thus far, at least one indubitable fact can be distilled from the muddle — the space presently designated as “hallowed chamber” in Akure is clearly now a monument to dilapidation and shame. Thank God, no attempt was made to paper over the holes in the ceiling, or deny the ravages of the termites over the years.
In seeking to push the patently escapist argument of “media mischief” on this matter, both Aketi and the Speaker could, therefore, not be said to be familiar with the cautionary wit of immortal Khalil Gibran that an exaggeration is only a truth that had lost its temper. For, regardless of the fierce official arguments to the contrary, the truth surely lies between Aketi’s self-righteousness and the Speaker’s half somersault on the one hand, and the media reports on the other.
It is quite disturbing that none among today’s political “prodigal children” in Ondo appears to feel ashamed that an edifice their ancestors labored hard to build over forty years ago and officially designated on February 3, 1979 as the “hallowed chamber” of the old Ondo State (from which Ekiti was excised in 1996) for the sole purpose of fashioning laws to foster the happiness and prosperity of the people has been allowed to wither.
Again, while in hot pursuit of a scape-goat, it did not seem to occur to the governor and the speaker that that very squalid chamber accounts for a critical section of the public space for which not less than a whopping N2 trillion has been appropriated in the last twenty years of uninterrrupted democracy, to maintain either under capital or recurrent subheading. In 2019, for instance, Ondo’s budget is N190b, while that of 2018 was N180b.
Like his three predecessors, Aketi would not allow any chance slip without trumpeting his own idea of “total transformation” of the state from the “decay inherited”. But if an institution as critical as the assembly chamber — the very sanctuary of lawmakers themselves — could suffer such neglect, one can then imagine the plight of the lesser sectors.
Another point: this incident surely reinforces the old argument for fiscal autonomy for both the legislature and the judiciary. Apart from Lagos, legislative and judiciary arms in most of the states are still at the mercy of the executive arm for funding.
It explains the buck-passing we saw between Aketi and the speaker. The former was quick to defend that the chamber could have been better maintained from the funds released to the legislative arm. While the speaker, in turn, contended that adequate allowance was made consistently for a complete overhaul of the property in previous budgets, but the fund was never released.
Truth be told, the speaker is correct.
It is only in Lagos that the speaker or chief judge would not have to constantly go cap in hand to the governor’s to literally beg for the release of budgetary provisions or funds to meet the challenges of their respective offices. That leaves room for a governor harboring some grudge against the other institutions of democracy to literally sit tight on the funds, teeth-clenched to boot.
Come to think of it, Ondo ordinarily prides itself on the mantra of “Sunshine State”. On the website of its Budget Ministry, the following lofty words are proclaimed as the corporate vision: “To make Ondo State the best administered state in Nigeria and the cynosure of all eyes of which all its citizens shall be proud; where equity, justice and fairness shall be the driving forces of government action.”
But for the truly proud citizens of the province noted for perhaps the tallest cocoa pyramid in the South-west, utter shame is what is ultimately spelt by even the mere suggestion of a snake ever peeping from the assembly’s dingy rafter, much less the certainty of a drooping ceiling, and the probability that the presiding speaker missed death providentially by not being on seat when finally a section of the roof collapsed right on his desk under the weight of treacherous termites.
That should be the takeaway from the drama at the Ondo assembly last week.
Eric Teniola @ 70
“A truly detribalized Nigerian, he epitomises loyalty, honour and integrity.” Those are the words of respected elder statesman, Senator Musa Adede, in describing his association with Chief Eric Teniola in the last four decades.
A seasoned journalist who later took up a career as a director in the federal civil service, Chief Teniola’s range as an insider of the Nigerian establishment in the 80s and 90s is easily measurable from his intimate recall of the notable actors and the main issues in the weekly column he has been writing for many years.
Here is wishing him happy seventieth birthday.