Re: Peter Obi and the rest of us

Peter Obi

While writing the piece entitled “Peter Obi and One Wrist Watch” (The Guardian, May 10, 2017, page 17), I couldn’t have imagined that it would prompt anyone to question my credibility.

That is what Echezona Okechi (a “former chairman, Anambra State House of Assembly Committee on Public Petitions”) does in his piece entitled “Peter Obi and the Rest of Us” (The Guardian, May 19, 2017, page 18). He does this by alleging that mine was “organised” as a “defence” of Peter Obi for making “the claim that he has been wearing only one wristwatch for the past 17 years to prove that he leads a spartan lifestyle.”

Perhaps I wouldn’t need to write this rejoinder but for the need to respond to Okechi’s allegation that my piece was “organised”, with obvious implications.

Interestingly, the statement Okechi ascribes to Obi is different from what Obi said. This can be confirmed from the video of Obi’s appearance at the public event where he made the claim. But Okechi repeats it thrice in his piece – perhaps a reflection of his belief that a lie can become truth through repetition.  

For the avoidance of doubt, this is what Obi said: “This is the only watch I have; I have owned it for seventeen years.” Now, there is only one transitive verb in Obi’s statement, which is “owned”, the past tense of “own”.

Then, there is the transitive verb “wearing” (the present continuous tense of “wear”) in the statement Okechi wrongly ascribes to Obi, which frames his supposed misdeed as “the claim that he has been wearing only one wristwatch for the past 17 years.”

Obviously, both verbs do not have the same meaning. And when you collocate “wearing” with “only”, as Okechi does in the statement he ascribes to Obi, you set up an interpretative twist to the meaning of Obi’s statement seemingly inspired by a censorious inclination and a desire to prevent an open-minded interpretation of the statement as I meant to encourage in my piece.

And as I said in my piece, Obi’s statement can be interpreted to mean that the wristwatch he was referring to was the (only) one left among other wristwatches he might have owned and worn for 17 years. And so those creating the impression that he lied in that statement need to examine it more closely rather than jump to that conclusion as they seemed to have done.

Language can be tricky; and by not paying close attention to its use we encourage it to deceive us in ways that may embarrass us by portraying us as insufficiently literate.

My intervention was that of an enthusiast of language, for I know how instrumental it can be in shaping the destiny of men and nations in the understanding of its use in something as relatively minor as Obi’s one wristwatch claim or as significant as an Aburi Accord. It was not influenced by political considerations. And so Okechi’s admonition in his piece that “Anambra politicians should not play politics with everything” should not apply to me. Besides, I am neither from Anambra nor a politician.

However, Obi’s credibility and career as a public servant or politician could suffer due to the misunderstanding of that statement and if the public begins to perceive him as a liar as a result, the way millions suffered in our civil war that can partly be attributed to a misunderstanding of what was said in the Aburi Accord, leading to a breakdown in the moves to prevent the resultant hostilities.

Any of us can fall victim of such misunderstanding and its attendant damage to our reputation, what with our detractors seeming desperate to capitalise on it to discredit us as seems to be the case between Obi and Okechi. Considering this, I think it is in the public interest for anyone to intervene, pointing out such misunderstanding whenever it occurs.

And in intervening in the case of Obi’s one wrist watch claim, I must add that I was fully self-motivated. I initiated the intervention independently and wholeheartedly. Obi did not “organise” it and did not offer me any reward himself or by proxy in response to the intervention.

I have never met Obi personally or any member of his media team with whom such an intervention could have been “organised”.  But I understand that, with the pervasive materialism in our country, Okechi might not have imagined me making such an intervention altruistically.

But the fact is that I have always taken a strong interest in justifiably defending Anambra and its leaders as a frontline Nigerian state in the SouthEast. For instance, when the state was being pilloried as a den of head-hunters, ritual killers and election riggers over the Okija shrine saga, I wrote a piece in its defence entitled “The Okija Shrine and Insinuations of Collective Guilt” (Saturday Sun, September 4, 2004, p. 18). I also wrote a piece, entitled “Justification of Bullet-proof Cars” (The Guardian, October 29, 2013, p. 18) in defence of Stella Oduah, one of its prominent indigenes, during her travails over her alleged role in the purchase of bullet-proof cars for her official use as Minister of Aviation, countering criticisms against her that I saw as wrongful and orchestrated. Also, I had written a piece entitled “Babatope’s Vindication of Achebe” (The Guardian, December 19, 2012) in solidarity with Chinua Achebe, another of its prominent indigenes, during the controversy that trailed the publication of his memoir: There Was a Country, A Personal History of Biafra.

Like my piece on Peter Obi’s one wrist watch claim, none of those interventions was “organised” beyond my having independently organised the ideas therein. And I stand to be contradicted on this.

Actually, my earliest of such interventions was a piece entitled “The Limits of Acerbity” (The Guardian, February 18, 2002, p. 75). It was a critique of the then President George W. Bush’s categorisation of North Korea, Iran and Iraq as the “axis of evil”. Could the three countries so negatively categorised have “organised” for me to write the piece?

In describing my piece as “organised”, Okechi apparently intends to discredit it and my person by an ad hominiem attack. But, curiously, he does not respond to my argument “exculpating” Obi (to his implied displeasure) in the piece.

In fact, I had found the programme in which Obi featured engaging but could not view his part owing to a power outage. Afterwards I noticed several images of him wearing different wristwatches with different quotes ascribed to him trending on social media.

Prompted by the discrepancies in the quotes, which I found curious, I referred to the YouTube video of the programme to hear exactly what he said. I found it to be different from any of the quotes that had been ascribed to him. Then I used it as the basis for my intervention and interpretation of the statement that counters those quotes and their implication of his having lied in the statement.

Why would Okechi not respond to the argument by which I “exculpate” Obi if not as proof that he found it unassailable?

Oke is a poet and public affairs analyst, lives in Abuja.

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